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Articles on this Page
- 03/30/17--09:47: _Win a Piece of Seve...
- 03/31/17--07:28: _Own your web archiv...
- 04/03/17--10:31: _The Revolutionary's...
- 04/05/17--09:24: _To Serve the Nation...
- 04/06/17--07:02: _Rhizome Would Not E...
- 04/10/17--12:04: _Between the Net and...
- 04/19/17--10:59: _Soda Plains
- 04/25/17--08:33: _Seven on Seven 2017...
- 04/26/17--13:31: _Like Tears in Rain
- 05/02/17--07:39: _All The News That's...
- 05/11/17--09:19: _“Get at a way of te...
- 05/16/17--08:12: _The Brandon Project...
- 05/17/17--11:42: _#000 is a Color: An...
- 05/18/17--09:57: _Samsung Everlasting
- 05/23/17--08:41: _Artist Profile: E. ...
- 05/26/17--08:24: _People Still Fall i...
- 05/26/17--08:34: _Re: skinonskinonskin
- 05/30/17--08:00: _Announcing a New Co...
- 05/30/17--08:33: _“Preservation by Ac...
- 06/02/17--06:42: _Text Your Vote
- 03/30/17--09:47: Win a Piece of Seven on Seven History!
- 03/31/17--07:28: Own your web archives with the Webrecorder Player desktop app
- Collect and share sensitive online materials with your community
- Archive interactive web resources you are citing in your research work, and bundle them with your paper
- Create a reading room for web archives
- Archive private communication you conduct via web services and just keep it for yourself
- 04/03/17--10:31: The Revolutionary's Phrasebook
- 04/05/17--09:24: To Serve the National Interest
- 04/06/17--07:02: Rhizome Would Not Exist Without the NEA
- 04/10/17--12:04: Between the Net and the Street
- 04/19/17--10:59: Soda Plains
- 04/25/17--08:33: Seven on Seven 2017: Celebration Dinner
- 04/26/17--13:31: Like Tears in Rain
- 05/02/17--07:39: All The News That's Fake to Print
- 05/11/17--09:19: “Get at a way of telling”
- 05/16/17--08:12: The Brandon Project: An Open Narrative
- 05/17/17--11:42: #000 is a Color: An interview with Mendi + Keith Obadike
- 05/18/17--09:57: Samsung Everlasting
- 05/23/17--08:41: Artist Profile: E. Jane
- 05/26/17--08:24: People Still Fall in Love on the Internet
- 05/26/17--08:34: Re: skinonskinonskin
- Three exhibitions on digital preservation at the Arts & Culture platform (the exhibitions represent the platform's first digital art contributions);
- a blog post by Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf on the urgency of ensuring ongoing access to legacy born-digital artifacts;
- excerpts from a conversation between Cerf and Rhizome Preservation Director, Dragan Espenschied; and
- a new video (above) on these subjects featuring Cerf, Espenschied, and Artistic Director Michael Connor.
- 05/30/17--08:33: “Preservation by Accident is Not a Plan”
- 06/02/17--06:42: Text Your Vote
You can win an artwork from 2015's Seven on Seven—an Ai Weiwei toy panda stuffed with unreleased Snowden docs.
Rhizome will be holding a benefit raffle at the Seven on Seven Afterparty on Saturday, April 22 at 6 PM, with a special keynote performance by SCRAAATCH.
For the price of a $30 ticket, you get to enjoy drinks in the New Museum's Sky Room, SCRAAATCH's music, and the chance to go home with either an Ai Weiwei panda or an Electric Objects EO2. We'll also be giving away a handful of Rhizome Bad Logo t-shirts as part of the raffle.
Watch The Art of Dissent, Laura Poitras’s 2015 short doc for The New York Times about Ai Weiwei's part in that year's Seven on Seven, and learn more about the pandas.
The presently sold-out EO2 is a beautiful matte display for art, and it features a digital version of this Panda, too, as part of its "Art Club."
SCRAAATCH is the digital art and music project of Philadelphia-based artists E. Jane and chukwumaa.
Besides a fun evening of art, music, drinks, and the chance to win raffle prizes, you'll also get the warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing you're helping to support Rhizome's ongoing efforts towards the commissioning, presentation, and preservation of net art.
Raffle tickets are limited.
Web archiving has traditionally been something done by professionals: national archives, university libraries, and organizations like the Internet Archive have done a tremendous job archiving and making available a wide range of public web resources.
Rhizome now wants to empower regular users to take ownership of the web archiving process, and to take better grasp of access. Webrecorder allows anybody to archive web resources they care about with ease, including things on the other side of logins. This material can be made public on the web, or kept private. Yet in some cases users might want to better control how the web collections they have created are circulating, and maybe want to limit it to a certain community or keep it offline entirely.
With the Webrecorder Player desktop app, web collections downloaded from Webrecorder—and actually any other standards-compliant web archive file in WARC, ARC or HAR format—can be used on the desktop, without an internet connection being required, with the high fidelity quality users have come to expect from Webrecorder.
Use Webrecorder and the Webrecorder Player to:
Webrecorder Player is designed to be updated automatically to maintain feature parity with https://webrecorder.io.
In the future, when new changes are deployed to https://webrecorder.io, a new release of Webrecorder Player will be rolled out to ensure the same high-fidelity replay is available to desktop users.
The Webrecorder team would like to thank our user community, participants in and visitors to the Digital Social Memory conference, and all the web archiving professionals that have helped to shape the Webrecorder Player with their feedback.
We are always interested to hear about your use cases, let us know via email@example.com.
This release has been created with support from Lozana Rossenova (design research), and Raffaele Messuti led the desktop software development effort. Our freshly hired design lead, Pat Shiu, directed UX.
The digital publication of A Dictionary of the Revolution (in Arabic) is now live. The project was conceived by artist Amira Hanafi in the wake of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Hanafi’s original idea was somewhat straightforward: to construct vocabulary cards for over 100 words that were frequently used in colloquial Egyptian in the two years following the uprising. As it turns out, this period of political upheaval was paralleled by transformation in the linguistic sphere; new terms and phrases were rapidly introduced to describe a rapidly changing political climate.
The cards contain terms–such as Balatagiya (thugs), Tamarod (rebel), and Al Dawla Al Amiqa (deep state)–that were used to provoke discussion in live, face-to-face meetings across six governorates of Egypt in 2014. Around 200 participants described what the words meant to them, where they were overheard (and in what context), as well as how their meanings might have changed since the revolution.
Hanafi has integrated transcriptions of these conversations into a non-linear, imagined dialogue and full archive, now hosted on qamosalthawra.com. Visitors to the page will find a comprehensive diagram of relationships between the terms, which acts as an index to the website. The edited audio recordings are also being published, one word a day, starting from the 1 April launch, on the Dictionary's SoundCloud. While the full spectrum of the dictionary is currently only available in Arabic, users can interact with a diagram of the terms in English translation.
Hanafi’s project was one of the awardees for Rhizome’s annual net microgrant program in 2016.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, GIPHY, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Rhizome is pleased to announce To Serve the National Interest, an installation of new collaborative work by Ingrid Burrington, Josh Begley, and Seth Freed Wessler on view at Ace Hotel New York’s gallery from April 5 through April 28, 2017, as part of Ace’s support of Seven on Seven.
Building on Wessler’s journalistic investigation into privately run immigrant-only federal prisons, Burrington and Begley present seventy-five individual lenticular prints of satellite imagery capturing these sites and government documents pertaining to them. Together the images, arranged into three distinct grids, explore and abstract “the terrain of U.S. immigration and carceral policy and the human stories usually conspicuously absent in the aerial perspective.”
From the artists:
It can be difficult to comprehend and visualize the scale, scope, and sheer violence of the U.S. immigration policies initiated under Obama that are currently undergoing dramatically expansion under the current regime. Focusing solely on singular narratives of tragedy runs the risk of missing the larger, systemic violence of bureaucracy; but zooming out too far reduces that intimate, lived experience of violence to an abstraction. Both perspectives feel fragmented, lacking, always incomplete.
To Serve the National Interest continues Burrington’s inquiry into unveiling and imaging networks and infrastructures. Her projects have ranged from mapping New York City’s overlooked network infrastructure (Networks of New York, 2014-2016) to conducting a study of loneliness using data from Craigslist (Center for Missed Connections, 2009-2011). Last year, her Seven on Seven collaboration with Meredith Whittaker, The Realm of Rough Telepathy, explored mysticism and the infrastructure of the web with the humor and cleverness that run through all of her practice. To Serve the National Interest expands on this work by making the unseen seen, but here imaging a different infrastructure altogether—that of control, power, and incarceration.
The installation is a timely one, with mass incarceration and immigration policy recently entering the national consciousness on a larger scale. However, imaging the architectural infrastructure of this portion of the United States’s systematic mass incarceration of certain demographics turns our attention to the longer timeline—a timeline on the vast scale of architecture—over which these mechanisms of control function.
The installation was commissioned in conjunction with Rhizome’s 2017 Seven on Seven program with the generous support of Ace Hotel New York. See it during the Ace Hotel’s open hours, and join us for a reception in honor of Burrington, Begley, and Wessler on April 20, 2017 at 7 pm.
This morning, the National Endowment for the Arts sent an email informing all pending grantees that it is “operating under an FY17 Continuing Resolution, which ends on April 28, 2017,” and that all forward awards “will be delayed pending the resolution of government funding for the remainder of FY17.” This was the first formal communication about what we've all heard in the news: defunding the NEA is a priority of the current budget proposal.
We'll see what happens—the NEA has been targeted for elimination many times before—but on this day that feels like a benchmark in what has been called the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” I wanted to acknowledge the NEA for all it has done for this organization, which is just one of countless served, empowered, and saved by the funding body.
In 1999, Rhizome was three years old. We were launching what would eventually become the ArtBase, an archive that would serve artists in an entirely new way, define the net art field, and set the organization on a track that would only come to full fruition a decade later. Concurrent with this crucial initiative, founder Mark Tribe, along with colleagues Alex Galloway and Rachel Greene, struggled to keep the organization afloat. An innovative funding model—pairing cultural activities to a venture-backed startup called StockObjects—was not panning out as expected, and a burgeoning platform for artists was on the verge of being extinguished.
And then came a grant from the NEA, which arrived in 1999. It was a risk of the type we dream the government taking to support what the market won't—a risk taken for niche art, new forms, and unproven artists and administrators. It was also a lifesaver—this support, together with a few other grants*, floated the organization as it began its slow evolution into maturity and stability. Just last October, Mark was recounting Rhizome's early history, and recalled the NEA's risky award as the crucial turning-point for the organization. Our survival beyond those make-or-break days is nothing short of miraculous.
In short, the Rhizome that today commissions, presents, and preserves internet art and culture, that takes on projects like Net Art Anthology, and builds tools like Webrecorder, exists thanks to the NEA and its ongoing commitment to supporting American creativity in even its weirdest forms.
Along with countless other organizations, in every state in the United States—organizations which certainly have stories similiar to ours—Rhizome thanks the National Endowment for the Arts for all it has done, and, in advance, for all it hopefully will still do way into the future.
*One of the other crucial grants was from Joan Shikegawa at Rockefeller Foundation. Shikegawa would go on to chair the NEA herself.
Header Image: A screenshot from those make-or-break days, when we left .com for .org.
In the 1990s, as activists, artists, and their ilk explored the new possibilities presented by the internet, communities often formed around shared resources such as servers. In London, the cybercafe bulletin board and, later, the Irational web server—both initiated by Heath Bunting—played such a role role. Run on recycled hardware and software, they offered space for posting and exchange that tended towards the aesthetically and politically radical. In this interview, Rachel Baker, one of Bunting’s collaborators, recalls her experience as a participant in these two platforms, which shaped her own work in net art, activism, and internet radio.
Michael Connor: How did you begin collaborating with Heath?
Rachel Baker: I’d heard about him beforehand because he had a reputation in Bristol for doing unusual, conceptual graffiti and stenciling, and creating art exhibitions in subways. And doing everything that he could to occupy and create para-institutional art contexts and sites outside of official gallery institutions. Although I was at Goldsmiths doing an MA at the time (1995), we shared a condition I will term “institutional autism,” a kind of maladroitness around them, maybe a fear, probably class-based, so this parasitism was appealing. That was fairly characteristic of first-phase net culture anyway, the para-institutions.
So it was a natural step for us to participate with this nascent net art scene. A lot of people who were involved in the net art scene were also excited by the idea of creating parallel art contexts beyond the established ones. Pretty soon it all got absorbed anyway into these institutions, inevitably. But that period in the late 90s early 2000s was very exciting, because there was this attempt to create these independent culture zones, create something other than what was sanctioned by the art institutions and academic departments, which at that time were in thrall to the market ideologies of the YBA period in British Art.
MC: How did you become a member of cybercafe BBS?
RB: Heath was in the habit of fishing out old bits of computer and modems from skips. In the mid ‘90s people were throwing away their technology because it kept rapidly getting outdated into obsolescence. My very first modem did come from a skip in Bankside, London (I think British Telecom had an office there). I was at Goldsmiths studying for a Masters and I had a Goldsmiths email account and internet access at the college, but I didn’t have internet access at home. Heath had some old modems knocking around and he gave me a 2400 bps modem. At this stage that meant my first at-home online experience was logging onto the BBS, which was cybercafe, the bulletin board. Heath had given me a login.
I was at home, by myself, plugging in the modem, logging into the cybercafe BBS, staring at the screen, terminal window open, wondering what I was supposed to do with it, and I remember very clearly these words being typed via the flashing cursor: “Hello, Rachel.” And I thought, “What? How did that happen?” Somebody's silently entering your home, your personal space through text on a screen with this flashing cursor. It was a very uncanny feeling...not like the telephone because text is more mediated than voice... It’s kind of interesting to remember that feeling, because people don't have it anymore...or do they? I don’t think they do. Net consciousness is second nature now. When the internet was at that early stage, there’s no broadband, you have to dial in. You got the whole set of noises coning from the modem, then you got this cursor flashing up, “H-E-L-L-O R-A-C-H-E-L. Hello Rachel.” Something’s talking to me. Who is it? What is it? Where is it coming from? It felt like an encounter with some sort of demon, a ghost in the machine. Heath was running that bulletin board from his kitchen, some PC running BBS software. There were other arty BBSes at the time. The Thing was an early BBS—cybercafe and The Thing were the only bulletin boards I'd come across.
MC: What kinds of things did people post?
RB: Lots of ranting, poetry, random thoughts, pain and longing. A bit like Facebook. Yeah, ranting and poetry, maybe some music files, very short little music files, maybe an image file. Lots of it was Marc Garrett [co-director and cofounder of Furtherfield]. Marc was very prolific on cybercafe. You would usually find something every day from Marc.
MC: What were kind of your impressions of that community? What did you take from it?
RB: First of all, you imagine it to be much bigger than it really is. It was a handful of people posting! I might be wrong. You don't know though. Also, everyone's anonymous. Everyone's got a handle, everyone's got a nom de plume. You're in a kind of cave and you don't exactly know who's in the cave with you, could be anyone. You're not sure. I think Marc may have had several, and Heath had several identities. I don't know exactly.
But it felt bigger than it actually was. I imagined there were hundreds of people when probably there was only five or six. [Logs from Irational.org indicate 595 active users in total.]
MC: It was exciting to be a part of the community of cybercafe despite its small size?
RB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It was exciting because of the disjointed feeling of time and space being condensed. It was a very addictive feeling...a kind of temporal and spatial confusion. This ability to connect with people very quickly through text. There was a very poetic relationship to text and to the material that was being sent to the cybercafe. You'd have these mysterious exchanges with people you’d never met which felt quite magical, emotional and intimate. Now it’s trivial.
MC: Did you think of yourself during this time as a net artist?
RB: No, definitely not. No, I hadn’t even encountered the term. Initially that didn’t really figure for me on cybercafe or Irational.org. That became something, a kind of discursive context, once I’d subscribed to [the mailing list] Nettime. And you know there were lots of conferences and gatherings and events around this burgeoning scene. One of the first ones that I went to was in Budapest. It was called Metaforum. It was in 1995. That's where I met Diana McCarty, Pit Schultz, and various other people from Nettime. Rasa and Raitis from eLab, and Olia Lialina. And Alexei Shulgin. And Ted Byfield.
