Articles on this Page
- 11/21/16--07:08: _Simulating Enron
- 11/29/16--11:58: _Ringing out our 20t...
- 12/01/16--12:23: _Tactical Poetics: F...
- 12/05/16--09:50: _Brazil's 'Telematic...
- 12/09/16--11:45: _A Rose is a Rose is...
- 12/12/16--12:10: _A Girl Made of Lang...
- 12/14/16--09:01: _Skins, Chips, and S...
- 12/15/16--11:57: _Mezangelle, an Onli...
- 12/21/16--08:26: _Review: Cinnamon Co...
- 08/23/16--07:24: _Review: A Mystical ...
- 01/04/17--11:22: _Artist Profile: Fai...
- 01/05/17--12:00: _Our First Social Me...
- 01/12/17--10:56: _A Net Artist Named ...
- 01/18/17--08:11: _Now online: The Sec...
- 01/19/17--07:32: _The Valley and the ...
- 03/13/17--11:05: _Watch Digital Socia...
- 03/16/17--11:07: _Announcing the Seve...
- 03/22/17--09:00: _Seven on Seven 2017...
- 03/24/17--07:19: _Automatic Rain
- 03/28/17--11:11: _Artist Profile: Dev...
- 11/21/16--07:08: Simulating Enron
- 12/01/16--12:23: Tactical Poetics: FloodNet's Virtual Sit-ins
- 12/05/16--09:50: Brazil's 'Telematic Revolution'
- 12/09/16--11:45: A Rose is a Rose is a --’--,--@
- 12/12/16--12:10: A Girl Made of Language: Martine Neddam’s Mouchette
- 12/14/16--09:01: Skins, Chips, and Stone of Jordans
- 12/15/16--11:57: Mezangelle, an Online Language for Codework and Poetry
- Kimba the White Lion + Astro Boy [manga/anime + not the bastardised Disney versions].
- Two great Hoppers [GraceHopper, Dennis Hopper].
- David Cronenberg [his earlier visceral works, especially _Dead Ringers_: “gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women”!!?!].
- Consolidated [specially the album _Friendly Fascism_].
- Giacometti [both Alberto + Diego].
- Horror [j horror, b+z-grade, splatterpunk, Romero, Craven etc – not gorno or torture porn though].
- _New Order_ [before Gillian left (then came back) + the inscriptions on the vinyl I had as a teenager] + _Joy Division_ before them [poor Ian:/].
- CB Radio.
- Dr Who [Tom Baker version(s + jellybeans + the multicoloured scarf!)].
- Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Stevie Case [for what – in various degrees – to strive for and also what not to become].
- _Ghost in the Shell_ [Originals (1+11)].
- Cindy Sherman.
- Non-Euclidian Geometry [thanks Gina!].
- John Wyndam [Triffids! Triffids!]
- Snapper [a duck I had when I was about 8?] + Tahnee [a now-passed Border Collie] - both taught me (to) respect].
- Unix [shelled + otherwise].
- FKA Twigs [Afrofuturism = yaas pls].
- _Porcupine Pie_.
- Altered states of consciousness [in many forms].
- _Cosmos_ [Carl Sagan].
- _Eat Carpet_.
- The D-Danguage [a made-up language from my teens where my siblings + I conversed via words where we’d replace all the initial letters with the letter “D”].
- _Aeon Flux_ + _The Maxx_ [_MTV oddities_ ftw|wtf!].
- _The Goodies_.
- Childish Gambino, the Herd, M.I.A, Regurgitator.
- Bill Burroughs.
- Gurrumul Yunupingu.
- ReBirth RB-338.
- _DOOM_ [+ _Quake_].
- Sci-fi + Cyberpunk [specially Le Guin, Ballard, Atwood, Stross, Octavia E. Butler, Bill Gibson].
- LaTeX [+ LaTeX2e].
- _Raw Like Sushi_.
- The Dreamtime.
- Sociology [to that kooky lecturer whose name (but not face) I’ve since forgotten, thanks].
- Koko [the gorilla].
- _G-Force: Battle of the Planets_.
- _The Life of Brian_.
- _Ren & Stimpy_ [“It’s loggg-ogg, logg-ogg, it’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood!”].
- Dennis Potter [even with the potential misogyny].
- Sam Coleridge [_Kubla Khan_ + _Rhyme of…_, obviously].
- LittleDog + BigDog.
- _The Wizard of Oz_ [original].
- Lars von Trier.
- Kathy Acker.
- Systems Theory.
- _House of Leaves_.
- _True Detective_ [Season 1 only!!!!].
- Brian Aldiss.
- _The Canterbury Tales_.
- Max Headroom.
- Adam Jones.
- Hamlet [character].
- _ Aenima_.
- Alex the African Grey Parrot.
- _THX 1138_.
- Situationist Internationalists.
- _Phoenix_ + _Frogger_ [+ hours-long arcade gaming at the local takeaway in general when I was 12 (with salty chips, yes please)].
- _Tetsuo_ [1+2].
- _Westworld_ [both movie + teev series].
- Theatre of Disco.
- Academia [+ learning the limitations of it].
- Libraries [in all senses of the word].
- _Brave New World_ [novel].
- _The Blair Witch Project_.
- The concept of ARGS [in terms of potentialities rather than necessarily executions].
- David Lynch.
- Peter Greenaway.
- Richard Kelly.
- Chris Cunningham.
- _Duke Nukem[3D]_, _Half-Life[1+ 2]_, Everquest [1 only], _Dear Esther_, _ The Endless Forest_ + _World of Warcraft_.
- 12/21/16--08:26: Review: Cinnamon Colomboscope
- 08/23/16--07:24: Review: A Mystical Staircase
- 01/04/17--11:22: Artist Profile: Faith Holland
- 01/12/17--10:56: A Net Artist Named Google
- 01/18/17--08:11: Now online: The Second Edition of Open Score
- 01/19/17--07:32: The Valley and the Predator
- 03/16/17--11:07: Announcing the Seven on Seven 2017 Lineup
- 03/22/17--09:00: Seven on Seven 2017: Tickets, Schedule, Keynote, Raffle
- 03/24/17--07:19: Automatic Rain
- 03/28/17--11:11: Artist Profile: Devin Kenny
The Good Life (Enron Simulator) by Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain was awarded a 2016 Rhizome Net Art Microgrant. The artwork recreates the experience of receiving all 500,000 emails from the Enron email archive via a chronological timescale of the viewer's choosing. The signup page for this work is now on view on the front page (desktop only).
The Enron email archive is a corpus of more than 500,000 emails, written between 158 senior executives of the Enron corporation during the last years of the company’s operation. In March of 2003, following revelations of Enron’s spectacularly corrupt business practices and subsequent demise, these emails were deemed public domain and released online by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This was the first release of an email database of this size, and it remains one of the only large public domain email collections easily and freely accessible online. As Finn Brunton, author of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet, observes, “The FERC had thus unintentionally produced a remarkable object: the public and private mailing activities of 158 people in the upper echelons of a major corporation, frozen in place like the ruins of Pompeii for future researchers.”1 The corpus has since become a uniquely valuable linguistic resource for computer scientists who have used it to train spam filters and other natural language machine learning systems. This dataset, which was generated by a group of mostly white male corporate criminals, is therefore in our lives in ways we don’t understand and haven’t fully considered.
Email from the Enron corpus, June 10th 1999.
In 2001 the Enron Corporation’s stock price plummeted from a high of $90.75 to less than $1 after revelations of the company’s corrupt business practices, which included price fixing, misrepresentation of earnings, and massive accounting fraud. Roughly a year later, Enron declared one of the largest bankruptcies in American corporate history. During the subsequent investigations, the FERC acquired all Enron company data, and released their email archive online in early 2003.
The archive originally contained more than 1,600,000 emails. However, following complaints by Enron employees, the FERC agreed to remove emails containing personal information deemed irrelevant to the public good. In October of 2003 the database was taken offline for 10 days to allow 100 Enron employees to identify such email and as the Wall Street Journal reports, each “was given a chunk of files to search, looking for such terms as ‘Social Security number,’ ‘credit card number,’ and ‘divorce.’ The company gave raffle prizes—Houston Astros tickets and Enron T-shirts—to those who did the most searching. The grand prize was a day off.”2
Email from the Enron corpus, January 1999.
Beyond its historical significance as a record of one of the largest financial scandals in history, the corpus emerged as an invaluable technical resource for researchers studying email, communications and language. Until the more recent Wikileaks email releases, the Enron corpus was the only sizable, publicly available dataset of real emails sent between a large group of people. As such, its applications have been pervasive and widespread. MIT’s Technology Review reports that “much of today’s software for fraud detection, counterterrorism operations, and mining workplace behavioral patterns over e-mail has been somehow touched by the [Enron] dataset.”3
Email from the Enron corpus, July 1999.
Academics continued the painstaking work of culling and tagging the corpus for years after its release in a monumental collaborative effort to produce the cleanest and most research-friendly archive possible. The version we are using in The Good Life (accessible here) was made available by William W. Cohen, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, and last updated in 2015.
We live in an era where machine learning is fast becoming ubiquitous. It is deployed in technologies used by the military and law enforcement agencies, and it controls how we encounter online content like news, search results, advertising, music, and dating recommendations. The Enron email dataset has had a hand in training many of the machine learning systems that mediate our online communications. It was initially used in email sorting engines before email providers built up sizable private corpus from their own user bases, and it was also used in the genesis of Apple’s Siri, which descended from the DARPA-funded “Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes” project.3 Machine learning systems inevitably reproduce the patterns and biases existing in the data used to train them. The Enron corpus therefore reminds us that we need to be asking questions of who is represented in training datasets, what bias this produces, and how these systems then go on to be used.
Email from the Enron corpus, October 1999
The actual content of the Enron emails encompasses a wide gamut of human emotion and activity. They document tedious office politics, relentless meeting scheduling, deeply embarrassing romantic drama, misogynist jokes, chain-emails, reflections on life as a corporate executive in 1999, and, of course, revelations of large-scale corporate malfeasance and fraud.
The Enron release heralded the contemporary positioning of email as an ongoing record of our everyday activities, one we increasingly risk being held accountable to via leaks and disclosures. As the events of the recent election show, emails can become highly contested datasets of deep significance. They are a medium where power is distributed, where the personal becomes political. To experience the Enron simulator is to witness the inner workings of a corporate America in which those on top get richer and moral and ethical obligations are eschewed for tremendous personal gain. We see firsthand the minutia of producing and maintaining inequality.
Email from the Enron corpus, August 1999
The Good Life invites you to experience a nightmarish simulation of living through the death throes of a corporation in the 2000s. Sign up at http://enron.email to receive all 500,000 Enron emails over the course of five days, thirty days, one year or seven years. You will receive the emails in chronological order at the frequency at which they were sent, relatively adjusted to the timeline you select.
There are many ways to enjoy the Enron corpus, but by far the most pleasurable is to read all 500,000 emails in the order they were sent.
1. Brunton, Finn. Spam: a shadow history of the Internet. MIT Press, 2013.
2. Berman, Dennis K. “Government Posts Enron's E-Mail.” Wall Street Journal, 06 October 2003. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
3. Leber, Jessica. "The Immortal Life of the Enron E-mails." MIT Technology Review. MIT, 02 July 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2016.
Featured image: Downtown Houston, Enron Building by JWSherman on Flickr
2016 was Rhizome's 20th anniversary year, and it was a transformative one for the organization—from the launch of our Webrecorder initiative and its later public release, to one of our best editions of Seven on Seven yet, to the inauguration of Net Art Anthology, an exhibition to retell the history of net art. This anniversary year is coming to a close, but not before three final major institutional announcements.
A Major Grant from Knight Foundation
The first is that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has just awarded Rhizome a major grant to support Webrecorder pilot-testing and outreach and a new "Digital Social Memory" conference, which follows our sold-out event on the subject last February. We were given this award alongside two great organizations: Bay Area Video Coalition and One Degree, both in San Francisco.
For the pilot-testing and outreach, we are partnering with a cohort of individuals and groups to seed our tools for preservation and to gather findings on privacy, security, and copyright. The new conferences will be held in February 2017 and 2018—at each, Rhizome will bring together practitioners from a wide range of backgrounds (archivists, developers, artists, curators, researchers, and others) to discuss the importance and implications of creating decentralized, dynamic web archives. We'll share further information on both come January.
Martine Syms and Josh Wolfe Join the Rhizome Board
Our second announcement is made on behalf of the Rhizome Board. I'm excited to announce today that artist Martine Syms and Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital cofounder and managing partner, have been elected to our governance body.
For the Board, welcoming Martine and Josh represents a recommitment to core values, as well as an investment in what's next for Rhizome.
This is an artist-founded organization, and adding Martine will enhance the cultural perspective in our governance. Additionally, her work as a 'conceptual entrepreneur' points to the practical vision and ability she will bring to the Board. Previously, Syms participated in Rhizome's Seven on Seven in 2015, and her work was included in New Museum's 2015 Triennial: Surround Audience, cocurated by Lauren Cornell, former Rhizome executive director and current curator and associate director, technology initiatives at New Museum.
As Rhizome was founded to explore the cultural impact of technological innovation, Josh will prove an important addition. As cofounder of Lux, his professional mission has been to find what's next in tech and to connect the pieces to realize inherent potential. Already Josh is bringing his extensive experience and broad ambition to Rhizome's governance and long-range thinking.
On behalf of the staff, we're excited to have Martine and Josh on board. And I look forward to collaborating closely with them to grow Rhizome and make the most of my colleaugues' field-leading work.
Welcoming New Staff
We've grown our team alongside our program in 2016. We're thrilled to have Aria Dean and Ilya Kreymer, who we've written about before, but I'd also like to acknowledge our other amazing recent hires: Lyndsey Jane Moulds, our new software curator, who will be researching what's next in emulation; Mark Beasley, our Webrecorder developer, who is doing incredible work building out this important tool; and Lozana Rossenova, a PhD researcher for Rhizome and London South Bank University, who is studying and articulating best practices in digital art curation. Welcome all!
ABOUT THE JOHN S. AND JAMES L. KNIGHT FOUNDATION
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once owned newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy.
ABOUT MARTINE SYMS
Martine Syms is a "conceptual entrepreneur" based in Los Angeles. Her artwork—video, performance, web, and print—has been exhibited and screened extensively, including current and recent presentations at Astrup Fearnley Museet, International Center of Photography, SFU Galleries, Artspace, Karma International, Bridget Donahue Gallery, New Museum, Kunsthalle Bern, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Index Stockholm, MOCA Los Angeles, MCA Chicago. She has lectured at Yale University, SXSW, California Institute of the Arts, University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, and MoMA PS1, among other venues. From 2007–11, she directed Golden Age, a project space focused on printed matter, and she is the founder of Dominica, an independent publishing company.
ABOUT JOSH WOLFE
Josh Wolfe co-founded Lux Capital to support scientists and entrepreneurs who pursue counter-conventional solutions to the most vexing puzzles of our time in order to lead us into a brighter future. Wolfe is a Director at Shapeways, 3Scan, Lux Research, and Kallyope, and helped lead Lux's investments in Planet, Echodyne, Clarifai, and Authorea. He is a columnist with Forbes and Editor for the Forbes/Wolfe Emerging Tech Report. Wolfe has been invited to the White House and Capitol Hill to advise on nanotechnology and emerging technologies, and a lecturer at MIT, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and NYU. He is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Chairman of Coney Island Prep charter school, where he grew up in Brooklyn. He graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Economics and Finance.
(photo credit Martine Syms portrait: Marco Braunschweiller)
What is the relationship between data bodies and real bodies? Electronic Disturbance Theater co-founder Ricardo Dominguez cites this as a fundamental question for the group at the time of its founding, and even though this was twenty years ago, it still strikes me as pressing, and unresolved. It is fundamentally a question of presence, a question of the relationship between the real and the virtual.
In 1998, Electronic Disturbance Theater took aim at this very problem. Together, the collective’s founding members—Ricardo Dominguez, Carmin Karasic, Brett Stalbaum, and Stefan Wray—devised a tool by the name of FloodNet. It was a simple Java applet designed to rapidly reload a given webpage, but in the hands of these artists, it became a powerful “weapon of collective presence” and conceptual artwork—an exercise in “tactical poetics.” Their target of choice: the Mexican government.
The Zapatistas had already been resisting the Mexican government and the larger global forces of neoliberalism for more than a decade. And on New Year’s Day in 1994, the group had taken over a series of towns and villages in the southern state of Chiapas, including for a brief period the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The date was chosen to coincide with the official launch of NAFTA. In 1996, from the jungles of Chiapas, they issued the “First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.”
“Life is what they owe us: the right to govern and to govern ourselves, to think and act with a freedom that is not exercised over the slavery of others, the right to give and receive what is just.”1
The waves made by these events, among others related to the conflict, far exceeded anything one would have expected. The Zapatista uprising was geographically rather isolated, the conflict physically limited to regions of Chiapas. However, as professor Harry Cleaver wrote, “through their ability to extend their political reach via modern computer networks the Zapatistas [wove] a new electronic fabric of struggle to carry their revolution throughout Mexico and around the world.” The war, which the Mexican state tried so hard to contain, spilled over, becoming a greater global conflict.
The role of computer networks in the struggle, however, exceeded the Zapatistas’ own conscious strategizing. While the rebels did make crucial use of computers as a complement to their existing physical networks of communication, not everyone in Chiapas could log onto the early web. Instead, messages had to be hand-carried from community to community and finally uploaded by the select few who could get online. Once in the hands of those with internet access, Zapatista messages could be broadcast to far-reaching “networks of solidarity,” networks that included foreign activists eager to support the Zapatistas’ cause—activists like the members of Electronic Disturbance Theater.