Another early gathering was at Backspace, London, called Anti with an E, organised by Heath. Lots of people came to that. It was difficult because people’s expectations would be confounded. The Backspace internet cafe that James Stevens was presiding over was quite a small space. But people came from all over Europe. Because it was exciting. A nascent network of fellow travellers, but also there was a curiosity in discovering independent projects like Irational.org and Backspace. These events and spaces created an infrastructure of common interest around online culture across Europe. Anti with E got a small amount of funding from Arts Council Org because people there, such as Bronac Ferran and Lisa Haskel, had noticed where the energy was around net and digital culture at that time. But it was quite amusing that people turned up and found themselves in this tiny little spot in south London. Which is now, by the way, a Starbucks.
MC: Around this time, Heath shifted from cybercafe to Irational.org
RB: Yes. Okay, let me get this shift right. Heath had the domain cybercafe.org registered and he sold that to Ivan Pope. He was the CEO of a company called NetNames, a domain name registration company. He was also an artist and an entrepreneur. He was kind of important in the early formation of Irational.org. Heath sold cybercafe.org to Ivan for a sum of money—I think about a thousand pounds. He also registered Irational.org with Ivan via NetNames. Heath couldn't spell. The name “Irational” obviously is misspelled, right? It's got one R instead of two. It’s an error. But it's this fortuitous misspelling of irrational that is idiosyncratic of Heath’s M.O. You can never tell if he’s purposefully misspelling or if he's actually dyslexic, probably a mixture.
MC: Was the server located in a particular place and people sort of shared costs and resources and access to it?
RB: Yeah. When I joined the server, it was somewhere way out in west London, I believe, on a server rack in Royal Oak. It certainly was a technical platform, but it was more about building a social grouping around a platform, the server. Heath’s approach to building a kind of context or a community is quite transactional. The transactions at that time went, “Hey, would you like an email address and a bit of web space and even a modem in exchange for building this social infrastructure with me?” Maybe it could be like a gang, or tribe. I think he was into that idea—street gangs, internet gangs...
MC: What kind of community was formed around Irational.org? Was it similar to cybercafe?
RB: The cybercafe BBS was more like an early rudimentary Facebook experience, I suppose. Or a Reddit discussion board. You constantly have that sense of other people available to connect with, a group chat space, whereas Irational.org, as a web server, is more about building individual web pages, presenting individual work or research. It was more of a service resource. People would join Irational.org in order to get an email and web account to host their projects on. It became more like a membership-based web-hosting thing, and sometimes those members would collaborate. Or not. Like Daniel García Andújar, a Spanish artist, and Minerva Cuevas, a Mexican artist, both very successful. There were certain commonalities of practice, an interventionist approach, playing with systems and language, often politically.
MC: The Irational members always sort of the ethos of the city and the web being connected I think, right?
RB: Yeah. Yep, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. There was a lot of walking. A lot of urban walking. [Heath and] Simon McLennan, another Bristol comrade, would do a lot of graffiti tagging around Bristol. And so it was in London as well. We would all get together for some long walks—walking and chalking. You’d get a call-out to meet up at a location in London, maybe Covent Garden, and you’d grab a bit of chalk. Then, you’d wander around London all day. [We were] following the urban graffiti tag ethos, finding unusual, difficult, physically challenging spaces, but we weren’t using spray paint we were always using chalk.
MC: What were you writing with the chalk? Or drawing?
RB: Simon had a whole repertoire of what he called “scarabs” or “beetles.” They’re abstract looking insects. Heath was building a whole repertoire of symbolic chalk tags—stars were very important, and bones... They were very consciously thought about, they all meant something to him, they were a vocabulary of his own.
MC: What did you chalk?
RB: I really liked runes. My favourite kind of tagging was as if I’d thrown some chalk sticks on the ground, usually just lines randomly scattered as if it was a pile of sticks, but I also took to using “TM.” TM stood for my then alter ego or avatar, Trina Mould, which I conceived of as a sort of teenage girl gang, like the Spice Girls or something, but more punk. I would apply “TM” like a pseudo “trademark” to everybody else’s tag.
Here's a story to tell about this. It was just me and Heath on this particular walk. We were in the Charing Cross area doing what we do. Just tagging surfaces up in white chalk. On this particular walk, I had a marker pen, a black marker pen. Heath was doing his elevating star graffiti tag in chalk and I was TM’ing with the black marker pen. He did his tag on a pretty nondescript looking building and I TM’ed it . At that point a red-faced angry man confronted us. He was very, very angry, livid, and he said he was going to call the police. “What do you think you're doing? This is an MOD building!” It was a Ministry of Defense building. I didn't know that. I’m still not clear whether Heath knew that or not because he tended to know that kind of stuff. He was quite interested in knowing what buildings were in relation to governmental authorities like the Ministry of Defense, but I didn't know. We left him in his rage, but he sent the security staff of the MOD after us. They dragged us back into the building, held us there until the police came. We were separated and taken into individual interview rooms. When the police came outside to look at what we'd done, it was a bit stupid because all we’d done was this very minimal not-even damage...it was just chalk. The worst thing was actually my marker pen, my little TM, that was the worst that we'd done cos it was a permanent marker. They were like, “Why did you do this?” I think Heath said something provocative like, “This is done in solidarity with the IRA.” Which is admittedly a very stupid thing to say. I said, “It's art!” I remember the policeman said, “Just keep your art in an art gallery.” They confiscated the chalk and the pen and gave us a little receipt, which I still have. I'm pretty sure I still have it somewhere, a receipt from the metropolitan police declaring, “One white chalk, one black marker pen.”
MC: So what does this have to do with the internet?
RB: My TM (trademark) tag sign was an acknowledgement of the absurdity of proprietizing imagery and symbolic language in public space. This bears some relation to the proprietizing logic that came with the web. We were trying to understand property relations, what you could access, what you could not. What was hackable, in the broad sense of the term. It was training for a systems-hacking sensibility. Also just noticing and observing things, reading and writing the street.
Do you know about warchalking? Warchalking was leaving symbols in public places to tell you where there was an open wifi network. It was inspired by hobo symbols that told itinerant train-hoppers where was a good place to stay, or where wasn’t a good place to stay. Warchalking was like trying to build a shared language amongst a network of itinerant wifi hoppers amongst the streets of London, to build a coded environment that could be read, re-territorialized.
Some of the things that we would chalk actually were URLs to Irational.org. In fact, Heath made a project, Project X, which involved chalking the Project X URL in public places. You'd see the URL scrawled in chalk in various places around London, bridges or alleyways, places that would have some kind of personal significance…through walking around London and turning it into a kind of fiction, a personal narrative I suppose. So if you found this particular URL in the street and if you went to that URL online, you'd get to the website with a form. And the form would ask you, where did you see this chalk? Who did it? Why do you think it was done? And then that takes you to a kind of a list of responses. What that does quite nicely is get you to think about location—locate where Heath chalked that URL all over the world, locate yourself in relation to everyone else who noted it, not just in London, but worldwide.
What was going on was something akin to what I understand as “post digital.” I think Irational.org and Heath’s work was post digital before it became a fashionable theoretical term. We had a keen sense of infrastructure, of networks as lived, coming both from the street derives and the internet, creating gateways to one another.
MC: Another one of those kind of gateways would have been the Kings Cross call-in.
RB: Heath published the various telephone numbers of all the public telephone boxes in Kings Cross train station. And then directed people, via a web page, to call those public telephone boxes at certain time in the day. It now seems simple and banal, but actually at the time, I remember it being extraordinary. Because all the telephone boxes started ringing, it must have been around seven P.M., in Kings Cross. All the telephone boxes were ringing. So that was an example of these gateway projects between street and internet.
So that was just a kind of example of these gateway projects between street and internet that really kind of switched on sensibility around network aesthetics.
MC: It’s a great story. But now that we’ve seen this kind of public space intervention co-opted as marketing tactics with things like flash mobs, how can we connect with the radicality of this gesture? Was it doomed to failure?
RB: I don’t think it’s fair to say that as experiments they failed, because on their own terms, they were successful, these network experiments. If only to reveal the network. That was the thing that I learned, particularly with the TESCO loyalty card project. Reveal the network, even if temporarily. This is why the recent theory about infrastructuralism or so-called stacktivism doesn’t seem all that new. We were already discovering that in the ‘90s. We were already discovering infrastructure, political and aesthetic, just walking the streets, tagging and creating gateways via the internet. Heath had a particular genius for intuiting network hacks both in an artistic, poetic sense and a political sense. And I was always drawn to that as well, but more towards activism and the politics of networks, rather than art. The idea that you could enter spaces online/offline that you wouldn't ordinarily be allowed to appealed to me. Or that you could, through acts of camouflage, enter spaces that would ordinarily be off limits. This is a distinctly class-based motivation. Heath was always looking for techniques that would help him live in, and respond to, the moment. I was more interested in thinking about longer term strategies for coping with class relations in corporatism and commodification, in the workplace. And yes, that was doomed to fail...
Vuk Cosic, Rachel Baker, Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin. Image via Irational.org.
Raised in Hong Kong and now based in Berlin, Alexis Chan produces music under the name of Soda Plains. About once a year, he’s released EPs that have earned him critical acclaim, including Rushes on the conceptually driven, Finnish-run Black Ocean in 2014, and Kickbacks on London’s Liminal Sounds, in 2015. His latest offering is the full-length, self-released album In Tongues. Even within Chan’s niche realm of esoteric experimental music, his practice is singular. The Soda Plains sound is often described as “baroque,” marked by a rapid layering of precise, detailed phrases, heavy in harpsichords and strings.
The baroque of In Tongues, comprising ten unbearably lush set pieces, goes further. On his new album, Chan displays his dizzying facility as an electronic producer, composing and sculpting a sonic architecture through obsessive editing of disparate materials. He manages to stage and crystallize the sublimity that experimental music generates inside the club, its brutal, transformative emotions. In Tongues recaptures those heady feelings, which, leaving the party, dissipate like smoke in the night air outside.
In an interview, Chan says he attempts to expand “emotional and sonic possibility” through jamming “inappropriate” sounds into one space. Within a single track, he can move effortlessly between dozens of referents: deconstructed grime and garage, slices of dancehall, funk, and calypso, and in places the pitched-down, muted undertow of kwaito, a South African hybrid of hip-hop and house. Chan is careful to note that he has no one seminal influence, though he eventually demurs that his listening “does veer toward classical music, Balkan, and Middle Eastern music.”
His production is flawless and tightly controlled, which keeps this album from spinning out into a self-indulgent chaos of sampling. In Tongues scores a Gothic hyperreal, a slightly demented, frantic, and sensual world. Listening, I feel an unmoored nostalgia for settings that I have only ambiently absorbed through opera and theater. In writing about the novel, Henry James suggested that the creator’s primary work is to take the reader by the hand into the “house” of his fiction, to look out of the windows over the human scene. In Tongues channels this same imperative, evoking a sense of walking through elegant rooms in a Transylvanian mansion. Then, led by Chan, a feeling of gazing out its windows onto a bleak moor, or at a séance, or even a ritual dance of masked figures. The listener gets brief, vertiginous glimpses down the sides of chthonic red cliffs.
Passages sound smudged at points, as though a tape reel has been accidentally burned. There are gem-like hints of the bittersweet, fantastical soundtracks of childhood, such as the Zelda videogame scores, composed by Koji Kondo, or those of Hayao Miyazaki films, like Spirited Away. A MIDI pan flute spikes across our skin in the track “Porcelain.” The lachrymose “Rotina” conjures up a stately masque gone wrong. “Silk Bind,” the album’s fourth entry, sinks warning arpeggios underwater, alongside subsonic frequencies that threaten to pull one down into the deep sea gloaming. “I am looking to push the drama, the limits of drama a bit more, without being ironic,” Chan tells me. “I wanted to drag the listener from one sort of dramatic environment to another.”
Chan wears and discards clashing sonic costumes, without privileging any one. In doing so, he suggests the vital and equal dramatic capacity of each source. Ethereal Tibetan throat song, a raw, club-happy bass line, and the gestural scratches of a skipping record needle all unfold on the same plane. “It’s a recurring idea for me to try to quickly normalize out-of-place structures and sounds in songs and create a new internal logic,” Chan has said. Writing, he confidently presents one emotional portrait (conveyed through sound), only to erase it in the next breath for a more uncanny one. We follow him as he sifts through jarring melodic hooks and reconciles them, to build a little system. This staged reconciliation is a good metaphor for how we learn to navigate chaos, intuitively creating a set of acceptable meanings out of a flood of alienating, decontextualized influences.
Chan’s relentless sincerity sets him apart from other artists in Berlin, who are happy to sell their scrappy, tongue-in-cheek “lifestyle” aesthetic to global brands like Nike or Louis Vuitton. He consciously avoids visibility. In fact, when I first met Chan in Berlin this past February, I failed to identify the thoughtful, affable, and very tall person in a red sweatshirt as Soda Plains. I had never once seen a picture of him and had mentally substituted Chan with a Roma dancer, Cristina Pucean, who appears in his “Æthelflæd” music video. This near-anonymity is important. Soda Plains’ work is evolving and complex, and it rejects easy slotting into a fickle “avant-garde” electronic music scene. This makes for a productive and highly unusual critical space, in which we can relish the beauty and process of careful, considered composition.
Earlier this year, Chan collaborated with Negroma, a Brazilian dancer and choreographer, on a live performance set to In Tongues at Berlin’s HAU theater. The performance was an attempt to deepen Chan’s offerings in his album by giving his compositional strategy (resolving disparate, clashing streams into a whole portrait) a physical interpretation. The two landed on the idea of xenoglossia, in which one becomes suddenly fluent in a new language while elevated in a trance-like state.
Looking like a priest in all black, Chan opened the first track, “Sem Tempo,” from behind a pedestal upstage. For much of the thirty-minute performance, he would be shrouded in darkness. Negroma designed and wore a complex white gown and veil. Creeping to front center stage, Negroma slowly shed parts of the gown, then the veil, to reveal torso and face, then moved more and more freely, posing in defiance, legs thrust sideways. Even as the dance became wilder, it began to layer motifs. Loose-wristed hands patterned figure eights in the air. A tight boxing stance kept reappearing. The album’s close, “Highgrader,” settled Negroma into a rhythm, clenched fists punching along with the song’s jabbing synths. These movements mirrored Chan’s attempts on his album to resolve divergent conceptual threads into something altogether new and strange: a logic, a way of being whole within chaos.
Apocryphally, only those “of faith” learned to speak in tongues—God’s ecstatic speech—but anyone struggling with split identities and modes of being can recognize this search for a coherent language that speaks one’s heart. The success of In Tongues is in its precise enactment of this drama, as it takes place on the dance floor, in composition, and in the mind.
This article was published in collaboration with 4Columns.
Nora Khan is a writer of essays, fiction, and criticism. She is a 2016 Thoma Foundation Arts Writing Fellow in Digital Art, a current Eyebeam Research Resident, and a contributing editor at Rhizome. She publishes frequently on digital art, electronic music, the philosophy of technology, and artificial intelligence, among other topics, in Rhizome, Art in America, The Village Voice, California Sunday, Conjunctions, After Us, andAVANT. She collaborates frequently with artists and musicians. She now lives in New York.
Each year, Rhizome hosts a Celebration Dinner to welcome and honor the participants in Seven on Seven, this year held on Friday, April 21. The event included a bold meal created by Mouth-to-Mouth (Lauren Schaefer), desserts by Laurie Ellen, and cocktails from Plymouth Gin and Lillet set among tablescapes designed by Fox Fodder Farm.
Except where otherwise noted, all photos were taken by Leandro Justen for BFA. See more on our Facebook page.
Rhizome Executive Director Zachary Kaplan, Board Chair Greg Pass, and Board member Renny Gleeson
.ART's Aleksandra Artamonovskaja and founder Ulvi Kasimov
SCRAAATCH's E. Jane, Bunny Rogers, and Assistant Curator Aria Dean
Armory Show's Audrey Rose Smith and Artistic Director Michael Connor
Arrangements by Fox Fodder Farm
GIPHY's Dani Newman and Caroline Hantho
Katherine Frazer, Addie Wagenknecht, Lindsay Howard, and Phillips' Megan Newcome (Photo: Lindsay Howard)
SEVEN ON SEVEN 2017
On April 22, 2017, Rhizome’s ninth edition of the Seven on Seven conference took place at the New Museum’s theater. Each year, Seven on Seven pairs seven artists and seven technologists and asks them to create something new: a prototype, an artwork, an app, or whatever they imagine. This year, the resulting projects ranged from an app for safer sexting to a CMS for one to Tinder for policy decisions. More details below.
Keynote: Doreen St. Félix
On the internet, it's harder to be a dog than you might think
Seven on Seven’s keynote speaker, Doreen St. Félix, opened the event by wading into ongoing debates about online cultural appropriation.
In the ’90s, she argued, the text-centric internet seemed to offer the promise that anyone could synthesize a new identity, unfettered by appearance or skin color, but in recent years, social media identity has been increasingly tied to legal names and photographic documentation.
Alongside this, users are increasingly caught up in arguments about cultural ownership. Communities—especially black communities—develop their own online cultures and vernaculars, and find their work appropriated and capitalized on by other users, artists, and corporations. St. Félix wrote about this phenomenon with regards to the now-shuttered app Vine in her 2015 article, “Black Teens are Breaking the Internet and Seeing None of the Profits.” Meanwhile, right-wing users are making efforts to appropriate black identity wholesale in order to infiltrate and upend the Black Lives Matter movement.
In her keynote, though, St. Félix argued for a moderate position with regard to cultural ownership. Yes, others capitalize on black identity, she argued, but in many cases, what is taken is less valuable than what remains. St. Felix offered that blackness is, at least in part, defined by its fugitivity. The collective historical and lifelong embodied knowledge that black users carry with them is what informs and undergirds every aspect of their online culture, and this cannot be appropriated.
Pair One: Addie Wagenknecht & Cindy Gallop
This world is not designed with sex in mind (but it should be)
Addie Wagenknecht and Cindy Gallop found common purpose in the idea that very few of the products we use are designed with sex in mind. “All around the world,” Gallop noted in an interview before the event, “a lot of people are having a lot of sex in a lot of cars. And yet the automotive industry is spectacularly failing to factor this into their product design, dealerships, CRM, advertising.” This isn't mere oversight. Apple’s App Store, for example, demands that products downplay their sexual uses. And the result is more awkwardness and risk for users. “When you don't admit it goes on,” Gallop noted during the event, “you don't design for it, you don't make it safe.”
The duo proposed an app called ConSensual, a tool designed to facilitate safer, more fulfilling online sexual communication. They worked with four volunteers—Susana Aho, Chris Fiore, Anna Kryukova, and Cybele Grandjean—to conceptualize it, and they’re actively working to make it a reality.
Pair Two: Olia Lialina & Mike Tyka
The Blingeeverse is a cruel and wondrous place
Olia Lialina opened her presentation with Mike Tyka by taking me to task for my use of the word “technology.” “Every time you use the word ‘technology,’ a child is born who will not know the difference between hardware and software.” The word is a black box, and disempowers us from understanding the more concrete aspects of the way our world is run.
But! I get to have the last word, and I would argue that “technology”—while bad for talking about computers and networks and platforms and other aspects of the technical apparatus that surrounds us—is actually pretty useful for describing a field, a social and institutional arena in which people compete for various kinds of capital. How do you like them apples?
Lialina and Tyka chose the social network Blingee, which allows users to create collaged compositions made up of animated stamps, as their subject matter. Lialina and Tyka first created a tool to automate the process of surfing through Blingee by seeing which compositions share particular kinds of stamps; one version of this tool centers Lialina’s favorite Blingee user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova, while another version moves more freely through the network, including compositions that are less appealing to Lialina's discerning eye.
Then, Tyka began to explore political speech on Blingee, which includes the extremist positions now familiar to any internet user. He used machine learning to create a tool to automate the blingee creation process, and loaded them into a Captcha quiz to see whether the audience could prove their human-ness by identifying works made by humans and those made by bots. (We failed.) Tyka’s success seemed only to bring him worry, and he expressed concern about how easy it was to automate plausible cultural production—a point that seemed to directly contradict St. Félix’s keynote argument.
Finally, as their last gesture, Lialina and Tyka tackled the problem of freeing the Blingee gifs from the Blingee platform, which are kept under lock and key by the platform. They managed to harvest 440 jewel animations, which Lialina collaged together in what must surely be one of the world’s most beautiful web pages.
Pair Three: Miao Ying & Mehdi Yahyanejad
Censorship is more about inconvenience than fear
Miao Ying and Mehdi Yahyanejad found common ground in their personal experiences of growing up under censorship, sharing stories of internet communication in China and Iran.
For Miao, internet censorship was a research topic and a source of fascination. One early project, which took place when Google was still available in China, involved searching for every term in a dictionary, and erasing (by hand) those which were blocked. Later, as smartphones became ubiquitous, she cultivated an appreciation for the forms of communication that evolved as a means of evading censorship, such as using images of sound-alike terms to communicated forbidden concepts.
Nevertheless, censorship has profound effects. “The editing of the memory is always involved. You don't remember things as they actually happened.”
Yahyanejad’s experience of censorship came through his experience as founder of Balatarin, a site similar to Reddit that has widespread use in Iran. When the Iranian Ministry of Communication censored the platform, he asked users to telephone them directly and register their protest. Later, as harassment grew more common on the platform, he implemented some basic standards to protect vulnerable users. These experience led to him being portrayed in political cartoons alternately as a champion and an enemy of free speech.
For their collaboration, Miao and Yahyanejad looked to the internet of 2017, suggesting that the “filter bubble” created by the modern internet serves as a kind of soft censorship, invisibly editing out information that is deemed unpleasant or irrelevant. They proposed a “filter bubble detox” as a way of addressing this kind of censorship and ensuring a balanced information diet.
Pair Four: DIS & Rachel Haot
Public policy should be more like hooking up
“How can we convert Tinder users into active voters?”
Rachel Haot, formerly Chief Digital Officer of the city of New York and current Managing Director at 1776, set out the stakes of her collaboration with Lauren Boyle and Marco Roso of DIS in these terms. Looking at the state of political communication today, she and DIS concluded that there was an enormous gulf between even the most accessible policy papers and the kinds of online communication to which users are accustomed. Public policy communication should be more like this, Roso proposed, showing a slide of a Buzzfeed quiz titled “What kind of pasta are you?”
Working with designer Pat Shiu and researcher Ethan Chiel, the collaborators created Polimbo, a new app that lets you swipe your way out of public policy limbo. The app offers users a series of scenarios, to which they must respond with a smiley or frowny face.
The app took on the topic of net neutrality, offering glimpses of possible future such as:
“Virtual Reality Pre-K is available at no cost, starting at 18 months.”
“Broadband Basic, the new, free, tiered broadband service reaches 100% accessibility across the US, bridging the digital divide.”
Based on their responses, the app tells users where they come down on the question of net neutrality, and “matches” them with correlated politicians. While the project offered plenty of dystopian absurdity, it also gave the audience a visceral glimpse into the real-world outcomes of present-day policy decisions.
Pair Five: Bunny Rogers & Nozlee Samadzadeh
A CMS for One
Bunny Rogers’s home page, meryn.ru, opens out into an universe of HTML collections: images of ribbons and graves in the shapes of lambs arranged against prison grey backdrops. Nozlee Samadzadeh, who works as an engineer for Vox and is responsible for a content management system (CMS) used by thousands, wondered what it would be like to create a CMS for one. The two collaborated on collectable.art, “a social network in the style of Bunny Rogers,” which is forthcoming as an iOS app.
The app allows users to create their own web collections, featuring images and short captions, All the content on collectables.art is anonymous, all the icons are varying shades of grey, and the only font is Times New Roman. All this may be most suited to Bunny Rogers, but I am not Bunny Rogers, and I found it surprisingly fun and easy to use.
What many will remember from this presentation, though, was the rapport the two developed. They told of their shared interests (Neopets, pixelated dress-up dolls, making clothes) and recounted their failed ideas (a website for Rogers’s ex-boyfriend, a commercial-friendly makeover of Rogers’s online portfolio), and somehow brought the audience along on their journey.
Pair Six: Jayson Musson & Jonah Peretti
“To lose the scroll is to lose your soul.”
Jayson Musson presented his collaboration with Jonah Peretti via a video address, in which he appeared in character as a CEO. A social network called “Blockedt,” it offered users the reassuring experience of constant scrolling without the intrusion of any other visible users. “Keep the phone, and lose the people,” Musson suggested.
Musson did a very good job sending up the character of the CEO, a point that wasn’t lost on Peretti. There was a point in the process, he noted, where he realized that the whole thing was just making fun of startup CEOs like him.
Although the Blockedt app wasn’t ready to ship by the time of Seven on Seven, it had been partly implemented by Sarah Meyer and Manuel Palou of Buzzfeed, and a native web version of this useless app (I’m told mobile web is the future) can be tested here.
It works best on mobile.
Pair Seven: Constant Dullaart & Chris Paik
“Once you have your message, we will help you weaponize it.”
“How easy is it to get someone to say something you want them to say online?,” Thrive's Chris Paik asked during his presentation with artist Constant Dullaart. The two began with an open and honest airing of views about Facebook (“It’s bad, and you shouldn't be on it”—Dullaart; “a wonderful company from a venture capital perspective!”—Paik) before sharing a key stat from a recent Facebook earnings call: the dollar value of each US user of Facebook is many times higher than users from “the rest of the world.” To Dullaart, this suggested that US-based users, because they are more valuable, are therefore more likely to be targets of attempts to control their views and behavior.
Drawing on Paik’s business world connections, the two reached out to firms (whose names they could not disclose, because of aggressive NDAs) to ask about campaigns to sway public opinion online. “Do you want to know what users think?” one firm asked. “Or do you want to make them think something?”
Wondering if this strange apparatus could be used for artistic purposes, to perhaps make its functioning more visible, Dullaart and Paik hired a firm to astroturf the Facebook post for the Seven on Seven event itself. Some users left glowing comments about Rhizome and Seven on Seven ("I believe that this is a good event for both overs of the art and all the people in general.#7on7NYC"). Others criticized it in ways that seemed strangely, unsettlingly plausible ("A privately owned museum, hosting tech giants and venture capital to get cultural validation at 7 on 7.. I dont understand why artists support this... #7on7NYC").
From there, the duo moved on to more poetic applications of their new troll armies. They set up an Instagram account, Semiotic.Tears, and used paid accounts to comment, in sequence, a passage from Umberto Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Finally, they set up a Twitter account, @R_O_Y_B_A_T_T_Y, modeled on the eponymous replicant from Blade Runner. The account had published one tweet, and Paik and Dullaart hired tens of thousands of paid Twitter bots to retweet it, spreading it across the Twitterverse.
As their presentation concluded, they brought it up onscreen. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” They pressed delete, and the audience gasped. And with that, the ninth edition of Seven on Seven came to an end.
SEVEN ON SEVEN 2017
On February 5, 2017, German lawmakers unveiled a bill that would make fake news illegal. But before post-truth was named 2016’s word of the year and counterfeit news articles came to dominate real headlines—from teens in Macedonia publishing spurious articles about Donald Trump to Kremlin trolls spreading disinformation via social media—the New York-based digital agency 4REAL was already contriving canny confusion. The agency, founded by artists Analisa Teachworth and Slava Balasanov, developed CloneZone, an easy-to-use tool which facilitates making a clone of an existing website. Released on April Fool’s Day in 2015, the tool offered a simple way to create and share fake articles, initially letting the user imitate the design of authoritative news sites like The New York Times or The New Yorker while adapting the text and images however they wanted, making possible clones that were convincing except for the URL which gave away their falsity. Now, two years later, 4REAL is launching Relevant, an app that responds to the problem of fake news by offering a tool to vet articles through community voting.
CloneZone, in many ways, drew attention to the ease at which fake news circulates unquestioned. In 2015, Teachworth and Balasanov kicked off their exploratory art project by posting a clone of a TechCrunch article (now offline) announcing that their start-up had been funded to the tune of $1.8 million. After sharing on Facebook and Twitter, the artists were shocked by how successful their hoax had been. “The fake article turned out to be way more believable than we were anticipated with likes and reposts rollin[g] in right away,” Balasanov wrote in a Medium post, later adding, “Whenever we go out to a social event we inevitably end up having to explain that no, we are not rolling in dough and can’t actually afford to buy a bottle of Cristal for everyone.”
While friends and acquaintances in 4REAL’s social network quickly appropriated the tool for their own hoaxes—for example, artist Nick DeMarco wrote a fake New Yorker article about Williamsburg scientologists and filmmaker Eugene Kotlyarenko penned faux press about his real film A Wonderful Cloud—CloneZone soon found a diversity of users from all around the world. An early controversy stemmed from a spurious article announcing rule changes for the fantasy game Magic the Gathering. 4REAL was slapped with several cease-and-desist orders, resulting in the agency taking down offending content and adapting the tool so that certain websites (more than forty) are now off-limits for cloning, including newyorker.com, wizards.com, lemonade.fr, and thenewyorktimes.com.
New York Times web pages are blocked from cloning because of a fake article claiming that Elizabeth Warren had endorsed Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries. Authored by comedian Steven Phillips-Horst, the article, with quotes attributed to Warren, a California Senator, and Lena Dunham (lol), is arguably one of the more influential CloneZone hoaxes to date. It was published in the afternoon on April 29, 2016 and by that evening already boasted more than 50,000 views and 15,000 shares on Facebook. The New York Timeseven posted their own article addressing the disinformation.
With this hoax, CloneZone’s reach extended to the national political stage, where we’ve seen the extensive impact of fake news in recent months. 4REAL’s project precociously underscored the ease at which false information spreads online, disrupting stable notions of fact and fiction, at a moment when we are collectively coming to terms with how to define and regulate propaganda and free speech. CloneZone spotlighted a problem and now Relevant hopes to deliver a solution.
On August 8, 2001 Mendi + Keith Obadike listed Keith’s Blackness, Item #1176601036, for sale on eBay under the categories Black Americana and Fine Art. Ten benefits and ten warnings for this Blackness are outlined in Item #1176601036’s description, such as “This Blackness may be used for creating black art” and “The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used in the process of making or selling ‘serious’ art”. The auction of Item #1176601036 was set to last ten days, but was removed by eBay after four days, when that company decided that it was inappropriate for listing on its site. In an interview with Coco Fusco in 2001, Keith Obadike tells us that he “didn’t really see net artists dealing with this intersection of commerce and race,” and that he “really wanted to comment on this odd Euro colonialist narrative that exists on the web and black peoples’ position within that narrative.”1 As part of the Obadike’s Black Net.Art Actions, Blackness for Sale aimed to “explore the language of color and its relationship to art, the body, and politics.”2Blackness for Sale can be read as a critique of colonial encounters and the commodification of blackness, from the auction blocks of racial slavery to the online circulation of Black Americana and the consumption of items of distorted blackness. It is, then, an interrogation of categorization and the negation of Black life.
The rules that govern the classification of the human by way of “social filters,” online and off, were again taken up by Mendi + Keith Obadike with their 2002 piece TheInteraction of Coloreds.3 On the dedicated website for this work from Black Net.Art Actions, photographs of hands, elbows, the back of the ears, and other body parts appear in a 2 x 2 grid formation in quick succession. These body parts are of the artists, with a brown paper bag (test) as the backdrop. Scroll over the top left of the screen and the phrase “if you’re white you’re right” appears. Long before I knew of blues musician Big Bill Broonzy’s protest song Get Back, I knew the line “if you’re black, get back” served as a warning and made clear the racist color coding of our past and still present social order. Click anywhere on the 2 x 2 grid and users are taken to the main page of IOC Color Check System® where they are encouraged to “protect your online community from unwanted visitors” and to apply because “websafe colors aren’t just for webmasters.” Click again and users are taken to an information page for IOC Color Check System® and told that “in this fast-paced, ever-changing world of e-commerce and online communities, who can afford the time and embarrassment of taking or administering a brown paper bag test in public?” and “Wouldn’t it be refreshing to get trustworthy color info like John Smith, #FFFFFF (read: true white) when you receive an email?” Answer a series of questions (“Has anyone ever checked for your color behind your ears?”) and follow their strict JPEG guidelines for uploading and users will receive a dedicated hexadecimal color code for the purposes of verification, identification, and measurement of one’s worth.4
In almost every undergraduate course that I teach on surveillance I share with the class Blackness for Sale. I see the students nodding their heads, some chuckling, when they read it. It’s so familiar to them. More recently and quite often, I’ve had to explain to them “why Florida?” in the warning “The Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while voting in the United States and Florida,” as many knew nothing of hanging chads, the recount, and Bush v. Gore. They almost always wonder aloud what would happen if Mendi Obadike’s Blackness was “for sale” instead, and this year we talked about street harassment, objectification, cis-normativity, reproductive injustice, gender-based violence, and the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName campaign that focuses on police violence against Black women and girls. Speaking on this question of gender, in that same interview referenced above, Keith Obadike notes that “with this project I think most people read my black maleness as normative and by default ungendered just as whiteness is often read as unraced. I think black womanness is a much harder sell. Once you add the idea of sexism to this list of warnings it becomes much more complicated.”