The members of Electronic Disturbance Theater had been theorizing and experimenting with the possibilities and necessities of online political action for years. In 1996, EDT member Stefan Wray gave a lecture titled “On Electronic Civil Disobedience”—adapting some of the ideas of Thoreau’s famous century-old essay of similar name for the new realm of cyberspace. Wray’s argument expands on the work of tactical media group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), of which his colleague Ricardo Dominguez had been a member. Formed in Tallahassee, Florida, in the late 1980s, CAE had coined the terms "electronic disturbance" and "electronic civil disobedience," laying the groundwork for Wray’s writing and for EDT’s online activism to come. As Dominguez recounts, “I'd already theorized with CAE about electronic civil disobedience, and the real question was how to do it or how to put it into practice.”2
CAE’s theory of “electronic disturbance” and “electronic civil disobedience” was this: “The streets have become the location of dead capital and [. . .] to seriously confront capital in its current mobile electronic form, then resistance must take place in the same location where capital now exists in greatest concentrations, namely in cyberspace.” Their argument exhibits a breathless exhilaration not uncommon in writing about the possibilities of the early web. As the web became available for public use, artists and writers declared the internet as the new frontier. John Perry Barlow wrote, for instance, that “our virtual selves [are] immune to your sovereignty, even as we continue to consent to your rule over our bodies.”3 However, Wray and EDT contested the usefulness of this kind of attitude, instead maintaining that this “rule over bodies” and embodied struggle for self-determination are of the utmost importance, and that hybridized action that engages data bodies and real bodies both was, in fact, where it was at. Wray cites the Zapatistas’ thoroughly hybrid engagement with computer networks and digital communication as an indicator that electronic and traditional civil disobedience could work cooperatively with each other. The question of how remained, though. What does electronic civil disobedience look like?
Zapatistas and community members bury the victims of the Acteal massacre, 1997. Photo from europazapatista.com
In January of 1998, following the brutal massacre of forty-five people in a chapel in the small village of Acteal by a paramilitary group, a message was posted to online forum The Thing, calling for a “NETSTRIKE FOR ZAPATA.”
“In solidarity with the Zapatista movement we welcome all the netsurfers with the ideals of justice, freedom, solidarity, and liberty within their hearts, to sit-in the day 29/01/1998 from 4:00 p.m. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) to 5:00 p.m. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) in the following five web sites, symbols of Mexican Neoliberalism.”4
The call came from an Italian group called Anonymous Digital Coalition. They urged users to manually load and reload the five websites as many times as possible in the allotted time. With enough support, their presence could have an effect similar to a massive street protest or sit-in at a government building, clogging the server infrastructure of their target in the simplest of ways. These actions were a manual kind of DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks, which also directed large amounts of traffic to a target site in an effort to slow it down.
Two months later, that April, Electronic Disturbance Theater and the NYZapatistas sent out another call to action on The Thing. This time, the target would be Mexican president Zedillo’s website. And this time, thanks to FloodNet, the virtual sit-in would be automated, allowing the protest to span a 24-hour hour period rather than a single hour. The FloodNet applet was hosted on a web page on the servers of The Thing, a kind of ISP for artists and activists. It was embedded in a small frame that bore the image of Mexican president Zedillo floating in front of a pentagon. The page was bordered at the top and left by frames featuring collaged images of the Zapatistas, with text about the action at the center. And at the bottom, the top portion of the target page could be glimpsed, with official insignia reloading again and again as long as the browser window stayed open, thereby slowin it down with excess traffic. Dominguez reported, "The FloodNet URL hit Zedillo's site a total of 8141 times. Many reported that Zedillo's site was no longer responding."
EDT continued to develop the virtual sit-in as a tactic throughout 1998. An eight-hour action in September, launched from the Ars Electronica festival, drew perhaps 10,000 participants, who generated at their peak an estimated 600,000 requests per minute for each of the three targets: the Pentagon, Zedillo's website, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
In 1999, FloodNet played an important role in ToyWar, a large-scale online action by Zürich- and Vienna-based art collective eToy, who lost control of their URL to an online toy-seller after a hearing in a California courtroom. ToyWar was described as a game in which the goal was to bring down the stock price of etoys.com, but it also gave form to a general resistance to increasing corporate control of the web. Although their approach was quite distinct from the ur-corporate aesthetics style of etoy, FloodNet jumped into the fray and created a coordinated action.
FloodNet didn’t just extend the possibilities of the virtual sit-in functionally; it also brought the protest into the realm of conceptual art and “tactical poetics.” The Java applet, in addition to reloading the page, was designed to allow users to enter a “personal message” that would be sent to the server error log. The result would be a message along the lines of “human rights not found,” “justice not found,” and so on. EDT used the functions of the browser against it to politicize the aesthetic of the server error. The manipulated “404 not found” message came to represent what Dominguez called a “negative dialectics that allows us to see not what is hidden in the server of the government or a corporation,” as perhaps a hacker might be interested in, “but what is just not even part of its discourse.”5
Screen shot of FloodNet DDK (1999).
The “tactical poetics” of FloodNet followed in the footsteps of the conceptual art practices of Fluxus, presenting a protocol-based artwork that was similar to Fluxus event scores and instruction-based works. It was also influenced by earlier avant garde and radical groups such as the Dadaists, the Lettrists, and the Situationists both in its articulation of an “online aesthetic of disturbance”6 and in its focus on the theatre as a mode for conveying this.
This notion of theatre was crucial to FloodNet, as the artists’ interest was in the “performance and performativity of code,” over the effectivity or the efficiency of the code itself. Carmin Karasic, who spearheaded the technical aspects of the project along with Brett Stalbaum, recalls the resistance among some hackers when it came to the group’s plans for electronic civil disobedience:
“These hackers questioned our ‘wimpy’ use of technology. Instead of slowing down a company’s or government’s server or website, they would have preferred to close it all together, or to change the text on the website.”7
The precarious relationship of FloodNet to more hardcore hacking practices has made the project’s legacy and afterlife an interesting one; In the years since the initial implementation of FloodNet, EDT has found itself entangled in inquiries about hacking and cyberterrorism, mentioned in government hearings on cyberterrorism at the new millennium, and featured in numerous articles. During the September 1998 FloodNet action, the Pentagon launched an immediate counter-attack, redirecting protestors’ browsers to a Java applet that caused participants' browsers to load and reload an empty window, forcing them to restart. "Our support personnel were aware of this planned electronic civil disobedience attack and were able to take appropriate countermeasures," a Defense Department representative told Wired. EDT saw this as an illegal use of military power for law enforcement purposes. As for their virtual sit-in, EDT believed that their actions were entirely legal, although internet security experts at the time noted that they could be a violation of federal law. In some ways, the virtual sit-ins pioneered by EDT are a more centralized version of the DDOS attacks made famous by the hacker group Anonymous; such activity today is now aggressively prosecuted.
But Electronic Disturbance Theater had little interest in playing the role of a shadowy underground resistance. Rather, they simply wanted to show that there were thousands of users watching, ready to act in solidarity with the Zapatistas in whatever ways possible. Further, they eschewed the notion of the necessity for a hacker skill set in order to be an effective online activist. They harnessed a mundane function of the internet in a way that your average user could replicate, even creating a do-it-yourself “Disturbance Developers Kit”kit for widespread public use.
Screen shot of announcement for April 10, 1998 action, hosted on The Thing.
FloodNet’s mundane engagement of the internet’s infrastructuremakes it all the more interesting today. EDT used the native language of the internet to create gaps in its functionings. Brett Stalbaum notes that part of EDT’s thinking was an awareness that “there is an important distinction between representation and engagement.”8 Rather than amplifying a representation of the struggles of the Zapatistas—by way of, say, an awareness campaign in wealthy western countries—the group engaged the Mexican government with direct action.
The question of representation versus engagement when it comes to online activism has re-emerged as a central problem in recent years. The accelerated rise of social media platforms has caused a radical shift. Activists can disseminate their messages far and wide on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On these platforms, communities have been extended beyond their geographical limitations. One can organize with greater ease and reach. There is always the possibility and aim of going viral. But most of these and the other popular forms of online activism belong to the realm of representation and do little for engagement. The internet has become a fantastic place to make things visible, but an increasingly difficult place to cause a disturbance.
With FloodNet, EDT showed that symbolic and direct action could be combined. The project had a direct effect on the infrastructure of its target, but it was framed as a symbolic intervention, the inscription of an error message onto a remote server. For Dominguez, the affective and the effective potential of the project could not be separated from one another:
The question of aesthetics, at least for us, creates a disturbance in the “Law” to the degree that it cannot easily contain the “break” and it is forced to enter into another conversation—a conversation that power-as-enforcement may not want to have.
Spreading a hashtag is one way to use the infrastructure built for us by Silicon Valley, but while it has many merits, it is too reliant on and easily contained by the intended functions of the social media system. Where are the gaps? The weak points? How can we create the break that cannot be contained, and force the conversation that power-as-enforcement does not want to have? FloodNet sets a precedent for online art and activism that feeds off of the network’s own indeterminacy and an awareness that the virtual is closer to the real than we imagine.
1. EZLN, “First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, 1996.
2. Ash Eliza Smith and Ricardo Dominguez, Rhizome interview, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2016/jan/26/interview-with-ricardo-dominguez, 2016
3. John Perry Barlow, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence, 1996
4. The Thing, http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/anondigcoal.html
5. Dominguez, Ricardo. Interview by Aria Dean. Phone recording. Los Angeles, November 7, 2016.
7. Leonie Tanczer, "Hacking the Label: Hacktivism, Race, and Gender," Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, Issue #6, http://adanewmedia.org/2015/01/issue6-tanczer/, 2015
8. Stalbaum, Brett. Interview by Aria Dean. Phone recording. Los Angeles, November 15, 2016.
In 1985, Brazil was following Europe and North America in their adoption of videotex information systems—a precursor to the web—of which France's Minitel was the most widely adopted and known. This new platform attracted a group of pioneering Brazilian video and telecommunications artists, excited by both the possibilities and parameters of the system, and the potential of using it to create new kinds of public space.
Opening of the “Brasil High-Tech” exhibition, organized by Kac and Flavio Ferraz, at Galeria de Arte Centro Empresarial Rio, Rio de Janeiro, 1986. Two public Minitel terminals are seen in the back. Photographer unknown.
Brazil in 1985 was changing—beginning to emerge from a twenty-one year struggle to restore democracy from a repressive military dictatorship that spread instability, betrayal, and despair throughout a country already subject to chronic inequality and poverty. During the military government period, Brazil was run almost exclusively in line with the interests of its white elite. In 1974, ten years after the 1964 coup d'état, an economist called Edmar Bacha coined the name “Belíndia” to describe his country's socio-economic reality: a small, wealthy Belgium surrounded by a massive and destitute India.
While thousands of artists, writers, musicians, trade union leaders and student organizers were forced into exile by the military government, many in the struggle who remained were imprisoned and tortured (including recently deposed President Dilma Rousseff). After a campaign of massive street demonstrations called Direitas Já! (Direct Elections Now!) in 1985 Brazil elected (albeit indirectly) the first non-military president since 1964, Tancredo Neves, only for him to die hours before taking office, and be substituted by another former dictatorship figure, José Sarney.
Artist Eduardo Kac recalls:
The military dictatorship was suppressing freedom of speech and eliminating public space; it also tortured and killed its own citizens. At the same time, however, this government had collapsed economically; globalization was taking its initial steps, and the protectionist model of the military dictatorship was no longer useful. So the country was moving towards a transition, but it was still under a clear military rule. It remained an environment where the primary idea of the body was that of the tortured body, of the distorted body, of the suffering body. In this context, I saw the opportunity as citizen and as an artist to create public space where there wasn’t one. 
Against this uncertain backdrop, the mid-1980s also saw a surge in availability and demand for new technologies in Brazil, with some urban centers reaching relative parity with Europe in terms of access. Trade restrictions prohibited the sale of computers from overseas manufacturers, spurring a range of affordable, locally produced clone systems to appear. A Brazilian company called Unitron, which had previously sold machines based on the Apple II, even developed a Macintosh clone. Ultimately, under pressure from the US government, and with a local media campaign conducted by Apple warning of a “trade war” between the countries, the project failed. The legal repercussions affected Apple's operations in Brazil for decades.
One of the technologies which did succeed was a Brazilian variant of the French Minitel system, in which a remote terminal was used to access pages interactively through fixed phone lines. It was a precursor to today's internet and functioned similarly, with “sites” containing information on a range of subjects, and features such as home banking and home shopping. It also also featured a messaging facility analogous to email.
Eduardo Kac, Reabracadabra (1985). Videotexto artwork shown on Minitel terminal.
The Minitel network was a very different environment compared to the current internet. One thing that stands out for me is the fact that the pixel which we take for granted as this little square, this indivisible unit—the pixel in the Minitel system was divided into six parts, and it was vertical. A very strange creature, because the Minitel system was a hybrid of ASCII and some proprietary system from France Telecom. It was unique. In France it became very popular for a number of years, France was then on the cutting edge of digital networking.
This has to do with the fact that in France anyone who wanted a terminal could go to the post office and take one home for free. And because the unit was free and you already had a telephone at home, the thing took off, and you had millions of people online, doing everything we do online around 1982 to 1985. But a few years ago the Minitel network had its final cable unplugged, and the Minitel network is no more. This is interesting because it is also cultural— it is perfectly conceivable that the internet as we know it now will someday also cease to exist.
Countries such as the UK, France, Japan, Canada, USA, and Brazil implemented different versions of the videotex concept under their own names: the UK created the first system in operation called Viewdata (changed to Prestel), France had Teletel and later Minitel, in Canada it was known as Telidon, in Japan it was Captains, and in the USA the network was named Videotex.
In France, Minitel was not only a technological advance but a political initiative. In the French view, countries without massive natural resources needed to develop and export their own new computer technologies; government action was needed to promote a transition to the “telematic” future. There was also study and debate about what positive & negative effects videotex might have on society. Minitel's continuing popularity into the late 1990s actually became a barrier to internet adoption in France.
The Brazilians bought the rights to France Telecom's Teletel system and branded it Videotexto. Launched by the state of São Paulo’s telephone company Telesp (Telecomunicações de São Paulo, later Telefônica), it operated from 1982 until the mid-nineties. Several other Brazilian state telephone companies followed suit with similar videotex offerings, but each state retained their own standalone databases and services. The key to its success was that the phone company offered only the service and phone subscriber databases, while third parties such as banks and newspapers provided the valuable content and services. The Brazilian videotex system's popularity peaked at around 70,000 subscribers in 1995, just as the internet arrived.
São Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere, was home to rich and diverse cultural movements, and at this time in particular a robust post-punk scene. It didn't take long for visual and video artists to see the potential of these new popular platforms. One of the enthusiastic adopters was Julio Plaza, a Madrid-born artist, writer, and professor, who first came to Brazil in 1967 as part of the Spanish contingent for the 9th São Paulo Biennial that took place the following year, and who went on to emigrate to Brazil permanently six years later. Enthusiastic about Minitel and Videotexto, Plaza’s curating fostered a new circuit for digital art. His exhibitions “Arte pela Telefone: Videotexto” (1982) and “Clones,” both at MIS (Museum of Image & Sound), combined videotex with television and radio. Meanwhile, Unibanco and Telesp promoted a videotex graphic design event at MASP (São Paulo Museum of Art) with their in-house designers Rodolfo Cittadino, Rosemari Cristina Zangirolami, and Verginio Zaniboni Netto.
Art is a good that does evil, Julio Plaza (1982). Xerox on paper.
In 1983, at the 17th São Paulo Biennial, curator Walter Zanini invited Plaza to curate a multimedia section, which was titled "Arte e Videotexto." The excitement for these new platforms and media was evident in Plaza’s essay published in the 17th Biennial catalogue:
The alliance of audiovisual media, telecommunications, and information technology brings new possibilities of communication and expression. Technological progress is much faster than our ability to assimilate and use these new media.
Videotex, unlike other means of mass communication, is interactive because it is born of an interpersonal environment: the telephone. As for the other means are strongly centralising information. With this interactive character, the videotex is characterised as a dialogical vehicle because it breaks with the unidirectionality of the communication world, which seems to mean the beginning of the end of mass society (taking the word in the sense of communication mediated through unidirectional transmission systems), as same in which the user can interfere with and create information, making them virtually an editor. The teletext features are, thus, a democratic vehicle, since the bi-directionality allows the expression and the return of information, breaching the principle of causality, unidirectionality, and authoritarian characteristic of the mass media. With videotex, you can not "educate" the masses.
Videotex thus offers the possibility for the participation in social and community life of individuals, taking a step forward in the democratisation of the information process.
This trend was already taking shape from the 60s, with the socialisation of the means of reproduction and production of reprographic systems (offset, xerox, among others), which facilitated, since then, the ability to copy entire issues, putting into question the notions of copyright and, above all, the copy-copyright. Furthermore, these same procedures enabled thousands of authors and alternative magazines in the 70s.
This democratisation and socialisation of the means of reproduction and production gives us the potential for the formation of electronic editorials at low cost (Comparing to the newspaper, for example) production, publishing small groups or users based on the principles of spontaneous and informational affinity, at the same time it involves the user's consciousness in choosing and interacting with the information.
Plaza developed these ideas in conversation with his students at Centro de Artes Visuais Aster, the art school he co-founded with Zanini and artist Regina Silveira. “Julio invited many artists from several generations,” Silveira recounts. “Many of the artists involved were very young and went on to be major artists, they were the next generation, and they had been our students.”
Regina Silveira´s printmaking class at Aster. Photo courtesy of Ana Maria Tavares.
The works in the exhibition were presented in the main biennial building on a number of Videotexto monitors. Works by videotex artists from Canada, made using the Telidon system, were also on display. Aster students who participated in the exhibition remember the sense of strangeness and excitement surrounding the project.
I made a female vagina that transformed itself into a glass of champagne. I think I made it like this old children’s game—battleship. I had several pieces of graph paper, and I made the image with those square dots, and I say this this and this goes to there… Prior to this I studied cinema and there was lots to do with animation for sure. There were several TV sets and people could go there and press a button and the Videotexto work would begin to play.
Work by Alex Flemming from "Arte e Videotexto." Copy of photograph by Leonardo Crescenti Neto.
Ana Maria Tavares:
It was strange and exciting, there were these little monitors, not even monitors compared to computers now, they looked like The Flintstones in comparison, but it was really fun to have the work and have this translated into different media.
Photograph of work by Ana Maria Tavares from "Arte e Videotexto."
An example of Ana Maria Tavares's grid map for her Videotexto works.
Fellow Aster student Ana Aly, whose focus was visual poems, was also invited to participate. She was part of a separate group around the artist Philadelpho Menezes. She recalls:
At the biennial I watched the public with excitement. I thought everyone reacted positively and saw us as innovators, and that our group would be admired, seen as courageous, even as a model! That was how I saw the exhibition at the time. It was not exactly like my piece in Videotexto but my visual poem "City" also alluded to technology—small windows representing the old punch memory cards of computers.
I Mostra Internacional de Poesia Visual de São Paulo, 1988. L to R: Rozélia Medeiros, Ana Aly, Villari Herman, and Philadelpho Menezes
Silveira’s piece at the Biennial exhibition was a digital adaptation of her 1977 piece Pudim Arte Brasileira (Brazilian Art Pudding). In the form of a recipe, it was an ironic, acidic commentary on the false ideology and market focus of Brazilian contemporary art at that time. In the 1970s, she had distributed the piece to the public as a sheet of paper stationed next to the escalators down to the São Paulo subway network. Silveira remembers that the low-resolution quality of Videotexto gave the work a very different feel from the Xerox version, almost like a weaving:
You have seen in the catalogues how the resolution was, it was... very difficult to plan precise images because the mesh, the pixels were very big, a kind of basket pattern, very open. And the pieces were like that, so every artist sent their project to Julio and he and a group of technicians executed them. At that time Videotexto’s rights were controlled by Telesp, the state company of telephones, so it was a nice connection to have this group of artists making projects for Videotexto.
Two versions of Regina Silveira's Pudim Arte Brasileira, 1977 and 1983.
Videotexto offered a perfect focal point for many of the artistic currents of the moment, as Tavares recalls.
Conceptual art was very important in Brazil, and it coincides with dictatorship. I think that technological art in Brazil is different and strong because of the way that artists had to move around... the idea that artists have to propose things, put up exhibitions, curate shows, and move around the city was quite important.
Everybody was really interested in Xerox, doing works with Xerox, photomontages, microfiches, and Julio Plaza was very much interested in videotex and other kinds of technology structures. We were all his students, we were very young—twenty-two, twenty-three—and he invited amazing artists but also very young artists, and it was really very exciting to join with them and have all these discussions about Videotexto.
With the excitement surrounding Videotexto at the 1983 biennial, service providers Telesp and Telefônica perhaps saw the potential in working with artists to raise awareness of their new system. Livraria Nobel bookstore inaugurated a permanent gallery for Videotexto Art, called “Arte On-line,” which was available in the store and across the Brazilian Videotexto network.
One of the featured artists was Eduardo Kac, whose 1985 work Reabracadabra, an animated Videotexto poem, was part of the exhibition. Kac had been active in the new media art scene since 1981, and having previously experimented with Xerox emerged from this group of pioneers in telecommunications art during that pre-web period.
Kac, reached recently by Skype, explained that
Reabracadabra explored the idea of non-locality, the question: "where is this work?" It's on a remote server, nobody knew exactly where it was. Location was completely irrelevant to the experience. Of course today this is an ordinary fact, but back in 1985 it was an entirely new frontier.
Artists in Brazil continued to see potential in Videotexto art, and in 1986 Telefônica and a dozen or so other companies sponsored another exhibition, “Brazil High-Tech,” curated by Eduardo Kac and Flavio Ferraz.
In one of Brazil's biggest newspapers, Folha de São Paulo, Eduardo Kac previewed the exhibition in the form of a manifesto:
Today, when the rigidity of Renaissance painting seems to announce its return to the world of art, either explicitly, or camouflaged through informal abstraction or expressionism, there are artists who challenge the art market with their incomprehensible works manifesting a techno-aesthetic revolution, and projecting the art of the 21st century.
In a telematic revolution, the large influx of children into the “Brazil High-Tech” exhibition is not in vain. While some adults are still trying to remain oblivious to technocultural reality, children will grow up eating processed fruit under the artificial light of monitors, indulging their fantasies and emotions in this holomatic adventure, fundamental for the construction of a new world: politically fair, economically free, and socially human.
Videotex played a powerful symbolic role in a moment when, amidst a repressive totalitarian regime, real cultural and political change suddenly seemed within reach. Even though the network itself did not survive, it is itself poetic that a unique telematic vision for new forms of democratization through art emerged in a city like São Paulo, where a centuries-old struggle for public space and the public domain plays out through a maze of walls and fences, now criss-crossed by the cables that underpin our new technocultural reality.
Additional reporting by Adriana Galuppo and Michael Connor.
1. "Trans-Genesis: An Interview with Eduardo Kac Lisa Lynch." Originally published in New Formations, No. 49, Spring 2003, London, pp. 75-90. Accessed at http://www.ekac.org/newformations.html
2. Robert N. Mayer, "The Growth Of The French Videotex System And Its Implications."
3. Verginio Zaniboni Netto, Videotexto no Brasil, São Paulo: Livraria Nobel S.A., 1986.
4. 17a Bienal de São Paulo, Catálogo Geral, 1983.
5. Eduardo Kac, “'Brasil High Tech', o cheque ao pós-modernismo," Folha de São Paulo, Informática, April 16, 1986
All interviews conducted by phone or Skype in 2016 unless otherwise noted.
Rose was my great-grandmother’s name. In Buffalo, New York, during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, she taught English as a second language to new immigrants. Adults and children, mostly fellow Jews. Her vocation was assimilation, and she is therefore embedded in her students’ new language and complicated identities. In this way, Rose is imprinted on the idea of an everywoman—at least a Jewish-American everywoman—in my mind.
For an obvious reason, my great-grandmother came to mind while perusing the online exhibition “, Rose.” But it was her role in the formation of a new cultural identity, and the nuanced ability of language to render the self porous to its external context, that elucidated the show’s investigation of the internet—and its inherent contradiction between rapid ephemerality and permanent repository—and its paradoxically homogenizing and fracturing effects on the self. “, Rose” is guest-organized by London-based curator Valentina Fois and hosted by Upfor, a Portland, Oregon–based gallery that stages exhibitions for both its physical and digital platforms. It presents Morehshin Allahyari, Leah Beeferman, Kate Durbin, Faith Holland, Kimmo Modig, Brenna Murphy, and Megan Snowe, all artists who use networked technologies in their work. While the conceit links the artists via a general definition of persona, we are nonetheless plunged into each artist’s world.
Faith Holland. Courtesy the artist and Upfor.
A series of texts commissioned from Modig literally personifies the show’s ethos, accompanying and occasionally responding to the other artists’ work. Accessible by clicking a silhouette of a rose in the bottom-left corner of the screen, they read like the one-sided dialog of a flirtatious chatbot—seeming like the voice of “Rose” itself. Written in SMS shorthand, they are quick and heady, often turning big existential questions into punchlines with just a few lines. The section paired with Beeferman reads: “but like just looking at something / like a landscape and thinking do i have anything left to insert & / is that imposing / gee landscapes make me excuse myself / escape from ’scape.” The pun at the end renders the chatbot’s dreadful placelessness sympathetic, at the same time seeming self-aware of the projections her disembodied state invites from us viewers. Yet, no matter how intimate, her language remains ambiguous. The passage accompanying Allahyari is a coquettish cat-and-mouse game: though double-entendres instill a fleeting blush, it instantly sours into creepiness, leading us to doubt the identity of the person, or program, on the other side.
Leah Beeferman. Courtesy the artists and Upfor.
“maps are the only thing i can T.R.U.S.T...is it like a pavlov’s dog thing?” asks Rose, questioning the veracity of images, graphics and diagrams, and, in effect, her own conversational formality. Our unreliable narrator’s question is a response to Murphy’s project, which inaugurates the show with a series of production stills and digital tapestries. From a fractal-like grid, she develops involuted glyphs and architectures with impossible geometries. Their aesthetic harkens on industrial design and complex Mosque mosaics, lending a spiritual potential to her world-modelling technologies. As the narrative unfolds, the symbols cohere into a sculptural installation. A nude woman cartoonishly contorts herself to view the work, and by the last frame, she stands within the installation, triplicated, her three bodies winding upon themselves like a rope. Her posture is yielding, and expression beatifically blank—she’s our proxy in a parable about spectatorship, and the ecstasy of submitting our identity to the digital imaginary.
Now cut to Durbin, who leads a group of shirtless men through a generic downtown shopping center in her video, Hello Selfie Men (2016). They take and post selfies, and, toward the end, Durbin photographs the event, looks at the camera, and gives us a lascivious grin. Now cut to Beeferman’s abstract cloudscapes. A melancholic soundtrack plays while the idyllic images alternate with monochromatic slides in chroma key blue. It’s brief, but equally warm and claustrophobic; an homage to structuralist filmmaking, it dismantles images, simultaneously revealing deconstruction as inseparable from the beholder’s mood. Now cut again to Allayhari’s 3D-rendered sculpture, which mashes together a wifi router, an AK-47, a rat wearing a tie, and Homer Simpson, among other objects. A design sharing platform (think google docs for 3D renderings) allows us to scrutinize the enigmatic sculpture on all sides, though we go deeper into the labyrinthine archives of readymade Sketchup models from which the collage was seemingly derived. And now cut to Snowe, who recounts a breakup with an academic slideshow. Conversations appear alongside omniscient descriptions of them, as well as quotes from Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and other bits of text. As each slide slowly dissolves, the language is extinguished, no longer of value when it doesn’t promise connection.
Kimmo Modig and Kate Durbin. Courtesy of the artists and Upfor.
Presented sequentially, “, Rose” traces networked technologies +/- influence on the self, as varied, and specific to each artist. When its simple structure seems to sequester one project from another, however, it errs, too easily resembling a list of examples for a rambling thesis. At least until we reach the end: Faith Holland’s campy collection of slapstick animated gifs. She’s replaced the screens of smart devices with splotchy details of skin, and manicured fingers pinch at them, lipstick tubes streak across them, and tears (or sweat) plop on them—ad absurdum. Throughout “,Rose,” artworks and identities intermingle, mirroring a prevailing confusion of the self and the platforms through which it communicates. The show assimilates Upfor’s Portland gallery into the digital, and Modig’s voice assumes the role of the architectural and social identity of its physical space—it perhaps best embodies the gains and losses of learning a new language, and the paradox of an identity inextricable from a user-driven language. Yet, to more comic ends, Holland’s anticlimactic work is a hilarious reminder of our bodies’ embarrassing and clumsy entanglement with technology. At least for now, we’ll be scratching, pulling, clawing at our devices like fools, trying to find that picture of ourselves again.
Brenna Murphy. Courtesy of the artist and Upfor.
Header Image: Brenna Murphy. Courtesy of the artist and Upfor.
### Amsterdam, late summer of 1997. Pink posters appear around the city, pasted in grids. They feature a bitmapped image of a young girl, set into a floating browser window, a large computer mouse hovering over it:
Mouchette does not attend the festival. In her place, a man named René Paul Vallentgoed appears. Vallentgoed works as an agent representing poets who can be booked for live readings. He tells the audience that Mouchette, who has published poetry in magazines and on an audio CD, could not attend the festival, being so young, but that they can ask him questions. Vallentgoed has a deep voice and a conspicuous style.
This is a photo of Vallentgoed:
A visit to the web page listed on the flyer yields little additional information about Mouchette. Instead, it has questions of its own.
Have you seen my posters hanging everywhere in the city of Amsterdam? What was I doing there? Did you meet me? Do you remember? Can you tell me what I did?
Nearly twenty years later, visitors to the page, now hosted on Mouchette.org, continue to share their experiences of encounters that never happened. ###
One of the web’s most enduring personae, Mouchette has maintained a constantly expanding online presence since 1996.
She tells visitors to her site that she is nearly thirteen (eternally so), that she lives in Amsterdam with her parents, that she is an artist and a poet. They see her image in a small thumbnail, or distorted scans of her tongue or cheek. Her presence is promised and palpable, but never quite manifests. She’s elusive.
Flies, bloodcurdling screams, suicide, and death: Mouchette is interested in the same things that many young girls are. And like all young girls with web pages, she is subject to many people’s ideas about what she should or should not do or say. Because of her fame, adults worry that she is a poor role model.
Mouchette has many fans. Sometimes, her fans share strange desires or violent impulses; more often, they reach out seeking a connection. Her fans create art in tribute to her, and they send these works to her as gifts.
They can even become her, using mouchette.net, an identity-sharing interface. The images and texts they share on mouchette.net occasionally make their way back to Mouchette’s home page. On any given reload, her profile pic might be replaced by a user-submitted image and bio. They can also use this interface to send email as Mouchette.
Mouchette is curious about these kinds of responses. She encounters her fans through a screen, the point of connection that also divides, and she is always ready to listen.
Mouchette is a fictional character and a carefully organized absence. She is a kind of projection surface, defined by the changing structure and culture of the web, defined by the users who visit, and return, and contribute to the site. Mouchette is a slowly expanding archive, hosting the stories and fears and desires and reprobation of numerous visitors, carrying traces of their visits and the changing nature of the web itself.
### New York, autumn 2016. I speak three times with artist Martine Neddam, who came forward as author of the Mouchette project in 2010 I type furiously the whole while. When I listen to the recordings I realize that only my voice can be heard, and I must piece the interview together from my live transcription and faint snatches of her voice. Perhaps it is Mouchette's latest act of self-effacement. ###
Neddam: The web character is not so much a portrait as a platform with a certain design... to find a situation where people exchange with each other inside that character. People feed information into it, and that information is published in an exchange.
The anonymity was really important—it created so much intensity, it created really that projection surface for people because they didn’t know who the author was. If you assume it was made by a man, it might be made by a pervert. If made by a woman, it might be made by a feminist. It created a very important sort of appeal, not only an appeal to know who it is, but also a sort of projection surface for your imagination. It was really important in the way people interacted with Mouchette. They had to imagine everything behind, and the intention of the maker, in how they would interact with her.
It takes a lot of energy to hide. As soon as you make this decision to remain anonymous, everything becomes much more complicated. Even communicating with institutions, you have to explain to twenty people why you do that, and that they have to trust you, and trust that this is an artistic project, because it’s a sort of... anonymity is suspicious in itself.
### New York, April 2003. News circulates that the identity of Mouchette, long kept secret, would be revealed at a public event at Postmasters organized by Franklin Furnace. Rhizome’s online series Net Art News publishes a short article asking, “Could You Be the Next Mouchette?” and describing plans for the artist to turn over mouchette.org to a person in attendance at the event. Speculation about Mouchette’s identity on Rhizome’s listserves devolves into name-calling. A French artist, a man, comes forward, claiming to be Mouchette.
In the wake of the event, many people believe that the mystery of Mouchette's identity has finally been solved. ###
Neddam: I'd already had performative events in the presence of Mouchette. Once I had a young girl of that age answering browsing the site and answering an interview on stage, and I was playing the interviewer. But this time there would be a live encounter with the supposed author taking place in Postmasters gallery.
I had a residency grant by Franklin Furnace, during which I created the mouchette.net, which I called the identity sharing interface, where people could become Mouchette. So to promote that interface, I did an event where I was offering the public to take over the website.
Supposedly in that event, the public would come to get the codes to gain control of the site, but they could also meet the site’s author live. A French artist living in New York attended, and also collaborated in creating a sort of crazy inflatable space at the gallery, to sort of ritualize the meeting. I was handy because he was French, so he could better pass himself as me.
One day, I sort of released the anonymity by making an information website. Once the anonymity of the author had been fully inscribed in the history of the character, I could release the control. I had noticed people were searching me less and less, that this intense curiosity was going down. I’d already made so many fake coming outs that a real one wouldn't make sense. It was also a possibility of presenting other works under my name, showing that I had done several internet personae.
### Lambda MOO, early 1990s. A new text-based online community made up of characters and environments developed by its users grows in popularity. People would hang out, chat, and experiment with creating and interacting with spaces and objects, which could be described and even programmed to function interactively.
Users are allowed to choose from a range of genders and can write anything they want to describe their character. They could also describe a space for their character to inhabit, which other users could also visit within the world of the MOO. As LambdaMOO grows in popularity, other MOOs begin to appear, mostly run by universities, hosting their own distinct communities and environments.