On August 8, 1951, fifty years earlier to the day that Keith Obadike’s Blackness was put up for auction on eBay, thirty-one year old Henrietta Lacks checked in to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for the last time. By that time her cancerous cells had already been taken from her by way of a biopsy, without her knowledge, and set to become the HeLa cell line, now a most profitable commodity within biomedical and genomic research and pharmaceutical patents. The HeLa commercial cell line, the afterlife of Henrietta Lacks’s cancer cells, subsists within, as Marlon Rachquel Moore tells us, “a state of bioslavery” where,
Henrietta’s motherhood yields no financial benefits for her heirs. On the cellular level, then, the medical establishment subjugates Henrietta’s reproductive labour so that generations (strains) of HeLa perform as breeder slaves (bio-objects) in laboratory colonies all around the world. This irony is not new, for Black women have a complicated history of maternal and reproductive rights that further links HeLa’s biofuture to this country’s racial past.5
Fifty years apart, though not one and the same, Blackness for Sale and HeLa, however, both point to the ongoing racisms of unfinished emancipation in interesting ways—one creatively theorizes the conditions of Black life, the other serves as a notice of the vulnerability and reproductive injustices visited upon Black women and what could happen when that which is derived from Black life (and Black death) is made patentable. What are our responsibilities for racial justice when we factor in the specificities of Black womanhood?
I look to Mendi + Keith Obadike’s hypertextimonial Keeping Up Appearances, now over fifteen years from when it first appeared online, for a guide to start to answer this question and that of my students posed above. In this piece, Mendi Obadike contends with power, violence, and investments in respectability by way of redactions and disclosures to “get at a way of telling which says: ‘this is what i want to say’ and: ‘i do not want to say this’ at the same time.”6 At first look, unremarkable, with minimal text on the page, it is seemingly a short story of mentorship. But in scrolling over its blankness, that which was redacted—the sensitive data—comes into bright pink view. This revelation demands of the reader to read differently and to imagine the simultaneity of the protagonist’s other story, this one a kind of vulnerability that is often hidden in plain sight. The kind of story where we are made complicit by our own acts of looking away. If a testimonial is a form of witnessing, then the hypertextimonial form, in this case, calls on us not to look away from the truths encoded in its form.
Mendi + Keith Obadike’s Blackness for Sale, Interaction of Coloreds, and Keeping Up Appearances all, in different ways, “get at a way of telling,” and telling on, the structural violences coded on black life forms.
1. Coco Fusco. “All Too Real: The Tale of an On- Line Black Sale: Coco Fusco Interviews Keith Townsend Obadike.” September 24, 2001. Accessed April 25, 2017, http:// blacknetart.com/coco.html.
2. Keith + Mendi Obadike. “The Black.Net.Art Actions: Blackness for Sale (2001), The Interaction of Coloreds (2002), and The Pink Stealth (2003), pp.245-250. In re:skin, edited by Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006.
3. Ibid., p.248. Social filters being “the systems by which people accept or reject members of a community.”
4. Interestingly, in May 2016 a group of software researchers issued a call to the Unicode Consortium for software standards on the issue of skin tone modifiers for emojis. Taking particular issue with the Consortium’s use of the Fitzpatrick scale’s human skin color classification schema, the group warned that ignoring the scale’s colonial lineage and applying it to emojis “is emblematic of implementing a standard without careful examination of its scientific, political, cultural and social context of production.” (http://possiblebodies.constantvzw.org/feedback.html)
5. Moore, Marlon Rachquel. 2017. “Opposed to the being of Henrietta: bioslavery, pop culture and the third life of HeLa cells.” Medical Humanities. 43: 55-61.
6. Keeping up Appearances (http://blacknetart.com/keepup.html)
On June 30, 1998, the Guggenheim launched its first artist project for the web: Brandon. For artist Shu Lea Cheang, the artwork was a process of “becoming,” and included multiple authors while working against geographical and disciplinary boundaries. The artwork refers to the life and death of Brandon Teena, a young transgender man who was sexually assaulted and murdered in rural Nebraska because of his gender identity. The artwork released five years later, on June 30, 1998, as a collaborative platform, still undefined, inviting guest curators to illuminate Brandon’s story. An important part of the work was developed in association with Waag Society, an institute for art, science, and technology based at the Theatrum Anatonicum in Amsterdam. Built in 1691, the theater was first used by doctors to dissect corpses of dead criminals. Within this setting a series of performances were organized as part of the Brandon project. On March 20, 2017, I spoke with Shu Lea Cheang and Marleen Stikker, the director and co-founder of Waag Society, looking back at the evolving state of Brandon from 1998 to 1999.
Karin de Wild: Brandon developed between 1998 and 1999 as a “one-year narrative project in installments.” Two installments took place at the Theatrum Anatonicum. Let’s start with the first one: Digi Gender Social Body: Under the Knife, Under the Spell of Anesthesia (September 20, 1998). Can you explain the title and its concept?
Shu Lea Cheang: At the time, the real Brandon Teena could not cross the border of Nebraska. He was pretty much tied up in Nebraska, and I think in America people always say if you’re queer, you are not comfortable in this country’s state, you should go to San Francisco. But Brandon was never able to do that. So the idea with the Brandon project was teleporting Brandon onto the cyberspace. So in terms of “Digi Gender”: for me gender is not fixed. “Digi”: digital, there you can really free up the concept of gender. And “Social Body,” being the other part of the work, was inspired by this article by Julian Dibble, about the rape in cyberspace.1 So for me it’s about this kind of virtual community to create a kind of social body, a social space.
KDW: Marleen, why was De Waag interested in Brandon, in particular this installment?
Marleen Stikker: In 1994 I organized the Cyborg Festival, because of the Cyborg Manifesto of Donna Haraway that was translated into Dutch.2 We explored the internet as a cultural space and its artistic potential. The whole cyborg story was part of our world, our reference about thinking about cyberspace and uploading yourself to cyberspace. Brandon moved in this discourse between the still emerging idealistic idea of a new space, cyberspace, where we could redefine our sexuality, redefine the social, redefine power. On the other hand, gloomy visions that it was already starting to become a space which was not open. The work for me contextualized very well that moment in time.
KDW: For the first installment, a Netlink forum took place.
SLC: It was a public forum. I had invited people who studied gender to come and give a talk, and there was also sort of remote participation. Brandon, in terms of my own development of concept at the time was quite influenced by the whole Cyborg Manifesto, so it was about the “trans,” possibilities of “trans,” but it also involved embodiment and the body apparatus.3
It was totally on the web at the same time. All the chats were happening on the web, so you could participate on the web. But as far as the live event, it was not netlinked. I think technically we just could not achieve that.
MS: The virtual and the real really merged into each other.
KDW: The second networked performance took place in May 1999 and had the title Would the Jurors Please Stand Up? Crime and Punishment as Net Spectacle.
SLC: I did a residency at Harvard University at the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue.4 At that time I was working with a lot of lawyers. Harvard was more like a real space; a real theater; real life; actual developments. They even hired a dramaturge to make it into a public theater performance piece. It was taking up all the court cases that I had researched on gender: some of them were raped, some of them got murdered. And the lawyers were doing a debate about all these cases. So at that time, it would become like a theater piece with the lawyers as the performers. After that development, I came back to Waag Society to stage the virtual court. For the virtual court everything got simplified. So there were questions that people had to agree on. Yes or no? Which one would you choose? Sometimes we had a hung jury, when people didn't come to an agreement.
MS: There was at that moment the idea that people could use software and the internet to brainstorm. They could add their ideas and they could do this anonymously. So it was an idea of the web as being an open space for contributions. I disliked most of these kinds of projects, because people were mainly presenting their own ideas. There was not a dialogue. So what I really liked about the whole concept [of the jury software in Brandon] that it was structured in a way that people had to discuss, they had to react on each other, they had to try to convince each other to not have a hung jury. The software was designed for debate and for real dialogue. Or you could be like the troll, making it impossible for people to come to a consensus. Until now I think this has been one of the most elaborate places in conversation on the internet.
I started in 1994 with the Digital City.5 This was the first news groups where ideas were discussed together on the internet. And they all failed. In every of these web news net groups people started blame and flame wars. From the early beginnings, the internet has been a terrible place for discussion. So my interest in this jury application was this very elaborate way of trying to get people in a constructive conversation. And then, of course, the topic was the Brandon case; very complex questions were at stake.
SLC: We started court sessions in the Theatrum Anatomicum, I remember it was with the rings still installed. I was doing the moderation, engaging people, joining in the jurors. It was an intense virtual experience at the same time. It was still a kind of public spectacle in a way.
MS: The moment that it started, we put the laptops on the structure. It became a virtual session as the screen absorbs you. We also scheduled only virtual version, so without people in the physical space. Also the clock was ticking, which was very interesting as a dramatic element in the whole spectacle. People had to come to a final conclusion within the hour.
KDW: How was the web, as a space for artistic experimentation, different in 1998 compared with today? Did you experience any limitations during Brandon, Shu Lea?
SLC: Now the question with Brandon was [it was] always kind of accused of being elitist exactly because it’s difficult to navigate, it takes a lot of bandwidth to, you know…you want to go through the roadtrip [part of the work], for example, and it always takes some bandwidth to navigate it. So I did have to answer a lot questions about the project being elitist, like who had the ability to watch this piece. I always say, “Well, it is a public piece, and it's supposed to be for the museum. You can go to the museum, you can go to the library.”
I think my debate for this was always like, at the time, it was the institution that had to promote this kind of work, had to provide the access to view the work. I think it was the same when I came to know the World Wide Web. The first art project I saw on the World Wide Web was actually Muntadas’s The File Room. And it was in Mosaic, and I remember I was in New York. This was 1994, and I was like “Wow, okay.” I had to travel to Columbia University to check out where the exhibition was happening in the library just to see it, just to browse it. And that was my first experience, so it’s not like at the same time the piece was particularly available, say, “Oh, you just stay at home visiting the web,” because the bandwidth doesn't allow you to do that for a lot of people.
So, yeah. Of course there’s this limitation, but I think in a way, what we tried to do at Waag was with such a team: program management, a developer, also a designer, it brings the project to a different level, like I’m not an artist alone anymore. I was in a creative industry. I was in such a management system with this residency. You really have a team of experts who work with you in every different aspect of it. So that’s a very different. Even with that I remember we struggled with that opening sequence of having the image to shuffle. We were showing images from the Guggenheim opening. We were beaming the Waag Society opening at Theatrum Anatomicum, and that was the first time we tried to do that.
But then in 1999 when we did the courtroom [performance], the virtual trial, and that was even more ambitious in a way that we called up a lot of jurors global-wide and tried to figure out the time zone difference to when all these different jurors could do the virtual call together. At that time absolutely we could not do any voice or image for the jurors, so it was totally by chat. I don’t even know how we did it. It was quite crazy with all this connecting, speaking about time zones, try to figure out people joining from Australia, the time zone difference so they can be online, and then the virtual calls taking place. It was actually quite ambitious at the time I think.
MS: The internet started in its public form, it started as a social environment where people started to collaborate and to meet. And a lot of tools and the interface were there to express ourselves and to connect and to interact with each other. But there were a lot of limitations because of bandwidth. We had this event We want bandwidth as an exploration of bandwidth.6 It was really a big issue and still is, I guess, but less. So I think that the things that we wanted from the internet were not always possible, because of bandwidth limitations and also some tooling that was not there.
KDW: Brandon was a multi-author, multi-artist, even a multi-institutional piece. What was your role as an artist, Shu Lea?
SLC: I’m doing the concept and direction. And so of course I’m quite involved with all the aspects of it. I also make movies, so I know that as a film production way. It’s very normal for me to be in this kind of system. Of course, the artist imagination is ahead of the programming reality, right? So there is always a discussion about what you want to do, cannot be achieved at this moment of time. So that was always such a challenge.
KDW: How was Brandon at the forefront in this rapidly changing technological landscape?
MS: Even today, people are trying to figure out what narratives are on the internet. What is storytelling? What is a narrative? What is a new construction? This was a collaborative work. There was a clear director and clearly Shu Lea was the person to create the narrative or the backbone of the project. But being able to collaborate in such an open way is still, I think it is very special. There's a lot of artworks that have been made with such an approach, but at that time, definitely it was totally a new way of creating work.
KDW: Shu Lea, could you elaborate on the narrative structure of Brandon?
SLC: It’s an open narrative idea. I was inviting different participants to join to fill in the narrative, the content. I had been doing video installation that always involve collaborating with performance, so I’m very used to collaborating with performance. I have always planned the project as multi-artist collaboration. It is by chance encounter that i got to “install” myself in several institutions: a residency at Banff Center for the Arts, a residency at Waag Society with its Theatrum Anatomicum setting, working with Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard Law School.
How did the collaboration with Waag Society start?
SLC: De Waag was not even open yet. I think it was 1996…
MS: Waag Society Foundation was founded in 1994. We started working in De Waag in 1995 and officially opened on June 21, 1996.
SLC: I must have come around in that time, because I remember it was still under renovation. I totally fell in love with the space, the Theatrum Anatomicum, and the plan to develop it into Waag Society, an institute for old and new media. I became one of the first artists in residence in Waag Society. In 1998-1999, during this whole year, I was mostly at Waag Society developing Brandon.
This installation by Atelier Lieshout, which featured a revolving webcam, was used during Brandon’s launch event on June 30, 1998 to upload live images to Brandon from the Theatrum Anatomicum in Amsterdam.
KDW: On June 30, 1998, the launch of Brandon took place at the Guggenheim Museum (New York) and simultaneously with Bloody Merry Party in the Theater Anatonicum (Amsterdam). Both places were connected through a Netlink. What do you remember of this event?
SLC: The Theatrum Anatomicum installation was done by Joep Van Lieshout, so it’s a kind of a sculpture.7 On the top we actually had to take down the chandelier and replace it with a projector. So that's how you saw the surgery table in the middle, which was quite bloody. On the surgery table the billboard interface for the opening was projected.
MS: In the Anatomical Theater there was a re-installment of how [dead] bodies were dissected in this theater in the 17th century. It used to be an amphitheater. We have been discussing to bring back the amphitheater, but I think the rings were beautiful as it only gave back the spatial orientation.
SLC: There was a camera, a small webcam that was making a circle on the second ring.
MS: Yes, it was like a little train.
SLC: It was at that time, of course, so it was a webcam, but we could only grab still images. And that's what the interface was. So it just goes around the circle grabbing images of the audience that was present at the opening. I think the main thing for this first opening was the camera idea that was able to send images. The Netlink interface still exists, but the billboard should still be there too. I think it were different slogans that were being put on a billboard.
MS: De Waag was experimenting with teleconferencing. Before Brandon we did the Virtual Kissing project, where two audiences in different locations could video-kiss each other and the images where streamed and combined in both locations. We used this experience for the video/images exchange.
KDW: Shu Lea, what are your ideas about the future of Brandon?
SLC: The fact is that the topics of the discussion are still very valuable. I myself continue to work with gender. Currently, I am working on the project Wonders Wander for the Madrid Pride 2017 project. Calling it a “location based mobi-web-serial,” I am applying a GPS-guided mobile app to track homo-trans-phobic attacks with queer fantasia narratives embedded along the walks in Madrid. Maybe this is my updated version of Brandon’s roadtrip with mobile technology? For myself, Brandon is an open narrative. I do hope that Brandon can be further developed as an open platform to allow public upload. The new generation of non-binary gender can add some new perspectives to these on-going narratives.
KDW: Marleen, how would you like to contribute to safeguard Brandon’s future?