Neddam registers for LambdaMOO and creates a persona named Mouchette. In French, a mouche is a fly; Mouchette is also a 1967 film by Robert Bresson about a young girl facing grim adult realities. ###
Neddam: I didn’t remember Bresson’s film very well at the moment I got this girl character. The name was free, you know? Most names I was thinking of were taken. And I remembered this name of a little girl from a film, it was a vision of a little girl character who is not all pink and sweet. It was a very dark film and I like that dark aspect connected to young girls.
[Within the world of a MOO], you would design your space—my space was called AZERTY—you know what that is? It's the French keyboard. It was a text space, a girl made of language and made of text.
You would design your character, but you would also describe your space, and it's like you have a direct connection to your memory, and at the same time you would share it with others: a space of shared imagination.
There were MOOs at universities, one was at MIT. The kind of people you would meet there were super interesting. It had that mixture.
That was really my first love. It was a space for creation and participation at the same time. You could reprogram parts of the MOO itself. That was really the founding experience for me. It took me some time to make something for the web because it didn't have that participatory element. I was really in love with that text space as well, that collaborative text space.
It's not a surprise that I hold on to that participatory element in my art. That's the thing I hold on to even despite all of the difficulty in keeping it working. That's how I fell in love with the internet—you can participate but you can reprogram. You don’t just inhabit that little text field that is given to you. One way or another, I still experience the web with that possibility of re-programming.
### Initially skeptical about the web’s participatory potential, Neddam became increasingly interested in personal home pages. Often derided by web designers and the online public as amateurish, personal home pages gave users a new way to express themselves online.
Neddam: People who had access to write on the web—geeks or people who would make a site for their company—they would show photos of their families and their dogs. So there was a very endearing character to the homepage. I had already played different characters on the MOOs. So that was how I took the idea to design my own character on the web.
### As Mouchette took shape, one of her first projects was to write recombinant nonsense poetry in English, Dutch, and French. “I’m a real text specialist, a poet and a manipulator,” Mouchette boasted. “In one word: a wattlechick.” The poems were published in magazines and on her website, and released as an audio CD with a booklet.
Neddam: In the MOOs I discovered that you could make a bot, and bots were made with Markov chainers. I had an idea of creating jabberwocky words in different languages by using a Markov chainer. But the Markov chainer wouldn't write the whole composition, so it just provided some nonexistent words that I used as raw material. I did the French composition, and then I asked an English writer to write the English version, but i gave them the English language raw material.
It's very difficult to write non-existing words. A bot does it better than you when you fill its database with a very pure sample of the language.
## December 1998, Haarlem, The Netherlands. A Suicide Kit for Christmas is shown in Galerie Tanya Rumpff. The work exemplifies Neddam’s interest in constructing Mouchette not only from software but from her public.
The browser-based work opens with a still image of a girl with angel wings and a Santa hat standing on the bench in a dithered courtroom. She is labeled with the tag “Mouchette,” as if she is an avatar within a videogame world. She delivers a line via speech bubble: “A suicide kit for Christmas?”
On the next page, Mouchette asks the visitor, “What is the best way to kill yourself when you’re 13?” The answers would be sent to Neddam’s inbox.
Neddam: For maybe a year, I would collect the answers by email. They would send a story, I would rewrite them into HTML pages and post them. Even in these HTML pages, I would reply. My sense of the web was that it was an ongoing conversation with the viewer.
Initially, the comments and answers are mostly flippant. email@example.com writes, “rail de coke.” Mouchette’s response: “Un seul?”
Effective search engines are not yet available at the time the work is published, limiting the public that the project might reach to those already in the know—net art audiences and the network that Mouchette developed. Gradually, this begins to shift.
Neddam: Through Mouchette, I would see the web change and expand and modify, and Mouchette would change in response to what was happening.
Suicide Kit was totally a design for the gallery, you could say, with the idea of an artistic public in mind. In 1998, people weren’t using search engines, they were surfing, jumping from site to site, from link to link.
Suddenly the search engines exploded. People were coming en masse and starting to send personal messages, and to respond to it personally. This went into society in ways that I didn’t expect, but it really touched me.
Search engines bring visitors to the site who at times have a pressing need to discuss topics related to suicide. There is a need for Neddam to respond more quickly, and in 1999 she moves to a more automated system of content moderation.
Neddam: When I was receiving these things in my email it was very upsetting, because the messages were so personal it would affect me very much... So that’s where I got the interface where I would classify the entries. A friend made me the dynamic interface—this PHP interface where it would come into a database and I could publish it or not publish it. I wouldn’t react to it any more because maybe it wasn’t the idea.
You will see people seeking help, and people offering help. I would classify the entries, so the ones who wanted to help could reply to the ones who were seeking help somehow, and publishing also all the rest, creating other categories.
It went beyond art. It was not enough to just receive these things and put them back online like a month later and just tell some witty comment next to it. It was something where I had hit on a sort of social fact, and I was involved in it.
Also I think it was very populated because suicide is also an issue with free speech. It's very difficult to talk about suicide in many societies. So I was sort of taken by... not by surprise, but I was overwhelmed by the situation, and that’s how I started to make that database. So I could put things online earlier and let people contact each other.
After a while, I realized that there were some users who came once in awhile to post funny stories, of course with certain dark tones about suicide. It was a stage where I wasn’t even needed. Visitors cared about [consistent contributors such as] Lucy Cortina more than they cared about Mouchette. They carried the story of the web character in their own way. So the construction of the database happened by following what was happening.
I got the database system in 1999, of course it went through a lot of phases, but for many years it played a strange role in my life. And the art world people didn’t really care for it—they didn’t care for the fact that people were using it in very personal ways.
It has been a big part of my life, that moderation. I even went to court because they thought I was hosting suicide recipes.
### Marseilles, 2006. An anonymous user sends an email to French law enforcement, complaining that mouchette.org has published instructions for committing suicide. Police check the registration information for the site, and arrest the technician who had most recently renewed the domain.
In France—I was hosted on a French server—a search warrant was issued that at first went straight to someone who had been my technician, who had given his address as the person responsible for the hosting. He went to jail for one night, his computer was searched.
It was a terrible moment for me because i had to find a lawyer for criminal law. When I went to the judge, she finally said no, there’s no crime, because she could read English, but I was really scared because I didn’t know what was the cause of that warrant. Actually there was nothing; through the judge I could know that there was only anonymous denunciation. Someone with an email address sent a complaint that the site was promoting suicide. And then I was issued a search warrant.
This police search did a lot of damage. A national art foundation removed their money from another artistic the project in the making as soon as they heard I was under investigation. Even when the judge sayd there’s no reason, nothing went back as it was. Being a suspect is very hard.
You can imagine, I was so surprised. I had never been careless about what I posted. At that time you had suicide groups, where people would call for suicide partners; you had sites for suicide recipes. This is forbidden in France, and I always made sure that nothing like that was posted on my site.
With suicide there are issues of free speech at several levels. In most religions, suicide is a sin. In certain cases, you may not even mention it or talk about it to children. So the problem of prevention of suicide is made really complicated, because the people who are tempted by suicide cannot seek help, because they sense this is under that ban. When they mention it, people reject the idea or the thought of it.
That’s why I got all these people coming to me. They had to vent all their anxiety that they probably couldn’t do in their normal surroundings. Today of course you have serious sites where you can vent and exchange, but at that time it didn’t exist yet.
Several pages on the site feature extreme close-ups of portions of Mouchette, creating a proximity and a surprisingly physical intimacy. [describe the work]In Flesh&Blood Mouchette sticks out her tongue as if licking the screen and asks the visitor to do the same so their tongues would meet on either sides of the screen.
Neddam: All you had was that little tiny photo, just one tiny pic of 2x2 cm or so, and then finally Mouchette presents her body. I was inspired by the fact that I just got my first scanner. So I invited a friend of mine to lay on the scanner.
The staging of the situation was really getting clearer to me—how the stage is set, let's say. The performative situation was that there was a symmetry between who was behind the screen and who was in front, and these two could meet through the surface of the glass. The glass is what allows the encounter.
Of course that glass was also the glass of the scanner, and all of a sudden the glass of the scanner would be the contact surface for the public, and would turn into the glass of the monitor.
Previously, I had been designing stage sets. I often think of the work I do as staged situations. The staged background was these pictures, and the text of the actor was this text that called for a reaction. “Want to know what my tongue tastes like? Try it on your screen and tell me.”
In theater, sometimes they speak of a fourth wall between actor and public, a sort of conceptual wall where they meet, but still stay separate because they don’t have the same status. That would be a similar situation, with the screen as a fourth wall, and a one on one encounter instead of a stage with actors and public.
I was also very aware of the body’s presence with the computer—your body is very present when you’re browsing things on the computer; you are physically engaged because you are at an emotional distance from the screen, at arm’s length. Everything at arm’s length enters your emotional perimeter.
That physical distance to the screen—you would never come so close [to a person as you do to the screen] unless you have an emotional relationship with them.
Along with onscreen characters and the user, the browser and the code of a work also played important roles in the staging of a work. Kill that Cat exemplifies that performative quality. [description] The picture of a wide open cat's jaw shakes erratically while a scream goes on and on. In the middle of that mouth a shaking button says “KILL THAT CAT” and all you want is to hit that moving button and stop that scream.
Neddam: It was the sort of here-and-now of the web. You open the page and it sort of screams at you. It had that performative aspect where a crazy performer and the public meet, and something gets activated in that meeting.
The code for the shaking image is stolen from JODI. They had that shaking text and the code was easy enough to copy. I could use it with a picture of a cat's mouth looking very aggressive; the sound is a coyote, I found it online, it screams in a very ugly way. It makes for a very lively online encounter. It jumps at the screen, it shakes, it’s like experiencing a live moment of face to face with someone on the net.
For me, the web was the ideal performance place, the performance that could go on at any time of the day. The works had that sort of here and now encounter. You know that thing was always open, twenty-four hours, it was all the time live.
When it jumps out of your screen, it comes alive. It starts screaming and jumping, and then you click it and kill it. So it has that sort of live moment, every page is live and every page dies.
I never had much pleasure in working with Flash. I only ever used it for its compatibility with sound. Flash doesn’t have that sort of live moment because it’s all in the box, whereas the HTML page seems to become alive because all of these elements have to come together in the browser. It has a live moment that a Flash equivalent doesn’t have. (I would suppress the following because it's a repetition) because it’s all enclosed in one box, which is the Flash file. So when I used it it was just handy, or for compatibility reasons.
Every time you click on a link, something live happens. I still sense the web as having a sort of life, this live moment, because it can die. Only whatever can die can live.
When I first started playing Diablo 2 around the time of its release in 2000, I didn’t much care for playing online. I remember connecting to Diablo 2’s battle.net servers, clicking on the first available campaign, and being confronted in chat with lists of jumbled acronyms and numeric equations. “2 SOJs 4 LVL 60 Plate Armor” and other phrases poured across my screen a torrential pace, with players running back and forth, jumping in and out of the server. While I was attempting to smite Mephisto and progress along the central storyline, others were rapidly flooding the chat with various commands and garbled phrases that eventually took over my peripheral vision. After returning back from my quests to resupply at a town, I jumped into chat and asked “What’s going on here?” Quickly several anonymous voices chatted back: “Trade.”
Trading within Diablo 2 involves exchanging in-game items for other virtual goods including gold and equipment. As a built-in feature, trading incentivizes players to create market economies and other forms of emergent exchange that go beyond interacting with non-playable-character (NPC) vendors. For game designers, this process builds community which further enhances a player’s investment into the longevity of a game's success. To that end, a direct correlation can be drawn between the strength of a game’s virtual marketplace—be it sanctioned or not—and its lasting impact on that industry.
Although I poured hours into the hack-and-slash, dungeon crawling, and looting experience of taking my sorceress into the depths of hell, I never participated in trade, which quickly became a dominant aspect of playing Diablo 2. Some of my reservations about trading might have stemmed from a general discomfort with handling rare items; I was often uncertain about the exact in-game value of my loot. More striking and off-putting, however, was how aggressive it all was: the barking commands, the attempt to turn quick profits, the way the discourse emulated high frequency trading markets. It felt antithetical to the community building and social collectivity I appreciated in online play.
Trading menu within Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction from the DjuntasGaming YouTube channel.
While many game developers and studios have implemented online marketplaces, in-game trading recently came under scrutiny when Valve—a large game company that created the popular game distribution platform Steam—sent a number of cease-and-desist orders to online gambling websites. These third-party platforms use Steam’s marketplace of in-game items—specifically cosmetic, purely visual and not performance-enhancing, modifications of in-game items called “skins”—as collateral for traditional gambling. Skins are put up on sites like csgolounge.com and used as “chips” or other valuable currency to gamble in various low-skill to no-skill gambling games. What results is an external economy of virtual objects that can result in real-world payoffs. Where Steam prevents players from “cashing out” unused or unnecessary items, these third-party sites allow for players to use virtual items as away-from-keyboard currency.
As fascinating as these online gambling venues are in their own right, Valve’s legal action against a total number of twenty-three sites points to a long history of virtual economies spilling over into AFK economies. Unlike the virtual economies fueled by blockchain technologies, the genesis of these economic frontiers is made from more traditional financial models like scarcity and rarity. But more importantly, the valuation of “commodities” in CS:GO and other Steam marketplaces is rooted in preferential cosmetic desire which manifests in emergent and unexpected ways. Though scarcity plays a part in setting the price point of a skin, market dynamics are driven mostly by the personal tastes of players. In other words, the economies of these virtual items create monetary value primarily through player-centered appropriation of the in-game (and subsequent third-party) marketplace. This adaptation of, and experimentation with, non-traditional methods of media production and consumption is directly related to game development since the days of Diablo 2.
In retrospect, I see how my apprehension to trading with strangers was not widely shared by other players. Blizzard Entertainment’s choice to include trading in Diablo 2 signaled a pivotal moment in establishing the marketplace dynamic now commonly promoted in most online games. What marked this moment of change was the possibility for players to trade among themselves rare and unique items they acquired in peer-to-peer exchanges. Trading was initially intended to allow players to purchase virtual items from other teammates (or party members) using in-game gold. But players quickly found gold to be undervalued for trades of particularly unique items. This was in part due to how easy it was to acquire gold from playing the same quest (or sequence of the central story line) over and over on different servers. Each time you connected to a server on battle.net, the game would re-generate areas, dungeons, and monsters that you could play numerous times to acquire large sums of money (and loot). But gold was also undervalued because a player could only carry a certain limited amount. As a result, players began to use substitute items within the game as currency itself, valuing equipment with objects like rings and jewels. A standard emerged within the player community that items could be valued roughly (given fluctuating market demands and game patches) by trading in rings called Stone of Jordans, or SOJs.
Stone of Jordan as seen in the game.
When equipped, an SOJ increased all special abilities of a player character, a distinctive and powerful property. SOJs quickly became the standard currency because of its predictable percentage “drops” from difficult, magically-enchanted enemies or bosses.1 Soon after this adoption, players started to “dupe”—a term used within gaming culture defined as creating illegitimate copies of unique and rare items—SOJs to meet market demand and sustain a newfound emergent economic system within Diablo 2. This system continued until 2001 when an expansion pack patch was introduced that changed the magical properties of the ring (by “nerfing” or devaluing its usefulness) and generated items that had an even more rare and powerful impact. Although this patch modified the overall value of the ring, the precedent set by SOJ currency fundamentally altered trade mechanics within contemporary online gaming.
The notable aspect of this virtual economy is not merely its emergent genesis and its subsequent influence on game design. Instead, it’s the fact that it signaled to game players and designers alike the potential for in-game markets to create AFK value.
This shift, fueled in part by growing player communities, provided an inroad for game companies to start thinking of ways to turn their virtual environments into viable self-sustained marketplaces. SOJ trading in Diablo 2 was not solely responsible for this transition, however. A much more pressing issue around virtual economies and their AFK value occurred with the selling and trading of gold in the game Ultima: Online. During its peak around 1997, U:O had over 200,000 subscribers all paying $9.95 a month to play online. Eventually, the in-game market required a substantial banking system to manage players’ gold yields from dungeon crawling. Some avid players created elaborate “botfarms” to automate the cumbersome and time-consuming process of mining in order to maintain in-game houses, guilds, and other social habits.
Ebay Customer Service confirming banning of U:O gold auctions, credit: Scott Jennings
Because the demand for gold in U:O was so high, players soon adopted methods of acquiring gold outside of the game by setting up websites dedicated to “U:O stocks.” Many also resorted to bidding on eBay auctions for gold, often duped. Though Electronic Arts, U:O’s publisher for a short time, never banned accounts that purchased this gold, many from within the community remained skeptical of sellers using “RL money.” Tracking accounts that duped gold often resulted in permanent bans, but this kind of oversight on the side of EA never crossed over to RL purchases. This only changed in 2007, when eBay removed all virtual item auctions from their listings. Citing a violation of eBay’s intellectual property rules, banning the sale of virtual and in-game items from the marketplace radically shifted gameplay within U:O. eBay’s policy changes and threats of new software implementation to prevent duping and other forms of cheating curbed the enthusiasm of U:O players, many of whom had begun to shift their interests to other Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs).2
Virtual economies like those around SOJs and U:O gold farming became important precursors for other types of marketplaces to emerge. Incorporation of in-game markets, and regulated economics systems for virtual currency have a mainstay in many contemporary games. Eve Online’s internal ISK currency is heavily moderated and overseen by a full-time economist on CCP’s staff. Second Life’s Lindens is also a popular example of a virtual economy that sustains in-game purchases, real estate, and other forms of trade. But the difference between these more established markets—including Steam’s Community Market, a formal exchange place for players to buy, sell, and trade virtual items distributed on Steam—and SOJs signal a particular manifestation of an internal, player centric, virtual currency supplanting traditional forms of wealth circulation.
Game studios, however, are not faulted for lackluster efforts in designing dynamic or engaging in-game marketplaces. In fact, the strength of a designed marketplace seems in direct proportion to the frequency of irregular, emergent economies. The level of enforcement or oversight on the part of a game company could partially be why players decide to deviate from standard financial systems in the first place. For instance Team Fortress 2, which also runs on Steam’s Community Market, is another game in which virtual goods are primarily valued by personal preference. But Steam’s oversight and control of this marketplace forced players to to go off-market and out of game to third-party vendors in order to get full value for their virtual goods. Unfortunately, those spaces, like CS:GO gambling sites, can often result in the sudden loss of assets as is the case when the out-of-game sale of unique Team Fortress 2 hats led to a number of elaborate cons resulting in loss of RL money (some up to the tune of more than $1000).3
Today currencies within virtual economies, and the goods often associated within those markets, are manifesting in RL economies much more frequently. It is now commonplace in World of Warcraft and other MMOs for players to sell entire accounts to one another for hefty fees. The economy of generating virtual goods within various game engines isn’t merely popular amongst players, it’s encouraged by developers. In doing so, the backing of virtual entrepreneurship within game economies has changed the way that players view their status and impact within a game.
Example of CS:GO gambling on CSGOlounge. Credit: csgogamlbingsites.com.
Recently, the popular competitive sports game Rocket League has incorporated a system of item “crating” not all that dissimilar to Team Fortress 2’s item marketplace. Players can get crate rewards that contain visual modifications of various rarities for vehicles within the game. These crates, however, can only be unlocked with purchasable “keys” provided by the game’s developer Psyonix. Though the rules of the games are that crates themselves cannot be traded, the items within them can be swapped amongst players. This new addition has some long-time players worried; the incorporation of this mechanic has a high potential to generate an influx of individuals who only want to play Rocket League as metaphorical caravans and traffickers in the utmost rare cosmetics as opposed to the competitive and highly skill-based sports mechanic it is known for.
Psyonix has explicitly pointed to the current predicament with CS:GO’s third-party gambling problem and want to avoid this new trading and crafting mechanics from sullying the value of the items within the game.4 However, what they cannot anticipate or prevent is an emergent market materializing out of a newfound virtual economy. If anything is to be gained from looking at the way SOJs became the (forgive the pun) gold-standard, it is that players will always find ways to manipulate, adopt, and appropriate economic systems to suit their desires.
But what does Valve’s legal action against online gambling have to do with emergent virtual economies? The over-formalization of virtual economies—to make them and their goods operate and/or simulate AFK marketplaces—not only regulates the trafficking of skins and mods, it also devalues play. If it weren’t for the emergent behavior of players experimenting with the virtual goods of these in-game items, these virtual economies wouldn’t even exist. Honoring the cultural significance of virtual economies, however they manifest, should be the priority for game developers. Stifling, or otherwise over-determining, the emergent choices within gaming communities ultimately will do a disservice the wealth found within those markets.
1. Third-party “drop calculators” like Silospen were made to increase chances of ring drops and exploit the in-game engine to more predictably ensure SOJ retrieval from specific bosses and enchanted enemies.
2. Some good writing about this topic, and gold farming within World of Warcraft was discussed by Julian Dibbel in 2007 (see right at the beginning for eBay’s policy change): Julian Dibbel, “The Life of the Chinese Gold Farmer,” The New York Times (June 17, 2007). http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/17/magazine/17lootfarmers-t.html
In 1993, Australian artist and poet Mez Breeze began to develop her own online language, Mezangelle. Her Mezangelle poetry has appeared across the internet over the last two decades under multiple names and connected to multiple avatars.
Mezangelle uses programming language and informal speech to rearrange and dissect standard English, creating new and unexpected meaning. Mez Breeze’s approach to codework—online experimental writing that explores the relationship between machine and human languages—is imbued with a sense of playfulness and creativity.
For Net Art Anthology, Rhizome is presenting 43 emails containing Mez Breeze’s contributions to the net.art email list 7-11, one of the first online communities purely dedicated to net art experimentation. Viewers may subscribe to the email list to receive the works in their inbox one by one over the course of the next year, reperforming their original transmission in the same order and pacing.
The following is an interview with Mez conducted by Rhizome assistant curator Aria Dean in December 2016.
Aria Dean: Can you describe Mezangelle?
Mez Breeze: Mezangelle evolved in the mid-1990s, gestating in email exchanges, computer programming languages + chat-oriented software [ie y-talk, webchat, and IRC] and attempting to fuse English, poetic conventions, programming code, contemporary social commentary, and online communiqué.
A Mezangelle post on the 7-11 mailing list, 1998
Mezangelle fuels various ongoing codework repositories, one of which is "_cross.ova.ing ][4rm.blog.2.log][_.” The output posted here is constantly evolving and de-evolving in terms of style and convention. Mezangelled works aren't designed to be parsed as linear or static, but instead exist in an artificially induced finishing state:
"Viewers of Mez’s works are not only required to read (and sometimes interact), but to translate the Mezangelle language, which often (if not usually) creates multiple interpretive possibilities. Mez’s interest in playing with—and making as much as she possibly can out of – ASCII code is obvious; the addition of images gives viewers more to work through … Mez works this possibility – with her use of language, and by using images as prefix and suffix—to extreme ends, and by doing so metaphorically hits two, three, or more notes at with a single gathering of letters formed into a word in ways previous generations of writers could not."
I do see Mezangelle as intrinsically questioning a culture of exclusion that can often develop alongside binary systems, as well as exploring the "rightness" and "wrongness" of function vs. dysfunction, and the binary opposition/conditioning that often envelops those devoted to mono-meaning curves [which in part explains my fascination with trinary logic].
While engaging with a Mezangelled text, a reader/user is encouraged to construct meaning in a tumultuous fractured meaning zone that bends and happily shifts comprehension goalposts. Rule-fragments do exist [t]here, but determination of meaning depends on an acknowledgment that there is never only one level of interpretation, or an ultimately correct [or incorrect] option.
Works created in Mezangelle are designed to function, or meaning-establish, via a combination of semantic triggers combined with an individual's own subjective meaning framework. There is no one way to interpret Mezangelle: many people parse only the poetic underpinnings, whereas some in the code-loop happily grok-absorb programming elements or ASCII-like symbols. Many others have analysed Mezangelled works on a more granular level: one of the better-known attempts comes from theorist Florian Cramer, who says of one of my earlier codeworks “_Viro.Logic Condition][ing][ 1.1_ ́ ́:
"What seems like an unreadable mess at first, turns out to be subtle and dense if you read closer. The whole text borrows from conventions of programming languages; it presents itself as a program with a title, version number, main routine—indicated with the line “[b:g:in] ́ ́—and several subroutines or objects (which, like in the programming language Perl, are indicated with two double colons). But the main device are the square brackets which, like in Boolean search expressions, denote that a text can be read in multiple ways. For example, the title reads simultaneously as “Virologic Condition ́ ́, “Virologic Conditioning ́ ́, “Logic Condition ́ ́ and “Logic Conditioning ́ ́. This technique reminds of the portmanteau words of Lewis Carroll and James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake ́ ́, but is reinvented here in the context of net culture and computer programming.
As the four readings of the title tell already, this particular text is about humans and machines and about a sickness condition of both. The square bracket technique is used to keep the attributions ambiguous. For example, the two words in the line “::Art.hro][botic][scopic N.][in][ten][dos][tions:: ́ ́ can be read as “arthroscopic ́ ́ / “art robotic ́ ́ / “Arthrobotic ́ ́ / “horoscopic ́ ́ and “Nintendos ́ ́ / “intentions ́ ́ or “DOS ́ ́. So the machine becomes arthritic, sick with human disease, and the human body becomes infected with a computer virus; in the end, they recover by “code syrup & brooding symbols ́ ́. So mez has taken ASCII Art, as we can see it in the exhibition above, and Net.art code spamming and refined it from pure visual patterns into a rich semantical private language. She calls it Mezangelle which itself is a mez hybrid for her own name and the word “to mangle”…
Since her square bracketed expressions expand into multiple meanings, they are executable, that is, a combinatory source code which generates output. But it’s also a sophisticated reflection of cultural concepts of software which rereads the coding conventions of computer programming languages as semantical language charged with gendered politics. It’s imaginary software which executes in the minds of computer-literate human readers, not unlike the Turing Machine which was an imaginary piece of hardware."
Since 2011, I’ve been pushing Mezangelle into 3D Spaces and mobile apps created by myself and Andy Campbell. For instance, in our anti-surveillance game #PRISOM, the Surveillance Drones “talk” to each other in Mezangelle. "#PRISOM" premièred [via an Augmented Reality Head-Mounted Display set-up] at the 2013 International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality, in conjunction with the University of South Australia University's Wearable Computer Lab and the Royal Institution of Australia. When creating the Mezangelle scripts for the #PRISOM Drones, my main influence was global covert surveillance [think: PRISM surveillance program] and increasing monitoring of individual’s private data/lives.
#PRISOM AR game featuring Mezangelle, 2013
AD: Is Mezangelle a language system in the sense that it can be reproduced and replicated by a writer other than yourself?
AD: Your poetry is often discussed under the umbrella of “codework,” a form of experimental writing that mixes identifiably human language with code from computer languages. The practices within “codework” vary widely; not all of them engage with and handle code in the same way. While mezangelle language draws on elements of code, the code is non-functional and non-executable, right? Considering this, how do you see the relationship between the code and the text in your work?
MB: I like to think my use of code conventions acts to open up poetic aspects via a type of dimensional interplay [combining the lyrical with a formalised structure]. Those who choose to absorb my output may enjoy trying to ferret out hidden meanings, and/ or derive their own deductions. Some readers that attempt to parse Mezangelle, and codeworks in general, have a certain pre-set programming knowledge that allows for a certain interpretation, whereas some may instead perceive the code interjections as a type of visual accent [especially those who are traditional poetry fans].
“GoDaddyGoDaddyGo” from _cross.ova.ing ][4rm.blog.2.log][_”, 2012
I do enjoy manipulating standardised code protocols and conventions, and all my works have [at their core] a definitive social commentary function. When creating in Mezangelle, my aim is to encourage continued exploration through code emulation, curiosity, play and repeated questioning/collapsing of institutionalized concepts. Of course, with curiosity and play being strong markers of mine, I do think of my works as cheekily [and sometimes melancholically] subversive.
A more recent analysis by Roopika Risam of the Mezangelled work “Anthropo[S]ceney||AnthropO[bs]cene” seeks to unpack this relationship between code and text:
"Breeze’s use of brackets adds new dimensions and questions to her poem, disrupting both the experience of reading and the possibilities for interpretation. Breeze’s poetry experiments liberally with different dimensions of programming syntax. In contrast to executable code poems, poems that don’t rely on executable code are not bound by the rules that constrain programming languages. Rather, they take advantages of the structures of code to represent the relationship between computational technology and human experience in symbolic ways. In doing so, these poems draw attention to the structural elements of computational technology that we may not see but are central to our experience of technology and of the world."
AD: What compelled you to develop your own online language?
MB: I originally became interested in the idea when, in 1993, I was first exposed to the work of VNS Matrix [who I later wrote about in Switch Magazine and who also feature here in your Net Art Anthology: yay!]. Their mix of game aesthetics, Anarcha-feminism, and virtual/online engagement intrigued me; at the time I was creating mixed-media installations involving painting, computer text and computer hardware. I was also exploring notions of performative identity-play at the time. I first dove online using Telnet/Unix and Kajplats 305 to juggle avatar use, identity-play, and interactive fiction: Mezangelle had its roots here.
AD: What pre-internet literature and language practices were influential in designing Mezangelle?
MB: As I’ve said previously, it’s exceedingly hard to pin down influential content that’s easily reduced to just the literary, so instead I’ll give you a ramshackle list of influences/tools/inspirations [that’s by no means complete]:
AD: How do you think digital writing has changed in the last decade or so? Are there new possibilities for experimentation?
MB: Digital writing has transformed in the last decade, absolutely. What’s interesting about this is the altering of social engagement markers in relation to online comms [think: chan/imageboards, txtspeak, memetalk, snowcloning], and how this is shaping discourse in general and the corresponding effects on institutionalised systems [think “fake news” (ie propaganda) items that are in fact a creative (and fundamentally catastrophic) rendering of facts that can alter the trajectory of democracy itself)].
There are many new possibilities for experimentation in the digital writing sphere, including experimentation within game spaces, especially in relation to Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality/Mixed Reality. Potentials include breaking down narratives and distilling and reordering components into discrete fragmented VR units, and/or shifting the story emphasis to consecutive divergings [similar to branching narratives like in Choose Your Own Adventure].
Narrative/VR game “All the Delicate Duplicates” with Mezangelled text splines, 2016-2017
In VR/AR scripting, aspects that previously would have been only been peripheral, or incidental, can now take equal centre-stage: “mono-attentional” entertainment may shift according. Viewers/players will use a combination of renewed agency, 4th wall breakage, and field-of-view-constraint-lifting to accommodate new methods of constructing [story]texts with VR/AR based tools [think: StoryboardVR, Tvori, Mindshow, Actiongram]. The striation between 360 video/photos and "true" [ie agency engaged] VR will [and currently are] reflecting interesting avenues for digital writers.
AD: In addition to disrupting and fragmenting language itself, your work also problematizes authorship. There are a number of different avatars to whom your works are attributed. Is this something that emerged organically in your practice as you’ve created works across multiple platforms and communities? Or is it a more intentional, perhaps even political, choice? Both?
MB: From my POV, my choice to avatar-assign authorship of certain Mezangelled works reflects a desire to meddle with certain systems that influence the formation of meaning, of comprehension. If you systematically obfuscate and deliberately muddy binaries aligned with gender, race, sex, age, ownership, and authorship, your work itself gets an unparalleled chance for interpretation without the looming fact of traditional, and often seductive, polarization, or ego-hinged attribution. So really, my use of multiple avatars is indeed a mix of deliberate crafting and opportunism.
Cinnamon Colomboscope (held in Colombo, Sri Lanka) is a simultaneously micro and macro examination of Sri Lankan artists’ foothold in the technological experimentation long credited to makers of Western origin. This year's edition of the festival, named "Testing Grounds," presented seventeen Sri Lanka-based artists and over forty international artists (primarily living and working in Europe), and was curated by Susanne Jaschko. A number of artist projects explored issues of connectivity, virtuality, and the complications that ensue as the limits of each dissipate. And, with mention of ensuing complications, many artists chose to be contextually transparent regarding the consequences within their respective politicized locales. The artists included in "Testing Grounds" gutsily scrutinized the legal, ethical, and cultural voids left unattended by the arbiters of an internet whose growth is consistently outpacing the democratic processes of the non-virtual world.
While there is much being debated about the commodification of digital works of art, it is undeniable that EUNIC Sri Lanka (EUNIC stands for European Union National Institutes for Culture), the organizer for the event, and their partners in Sri Lanka are seeking more than the investment of scholarly interest. Cinnamon Colomboscope is partly so called because of its sponsorship by Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts. And Sri Lanka, historically a colonized country whose connection to Western Europe is culturally tenuous, is still tussling with the degree to which it wants to identify with that colonized legacy—socially, economically, and artistically. EUNIC has emerged as an organizer and financial sponsor to nudge these clarifications to a mutually beneficial position. Western financial and promotional investment often sees return in the form of Western tourism, and especially within the fight for autonomy, the exchange of capital can make strange bedfellows.
A handful of conceptually complex projects and proposals were leveraged for a series of online-only exhibitions as part of "Testing Grounds." These works are a nod not only to artists working with digital technologies, but a festival viewership that was once an exclusively a Southeast Asian gaze, but is now growing exponentially. Academics and collectors that are paying long overdue attention to internet-based works are doing so thanks in part internationally marketed exhibitions. The festival (now in its third year) has included these internet-based works as a conceptual extension of the “testing grounds” theme. And here, Colomboscope admirably and densely grapples with contemporary issues of globalization as catalyzed by the internet and digitized culture.
Constant Dullaart provides The Revolving Internet (2010), a hypnotic website that makes cinematic visualization of content generated from Google and its predictive suggestions. Set to Dusty Springfield’s version of “The Windmills of Your Mind,” the Google homepage and subsequent search-result page both literally and figurative revolve around your screen. The spiral motion is dream-like, matching the tune and lyricism of the 1969 song that accompanies it. Because of the screen’s physical instability, one finds oneself literally chasing the search window and the text it produces, contorting in illogical fashion to “right” the equilibrium of the information. Words and results become less about their meaning, and situate the act of googling into a physiological awareness. The task becomes performative—monotonous and occasionally frustrating.