MS: Well, this is an interesting moment in time, because there is a lot of interest in the early days of the internet and especially in iconic projects. I think Brandon is an iconic project, an iconic artwork, and you can tell a lot of stories through the work. Guggenheim really takes it seriously; this time there’s a lot of work being done. At the Waag we have an archival project. There’s a reason to work on how we can contribute to it. So that means that we will dig further into our old servers. I think, especially the court session would be good. We really need a mix of people and expertise to explore how to deal with our archive. For example the digital legacy from 1994, like the Digital City, is now being archived with practitioners, the original creators and the University of Amsterdam. What we did is that we found an e-depot, which is big enough to ensure that when it’s in this depot, they will guarantee that also in twenty years, it’s still accessible. Because in twenty years, again, the machines that we want to read the stuff will be changed. So you need a organization that is committed to keep it alive in the coming hundred of years. At the moment we are overwhelmed by the requests for access to the remains of digital projects. We do not have enough resources I’m afraid, to fully fulfill this task.
1. Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” The Village Voice, December 21, 1993. This article described a “cyberrape” that happened on the platform LambdaMOO, the repercussions of this act on the virtual community, and subsequent changes to the design of the program.
2. The Cyborg Festival took place at De Balie in Amsterdam (The Netherlands).
3. Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.
4. The Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue (IACD) was founded in 1997 by professor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. It supported the development of artworks and projects specifically concerned with social conditions. It tried to establish collaborations between artists, activists, scholars, and audiences to develop works of art about vital social issues of the time.
5. The Digital City (De Digitale Stad, DDS) started on January 15, 1994 as a free net initiative making internet access available for a large group of citizens in Amsterdam. This resulted in the first online internet community in the Netherlands. For more information about the Digital City: www.dds.nl.
6. During the We want bandwidth campaign, European politicians were criticized for their policy on access and infrastructure for local producers of content. It was proposed that the European Union should get a stronger grip on the social and cultural components of existing European Information and Communication Programmes (ICT). For more information about this project: http://waag.org/en/project/we-want-bandwidth
7. The original design was by Mieke Gerritzen.
Aria Dean: What prompted the Black Net.Art Actions project?
Mendi + Keith Obadike: We had been making projects online for a couple of years. Our site Blacknetart.com was inspired by a shop that Mendi’s parents (who are academics) had in the 1970s called Blackness Is . . . The shop was a place where you could buy art objects, crafts, and kitsch from Africa or African-America. We loved that the name of the shop was the beginning of a sentence but the end was open. It felt more like a question, and we thought of these actions as a series of questions about Blackness we wanted to pose on the internet.
We asked these questions against a backdrop of a scene were commercial ventures were selling the internet to the public with the notion that in the absence of mediating everything through our physical appearances, we would be free of both racism and race itself. There was already some push back on this notion coming from scholars in media studies and ethnic studies, but most artists working on the net seemed to be concerned with other issues altogether. For us, the various strategies at work in a conceptual art practice, our lived experiences as Black people, and the virtual terrain of the internet suggested a clear way to put pressure on these conversations, engage our communities, and invite others into our serious play.
AD: You work across many different mediums, but what drew you to use the internet as a way of exploring these questions of blackness and identity? What does the internet offer that installation and sound can't?
M+KO: We started working online because it was a way to play with images, text, sound, and time in a really flexible format. We liked that there could be multiple ways of entering a piece. We also enjoyed that challenge of dealing with contingent network access speed, screen color calibration, etc. The internet was also both a venue and an instrument at the same time. We began working online because we were living part of our lives online. We believed in making art everywhere.
AD: Today, online and on social media, blackness is hypervisible. Images of black people and black culture circulate rapidly and with great reach. There are elements of this that are new, but we also know that it’s an extension of existing cultural dynamics that long precede the consumer internet. Can you talk a little bit about what we might call “state of blackness” online at the millennium? How did you see blackness in relationship to the discourse around online identity at the time?
M+KO: There were always elements of Black culture online as well as the idea of Blackness. From the earliest days of the network, even when it was dominated by academic researchers and government employees, people were injecting ideas about gender, race, sexuality, and culture into the system. Perhaps even the need for a late-1960s robust communication network (Arpanet) rose out of concerns about the Civil Rights Movement and general social unrest in America. As we have pointed out in other places, in the ’90s the language of the internet was the language of western exploration colonialism, from Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Ebay.com, Amazon.com. We started working online in 1996 and we were mainly talking to groups of artists, primarily media artists around the world. By the late 1990s/early 2000s, we had a critical mass of Black people online and artists participated in listserves like Alondra Nelson’s Afrofuturism group and sites developed like CafelosNegroes.com (a Black and Latino space) and later Benjamin Sun and Omar Wasow started Community Connect Inc., the parent company of BlackPlanet.com, AsianAvenue, and MiGente.com.com. All of these commercial and community projects affected how everyone online thought about race and culture.AD: Both Blackness for Sale and TheInteraction of Coloreds deal with race as material or concept beyond its attachment to a given body. Blackness for Sale finds Keith auctioning off his “blackness,” seemingly questioning the ontological status of blackness at large, and drawing attention to blackness as a commodity. Blackness becomes transferrable. The Interaction of Coloreds also plays with the materiality and ontology of race, but looks more at the pseudo-objective regime of racial classification and colorism. Can you speak a bit about these two works and their relationship to each other?
M+KO: The Interaction of Coloreds is about new mediated ways of “looking” and it plays with language of color theory. We use phrases from Albers’s The Interaction of Colors to hint at a kind of racial coding that we imagined might happen online. The project is an online brown paper bag test. We ask audiences to answer a question about color and relations and also to photograph parts of their body associated with color classification—behind the ears, fingernails, palms, faces, eyes, etc. In return, we offer to assign a hex code for that person’s skin color (so that it can be read accurately across browsers). We were playing with what we called “social filters,” or the mechanisms that allow or deny access based on social classification. It was one way of thinking through and pushing back on the claims that race didn’t matter online because we didn’t see people. We understood that we’re never just seeing people in real time. We’re also activating a series of calculations that are stabilized in our imaginations as color terms, but they are more dependent on interpretive frames and relations than on color. We continued this exploration of color in the final piece in the Black Net.Art Actions suite, The Pink of Stealth (2003), which was commissioned by the New York African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix.
In Blackness for Sale, we offer Keith’s Blackness for auction at eBay. The piece suggests that with his Blackness, the buyer would acquire a series of benefits, but we also caution that it also comes with some concerns. Audiences are invited to laugh, read aloud, and share the text. They are also invited to assign monetary value to the blackness. Blackness for Sale plays with the idea of an online transferable identity. During the early days of the net there was a fantasy of going online and taking on a new identity. We wanted see what an artwork could say to this question of who are we when we are online and ask questions about where Blackness (race and culture) lives. Is it in the body or somewhere else?
Both projects ask questions about value, color, and/or race as code, and interpretive frames. They are both performances and they both invite audiences to perform.
AD: Both of these works also seem to be concerned with authenticity. The Interaction of Coloreds is really tongue in cheek about it, highlighting the absurdity of the intricacies of racial categorization. How can there be an authentic blackness when the boundaries are always shifting? Likewise Blackness for Sale pokes fun at its subject. In some ways, it seems like undermining authenticity is one of your goals.Would you say this is the case? What are your thoughts on authenticity as an ideal—particularly online?
M+KO: When we talked to each other we were primarily concerned with other concepts, like interpretation, relation, and value. Once you start down that road, however, of course authenticity comes into play. We would have said that we were asking questions about race, difference, nation, and belonging. We wanted to unearth some of the implications of the words we use to talk about these things. Some people were arguing that race had less meaning online; we felt, instead, that racial logics were accruing new methods of operating. We noted that in the online environment people use both language and images associated with race to assign value in the marketplace, and we wanted our work to invite meditation and dialogue about that.
AD: Blackness for Sale also opens up an interesting conversation about censorship. eBay removed the auction for Keith’s blackness from the site. To me, there is something interesting about seeing blackness policed online—here, not just in the sense of traditional policing and surveillance, but in the sense that it is constantly being regulated in the market. Can you talk about this element of the work? What was your initial reaction to the censorship, and how do you feel looking back on it?
M+KO: We had an ongoing conversation with eBay’s bots about appropriate sales and all of the ways it was already selling Blackness through figurines and other paraphernalia. It ultimately felt appropriate that our intervention on the sale of Blackness at the marketplace was met with resistance. What else would happen? Dialogue with people from around the world continued over email and in interviews about the function of Blackness in its intersection with gender, the internet, and the marketplace. The work continued.
AD: Mendi, can you discuss Keeping Up Appearances? What prompted making the work?
M+KO: Keeping Up Appearances, which we called “a hypertextimonial,” is a text-based, net.art work that appears to be a poem with a lot of white space. If the viewer moves the cursor over the white spaces, text that has been rendered in white turns pink. The viewer can see that the work is instead a narrative told in a straightforward manner. The story is about sexual harassment. The only text that is constantly visible are the parts that do not recount harassment, indicate discomfort, or reveal emotion.
The two of us had been having a lot of conversations about form across creative contexts. We had been working on a few projects that reflected on color as code, on the social meanings ascribed to colors. We were also talking a lot about Raymond Saunders, the painter who published a pamphlet called “Black Is A Color” in 1967. Saunders is an abstractionist. That pamphlet is typically read as a pushback on identity politics and sometimes as a disavowal of Black Art, or art that is valued or understood to be Black because of its subject matter. But Saunders was also a family friend and Mendi had grown up with paintings of his from that time that were abstract but also often dealt with Black subject matter. We were grappling with the ways certain formal choices could have both aesthetic traditions and social meanings. So we were thinking about race and gender and the codes by which people accessed that, and the ways people performed gender in language, and decided to performing hiding in language and think about the ways and reasons people use language to say more than one thing at a time. Keeping Up Appearances came out of that exploration.
AD: It seems that you (Mendi) have a vested interest in exploring poetry and written texts online. What makes this interesting for you?
M+KO: We’re both very interested in the ways that language performs in different contexts. Mendi comes from a background as a poet, and that’s one of the reasons that there is writing in our work, but it’s a shared interest. And we have explored language and poetry online for the same reason we explore anything anywhere—because it’s where some of our life happens. That said, there are opportunities for interactivity, which may be performed or just implied, that allow for deep engagement. We have enjoyed exploring them in this medium, alongside all the others.
I met Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries when I was making a piece for Portikus in Frankfurt, and I decided that making a show about Samsung would make sense. Partly because I was looking at the culture of technology companies at the time, and partly since Samsung had an amazing kind of keystone event that was framed around Frankfurt—the Frankfurt Declaration of 1993, a meeting of investors and executives that sort of serves as the origin story for the huge corporation they are today.
I began by reaching out to other artists, particularly in South Korea, who kind of had processed Samsung in another way, because I wanted context on what I was trying to do. And they came up immediately. I was quite struck by the piece and wanted to reach out to them. So Sophie von Olfers just cold called them on email, and we had an exchange.
I felt like they were performing and a kind of persona, but they gave me really great information and were very friendly. They obviously had processed the Samsung thing quite a lot. Even when I was talking to them in 2014 it was kind of like older work for them—Samsung was made in 1999.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Samsung (1999). Installation view from The C(h)roma Show, Bangalore, 2014.
They seemed to have a very particular relationship with Samsung, and had not the easiest interactions. Which was interesting, because later I also had not also the easiest interactions with the company—in the end, they ended up writing me a letter saying, “Please don’t make this exhibition.”
From my perspective, Samsung was just a global giant that was growing only in importance because it was manufacturing a lot, including components in iPhones at that point, televisions, and screens. It was just omnipresent in that space. It was kind of de-contextualized, I guess, from the side of production. But the more that I looked into it and talked to people like YHCHI, the more I realized how deeply it permeated the culture of Korea.
You read stories of the possibility of only interacting with Samsung as a brand. They not only do electronics, but also construction and hospitals. There are Samsung hospitals, and you can then die in the hospital and then be buried in a Samsung casket. And they also touch pop culture, through investments in K-Pop and stuff like that as well.
As I researched the 1993 moment surrounding the Frankfurt Declaration, I also delved into the relics from that period. One of the most interesting things was this comic that Samsung did in 1993 with a very prominent comic artist of the time named Lee Won Bok. He had produced this kind of story of why they needed to change their management strategy. It was not only meant for speaking to people within the company, which was obviously huge, but was also on sale in general bookstores. So it had a wider cultural importance, a kind of popularity beyond the company.
Comic by Lee Won Bok, Let’s Change Ourselves First, published by Samsung Economic Research Institute (1995). Adapted by Simon Denny for “New Management” (2014).
Later I came into contact with an academic who is preparing an important book on Samsung, and he came across the project that I did. This comic is in there—I had it translated, and had parts of it reproduced it in the show and catalogue. He said that it contained so much cultural information that just simply wasn’t available to outsiders.
That’s true to what I found about this comic too. It was full of amazing snapshots of an attitude of that time. There’s various little snippets of that comic which has Samsung competing against Sony, Panasonic, Phillips, LG.
Lee Won Bok, Let’s Change Ourselves First, published by Samsung Economic Research Institute (1995).
It reminds me of something that YHCHI told me while we were looking at a piece of theirs in a museum in South Korea. From their perspective, South Korea’s always kind of jealous of Japan. They were like, “Yeah, so Korea always wants to have something as iconic as sushi.” That would go around the world as a cultural product or whatever. But it never gets it. And bibimbap is never going to be sushi.
That comes across in the comic, and in the narrative in Samsung’s new management text as well—that Samsung’s always kind of looking towards Sony, and other competitors from Japan, that kind of prefigured them in global tech. There were all these phrases about changing and accelerating or becoming immediately obsolete. And there was kind of a level of urgency to that.
One part of the comic, one of the frames which I stole and used in my work, is this image of a figure from the comic, like, standing in front of a tree, saying, like, “A company is an everlasting space.” That like, “People may come or go. Our mortal souls may die but the company continues.”
And I felt like that was again, that was... pretty much a Heavy Industries piece.
As told to Michael Connor.
Top image: Simon Denny, installation shot from “New Management,” Portikus, Frankfurt, 2014. Credit: Helena Schlichtling.
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.
Hanna Girma: I know you work in a variety of different mediums and navigate multiple personas, how does your process vary when creating as Mhysa, E. Jane, SCRAAATCH, and E. The Avatar?
E. Jane: SCRAAATCH isn’t a persona of mine. SCRAAATCH is the collaborative music/performance project I work inside of with my partner, chukwumaa a.k.a. lawd knows.
E. The Avatar was a project I did in grad school. She was an early persona, conceptualized as intelligent code meant to run online/in cyberspace for eternity and hang out with humans. The persona was mostly communicated through the episodes and I enjoyed dryly delivering her lines as though the code wasn’t sophisticated enough for her delivery to be smooth. Her lines were generic as though she was coded with only a limited set of topics and words to use.
I think that at this point, at least in american capitalism, we’re all presenting personas or brands for the publics we interact with to consume. In that way, I think of E. Jane as my me, but also I do sketch out their (or my) main functions in relating to others and existing in the world and they are largely a result of my leaving a predominantly Black space in Maryland and then navigating PWIs (predominantly White institutions). In grad school, I sketched out what I thought were differences between all of my personas and was thinking I was navigating like five whereas now I navigate two really: E. Jane and Mhysa. Mhysa is also me and she allows me to be a part of myself I think white institutions tried to smother. Now I keep her with me and bring her out when we’re safe to be, preferably in spaces where Black women can just be themselves without having to explain or apologize, in spaces where other Black women exist and are seen. Or occasionally in spaces where Black women are sent for (these spaces still hold higher risk for her but capitalism demands we all take risks).
Mostly we (E. Jane and Mhysa) work together in my studio, both taking turns in the creative process when we’re needed. Mhysa is more about music and feeling and making things that feel and E. Jane deals with the more institutional approaches and deconstructing them, whereas Mhysa doesn’t like to think about those spaces and would much rather think about nightlife. Both would like to see themselves as healers, both believe in magic, both believe that love and care matter more than reason.
Lavendra/Recovery Iteration No.2 (2016). Installation; Two-channel video, sound, light, Swarovski crystal nail art rhinestones, cellophane, milk crates, bubble wrap, plastic, paint pen, tape, paper, iridescent wallpaper, love.
HG: The atmospheres of your videos and installations seem to navigate between softness, intimacy, and sterility. From the materials you use like plastic boxes, cellophane, and bubble wrap to the fragile yet powerful ’90s black divas you explore, can you talk about how you source your materials and create these realities?