Ruin My Search History (2016), an online project sourced from an anonymous web-developer, is a facetious algorithm that guarantees its users a spot on their country’s watch list. The current age of surveillance has led many to fear even the most innocuous of Google searches. A simple search for the phrase “how to get away with murder” on the wrong server at the wrong moment could get you named a suspect, when in fact you’re a lover of the American television show. And paranoia is actually a privilege, pointing to the freedom to conduct such a web search. The hidden “gotcha” of the work, layered beneath the humor and self-righteous stances on privacy, is a meditation on access. The ability to have one’s searches “ruined” is born of the ability to search, and search without inhibition, in the first place.
screen shot from Anonymous, Ruin My Search History (2016)
James Bridle’s Citizen Ex (2015) is a downloadable plug-in designed to make transparent the pathways through which information travels to and from our individual IP addresses. The information is being hosted by a sovereign nation with a very specific, lawfully designated citizenship. This citizenship, alongside the one designated to your computer, are in constant negotiation about the various information that is made available, stored, or passed on. Citizen Ex is a tool for making plain the political and capitalist slip-n-slide that is algorithmic belonging or residence.
The majority of the virtual exhibitions in Colomboscope were produced by male, European artists. For this reason, it bears mentioning the sole online project that stands otherwise, if only to a thin degree. Magic Realism Bot(2015) is a collaborative work developed by (writer and coder respectively) Chris and Ali Rodley of Sydney, Australia. The work originated as a Twitter account, but has been expanded to an independent website for the show. The bot in Magic Realism Bot autonomously authors short stories from an algorithm with basic understanding of English sentence structure. As an extension of the Twitter account, the website now allows viewers to see the virtual mixing and matching the computer performs when engineering a narrative. The results are text that raises questions about artificial intelligence and the schism between man and machine where it involves creative pursuit. Language is a frontier within which artificially maneuvered beings are becoming ceaselessly difficult to distinguish from organic ones.
screen shot from Chris and Ali Rodley, Magic Realism Bot (2015)
The lines drawn by the artists in the virtual exhibitions of Cinnamon Colomboscope are both connective and divisive. While highlighting the numerous measures contemporary technology has taken to remove boundaries from everyday physical, emotional, and nominal transactions, the boundlessness of the virtual world creates new territories where ethical laws of passage are poorly or yet to be written. The invited artists examined many of these tropes engagingly and critically. One can imagine how much more completely this criticism will be served with the inclusion of more voices from outside the heavily male, Western context.
Header image: screen shot from Ali and Chris Rodley, Magic Realism Bot (2015)
When I open the link to "A Mystical Staircase" I already have countless tabs open in several browser windows. Each tab has been assigned a logo, letters or symbols and pictograms that reference the real world: envelopes (the paper kind only bills come in now), blue boxes, red play buttons, shopping bags, rectangles with the corner folded down. In "A Mystical Staircase," the digital references to physical objects—tarot cards—serves as a curatorial tool. You have a question on your mind? Choose a card and it will present you with a randomly selected artwork—video, image, or sound—by one of 24 international artists included in the show, the third in a trio of projects by curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, following "The III Internet Pavilion" at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and "The Internet Saga," inaugurated on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. "A Mystical Staircase" is also curated in collaboration with 63rd-77th STEPS.
In a common form of tarot reading, you talk through a question or problem. In "A Mystical Staircase," the idea is to ask a question and have an artwork answer it for you. Artists and writers have long been drawn to all things occult, but art is not often summoned to answer questions so directly. More often, it is used to ask them. The association between tarot cards and digital communication technologies is immediate—they are the same shape and size as phone screens. The design and layout of the page, I find out later, also mirrors online tarot card reading sites, with their bitty patterns and awkward combinations of colors and fonts. All the images and videos are in portrait format. But these tarot cards, like all tarot cards, are not like the internet at all really: no one asks search engines proper questions anymore.
I choose my first card. Eva Papamargariti’s video Descending staircase with hands on it plays for a few seconds before it loops, a skinny screensaver. There are disembodied hands attached to a spiral staircase, also disembodied, detached from any other kind of structure. It’s a disturbing combination that (one hopes) could only be experienced in this computer-generated scenario. When I click my only option—“return to deck”—the cards have been reshuffled. I choose another. Artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s voice begins to play, a kind of oracular speech that is rooted in the personal. In A Delivery Card, her voice is slightly unclear, she speaks over herself and becomes increasingly distorted by another recording. “Let’s discuss the problem. Let’s dissect it.” She offers questions and then answers them: “What is it that hurts you?” “You imagine hostility where there is none.”
Eva Papamargariti, Descending Staircase with Hands on It (2016).
Upon my return to the main page, the cards have been reshuffled again, and the potential endlessness of this experience starts to become apparent. In this sense, "A Mystical Staircase" offers a “one-card” reading, the simplest form of tarot reading because you think of a question and choose a single card to find your answer, and which the “soul-scrape” section of atworkandbored.com tells me is “so simple and yet so profound.” I get briefly distracted (I am indeed at work and bored) so I ask the tarot deck hosted on atworkandbored.com if I should leave my job. It replies: “STRENGTH—flex your muscles and test your limits. Pour some serious effort into your plans and watch them take off.” I imagine my plans actually flying away and feel even more deflated.
I explore some other online divination sites. A free feminist tarot site reads my past, present, and future, which all involve a lot of swords for some reason. The swords in my past card symbolize overcoming despair. In my future there is a ritual killing, “as if the person were some symbolic sacrifice or maybe a scapegoat offered up by the patriarchy or to it in place of others.” This card—the 10 of swords—could signify the end of a delusion, or might mean I need to deal with death. I’m guessing it’s not the death of patriarchy, but there’s always hope.
Karl Larsson, The Moon (2016)
I return to "A Mystical Staircase" feeling more familiar with online divination. I am more focused on questions, but I’m not exactly “working through” the individual thoughts and questions in my head. It’s easy to get frustrated when the same video or image appears a couple of times in a row (it’s also easy to click the return button on your browser, whereupon all the works are arranged in the same place on the page), or when it occurs to me that I might not get to see some of them, even after spending around the same amount of time on the site as I would an offline exhibition. What would be the point in scrolling down to the bottom of the page, if the cards are random each time? Why not just choose the same card each time? "A Mystical Staircase" feels more like an online game with no real logic, which makes sense, seeing as up until the 18th century tarot cards were only used in card games. "A Mystical Staircase" is, like all the best games, kind of pointless.
"A Mystical Staircase" does attempt to respond to the form and its hallmark trading on emotion and affect by way of storefront mysticism: performance artist Chiara Fumai’s Shut Up Actually Talk, in which she appears as if summoned by a cursed object, a magical mirror, which is part of a larger project in which she appears to dramatize feminist manifestos. In this mirror she communes in a psychic relation to the past, the voice of radical Italian feminism occupying and raging through her body, and resonating from it: “I discard ideology,” she says, “and no longer know anything.”
The code for Brent Watanabe’s deer that wanders around a vast and hostile world already existed in the architecture of Grand Theft Auto V—Watanabe just had to modify play so the deer never dies, despite frequent attacks, and acts autonomously. The result is San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam, originally accessed via Twitch and extracted for "A Mystical Staircase." This deer doesn’t need to be reborn to start again—it never dies. We see its hind being shot, blood projecting out onto the floor, but a wound never shows. I experience a brief moment of pointless empathy toward the animal as it falls over and starts to struggle before I remember it a) doesn’t feel pain, b) is completely impervious, and c) isn’t real, and it gets back up unharmed. My next card is by Kareem Lotfy, who shows a video of jeans being distressed by a weird machine. Sections catch fire and glow, creating patterns that look random in a mechanized (controlled) way. Is this the power of heat or electricity? As I keep watching, the video looping, it looks more and more like magic.
The notion of a vertical cinema—the standard ratio for video flipped on its side, which is how most people record and watch video on their phones—is at once annoying and increasingly essential. At times the aspect ratio offers a slice of the action, whether it was filmed on an iphone or cut from an existing clip or computer-generated image. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam, for example, was produced through modified gameplay, so why is it now shown as a portrait image at the expense of the effective and atmospheric landscape the deer travels through?
Screen shot from "A Mystical Staircase," showing Tabita Rezaire's Peaceful Warrior (2016)
In Tabita Rezaire’s Peaceful Warrior card, the opposite is the case. Rezaire performs an alluring dance, calling to “decolonize self-care.” Using the tarot card format, she turns her body into a powerful symbol, a living tarot that really does provide an answer to a question: How do we decolonize, rather than “diversify,” the internet? How do we decolonize the art and life and language? And how do we decolonize the mind? Diversity is polite and hopeful: calls for diversity don’t acknowledge colonial oppression, in the way calls for decolonization do. Rezaire summons writer Sara Ahmed’s claim that “Equality and diversity can be used as masks to create the appearance of being transformed,”1 as well as Audre Lorde, who famously wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”2 That’s the thing about tarot: the same cards can stimulate thousands of readings, even, arguably, an infinite amount, as it is specific to the person asking the question. I come away with the feeling that these cards are portals, through which diversified “others” are actually called upon to speak about the material realities of oppression.
The curatorial format may initially seem too homogenizing, but for some artists, like Rezaire, the cards open up possibilities. For others, especially the works that originate in a different context, the tarot deck comes off as an arbitrary device for experiencing artwork online. Despite this, the work included is good, and that’s what stays with me. Initially, it felt as though the exhibition is inherently cynical both about the significance assigned to tarot and its ability to answer your most important questions, and toward the suggestion that art can, or should, perform an equally oracular function. Spending some time on the exhibition, though, it becomes clear that despite the restrictions associated with borrowing from real-world phenomena, the specific choices made in "A Mystical Staircase" make space to experience art both visually and emotionally.
1 "Women of Colour as Diversity Workers," Posted on November 26, 2015 https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/11/26/women-of-colour-as-diversity-workers/)
2 Audre Lorde, Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988)
Header image: screen shot from Brent Watanabe's San Andreas Deer Cam (2016)
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.
Elizaveta Shneyderman: Your work Porn Interventions complicates the user relationship to virtual imagery. Instead of the free flow of sexualized bodies, as you describe, users are confronted with something far more critical and strange. By melding both an affective and physical understanding of bodies on the screen, the work deconstructs the trope emerging out of a construction itself. In general with your work, you notice a blip in technology’s capacity to destabilize and you render visible that network of assumptions behind it. Beyond gendered interventions of technology and technofeminist fetishization, could you speak to this interest of conflating technology with identity? Do you consider exposing the methodology of a medium an inherently feminist act?
Faith Holland: I’m part of the first generation that grew up online. I did a tremendous amount of identity building. And because technology and the web have been rapidly changing (beginning with semi-private access to AOL around 1995), I’ve done it over and over again. From carefully composed AOL profiles that maxed out available character counts and alternating capitalization (like the origin of my most enduring handle, aSuGaRHiGh) to the creation of purposefully esoteric interests and mood-defining avatars on LiveJournal, to the endless process of defining oneself on Facebook, representing myself online is a life-long project.
The identity building I started to do online coincided perfectly with the onset of puberty. The performance of gender was always an obvious element of socializing on the web, even more obvious at that time than socializing off screen. So, while I don’t think deconstructing the functionality of technology is inherently feminist (if only!), that was always and inevitably going to be part of my interpretation because it was so deeply ingrained in those early experiences. For me, it’s been really fruitful to go back and think about those experiences alongside the prevailing post-body ideologies of the early web. When I think about technology—then and now—it’s steeped in bodies: the bodies that want to know a/s/l, the bodies visualized and circulating, the bodies that are tapping and caressing in their interaction with the screen.
Faith Holland, Woven Network in Lube (2013)
ES: I am wondering whether it’s possible to address the contemporaneous tendency to turn all matters of language into signification. In your video Artist Statement, you begin to scrawl “My art subverts representations of…” before quickly rescinding and reverting. Do you think language is afforded too much power? Is there something to be gained of the ineffable?
FH: Language is extremely powerful and not to be underestimated. But it also exists to be subverted and manipulated, and thus rightfully deserves scrutiny. Thinking about this post-election, I wonder if the web has helped us to critique and improve language. I’m thinking specifically of all the rallying against ‘alt right’ as a dangerous, deceptive euphemism for neo-Nazi. Or the increasing usage of the singular ‘they’ as a gender-neutral term.
Artist Statement, funnily, is the oldest piece on mine on my website and the oldest that I still show with any frequency. It’s a parody of art-world speak, as I had just entered graduate school when I made it and was immersed in the problem of how and what to communicate, in written language and images. Accessibility is important to me as an artist; my work would ideally be legible and hold meaning to any audience who would care to engage with it. At the same time, my work is research-based and conceptual; I want there to be depth for those who are willing to take the time to plumb it. So, I have increasingly moved toward accessible imagery and language that points toward deeper issues. In short, I always try to make my work function on multiple levels: one of immediate engagement and one that rewards further thinking. All of the projects on my website include some kind of description that hopefully makes my intentions decodable without closing down meaning—and there’s always more there that I don’t grasp, but others might. One of my projects, VVVVVV, includes a bibliography of research about pornography, histories of the web, and feminist theory, which I’ve continued to draw from for all subsequent work. It might be time to do an extended version, actually. I often receive emails asking for additional research materials related to my work.
The ineffable is maybe a driving factor in making images—how can we think through words, feelings, ideas, and phenomena visually? The translation to the visual is always imperfect and therefore always feeds new work.
Surfing the Void, from VVVVVV (2012)
ES: You are well versed in vernacular clickbait. Much of your work—I am thinking of Porn Interventions in particular—is site-specific to a screen, existing willfully on platforms that provide them their necessary context. I really enjoy that #SaveChelseaManning divergesfrom this model, and involves ongoing action and activism from you. Could you speak more about your relationship to the body off-screen?
FH: #SaveChelseaManning was different in a few ways—it was also a collaboration with poet Sara Jane Stoner, who wrote a piece and performed it the first time the work was shown. Most of what I made for that project were GIFs, Chelsea Manning Fan Art, but it was important that the work not only be about Chelsea, but for her. So I wanted to give everyone an easy means to participate and make something for Chelsea that could be sent to her directly in the mail. I also mailed her still images from each of the GIFs.
#SaveChelseaManning, Pelican Bomb installation (2016)
In regards to the off-screen body, what occupies a lot of my thinking is the place where the body meets the screen—the touchscreen. This went from futuristic to commonplace in a nanosecond at some point in the late aughts and continues to be a subject of fascination for me. What happens when conduits seemingly disappear—like mouses and keyboards—and we appear to be interacting more directly with the screen? Screens are more bodily than ever; we touch them all day, they hug our bodies in our pockets, they recognize our bodies’ imprints, we sleep next to them at night so that we can reach for them first thing in the morning. In my work I like to think beyond these intimate everyday interactions towards exaggerated gestures that draw attention to the behaviors we’re already engaging in.
And I couldn’t fully think through this issue of physicality and the digital without physical works. So my practice inevitably moved more towards sculpture and installation. I also just have a strong desire to pour lube on wires and other technologies!
ES: What’s behind your motivation to enact the web culture of the 1990s? What is the continued role of nostalgia for net artists, if any? Can you talk about your inclination towards this (analog, pixelated, glitch) aesthetic sensibility?
FH: Looking back at the 90s remains important because the distribution of power on the web was, for that brief moment, totally different than it is today. Early web users were much more engaged in generating form, whereas now there are so many services that predefine forms and only allow us to generate content (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, RedTube, and others—the list is very long). So the user-generated aesthetics of that time are remarkably different from the ones we’re currently used to now that corporations are always framing our content. Recalling those ‘nostalgic’ aesthetics is, for me, an attempt to reclaim or re-assert a need for that kind of user-control and user-creation that can exist outside of corporate walled gardens.
ES: What does a “radical,” female-gendered project look like these days?
FH: Radical is a tricky word and one that I don’t necessarily care to use. For me, interesting work being made in the name of feminism is not necessarily radical, but rather addresses fairly simple and fundamental problems like intersectionality (which, to think once again about the power of language and technology, my spellcheck doesn’t recognize) and thinking harder than just leveraging socially acceptable feminine (white, cis, skinny, etc.) bodies. To me, those intersectional issues shouldn’t be considered ‘radical’ but they remain underrepresented, as the same artistic formulas of ‘art by women’ get replayed over and over again.
Location: New York
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I grew up around computers. I remember having a program on our first computer before the age of 5 that I would run from a floppy and could ‘color’ (it was a monochrome screen) different pictures, especially dinosaurs. Then I would print them out—it was a hybrid digital analog process. But I really got into art through photography, starting with a digital camera, moving into film, and then coming back around to digital late as a graduate student.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied Media Studies at Vassar College. That’s where I first started to think about pornography seriously. Then, after a gap, I did my MFA at the School of Visual Arts in the Photography, Video, and Related Media department. I moved through the program title quite literally—photography, video, and then “related”—in that order.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I love to teach and can sometimes make money that way, but never enough to sustain myself. I also do and have done: copywriting, photo/video production, social media management, bookkeeping, arts administration, and basically anything else that comes my way. Finding work seems to always occupy my time.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Header Image: Faith Holland, Queer Connections (2016)
We’ve reached the twilight hours of Barack Obama’s presidency.
A typical transition period requires many handovers, but this year, one of these is an altogether new endeavor for a White House: turning the sitting President’s social media presence over to the new office holder. These Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, etc. accounts will be wiped and exported, some to archival accounts—for instance, Obama’s tweets will live on at @POTUS44—and some to a public data archive.
On the occasion of this first social media transition, the White House issued a public call to action, asking Americans to try their hand at breathing life into the huge amount of data that is President Obama's eight years of social media presence. We were thrilled to respond. (With others, too!) The data archive, vast and disparate as it is, is largely unintelligible; what we proposed was using our built in-house Webrecorder tool to give it some narrative shape, some animation and dynamism.