EJ: In my early work I thought about color a lot less and was thinking about materials based on conceptual needs. Like I started using bubble wrap because I wrote in my journal in 2012 about my mom treating me like I needed to be wrapped in bubble wrap or I might break after she hospitalized me several times the previous summer and kind of treated me like a defenseless princess because I was diagnosed as Bipolar I. Now I see fragility quite different and I think ableism is a bigger issue than being fragile. I am a very fragile person and that’s okay. I’m also quite malleable which I think fragility also points to, because if something fragile breaks, it can shatter but it can also just change form or even be reformed from the pieces.
Notes on softness, (2016). Installation; Two-channel video , sound, light, swarovski crystal nail art rhinestones, cellophane, milk crates, bubble wrap, plastic, paint pen, tape, paper, iridescent wallpaper, love.
I used the plastic sparkly boxes in one of the pieces in Lavendra because they were right for holding/keeping the images of the Black divas. I wanted to keep their images in pretty boxes, and thinking with my child self, who I have to consult on all my projects dealing with dreaming and optimism, I decided they should be held in purple sparkly boxes. Then I searched for just that on Google and found those boxes and they felt right. I liked the type of plastic they were made from also because it’s used to make a lot of things, it’s a ubiquitous type of plastic. The place I bought them from stopped selling them, too, and I find things like that interesting.
Lavendra still exists inside of this reality, it’s just not on Earth. It engages science fiction to theorize the evolution of the power of the Black Divas voice. I think often about how to build beauty and good on top of this current reality, since this is the one we’ve been given. I think about how to build for the future, since the future is a new reality we’re all always building together. I like to create phenomenological experiences through materials, thinking really about how different colors, lighting and texture change a space and manipulate how you see your reality. I’ve also been thinking about pink and purple in relation to how they frame bodies and spaces and purple in relation to Alice Walker’s Womanist definition, and branching out to other colors from there to generate a palette to work in.
HG: In NOPE (a manifesto) you state, “We are beyond asking should we be in the room. We are in the room. We are also dying at a rapid pace and need a sustainable future.” Do you see cyberspace as a type of sustainable future? Is the digital realm a space of of safety, method of survival, or another frontier and how do you quantify your practice outside of the digital realm?
EJ: No, cyberspace is no one’s sustainable future because its infrastructure is incredibly precarious. I have no idea how they intend to sustain all the electrical cables and metal boxes in the ground that store our so-called immaterial cyberspace and the “cloud”. Also how cyberspace is made is incredibly violent to the Earth and the humans who mine the Earth’s minerals to make our computers, who are crowded in factories to make many of our phones, and only about 40% of the world has access to the internet. These are some of the saddest realizations I’ve had about the internet. Also, it is not a safe space because hacking is too easy.
It can be a part of a method of survival. The best part of the internet for me is how it allows to me to stay connected to my communities even when I’m unable to see people in meatspace that I wish I could see more often. I like being able to work in my studio and see my friends in other places around the world and what they’re up to online, reach out to them so that we can be there for each other and strengthen each other whether it be with an emoji or a phone call. I like making plans to meet my friends online and feeling like we saw each other yesterday even if we were on different coasts yesterday because we were still together online. I like how information spreads online, though that’s starting to change as Facebook and IG algorithms silo off information to stifle awareness. Because the information seems to only ping back and forth between specific groups of people, it can sometimes make you feel like everyone in the world is on the same page, until you realize there are so many circles of people with different opinions sharing information that bolster those opinions (be they ethically good or violent) and there are all the people not online being informed by television news which mostly skews the truth for financial gain.
Capitalists really control the internet. As soon as Tumblr became a hub for interaction, companies began wondering how to capitalize on it, and then Instagram and, of course, Facebook. I get messages asking me to be a brand ambassador for random companies that have nothing to do with why I post online. It’s already been swallowed by this current dystopia, but I think that’s because humans control what happens with cyberspace and technology. Originally a “computer” was the person who made calculations and somewhere down the line the machines started being branded as the “computer” and we the “user,” but people still design the computers, write the code that makes their interfaces and determine what they can do. Therefore, I’ve started to think less about what the technology will do in the future, and more about who determines what the technology can do, and what they intend to do with it. I’m starting to think of capitalism as this virus that capitalists teach to evolve around new subcultures in order to find profit, and then I wonder how I can evolve and how we can evolve to counter this evolution.
Alive (Not Yet Dead) (install) (2016). Interactive NewHive installation.
Since before the dot com bubble, capitalism has been directly engaging cyberspace. And the social media platforms we’ve been using to be online are the newest frontier for capitalism. Since capitalism is vested with way more power than the people, I’m not exactly optimistic about the future of the internet as a space for humans to go for safety.
Also, towards the end of grad school, I started to realize how alienated I was to my physical body and how unhealthy I was feeling because of that alienation. I was forced to remember that we humans still have physical bodies we must tend to and—like plants—they need sunlight and water and fresh air. Cyberspace has no actual physical component to house or nourish our bodies, so we still have to make physical hiding places in meatspace and ideally I would love for Earth to have a more sustainable future, though I fear many people with power have already given up and are trying to get their tickets to the next best planet.
HG: Much of your work is punctuated by resistance, refusal, and love. Can you tell me about your project #Notyetdead and how it relates to your broader practice?
EJ: The #Notyetdead project was started in the winter of 2015 after I found out that Brian Encinia wouldn’t be charged for the murder of Sandra Bland. When he wasn’t indicted, I was outraged but tired of writing things on Facebook about how outraged I was because it felt ineffective. So I decided to make a background for photobooth with the word ALIVE at the top and to take photos with it and then I asked other Black women to do the same via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and asked them to hashtag the images #Notyetdead in relation to Roxane Gay’s article “On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies,” published in the The New York Times Opinion pages in the summer of 2015. Gay says,
In his impassioned new memoir, “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” I would take this bold claim a step further. It is also traditional to try and destroy the black spirit. I don’t want to believe our spirits can be broken. Nonetheless, increasingly, as a black woman in America, I do not feel alive. I feel like I am not yet dead.
I hoped the images would show that many Black women were still alive, though a part of a group feeling #Notyetdead, in an effort to resist the public image that we were only dead, dying or being brutalized.
Sandra Bland is Not Alive And Someone Is Responsible (2016). Instagram Post
With the help of a commission from Ryan Hawk at University of Texas at Austin in 2016, I then turned the images into a larger installation where I created a NewHive page with several 3D spinning graphics of the word ALIVE. That version was installed in a show called Queer Terrortories that Ryan curated, where people could scroll omnidirectionally through the images across multiple panels to create the feeling that many of us are in fact still alive. This work is trying to strengthen the Black spirit, to remind us that there is good news also because the news has felt so bad since 2012 and it seems to keep getting worse. My broader practice also involves trying to protect and nourish the Black spirit because we need our spirits intact if we’re going to continue surviving these times.
HG: Your recent show at American Medium is the third iteration of Lavendra. With this ongoing project what are you hoping to accomplish? What is the significance of repetition and ritual in your work?
EJ: The work in my solo show Lavendra was also work that tried to strengthen the Black spirit by making beauty with/in the name of Black culture, a thing I already see as very beautiful and very baroque at times. The work was started, again, to counteract all the negative images and resist a larger white supremacist imaginary that imagines us only dead and dying. I wanted us to see ourselves as only we can, in the tradition of artists like Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems and I also wanted to territorialize space for us, and keeping space I think is a major part of resistance, like holding down a fort.
Repetition and ritual in my work are important as they are the things that strengthen a culture, to make ritual is to make culture as culture is made up partially of rituals. In the video Saved.mp4 (installed in the storefront window of the gallery), I wanted to show a ritual of keeping the images of these women, of loving them and folding them like keepsakes to be safe in pretty boxes for a long time. In the act of repetition, I hope to encourage others to do the same, keeping I mean, and also suggest that this act is ongoing, relentless. I like video because a video can go on longer than your body can, because it can be looped and there a gesture can really appear infinitely enacted.
HG: Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on softness, particularly softness as a political act for black femmes?
EJ: I want to start by saying I identify as a femme because I am queer and grew up around gay women that identified as femmes because they liked girls and wore dresses. I’ve been finding myself getting back into being a queer-identified person that is engaging feminine aesthetics and gestures.
As a Black woman, I think the performance of a soft femininity—that is, a femininity rooted in delicateness, rest and feminine labors (though these labors are still oppressive to all women)—is denied us far too often because of misogynoir. In particular, I’m thinking about Black american slave-descendant working-class families that maybe function under “strong Black women” matriarchies or just expect a woman to be a strong, silent “mule,” to quote Alice Walker. I think a lot about Alice Walker, her thoughts, her essays, and the film The Color Purple in relation to Black women and softness. I think about how Celie was just expected to work and not have nice things and Shug Avery was judged as “fast”/loose for getting those things through professional entertainment and relationships with men.
I think about what it would feel like for a Black woman to possess a soft, non-physical-labor-intensive femininity and still be safe in a way I couldn’t even imagine being after a certain age. I remember my father judging me because I was so good at sitting still and being pretty in social situations and how, because my mother didn’t make me clean the house very often, I refused chores as much I could and was seen as a bad “woman” because of this. I think about how softness is generally used against Black people, especially by one another, because we’re told we have to be hard to survive. I think that sometimes that hardness inadvertently kills/harms us because that kind of repression—like unreleased cortisol from not crying—has actual negative effects on the body.
Things like crying, resting, and cultivating aesthetic beauty (if you’re interested in that) or even just taking basic care of/being careful with your body and trying to be “soft” at a time when the world expects you to react with hardness to it being so brutal could maybe be radical. Engaging in this kind of softness might help reinforce our spirits because we’re responding to the climate by building ourselves up when tired, crying/venting when we’re frustrated/sad and caring for our bodies when we’re weak. Doing these kinds of things instead of solely doing things like working ourselves into the ground, directly confronting every instance of oppression (in conversations, random interactions, online etc.) can run counter to the kind of exhaustion and destruction that is practically expected of Black women only.
I am so angry, I have so much rage, but it becomes physically unhealthy for me to express it sometimes.
It’s actually much more to my benefit to remain calm in my rage, to sit pretty in my rage and start planning a better future rather than letting my anger bring me down to a toxic space. I think also about resisting femmephobia by performing feminine gestures and engaging in feminine culture despite them being perceived as “less than” or not “serious” things to concern myself with. In the Womanist definition, Alice Walker says that a womanist prefers women’s culture and I also see softness as a part of women’s culture.
Here again, I think about The Color Purple. I consider Sophia and how if she had said something like, “I’ll think about it” to Ms. Millie, she might’ve avoided that fight (and jail) and had more time with her children and family. I think about how my goals involve resisting the efforts of white supremacy to tire me out, disconnect me from my kin and lead me on a path of distraction where I’m fighting to show I’m human instead of living my life. Working tirelessly to prove one’s humanity as a Black person is also known as John Henryism, which Claudia Rankine discusses in her innovative work, Citizen. In the book she describes it, “Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure.”
It’s not passive resistance, but rather just as evil has gotten banal, maybe Black rage has to get soft to compete. Like how Judith must’ve been in the bible story where she convinces Holofernes to let her in his tent, before she cuts off his head. I am also indulging in softness as a Utopian demand, coming from a history where enslaved Black women had their fingernails pulled off if they were caught painted.
Honestly, I’m just trying something because I have to keep going. I’m trying not to give up and die because the world is a violent scary place right now and I fear for my life and the lives of other Black women and POCs, in general.
Grown (detail) (2016). Archival inkjet print on foamboard, swarovski crystal nail art rhinestones, gel medium, led lights, lighting gel, love.
Age: 26, turning 27 in June
Location: Philadelphia, PA
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? When I was 17 I started playing with video software on my laptop but began taking the technology more seriously as a creative tool when I was around 23.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Marymount Manhattan College for undergradwhere I studied Art History, English (with a focus on poetry), and Philosophy mostly. I did a semester abroad in Paris where I studied black and white photography, art history, life drawing and french, after a year of taking french in school.
I studied Interdisciplinary Art in grad school at UPenn, with a focus on performance and video. I started studying under Sharon Hayes my second year and she’s still my mentor now.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? My partner and I are in a performance/music duo called SCRAAATCH and we perform often and generally that’s how I make rent. Also maybe going on tour soon.
Past on cv:
June 2012 – June 2014 Performance Art Documentarian, Washington, D.C.
Jan 2013 – June 2013 Gallery Intern, International Arts & Artists’ Hillyer Art Space, Washington, D.C.
June – Aug. 2011 Public Relations Intern, Christie’s Auction House, New York, NY
June – Aug. 2010 Program Services Unit Intern, New York Dept. of Cultural Affairs, New York, NY
June – Aug. 2009 Manuscript Division Intern, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
I also worked various types of retail when I was about 17, throughout undergrad and my time afterwards until I was 23 when I went to grad school.I worked at American Apparel, Anthropologie, and then vintage shops and buy/sell/used shops.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
skinonskinonskin began in 1999 the day after its creators, net artists and web designers Auriea Harvey (Entropy8) and Michaël Samyn (Zuper!) met on “a private parallel web,” hell.com.1 At the time, Harvey was based in New York City and Samyn was based in Belgium. After meeting in hell, Samyn sent Harvey a link to breath.html, a page on a locked server. Harvey explains: “as i moved my mouse, it mirrored the motion of my pointer. it breathed. i fell in love. he fell in love. i sent him a webpage back. we did this, back and forth, for several weeks…” skinonskinonskin is their first correspondences, letters, records of this long distance love affair, animated by code. These pages were purposefully secret and meant only for Harvey and Samyn. Video chat was in its infancy and speaking on the phone was exorbitant; as much as they wanted to hear one another’s voices (and they did see glimpses of each other via slow glitchy webcam), they wanted more to feel a deeper connection with one another, touching one another through the cursor, hearing the other’s heart beat, listening to the other breathe.
whispers = new Array();
whispers = "breath me";
whispers = "i will love you forever";
whispers = "skin";
whispers = "skin on skin";
whispers = "skin on skin on skin";
whispers = "implode";
whispers = "soft";
whispers = "slow";
whispers = "can you feel me?";
whispers = "touch me";
whispers = "one more cigarette";
whispers = "i am so open";
whispers = "i want to feel you inside of me";
whispers = "smoke";
whispers = "i want to breathe you";
whispers = "we are smoke";
whispers = "yesss";
whispers = "deeper";
whispers = "i am disappearing";
whispers = "warm";
Following the format of breath.html, each page of skinonskinonskin is a love letter, code, and output. Some pages are clear. “come” for example, begins on the grid of a series of images of a warehouse, when the user clicks on one of the images a body (we assume Harvey’s), moves quickly in GIF fashion towards the front of the image until their body creates a darkness, and then it goes white. Each image follows the same pattern, as if to imply “come to me,” or “I will come to you,” and upon arrival bliss, over and over. A few clear pages later, “forest” proves quite unclear. What are these red leaves, where are we, who is there, what kind of forest is this? Is this distance depicted in the net?
screenshot from skinskinonskin as seen in Netscape 4.
When reading someone else’s love letters it is hard to figure out what each part of the letter means. There is a twinge of embarrassment too. Should I be seeing this? Love is, in this way, filled with secrets twists and turns. Cliches. Fantasy. A show and play for two. As Vladimir Nabokov writes in a letter to his beloved Vera: “[y]ou came into my life—not as one comes to visit…but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.”
Harvey:“[w]e felt a special magic, a ‘technoromanticism’ of the web, back then. And the web became a part of our story… We wanted people to realize that this place wasn’t about machines, but people.” You can fall in love with someone you have never seen before. Was this the ultimate virtual act?
In their Postmasters Gallery press release statement from April 2000 they explain:
It began as a form of secret communication DHTMLove over the ocean. A place for us to take refuge and to make real the fantasies that were rooted in our cheating hearts.2 Page by page we built the site and then released it as a pay-per-view experience to guard its personal content. Limiting viewing to just those on the net who really had a burning desire to see what had been going on behind closed doors.
To reveal on the internet a love affair between two people was completely new in 1999. But why would Samyn and Harvey, on a private and shadowy platform, with no pressures social or cultural, share their love online? Harvey: “it seemed that the time was right to release our love to the world. and to leave our old lives behind.” To absorb yourself into another, who knows only this most current iteration of you IS leaving your old self, your old life behind; for Harvey & Samyn, life began in 1999. To fall in love is some sort of recognition of the time and place in which you live, but in its breathless, selfish banality remains timeless. Why not share this rebirth, ignoring the pain of former lovers? Was skinonskinonskin, and its sharing on hell.com, a birth announcement? It IS exhilarating to fall in love, to suddenly see the entire world with new eyes and then to name that world, to translate it to your most familiar languages.
The importance of skinonskinonskin is situated firmly in 1999 and the year 2000. The exit comments for skinonskinonskin further this dialogue, they position the work in its time, noting the innovation and later the speed at which technologies and their novelty become obsolete. From 188.8.131.52, on 6/16/99: “The sensual qualities are arousing. The voyeuristic nature of this work/art/passion is sinful/decadent/yummy. Slick and ragged at the same time-- ruff is good you brought knowledge to how this [the web] can be intimate.” 184.108.40.206 notes on 6/21/99: “It was a good show of artistic ability. The scenes were a little monotonous and were lacking something. I think that maybe more of a personalized touch on some of the scenes would have been an improvement. Very talented work, though. I enjoyed the visit.” 2 years later, judiG: “Loved your site forever, but still trying to figure out what I just paid for. Still love your work. You are talented. (But I”m a hard workin sista and need to see my money welllll spent, ya know?)” Can interactivity be a metaphor for touch after the web’s rapid escalation in content?
Aureia Harvey and Michaël Samyn's wedding rings, engraved with code.
Further, what does it mean to make “love for sale”? Does this make the love harder to transfer, to share with the outside world, to share outside of its birth year? Is love meant to be bought and sold? Having been in love myself, I know there is a great deal of labor involved. These life-altering loves take over your life, steal your time, masquerade as obsession, pick you up, knock you down, steal your mind, time. There are the tokens to be given and received; the fits of insecurity, infidelity, failure, excitement. It’s a lot of work to be in love. To make that life-altering preoccupation available to others to witness is another added form of work, and since this is a society revolving around capitalism, it would make sense for the creators of such a love to charge to view the ephemera from it. But what to do with this sticky feeling? To pay to view implies I am a voyeur. I suppose I am, but it’s 2017 and I hear that’s more acceptable now. I do like to know what other people are up to and what they think of being alive, of falling in love, of the newest frappuccino flavor, their outward selves. Compulsively, as the now hyper-social, hyper-subjective, hyper-mobile web mandates, we share our thoughts, curate them, they’re meant to be scrolled through, not sat with, nor read over and over again.
Because skinonskinonskin was designed for the Nestcape 4 browser format, it is no longer fully viewable in its original context.3 Yes, there are plugins but the full experience, dial-up on a non HD screen, no tabs—that experience is gone. It is this balance between the historical web and the insular nature of the letters themselves that prove the largest triumph of skinonskinonskin. To do what they did then was extraordinary, technically and emotionally.
Love (like the internet) grows and changes over time. After three months, Harvey moved to Belgium and their need to connect from afar was ameliorated. Their love could exist without the wires; they could focus on different ways to manipulate the digital universe to support and contour their relationship. Like the media that supported it, skinonskinonskin was finished, there were new platforms, languages, forms to fall for, new ways of constructing intimacy through the wires.
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn.
1. According to the genesis section of their collaborative entity entropy8zuper.org also, “the residents of HELL collaborated and explored interactive media.”
2. In this conversation in another piece, under your desk, both Harvey and Samyn allude that they had other serious partners before they met.
3. For this exhibition, Netscape 4 has been restored by Rhizome's digital preservation team, allowing the work to be viewed in its original environment again.
Today, Rhizome and Google Arts & Culture are thrilled inaugurate a partnership intended to surface the risk to digital art and culture posed by technological obsolescence, and to highlight Rhizome’s efforts to stem that threat in the creation of free, open-source, user-friendly tools for digital preservation and ongoing access to legacy born-digital artifacts.
To mark the collaboration, we are co-publishing:
Additionally, as part of this partnership Google has underwritten cloud-computing infrastructure required by Rhizome’s tools for digital preservation, significantly increasing our capacity and our ability to support access needs for artists and other institutions.
Rhizome’s digital preservation program supports social memory for internet users and networked cultures through the creation of free, open-source, user-friendly software tools that foster decentralized and vernacular archives, while ensuring the growth of and continuing public access to the Rhizome ArtBase, a collection of 2,000+ born-digital artworks founded in 1999.
Since 2014, Rhizome’s small software development team has created Webrecorder, a tool to easily capture and immediately reconstruct complex web pages; Oldweb.today, which offers access to public web archives via emulated browsers; and, in collaboration with the University of Freiburg, Emulation as a Service (EaaS), an emulation framework which delivers complete, fully interactive legacy software environments to any modern web browser.
We’re honored to contribute to Google and Google Arts & Culture’s commitment to vastly expanding access to cultural heritage, and grateful for their partnership and collaboration.
This conversation between Rhizome’s preservation director, Dragan Espenschied, and Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, took place in London in April 2017 at a convening that marked the beginning of a new partnership between Rhizome and Google Cultural Institute.
Vint Cerf: I want to start by pointing out that preservation by accident is not a plan.
That is, in fact, how an awful lot of artifacts have been preserved: because somebody kept them by happenstance. They were stored in a place that was preserved, like manuscripts stored in a cave in Qumran, for instance, over thousands of years.
In the digital case though, the artifacts that we create require a substantial infrastructure in order to be rendered in a useful way. We need help to present those objects to our senses, and the ability to preserve all of that infrastructure is a big challenge, so the persistence of our ability to make these objects accessible, whether they're text documents, or works of art, or performance music, or other kinds of performance art, is a big issue.
That’s why I think that Dragan’s focus on tools for preservation is such an important idea. We don’t know what should be preserved, we don’t know who will want to preserve something, but we want them to have tools to do that if they wish to do so, and not be bereft of that.
Dragan Espenschied: I’m glad to be sitting here with Vint who, of course, has enabled Internet* art, but has also caused all the trouble for Internet art at the same time.
As Internet art is inherently performative, and made with the network in mind, as a condition, we have to…well, what I like to think about is its performative staying power. It is like a ritual, or a repertoire, that an institution is collecting. But instead of objects that are taken out of cold storage, and put on a wall, [the works] have to be re-performed in order to keep their cultural value and to keep their power.
I want to show you an artwork that we have recently presented in the Net Art Anthology, called The Web Stalker by I/O/D, which is a browser made by artists in 1997.
VC: That sounds vaguely threatening. Why is it called The Web Stalker?
DE: At that time it was fine. At that time, there were only nice people on the Internet.
So this is how this is presented, this 1997 project, in Windows 98. With Emulation as a Service, we were able to run that original software environment. We can also, then, launch that artifact. There’s no sound connected here, but there’s the Windows boot-up sound as well.
The interaction with that system changes, because users don’t necessarily have a mouse anymore, so we were forced to write instructions here, for how to use the thing if you don’t have a mouse. Many users also don’t know how to right click, because it’s really not required anymore.
VC: This is great, including all the crappy graphics. It’s amazing.
DE: Here, I have to put a URL in the crawler. This is where it gets interesting, because of course you also need the Internet for this thing to work. It’s an alternative browser after all.
It walks around the web, and surfs by itself, creating a map of what it finds.
You can also change the background color. You can look at different nodes here, which usually shows you the code it is analyzing.
So, it’s a structural web browser. This is already quite a nightmarish case for digital preservation. You need this operating system, and you need to understand how to operate the browser, because it just gives you a blank screen on startup.
You need also websites that are still accessible by this outdated tool. We are moving, for example, to a fully encrypted web, where everything is https. This one doesn’t support https, it wasn’t very common at that time.
Also even if it would support https, the encryption algorithms are changing all the time because they’re found to be insecure. So, there have to be ways to keep that going. To repeat that performance, and not just accept the static image of it.
VC: So this is a good example of something that [Internet Archive founder] Brewster Kahle has been forced to do. In order to make things reproducible, when he has captured web pages and references to other web pages, he’s had to copy those web pages into his own storage system and change the URLs so that they are locally resolvable. I think that’s probably the only solution that you can have to maintain any degree of fidelity with regard to the experience of that past, especially given that web pages disappear.
To offer one other interesting evolution in this whole story of preservation: what Brewster has done is build an additional feature into Chrome that you can download and add, so that if you get a “Page 404: Not Found,” it will then automatically go to the Internet Archive to see if it could find that page that might have been recorded, historically.
So that’s an attempt to blend the past with the present, mechanically speaking. What faces all of us with digital preservation, is the amount of infrastructure that needs to be available in order to retain the experience. It’s significant that we need all of the assistance of all that software. Otherwise, our own senses don’t prevail. In the older artistic productions, our eyes and ears and sense of touch, and even taste maybe, are sufficient for us to experience those preserved works of art.
Yet, in this new world of online and digital art, we need all of this additional capability before the objects are rendered and experienceable for us. So this is a huge challenge. Partly because there are costs associated with maintaining that infrastructure. Hiding behind the technology and everything else, is the question of who’s going to pay for it, and for how long? And under what conditions?
DE: I want to pick up on the term “rendering,” which should be critically examined, especially if you are looking at a piece like The Web Stalker.
This is not creating something that is just nice to look at, or experience with your senses; it’s also a map. The process itself is the biggest part of this artwork. Something very special about net art is that it’s not screen essentialism, what’s on your screen. There is a lot of process there, that is important.
The term “rendering” has something very visual to it, and the “visual” part is very important for this piece, and for many others, but it is only one part.
VC: I would argue to use the term “render” in a more general sense, as in: to produce something that is palpable. Whether it’s visual or audible, or touch, or something else. From my point of view, rendering is not merely visual. So we can expand the definition for purposes of today’s discussion.
DE: Ok, agreed.
What I wanted to say about infrastructure is that this is actually something we want to build, and we have also built with some support from Google. We think about it, as you said, with a focus on tools, that is, an infrastructure can be useful for many different uses and institutions, and single users, too, so that preservation is available to a more diverse user base. That is indeed, something that needs to be kept up. There is an economic problem there.
What I’m getting back from the preservation community, very often when I’m talking about this problem, is: “Hey why don’t you just go to Facebook and ask them to give you a copy of Facebook?”
There was this artist making a performance piece on Instagram so we have one of those in our collection, but yeah, “Why don’t you just talk to Facebook, because they own Instagram, and for sure they have people that will help you.” I think there is a kind of misunderstanding in how these different things work. Is there anything you want to say about that?
VC: Think of this like an institutional paintbrush. Just to create a neologism here. What we should not imagine, is that the paintbrush has anything to do with preservation. It may have something to do with production. Many of the tools people use at Google and elsewhere are like paintbrushes. We can’t assume they will confer preservability on the objects, or events, that are created.
I’d like to take this conversation around to a slightly different path that has to do with the fidelity of the preservation which we are able to achieve.
Some of us who have been working in this space realize that, perhaps, we can’t anticipate perfection in our ability to preserve and experience a digital object and that we may need to be satisfied with various levels of fidelity. So for example, in the case of an image, we might be able to get a bitmap of an image, but no more depth than that, as opposed to preserving the mechanism that produced the image and allow interaction with is, and maybe alteration and changing. I’ve been unhappy with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to achieve a perfect rendering and a perfect recollection of the experience.
But Dragan convinced me, in a conversation we had this morning, that attempting to preserve perfectly may actually inhibit the ability to preserve anything at all, and that would not be a good outcome.
DE: Yeah sure, that’s my favorite topic. For example, when we think about a performance that happens on Instagram, which is what artists are doing, and which is also not only about the images that are posted.
The question is: what is really the boundary of that thing, of that performance? Or what is possible to institutionally ingest and actually work with? Of course, this thing never had any stable form, it has like an unlimited number of forms, and it can look different to everyone. Even if we have very good tools like Webrecorder to look at that performance—to artifactualize it in a way—to make it into a stable thing that can be stored, in some storage system, it will still not be the same as if you’re following that artist on Instagram while the performance is happening.
That doesn’t mean that I want the data from all of the photos of that artist, and to be able to represent it, because that is not how such an artwork would be encountered by anybody. But what is, in fact, a very productive thing, is what [Rhizome Artistic Director] Michael Connor has been calling a “worm’s eye” perspective. You take [the user’s position] as a position of power and you say, this is what I will do: I will preserve the encounter with that artwork instead of all of its possible forms. You can also preserve two or three encounters or so. And it can actually be done—rather than not preserving anything, because a preservation specialist will say, “I would not be able to get everything, that's a job badly done, I will rather not do it.”
Being very conscious about where you draw the boundary around it, what makes sense, is much more important than what it means to be technologically complete, in a way, because that is just unattainable.
VC: Here’s an example that I resonate with, because I’m now on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Think a little bit about the First Folio, 1623; what’s preserved there is text. It’s the script, and the stage direction. What’s not preserved, for example, the stage set, and what is not preserved, of course, is the actual performance.
The preservation of the script is an important component, and yet the experience of Shakespeare’s plays are consequence of a performance by actors in a setting which has been chosen, typically by the director. What is interesting is the variety of renderings (if I can now use this word in a more general sense), in the renderings of Shakespeare’s plays, sometimes you see them in modern dress, sometimes there’s a very clear attempt to translate from the 17th or 16th century experience to a modern experience to draw an analogy. So I bring this up just to illustrate the challenge that’s associated with trying to preserve something as straightforward as a play, because there are so many instances of it. We don’t necessarily need to preserve all conceivable instances of a play, but we would like to be able to preserve at least some of them.
That’s the simpler case than the one that we face when we’re using digital technology, in order to produce a work. Preserving, yet again, has to rely very heavily on an infrastructure, which may not, itself, be preservable over time. So I want to tickle the tool question a little bit, to say that, for a long time, I was persuaded that we were going to have to preserve the ability to emulate old hardware, to run old operating systems, to run old applications, in order to correctly render a particular application. Like a text document or an interactive game, or something else. And although I still think that is an important capability, I’m no longer persuaded that it’s the only way to deal with this problem.
Another increasingly attractive solution is source code. If we can preserve enough of the infrastructure and execution environment, so we have to be able to compile, maybe recompile code. I don’t know how many of you remember the Adventure games, Zork from Infocom and so on, a lot of those have been reproduced now because the only thing you needed to do was render the text, and keep track of what all the various objects were that people were carrying around and what the topology of the game was. And that’s something you can reproduce. So a number of people have rewritten the code. One fellow Don Woods rewrote the code in Fortran at one point, which was great because then I could hack my way into a solution. I couldn’t do that with the original implementation.
Preservation of source code may turn out to be a very important component of the various tools that we use, as long as we can also reproduce the compile code, and executables that are needed. For some of the interactive art—games and things like that, sometimes you need a physical component, you know, the game consoles, whether those are going to be preserved, or can be reproduced in some way, is an open question. Like, “Do we have a mouse or not?” is part of the problem. I have personal experience that I have yet to resolve.
I wrote a program in Basic for an Apple IIe that my son and I did back in the early 1980s, and it was an interesting, artistic rendering that produced very pretty patterns on the screen. They were intended to be non-reproducible, or at least over a very long cycle. I still have the basic code, but I’m not sure that all the instructions for rendering the colors and everything would be correctly reproduced on any present devices.
DE: You should let us have that.
VC: Okay, I’ll have to dig it out. It’s literally on a piece of paper, sitting in my filing cabinet somewhere. And I would love to reproduce that, because it was actually a very interesting thing you could stare for a long time at. It was better than taking LSD (not that I’ve ever tried that).
So we’re seeing various kinds of things that should be in our toolkits, to enable people to preserve these various kinds of work.
DE: I think what would be interesting is to show a structured approach to using emulations, so that it becomes less of a…mountain that you think you have to climb, and rather something very nice, prepackaged and conceived. I would also like to talk about a cultural scale of that whole field, because you can invest in source code, and I’m all for it. Everyone in the preservation field tries to use software that is available with its source code, but there is also a lot of knowledge that needs to be kept around for working with source code.
When, for example, I want to run The Web Stalker, I could get that source code, maybe it’s made in Macromedia Director, but I will get that source code and the source code is nothing without the —
VC:—all of the surrounding environment.
DE: All of the surrounding things! And to have the source code, for example, Windows 98, even Microsoft didn’t understand Windows 98, obviously. How can an artist even dream of understanding it? It’s the same problem with knowledge as it is with infrastructure. I can ask Facebook, can you give me a copy of your data, and then I just have to build my own data center. And if I’m working on the source code level, I have to—in the same way—I need all the knowledge, all the tricks. I need to know how you compile everything and what is the exact version of each library, and that is also a huge burden.