Dragan Espenschied, our preservation director—along with Aria Dean, assistant curator, and Kaela Noel, program coordinator—has crafted three narratives drawn from the Obama social media archive. Today, Webrecorder is very good at archiving and reperforming embedded and personalized web content, but for this presentation Dragan developed a custom, if relatively simple curatorial framework for the archived materials. (Consider it a preview of future narrative features in Webrecorder.)
Each of the archives tells a different story, highlighting interactions among the White House, the Obamas, and online publics. “Thanks Obama” explores the satirization of conservative disappointment with Obama, mapping the meme’s progression from its earnest right-wing origins all the way to its self-aware usage by Obama himself. “TD4W x FLOTUS” similarly tracks a meme, but in this case it’s Lil Jon and Michelle Obama’s inadvertent collaboration on the First Lady’s now-infamous "turnip for what" Vine. And finally, we archived responses to Obama’s #LoveWins tweet and the White House's Instagram post following the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Together, these dynamic archives show the ways in which the Obama presidency was embedded in the cultural sphere, influencing and being influenced by the music, humor, trends, and social media raucous that defined his time in office. They are also examples of how a curated web archive can clear a path through otherwise overwhelming data and really tell a story. Here, the story is "Barack Obama, our first 'social media president.'"
Rhizome would like to thank the Obama White House—and, in particular, Joshua Miller, Director of Product Management for the Office of Digital Strategy—for inviting us to help narrativize the President's social media legacy.
Alexei Shulgin was one of the most popular and influential members of the notorious net.art “movement” of the nineties. If net art (without the period) is a diffuse field of practice, net.art (stylized with the period) was more like an artistic avant-garde, attracting a fluid group of artists who shared a antiestablishment politics and an interest in creating new social and artistic contexts through the internet. Shulgin was part of this group from its beginnings in the mid-1990 when German artist activist Pit Schultz organized a group show in Berlin in 1995 entitled net.art, including artists such as Vuk Cosic and Heath Bunting. Form Art was one of Shulgin's most visual works from this period.
Known for his sense of humor and his clever art interventions, Shulgin acted as a net.art intermediary. He showed other artists (like Olia Lialina) the internet, built context with projects like Introduction to net.art (an online text written together with the artist Natalie Bookchin), and even sowed confusion with his prank mail "Net.Art—the origin", sent to the nettime mailing list, of an important forum for the discussion of early net art and culture. In that email, he claimed that the term net.art, stylized with the period, had been lifted by Vuk Cosic from a garbled email. The latter is one of only a few highly persistent myths in net art history, and it is entirely false.
Alexei Shulgin's 1997 performance Cyberknowledge for Real People marked a turn in my own thinking about net.art. For that project, he handed out printed collections of critical texts, previously distributed only online, to shoppers in Vienna. This showed that net.art was not medium specific at all, which until then was the predominant theory; it did not have to be experienced online. After the turbulent transformative period of the net.art death declarations at the turn of the millennium, Shulgin organized several influential software art festivals, as well as the online software art repository runme.org with the media theorist Olga Goriunova and with active contribution from media artists Alex McLean and Amy Alexander. For the past few years Alexei Shulgin has been part of the Electroboutique collaborative, with Aristarkh Chernyshev, spending most of his time in Moscow.
Alexei Shulgin's Form Art seems an odd duck in his oeuvre. It is at first glance a purely formalist experiment with web “forms,” the buttons and boxes that were used as click-and-select interface objects in web pages. Form Art however quickly became a niche art form with a short-lived but dedicated cult following, much like spam art and ASCII video. Form Art made a lasting impression because of its simplicity in shape and color (all grey), making it emblematic for early web aesthetics, and because of Shulgin's success in turning Form Art into another communal net.art open work. What makes Form Art so appealing is how its near-brutal modernist aesthetic relates to the visual overload of the web. Form Art accidentally managed to build a bridge between the avant-gardes of both the beginning and the end of the twentieth century.
What follows is an interview between Alexei Shulgin and me, conducted via email in January 2017.
Josephine Bosma: Form Art was one of many experiments you did with the internet. How do you look back on it?
Alexei Shulgin: It has become one of the most popular of my net projects of that time. This was probably because it focused on the (for that time) new aesthetics of the web interface. I made it during a residency at C3 in Budapest in May 1997. The C3 residency was a great opportunity—the perfect conditions for working on this project, for which I had already quite a clear idea of what I wanted to do. The idea to do a formalist project like Form Art came after I went through a period of jealousy towards Jodi, who were so great in doing that.
I had those buttons, test areas, checkboxes in my mind for a while. The initial idea was to use them not as they were supposed to be used—as input interfaces—but to focus on their shapes, their position on a page, and to try to animate them. Think: “Misuse of technology,” absurdist mega-interfaces. Bringing them in focus was a declaration of the fact that a computer interface is not a “transparent” invisible layer to be taken for granted, but something that defines the way we are forced to work and even think. And that it is made by the technology developers.
Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, seen via Netscape 3.04 in oldweb.today
JB: How do you see Form Art in relation to your other works?
AS: As a “net artist” I don’t think I had any particular style. In the 1990’s it was so exciting to play around with the internet—exploring both its aesthetic and communication aspects. More than that, I was absolutely sure that art after the internet would never be the same and that from now on an artist does not need to play traditional career games, including maintaining his or her own style. I was open to any idea about the internet as an artistic medium or as a channel for art distribution that could have come to mind. From the perspective of today, one might say I was a rather experimental net artist.
JB: Are you saying that Form Art was just one experiment among other experiments you did?
AS: I was interested in various aspects of the internet: collaboration, communication, crowdsourcing, data search and data mining, context mixing. I was not very consistent in what I was doing. Form Art, as I said, was a research in form, but it was also followed by the Form Art Competition that was announced in the framework of Ars Electronica (AE). It was an act of parasiting on AE's symbolic capital. AE is known for its competition and its main art award, Prix Ars Electronica. This award was being criticized for not being objective and there were complaints that the jury members didn’t even look at the submissions. So, instead of this “corrupt” competition I decided to organize a “fair” one.
JB: How did the Form Art Competition go?
AS: By that time I was the only expert in the new art form that was Form Art. So, naturally, I appointed myself as the only jury member. I announced the prize—1000 dollars. That was a risky move: by the time of the announcement I didn’t have the budget confirmed (in the end AE paid my winners). To make long story short—I had a few dozen submissions. That was a surprise! Some submissions were very complex and smart. It was exciting that so many people took the idea and made something. And of course that was thanks to the power of the internet, which delivered the information to them. Basically, I organized the international competition on my own with the help of mailing lists, AE’s symbolic capital, and a small budget. I selected two winners and one honorary mention.
JB: Is it your only non-collaborative work?
And then, after I developed the core principles of Form Art I of course announced the competition, where other artists could submit their Form Art projects. And they did!
JB: What would Form Art in the year 2017 look like? Would it be possible to make it at all?
AS: I don’t think it would be possible today, because those input interface elements of a browser I was playing with have now lost their distinctive shapes. They now appear in thousands of shapes created by web designers, and therefore don’t manifest any new aesthetics. New aesthetics today come from things like neural networks, so nowadays we have a young net artist named Google.
JB: You don't really answer my question on how you look back on it, how you see it from today's perspective.
AS: Well I think I said something on that when I was saying how exciting it was to work on the project. In general, now I am having mixed feelings about early net art because I see how the strategies developed by net artists are now used by corporations and in politics. But that's the destiny of avantgarde art—developing communication and aesthetic tools for the future capitalists and politicians.
The second edition of Open Score was copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum on December 10, 2016, and featured three session panels exploring the state of art and technology today. Convening luminary artists, writers, activists, and scholars to discuss how technology is transforming culture, Open Score considers how, in light of our precarious and violent political moment, digital forms are called upon to assist us with tasks that range from the banal to the most urgent. Watch each session in full below, accompanied by ASL interpretation.
Introduction + Blackness in Circulation, moderated by Aria Dean:
Together in Electric Dreams, moderated by Nora Khan:
Out of Isolation, moderated by Grace Dunham:
Header image: Hannah Black, My Bodies (still), 2014. Single-channel video, sound, color; 3:30 min. Courtesy the artist
Under the auspices of the anonymous collaborative the Bureau of Inverse Technology (BIT), Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich created BIT Plane in 1997, shortly after NATO and the U.S Air Force flew the first Predator surveillance drones over Bosnia and Kosovo. Jeremijenko and Rich’s radio-controlled, video-enabled model airplane (a precursor to now-familiar consumer-grade drones) surveilled radically different landscapes than its Predator predecessor, but its very existence was indebted to much of the same government research and development that made military UAVs possible.
In the twenty years since BIT Plane launched, unmanned aerial technology—and aerial imaging captured by drones—has become commonplace to the point of being considered cultural heritage. Today, there are six drones on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, including one of those Predator drones that once flew surveillance missions over the Balkans. When the Smithsonian opened its exhibit of military unmanned aerial vehicles in 2008, it coincided with the opening of In Plane View: Abstractions of Flight, a small abstract photography show. In a press release, Air and Space Museum director General J.R. Dailey expressed hope that this exhibition pairing would "suggest parallels between technology, culture, and the arts." In Plane View hung on the first floor beneath the UAVs, which today remain suspended at the mezzanine-level on the far west end of the museum.
The impulse to pair a technology associated with automated extralegal killing of American citizens alongside "culture and the arts" is weird, but not entirely surprising—the vantage point of drones affords a particular aesthetic in addition to plausible deniability. The aerial perspective has appealed to artists for as long as it has appealed to generals and kings. That distant, presumed-objective view from nowhere, whether achieved via hot air balloon or low-orbit satellite, suggests a totality, a kind of coherence in defiance of the often-incoherent groundtruth of everyday life. For generals, coherence offers the possibility of tactical advantage. For artists (or at least good artists), it's something to interrogate and take apart.
As a project dedicated to investigating the often-obscured politics of technology, BIT was less concerned with coherence and more with access—both expanding then-limited civilian access to aerial imagery and challenging the inaccessibility of corporate technology geographies. Jeremijenko and Rich flew BIT Plane over Silicon Valley tech campuses, in response to strict policies against photography inside tech offices. Documentation of the project initially appeared on the BIT website with stills of footage captured by the plane and a video compilation of the Silicon Valley sorties. The video of grainy, black and white footage of parking lots, office buildings, and highways features interstitial captions that range in tone from the technocratic authority of a defense briefing (“Unit retrieval was accurately effected after plotting plane's final trajectory and crash location from recorded video transmissions”) to acerbic recitations of a work culture that could be attributed to either military service or a Silicon Valley startup (“THERE WAS A SENSE OF BEING NOT PART OF A COMPANY BUT BEING PART OF A CAUSE OR CRUSADE”).
In addition to transgressing corporate policy, BIT Plane transgressed government airspace. As noted in BIT's Decade Report, "it is illegal to fly RC aircraft within 5 miles of an airport (there were 3 airports within 5 miles of the bitplane flight path including Moffat [sic] Field, a Lockheed Martin and NASA jointly operated military airfield). It is also not permitted to fly model planes in the Palo Alto area due to city ordinances on noise pollution." (Silicon Valley remains a no-fly zone today, although that apparently didn't stop Facebook from using a drone to document its new Frank Gehry-designed compound.)
BIT Plane also sought to document some of the landscapes that made the technology behind the drone possible. "Silicon Valley" in today's cultural imagination has become less identified with a geography and more with an ideological condition devouring all that has come before it, including history. And as that once-uniquely Californian Ideology perpetuates across continents and markets, its origins in military aerospace and surveillance recede further from public memory. In 1960, the Air Force Satellite Test Center (later renamed Onizuka Air Force Station) was established at Sunnyvale's Moffett Field Naval Air Station and became the birthplace of the CORONA spy satellite program. Lockheed Martin covertly worked on the project from the offices of helicopter manufacturer Hiller Aircraft's nonexistent "Advanced Projects" division.
Growing military and aerospace demand for digital computing, combined with developments like the 1951 creation of Stanford Industrial Park to lure engineering firms to the region, laid the foundation for Silicon Valley, from the CORONA program to the integrated circuit and the ARPAnet. Government and academic investment transformed the largely agricultural area into a major site for industrial electronics manufacturing and bucolic office parks designed to deny the existence of industry. (Today, tech campuses seem inclined to deny the existence of work itself, catering to an employee's every need such that they never leave the office.) The denial of government and military investment benefits the Silicon Valley of ideological construct, which insists that it’s unfettered, unregulated, untaxed “innovation” that builds the future, not long-term research and development. With each passing hype cycle, the "silicon" history of Silicon Valley—and the military and government funding behind it—fades, replaced by blithe libertarian faith in free markets and proprietary math.
But denial of (and a tendency to reenact) the past is kind of what California does best—a point that the BIT Plane video draws attention to with its opening narration from then-former (and now-current) California governor Jerry Brown. Brown notes that California was "a state of mind, right from the beginning," asserting (incorrectly) that the etymology of the state's name has been lost to history (it's thought to have come from a 16th-century Spanish appropriation of an Arabic word). Echoes of the 1849 Gold Rush permeated the 1959 semiconductor revolution and the 1999 dot-com era—yet it was mostly the thrilling possibility of fortune that was remembered, not the speculative financial bubbles or tendency to perpetuate systemic inequality.
Of course, the two decades since BIT Plane's first sorties have included significant technological shifts. In 1997, the specification for wireless networking that would lead to wifi (and wifi-enabled drones) was in its infancy. The bitplane transmitted imagery via network TV broadcast frequencies—leading to yet another boundary transgression, this time interrupting regularly scheduled programming on televisions of households below with images of those very households as viewed from the air.
Meanwhile, several of the companies that BIT Plane surveilled have relocated, no longer exist, or are barely hanging on. Google now inhabits what in 1997 was the home of Silicon Graphics, and Facebook acquired the Sun Microsystems compound in 2011. Advanced Micro Devices, Netscape, and Interval Research have all disappeared. It's unclear what will become of the Yahoo offices next door to Lockheed Martin's Moffett Field complex.
But Lockheed endures. Defense contractors remain a significant (if less frequently discussed) influence on the geographic and political landscape of Silicon Valley. (The CIA-backed, Peter Thiel-co-founded defense contractor Palantir, for example, has quietly turned downtown Palo Alto into its de facto campus). And as the public internet is increasingly instrumentalized toward state surveillance, and platforms become indistinguishable from sovereigns, BIT Plane feels not merely prescient but present tense. The radio frequencies and company names may have changed, but the power dynamics of information asymmetry, blind faith in technological progress, and ambivalence at tech's military legacy persist.
Back at the Smithsonian's drone exhibition, a small video display installed on the mezzanine offers an inadvertent subversion of the exhibition's apolitical tone. In between video of the various drones on display maneuvering and taking off, there's some black-and-white Predator combat footage. It's rough and glitchy, flashing to almost-total white when a Hellfire missile hits its target before returning to a now-smoking landscape. There's no indication of where or when the footage was taken or whose deaths we might be watching. It's hard to ignore the aesthetic similarity between BIT Plane's grainy video footage and the Predator combat video, and baffling to think of both as historical artifacts and not pressing, immediate truths that several years on still demand some kind of reckoning.
In an interview with Bard's Center for the Study of the Drone, Jeremijenko noted that BIT Plane's aerial perspective didn't afford any greater insight on these companies. "What could you actually see? What information could you take from the plane? Of course, the answer is not much (as contemporary drones have so aptly demonstrated)—lots of images but not much actual trustable information." Tech campuses of Silicon Valley couldn't be further from the battlefields visualized by the Predator, but the technology behind the latter is deeply indebted to the often-ignored legacy of the former. As BIT Plane still demonstrates, neither the Valley nor the Predator offer a perspective that should necessarily be trusted, and both remain worthy subjects of critical interrogation by artists.
Header image: still from BIT Plane.
On February 4th, 2017, a group of archivists, artists, and legal experts convened at the New Museum for Rhizome’s Digital Social Memory conference. The day’s focus was on web archiving, with conversations ranging over topics including social media, art, surveillance, and the complex ethical questions raised by digital preservation. With the development of Webrecorder—a high-fidelity web archiving tool that focuses on playback capabilities and provides its users with more agency—Rhizome has focused on giving web users resources to better understand the different contexts that digital social memory functions within. The panels spanned from: Archival Narratives and Counter-narratives, which explored how digital social memory can shape political reality, to Fair Use, Publicity, and Privacy, which provided a thorough understanding of copyright law and its use through fascinating examples from the news and everyday life, and ended with the keynote, Failures of Care,which focused on the importance of archiving black culture in the face of ongoing historical erasure, while acknowledging the possible dangers and limitations of archiving.
You can watch the full videos below.
Session 1: Archival Narratives and Counter-narratives, chaired by Shannon Mattern, Associate Professor of Media Studies at the New School, with Mehdi Yahyanejad, founder of Net Freedom Pioneers; Josh Miller, Director of Product Management for the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy; and Dragan Espenschied, Preservation Director at Rhizome.
Session 2: Fair Use, Publicity, and Privacy, chaired by Michael Connor, Rhizome's artistic director, with Jack Cushman, attorney, programmer, and a developer of Perma.cc; Bruce Goldner, Partner at Skadden and co-head of its Intellectual Property and Technology Group; and Amanda Levendowski, a teaching fellow with NYU’s Technology Law and Policy Clinic.
Keynote: Failures of Care, with Bergis Jules, University and Political Papers Archivist at the University of California, Riverside; Simone Browne, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin; Doreen St. Felix, writer at MTV News; and artist, educator, and writer Kameelah Janan Rasheed.
Digital Social Memory is generously supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Major funding for the Webrecorder project is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Rhizome public programs are made possible with support from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.
Rhizome's Seven on Seven conference pairs seven leading artists and seven visionary technologists, and challenges them to make something new: an artwork, a prototype, an idea, or whatever they imagine.
They unveil their creations at an intimate conference event, hosted at the New Museum, and streamed live online at SevenonSeven.art, this year on Saturday, April 22. The new web platform is generously supported by .ART, premier partner of Seven on Seven 2017.
Schedule Announced + Tickets: Wednesday, March 22, 12pm EST.
Look back at Seven on Seven 2016 with this new video by NewRules:
ABOUT SEVEN ON SEVEN:
Seven on Seven is Rhizome's flagship event, which brings together leaders of art and technology in creative collaboration. Today, we are pleased to announce that tickets to the 2017 edition are on sale, along with further information on the day's keynote address, the weekend schedule, and a very special raffle featuring an artifact from Ai Weiwei's 2015 Seven on Seven project.
Tickets to the Seven on Seven celebration dinner, conference, and cocktail are now available via sevenonseven.art.
A limited number of $20 conference passes for artists are available by lottery. Request one here. (Note: Full-priced tickets may be sold out by the time the lottery is picked, so you may miss your opportunity to attend.)
We are thrilled to announce that Seven on Seven 2017 will be keynoted by writer and editor Doreen St. Félix. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Fader, Vogue, and many others. Her criticism focuses on popular culture, language, and race. Currently, she is a staff writer at MTV News.
Friday, April 21 at the New Museum
7PM: Celebration Dinner
VIP Ticketholders are invited to join this year's Seven on Seven participants for an intimate dinner in the New Museum's Sky Room overlooking Lower Manhattan.
Saturday, April 22 at the New Museum
12-6 PM: Conference Event
VIP and Conference Ticketholders witness the premiere of seven new creations, as well as a keynote. Lunch in the New Museum Sky Room is included.
6:15-8:30 PM: Cocktail and Raffle
VIP, Conference, and Raffle Ticketholders cap the Seven on Seven weekend with drinks with the participants in the New Museum Sky Room. Additionally, Rhizome will raffle off a stuffed panda from Ai Weiwei's studio, an artifact from the artist's project for the 2015 edition of Seven on Seven.
Seven on Seven Benefit Raffle
We are raffling off a very rare stuffed panda, created by Ai Weiwei for the 2015 edition of Seven on Seven, memorably captured by director Laura Poitras for the New York Times. This toy panda has been stuffed with unreleased Snowden documents, and comes in a signed tote.
Enter to win by purchasing a $50 ticket—if you're in NYC, this includes access to the Seven on Seven cocktail on Saturday, April 22 at the New Museum.
This essay accompanies the presentation of JODI' s Automatic Rain as a part of the online exhibitionNet Art Anthology.
The first work by JODI I ever saw blew my mind. Automatic Rain was one of ten works on the first JODI website, or to be precise: the first website JODI had under their own domain name jodi.org, online since August 1995. The late Franz Feigl of Netband showed it to me in December of that year in the artist corner of Desk, an artist-run medialab in Amsterdam. We were preparing Next5Minutes 2, the tactical media festival that would take place in January 1996 and bring together many artists of the net.art group for the first time. Among them was JODI, the Dutch artist Joan Heemskerk and the Belgian artist Dirk Paesmans, who had just come back from an eighteen month-long research trip at CADRE, San Jose State University’s new media laboratory. I was running the radio studio of Next5Minutes, and I only met them a year later at the Secret Net.Art Conf organized by the infamous British artist Heath Bunting in January 1997.
Josephine Bosma with collaborators, preparing for Next 5 Minutes 2. Late 1995/early 1996
In December 1995, on the black computer screen in that Amsterdam canal house, bright blue cypher columns moved, blinked, and trickled down. Until that moment I had mostly seen the internet used in decentralized performances, in installation art, and in more conceptual works. This was the first powerful visual art online I saw with an aesthetic that felt and looked to perfectly fit the new environment of the web. The animated image of Automatic Rain became etched into my memory, but I never saw it in functioning form again: Like much of JODI’s work it was made in accordance with the specific technological circumstances of the day, circumstances that quickly passed.
Screenshot of Automatic Rain, JODI (1995)
Soon after my first encounter with Automatic Rain, some engineers in Silicon Valley decided that the blink tag function would be removed from the browser. Automatic Rain moved and trickled no more, but froze. For years I have shown this work to audiences as an example of a work that died, or which at least was in ruins. Recently, when Rhizome decided to include the work in Net Art Anthology, I learned that the first version of Automatic Rain was even more exceptional than I thought. It wasn’t just the removal of the blink feature in the browser that ultimately changed this work dramatically. With the passing of time and rapid changes to the structure of the web, the network context to the work changed as well. Faster computers were developed. Better, high-speed internet connections came along. It affected the entire feel of the net, and thus also of the character of art made with it.
Within Automatic Rain, JODI played heavily with download time as a crucial element in the work, as did other artists on the early web. Most artists, however, like for example Olia Lialina with My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, used the slow loading of web pages mostly for adding “quiet” moments or for the building of suspense in a piece. In Automatic Rain, JODI combined slow loading and the blink feature, the simplest basic web stuff, to create nothing less than an actual animation effect. It looked like water, in the shape of blue cyphers, came down in “drops” and slowly filled the screen.
In the mid-nineties, the internet and computers were slow. A web page filled with text would start loading from the top down, advancing more like jolting than in a fluid motion. A blink tag added to the page would give a kind of stroboscope effect. Parts of the loading would seem concealed; movement happened in a sequence of “stills” that changed each time you accessed the page. As far as I know, JODI are the only ones who ever played with this unintentional possibility of the blink tag. Automatic Rain, with all its time-based elements that are so hard for conservators to capture or reproduce, is a perfect example of JODI’s sensitive and smart online art practice.
Screenshot of Automatic Rain, JODI (1995)
Yet Automatic Rain is more than a clever play with early web features. Automatic Rain is also about a fascination with water control and the logic behind it. Automatic Rain was made when JODI were at CADRE in California. Here the artists saw little red flags from an irrigation system called Automatic Rain sticking out of the grass everywhere. For JODI, the Automatic Rain irrigation system was at once a signifier of home and a reminder they were far away from it. Here they were, fresh from the wet Netherlands, where there is more rain than heat and where the huge greenhouse farming industry demands a similar form of water control: in order to grow vegetables and flowers an artificial ecology is created, ultimately not much different from that in California, which also has an economy heavily invested in industrial agriculture. In San Jose JODI found themselves in an artificially green city surrounded by an often drought-parched landscape, where rain was something controlled “automatically” most if not all the time, as if they were in an enormous greenhouse. Automatic Rain comments on the absurdity of lawn irrigation systems, but at the same time shows a fascination for them.
The work opens with a first page showing the image that was on the little red flags of the Automatic Rain lawn sprinkler company. One of those flags is still in the JODI home today. Clicking on that picture leads to a page with lines of blue numbers, the ones I saw trickling down the screen in 1995 in the center of Amsterdam, just before the influential tactical media festival Next5Minutes 2 and one year before net.art would really take off, starting with the Secret Net.Art Conf. Every row of numbers in the current version of Automatic Rain leads to a photograph of rain on a glass window. This last picture is, in JODI’s words, “Holland.” The artificial raindrops of Silicon Valley's Automatic Rain system are juxtaposed with natural rain from the home country. One can read all kinds of things into it: homesickness, a critical view of water management. For JODI, who like their work to speak for itself, it is simply about what they found on their walks across the San Jose State University grounds.
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.
Sable Elyse Smith: Much of your practice thinks through commodity and distribution as it relates to music and the internet; fissures in intimacy; and systems of control both physical and invisible. In a deft performance work from 2013, Untitled-Clefa, you lay face down on the ground, a bag of Skittles in hand, a few scattered about, beside an Arizona Iced Tea. The image of course is that of the body of Trayvon Martin after his murder at the hands of George Zimmerman.
The duration of the performance is tied to Migos’s “Versace Versace” looped four times, once more than the trinity. I understand that this work was performed in Mexico City. Can you talk a bit about how the work may have shifted or resonated performed in that context?
Devin Kenny: It was in Mexico City at a great space called Biquini Wax right after the miscarriage of justice in the US. I knew that there would be a range of ways to interpret it there, and I knew that the Trayvon Martin case didn't have as much weight there as it did in the U.S. but I did it, one because I refused to feel helpless and upset just because I was isolated as a Black American, and two, because of an experience in Mexico City where I was on the train during rush hour[s] and there was a little boy, no more than twelve who was splayed out on the floor of the train car. People walked around him, stepped over him for multiple stops (I was headed to Preteen Gallery with two friends), and as rush hour closed in, it became more and more crowded, and I noticed he hadn't moved and I was freaking out, asking my friend who had lived in DF for a few years what I should do, thinking I should get off the train, pick up the boy and take him to one of the several police officers in the train station and talk to them (despite their rifles et cetera). His fingers were blackened with something, and I assumed maybe he was a shoe shine boy or something, when my friend said that he was probably passed out from huffing some drug. Finally two tall businessmen walked onto the train and one, needing the standing room, lightly kicked the boy a few times with his wingtip, and he immediately got up, as though from a nap, though with black stains on his nose and lips and groggy eyes. So I felt that even if the Trayvoning meme component wouldn't read there, this prostrate body on the ground would have other kinds of resonances, perhaps more specific to the place. The American audience members talked to me afterwards very teary-eyed, and those unfamiliar with Trayvon Martin afterwards just seemed perturbed that I was blocking the door to get to the roof so long. I sensed many bodies stepping over me for the course of the performance, though my eyes were closed, I could sense the light change and hear the footfalls, some conscientious, others more matter of fact.
SES: And what is the significance of that juxtaposition: Migos and Trayvoning?
Versace, Versace, Medusa head on me like I'm ’Luminati
This is a gated community, please get the fuck off the property
Rap must be changing cause I'm at the top and ain’t no one on top of me...
DK: I was most interested in the way that Drake’s verse opens with lines that, in my mind, echo some of the thoughts of George Zimmerman and the racism of some neighborhood watches, especially as contrasted to the ideas behind community policing as introduced by the Black Panther Party and other groups not satisfied with the lineage of police in America to slave patrols and other forces mostly concerned with the protection and maintenance of “property.” The use of Trayvoning was interesting to me because it was in some ways a response to the viral activity of “planking” but done with a pointedly anti-Black bend. I thought about how people probably made the images of themselves Trayvoning: in a way that brings no harm to themselves, and wanted to extrude that, pick at it, and do something totally different, that might look the same in documentation: privileging the present. I wanted to take the quick, flat, violent, cartoon, and lengthen its duration and maybe in that process let some of the nuance and gravity of that gesture unfurl, so instead of laying down and posing, I actually collapsed while holding the items, and then held the position, body still tensed and muscles burning though in the photo one can’t tell.
SES: And then the significance of music, specifically popular music as a medium. What does it mean or what’s at stake for you when situating these forms of cultural production into the specific art spaces within which some of these performances operate?
DK: It kind of tries to put the institutional atmosphere to the test. If a museum is a space of contemplation, then anything done there will have the privilege of the extended viewing and getting more rigorous attention, including the pop forms which are super sophisticated but almost made to just be felt and held but not unpacked and wrangled with. It’s kind of like that saying about typography, that if it’s done well, the designer is “invisible,” the words on the page are like that because they're supposed to be, and no other way would really make sense. This is not always the case of course, but I think that is the thinking behind a lot of mainstream mass media things: there's a lot put into it but we're not supposed to know exactly what we're agreeing to per se, just agree to it and move on. So the museum space seems to be where the kind of unpacking that would happen on an individual level, or in a small group level, can possibly happen on a group level, in real time. I think that's what I'm interested in.
SES: I’m really interested in the many ways that you use and manipulate voice as a medium. Two elements of your performance practice include musical utterance and lecture. I’m specifically thinking about your performance Love, The Sinner performed at MoMA PS1 on February 28, 2016 as a part of the “Greater New York” exhibition.
How has this gesture of recitation shifted your practice? And what are your feelings about the act of “memorializing” within an art space? Within spaces of contention?
DK: I imagined the crowd would be a lot of older folks who maybe had a connection to the Village, since the topic was dealing with folk music in NYC, so I wanted to be sure that they would hear the reverberations and the continuation of those struggles in the present, whether they were politically active at the time or not. I was surprised and happy that the crowd was actually really diverse in terms of age and race so it could function a bit differently and I think have a greater impact. Starting everything with that list of names would mean something very different if it were only being directed at my peers and contemporaries. The list was Black martyrs of police violence: trans and cis, elderly, adult, teen, child. I really just wanted their names and presences and memories called upon, and acknowledged, in one way seeking a blessing, and in another way trying to redirect some of whatever power I had in that moment to those who had been taken away from us.
It was different in my practice as I do have a history of having very verbose pieces, but usually ones that are more poetic. In this case it was a pretty straightforward list. To memorialize within a space of contention...like all memorial actions can be looked at in a variety of ways, for me, if I could somehow commune with and embolden those that want change by making these names felt (like “say her name”), that’s good, if I upset folks who wanted the formal fun of an “experimental lecture” without social awareness/consequence, that’s also good.
SES: Can you talk a bit more about your object-based practice in relation to the immaterial labor of the digital structures that you both employ and mimick? I’m thinking here about the works from your 2015 exhibition “Wrong Window” at Aran Cravey.
DK: Sure! I mean the funny thing is it doesn't feel like switching gears or something since I'm always picking up things off the street, sizing things up (that might come from my past in skateboarding), looking at my surroundings: both of my Instagrams (https://www.instagram.com/crashingwavy/ and https://www.instagram.com/6500yearspostseason/) are a lot of that, the latter is more playing with “street style”/“fashion” ideas though. I often talk with peers and in my work about about the ramifications of digital world: social alienation, online beefs turning into deaths, kids trudging through toxic waste dumps to salvage e-waste, the whole conflict mineral issue with Coltan, ain't nothing immaterial about it really, whether we talk about data centers or those giant underwater fiberoptic cables or the concrete impact on people's lives that online activity can have, or click farms, and all these other things, it’s really on the ground and concrete. The immaterial digital labor group has many great folks in it that I learn from all the same. I think part of my interest in that terrain is because telecommunication spaces were really crucial to my coming of age as a ‘tween and teen and beyond that, so being in this kind of transitional group of millennials being teens during the Bush/Patriot Act-era really stuck and I’m sensitive and attentive to the many developments, like: 9/11 happened my first week of high school and we were on AIM what did that mean and are there parallels to be drawn today?
VHS Mop, 2015.
Regarding the objects, for a while I was really big on the idea of making something that looks like it's found, whether that be making things look like a consumer good or making things look like the discarded and disregarded, the kind of “wolf in sheep's clothing” thing: examining an aesthetic we take for granted and trying to flip it somehow. That show “Wrong Window” was jumping off some ideas I had been working on in my last year of grad school and the previous year in the “Made In LA” exhibition (I had a multi-part installation called Alone Together where I was thinking about the parallels between my experience in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago and the kind of sporadic occurrences in the web before 2.0, stumbling on pages, etc.). “Wrong Window” was thinking about a change in culture as traceable through material culture, thinking about “the post” in youth culture as I knew it. Whether that be a post on a Xanga, or LiveJournal, or posting up wheatpaste posters/stapling up fliers, “posting up” as in hanging out with your friends outside in one place (http://www.ndsn.org/summer99/courts3.html) to posting things on social media accounts. So I'm looking at the impetus to become a graffiti king or famous zinester or something in relationship to being internet famous. A friend of mine in high school was in that transition zone in the early ’00s, the local hero with a popular music blog, shout out “indiesnob.” In that show I had t-shirts, print-offs of photos, panels with quotes taken from YouTube comments, concert posters for fictional bands covered in ceramic frit (coming from the practice of smashing a light bulb and mixing it into your wheatpaste, to give would-be censors a rude awakening if they tried to tear down your poster barehanded), mashups of inspirational memes and junk food imagery, yoga mats made of mousepad material or the kind of rubber you use for opening pickle jars, a modified kids’ laptop toy that helped teach spelling, math, et cetera, clear backpacks (references to the tumblr #clear trend and the security measures in urban schools), a graffiti mop made from a VHS tape... lots of stuff.
Selfie mask (stealthie) I, 2015.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I have been having fun with computers since I was in kindergarten in the early 1990s. I have an aunt and uncle that were technology consultants and my aunt worked with databases for law firms and corporate accountants so when I would visit them I could always play games or draw things in MS Paint or make full color photocopies of things. When I was in elementary school I was making little websites...I participated in this thing called Thinkquest for example. In high school I started using FruityLoops (FLStudio) to make beats and I would upload my blip-hop tracks online, this is all that's left...a splash page :http://malfunction.dmusic.com
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and studied art, with a brief stint at Gerrit Rietveld Academie for study abroad, and after that participated in the burgeoning Bruce High Quality Foundation University in a couple classes while they were a project funded by Creative Time. Shortly after that, for graduate school I went to UCLA for New Genres.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I'm a shop technician, adjunct professor, guest critic ...
I've been a crew leader for the US Census, a freelance visual merchandiser for Henri Bendel... a copywriter, a file clerk at an office of admissions...
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)