VC: Let me try an idea out on you. This is almost going to sound philistine, so I run some risk. Artists figure out ways to produce art in the most incredible, unexpected ways. They are metallurgists and chemists and programmers and everything else. But you used a term in our earlier conversation, it was “stable form.” The idea of a stable form, for a work of art, is a really interesting one for me. It doesn’t mean that the artwork is static, it simply means it is reproducible.
So, this notion of stable form is very attractive. The point is, there is a great deal of infrastructure required to reproduce some of these works. Maybe we should be thinking: how can we offer the artist tools for art production, not for preservation, but for production, which have an implicit stable form capability in them? This may limit the set of things that they can produce, which will be preservable, but we could at least say something about the preservability of art produced using this particular set of tools, that produce stable forms. I think we should keep that in mind as we start thinking about helping the artists of the world produce art, which is preservable over a period of time.
DE: They will definitely not do it.
VC: Well, no one is dictating anything here, but if you believe, as I do, that the historical view of civilizations, and societies has been largely dictated by art, which has survived—we don’t know as much about history until writing becomes part of history. We know very little about the social activities of a lot of our early ancestors, but we see bits and pieces from their art. Like the ones that you showed on the presentation on the wall, art forms from 50,000 years ago. So, in some sense, we are doing history a favor by trying to provide these kinds of stable forms, that will allow it to last for a while, and therefore say something about our society.
Some of you will know about a book called A Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was about Abraham Lincoln and the formation of his cabinet, which was made up of people who were his opponents during the presidential election, and that is why the book is called A Team of Rivals. What’s interesting is Doris Kearns Goodwin reproduces the dialogue of the day in a very incredible way. The question is: how did she do that? The answer is, she went to the libraries of the written letters amongst these various principles and then reproduced credible dialogue on the topics, and the words used by them, so the book has this gravitas because of that.
I wonder about the 22nd-century Doris Kearns Goodwin, who tries to reproduce the dialogue of our time, lacking access to the emails, the blogs, the tweets, and all the other things that we create in a digital environment, which may be lost because no one is paying attention to preservation. Both on the technical side, and also on the financial, and maybe legal side. So collectively, we have a big challenge ahead of us if we want our descendants to understand anything about our current culture, given that it so laced with online environments.
DE: Maybe I can tell a little anecdote about a class I once taught. I was invited to teach a class at NYU about emulation, and how to work with preservation, very introductory for art students. I said, “Today, we will run Windows 98.” If you think I’m totally hooked on Windows 98, it’s kind of true. They were super excited, most of them were computer literate, more or less, for what they need to do, but not for emulation, and I had to give them serial numbers to track Windows 98 and so on, and so forth. They really wanted to do it, they wanted to solve their problems, some of them didn’t know, if they download a file, where it ends up on their computer, but in the end they all had the emulator running and then they wanted to know "where is Microsoft Paint?" Then I showed them here, then the start menu, then you go here, in there, in there, it’s like you’re playing this game with the hot wire and then you click on Microsoft Paint. Then, they started to draw in Microsoft Paint, and make pictures of the screen, and posted them on Instagram.
In Internet culture, Microsoft Paint is an incredible piece of software. It symbolizes so much, because even if you work at an insurance company, or at a bank, where your computer is totally locked down, you could still do art because Microsoft Paint would be on it. It was irremovable because it’s part of the operating system. So it had an aura.
There is so much embedded in that thing, and if you treat it like a ritual, like a repertoire, it is knowledge through repetition. This is not for a 50,000-year scale, this is for a ten-year scale. I think we have to scale up slowly on that level, and maybe we’ll go to the fifteen-year scale next time.
VC: I’m concerned about hundreds of years, though. Someone will say well, all that crap on the net doesn’t deserve to be preserved for five hundred years, and that I would actually agree with that. On the other hand, there are some things that people would like to preserve and we should give them the tools to do that, even if no one else cares about that. At least it should be possible to do that.
I wonder if I could steer in a very different direction for just a moment, because once we introduce computing and software into our world of art, we have an incredibly versatile tool for doing a wide range of things. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to 3D printing, for example, which is a whole other space in which to produce objects, some of which could be considered artistic.
Think for just a minute about software which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning, to try to discern style: a music work, or maybe an artistic work, or maybe even a written work. Suppose that we get good enough to extract the essence of Bach, or Beethoven, or Shakespeare for that matter, to generate works that closely emulate the style of that artist. What should we make of those things? What will happen, is that counterfeit art? Does it have significance even if it wasn’t made by the original artist? I don’t quite know what to do about that, but I suspect we’re going to get more and more situations like that. I don’t understand how we classify stuff like that. Is it a derivative work, or does copyright not have anything to say at all about what this means?
DE: I think that is funny because, especially Internet artists have, since forever, generated such work. They have created systems, or game creators, or any artist, that works with software not to create a static object. They have created systems, basically, there is not one thing you could say this is the canonical version of that piece. But it’s all about encounters that are different each time. I think they have already figured it out, and some of them have managed to build a career on it.
VC: Until you mention the artist creating the system to produce things, for those you for whom mathematics is a reasonable language, there are functions, you know like “f of x” is some number, and then there are functionals. Functionals produce functions. So that’s the analog here, producing the system, which produces art. If you’re the artist using the system, and you set up a bunch of parameters, it produces art of a certain kind, whether it’s visual or audible or something else. If I set the parameters, they’re Vint Cerf parameters and they produce Vint Cerf’s style of art, as opposed to Dragan’s style of art.
At that point, we have a cascade of artistry, and now there’s a question about who owns what. This is sort of like does Microsoft get to claim rights in anything anybody wrote with Microsoft Word? I think the decision is that they don’t.
If you have an archive that’s trying to preserve a lot of the artifacts that are needed in order to render the art, do you have the rights to do it? Do we have a legal infrastructure that supports that? Is that going to be international, or is it going to have to be instantiated on a national basis everywhere? I don’t have answers to all those questions, but we have to find answers to them if we expect to make the tools that Dragan wants to have available, actually work for people.
DE: I think this also falls back into this question of how completely do you even have to think things through before you act? For example, we have put that Microsoft operating system online, and we’ve had zero trouble from it. I’m sure Microsoft knows about it, but what should they do? It’s a beautiful artwork, why should they have it removed? I feel the same about a 50,000-year time scale actually. If we are waiting until we have a good idea on how to preserve something for 50,000 years, but we can’t prove it now, because we won’t live 50,000 years to see if that is actually true, I would rather preserve something for fifty months. I would rather invent a process, and do that now, and try to increase an artifact's lifespan, than look back and see what works, and what does not work.
*The transcript was edited by the participants and reflects their preferred terminology and capitalization.
MC: What was going on in your practice, and in American pop culture, when you started the blog?
MO: I did the project in 2004 and it was very early days of blogs. They were this new medium that people were excited about, and I was really always interested in autobiography and women’s narratives, which attracted me to them.
When I thought about starting one, I called my most tech-savvy artist friend to ask how to do it, which was Cory Arcangel. And he was like, “I’m really not sure, but I have this other tech-savvy friend who you should call, Jonah Peretti. Ask him.”
So I called Jonah, [now] CEO of Buzzfeed and co-founder of Huffington Post, but in 2004 he said, “I’m really not sure, but my sister, Chelsea Peretti, is a comedian in downtown New York, and she and a bunch of her friends sometimes use blogs, and I think they use something called Wordpress.” So I literally just did a Yahoo! search for Wordpress, and that’s how I figured out how to start a blog.
At the time, I had a secret addiction to American Idol. I used to sneak home from openings to watch it, and they had just raised their age limit to audition to 27, which was how old I was.
It evolved slowly, the idea of keeping a blog. It was this inside joke with friends, sort of like, “Oh, well, maybe I would audition now that I’m allowed to, but it would be as an art project, like an endurance project. And maybe I would keep a blog so all my friends would be in on the joke.” And then it was like, “Well, I would do it as this way to indulge my love of the show but also critique all of the gender norms that they’re always reinforcing.” Like when they’re telling average-weight girls that they’re too fat to be a star, or when they’re telling guys that they’re not masculine enough to be a singer, or something like that.
I started keeping all of these diary entries of quote-unquote training exercises. None of them really had to do with singing at all. All had to do with being a star, being more feminine, standing out. In the beginning of the project, I was trying to critique the relationship between fame and talent on the show.
This was the first internet project I ever did. It sent me in an entirely new direction. I was amazed by what happened with it, because of the timing of the election. So I was keeping this over the summer, and leading up to the fall.
My audition for American Idol was in October of 2004, just a few weeks before the election between Bush and Kerry. A lot of people were saying that people of our generation were not participating in elections, were not showing up to vote, and if they did it might make a difference.What was interesting to me, anyway, was that the show, the demographic for American Idol, was exactly the same as this demographic that was not participating in elections.
American Idol is predicated on this idea of “text your vote.” It was probably one of the first American shows to really use SMS. It was a novel use of texting, really. It really had this democratic premise, right?
“American idol” was the number one search term on the internet at the time, and somehow my site came up number one and their [official] site came up number three. And even though my site looks nothing like an official American Idol site, I was getting so many emails and so many hits from people who believed that my site was really the official one.
I was getting 30,000 hits a day from the same people who were not participating politically. And I was really trying to tweak the words that I was using and lure them in.
I started talking about using your voice, not just to sing, but politically. I started tweaking the posts that I was using from talking about the things that I originally described, to talking about where to register to vote. I brought voter registration forms with me to the line when I showed up to audition.
Friends of mine, family members of mine, people who knew me, who were extremely confused, because this was the first project of this nature that I had ever done. They were like, “Is this real, or is this a parody?” And my answer was just, “Yes.”
But yes, I really did show up to audition, which is a very different process in reality than what they show on TV. They make you sign more and more contracts with each round, saying that you will not reveal what the real process is.
I had a secondary blog, a moblog, which was a short-lived genre, that I linked to on my blog, where I was taking behind-the-scenes mobile photos and uploading them. But I could only do that for so long before they caught on to me and cut me off.
At this time in particular, I was really interested in the voice and the voice as a double entendre, the singing voice but also the political voice, and how artists get disenfranchised and cut off from their voice because the show really takes aways artists’ rights. There were a lot of stories about how if you made it onto the show they took away your royalties, they took away your right to craft and own your own identity and persona. They took away a lot of things from you, but people were willing to do it because they wanted so much to be famous. I wanted to expose some of that.
I always feel like this was the project that really made me an artist, and in a way it was really working on the internet that allowed me to do this, too.
It wasn’t even that long after I had finished my undergrad in 2000 with an honors thesis on the semiotics of digital storytelling, which is such a nerdy topic. I was looking at the use of digital media in autobiographies, and then there I was doing this autobiographical project using new media. So it was just close to my nerdy home.
But I had gone to Goldsmiths and had a disenchanting experience there, working mostly on large-scale sculptural and installation work. Even though I was Rhizome’s first paid writer in the late ‘90s, and was writing about new media and curating in new media and knew a lot about it, I hadn’t actually made any new media artwork myself up until 2004.
So this was my first experience putting my money where my mouth was and making new media. And it was amazing having this instant feedback experience of making a post in the morning, having people comment on it, having a live feedback experience. It was just amazing. It sent me off in new direction, and showed me that this was really what I wanted to do.
MC: What sort of reception did the blog get? Did you get a lot of comments and emails?
I felt as if some of the comments on my Idol blog were quite snarky, very Simon Cowell in tone. I had this theory going that comments of the proto-millennial tone were very influenced by Simon Cowell.
There was this one guy, you might see his comments on the blog because I even started posting about him. He was really criticizing me and my song choices and my outfit choices and stuff. He was very, very verbal on the blog, and then he made himself stand out at the audition as well, but then it turned out that he couldn’t sing at all. It was really funny.
Sometimes I would get really sad ones. I’ve had people write me and be like, “Oh, my mom loves my sister more than me and I feel like if I get on this show she’ll pay attention to me.” Or I’ve gotten ones with pictures... a girl sent me a picture of herself and she was like, “I’m really overweight and I want to get on the show, so that kids will be nicer to me.” Just really sad stuff.
Marisa Olson, The One That Got Away, 2005, video still
MC: Did it circulate on the blogosphere? I feel like there were a lot of independent blogs back then that were sort of aware of each other’s activity.
MO: Not in quite as romantic a way, as you describe, or as you might think. There was still this dynamic happening where “traditional” media and blogs were trying to sniff each other out. The New York Times wrote about the project. Not in the art section, but in the Circuits section, the tech section.
However many years later now, my family unfortunately still thinks that I’m crazy. I went to a family reunion with that New York Times article... I wasn’t in the habit of showing them every single article or whatever that I ever got, but I went to a family reunion with it because it was like, “Oh, yay, I’m in the New York Times. I’m a legit artist.” And they just read the one blog post that they referenced about me trying to get a California look by going to a tanning salon and getting a full-body rash, and they were like, “What are you doing to yourself? You’re insane. You’re...what are you doing? You’re nuts.”
I’m just saying, families don’t always understand performance art.
MC: At least you had your fans! But didn’t the project circulate in online media as well?
MO: This is an age-old story about media, but oftentimes media can become a self-fulfilling cycle. On the one hand there’s journalism for the sake of telling good story and sniffing out the news, but on the other there is media that digests itself: “Oh, a story was reported today, now we’re reporting on this story reporting on this story.” And things just reblog each other and that sort of thing.
Yahoo! was a more popular search engine than Google at the time, and American Idol was the most popular search term on Yahoo! So then my site was a Yahoo! “site of the day,” and it become a self-fulfilling prophecy type of situation. So then other blogs were writing about that, because then they wanted to be on Yahoo!’s radar. But then when Yahoo! wrote about it, then MSNBC wrote about it, and then other blogs were reblogging that, and it just became viral. It snowballed and snowballed and snowballed.
But this was pre-Jonah Peretti era—it was The Laughing Squid-era, Boing Boing-era, early blog days. People were writing about it, but it wasn’t Tumblr-era, it wasn’t even really like 4Chan and FFFFOUND!-era, [so it was a different kind of internet media cycle.]
MC: It was much more disconnected I guess.
MO: It wasn’t even so much 2.0-era yet.
MC: I like the spareness of the format you used for the project—the way you posted audio instead of video, and only .WAV files.
MO: I am a technological minimalist, and I am into the romance of democratic media. And I have also just always been a starving artist. It’s like, I’m going out and getting whatever simple tools are available to me and then transmitting them in whatever simple WSYIWYG democratic platforms are available to me. That’s how they’re going to be accessible to other people as well, you know?
MC: And then you had the second blog, the moblog, where you posted updates from the audition process itself using your cell phone.
MC: But you were sharing material about the audition process on TV, and the show was not happy about that.
MO: They were like, “Okay, no more photos now. You’ve got to put it away.”
MC: And did you take it down? Is it gone now?
MO: Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t even tried to look. Did you try to look?
[The interviewer checks. The moblog is down.]
MO: I got rejected from the show and they didn’t air any of my footage. I think part of it was because they’d realized that I was doing this to critique, that they read about it in the news.
Then I made a video that was a fictional re-enactment of the show, which I can send you a link to, it’s on Vimeo. It was on YouTube for quite a while and got tens of thousands of views and had many, many comments, some of which I screen-capped and posted it on Nasty Nets at one point. But then it got taken down from YouTube for copyright violation and then I later took down my entire YouTube account because they were censoring a number of my videos.
.JPG posted to the Nasty Nets surf club by Marisa Olson
I definitely feel like, looking back on a number of net art projects I’ve done, I wish that I had some person from the future tell me like, “Hey, archiving is a thing,” had told me that things were going to disappear from the internet.
MC: But the project does still have a life—through the blog, which is still online, through the video, which also shows in gallery exhibitions, and through its place in the conversation about internet fame and online performance.
MO: Well, Sarah Cook has shown that video quite a bit and talked about it, and it’s shown a lot. That video has shown a lot. The blog used to show a lot and now the video shows more than the blog.
When I talk about it people will say, “Is it really the right way to address activism?” And I’ll just say, “Well, some young people are really turned off by [political discourse].” This is changing more lately with Trump, but sometimes I’ll say, “Young people are intimidated by activism or they’re turned off by it.” And they’re either overwhelmed by it or they don’t know how to engage. But then they know how to engage on the internet, they know how to engage in pop culture, so this is a point of entry. I’m trying to reach them where they live, and I’m always interested in that. The politics of participating in pop culture.
People were really reaching out to me, even now, years later there’s a cycle. When the auditions kick up again people write me. Certain times of year people write me again and they’ll ask me, “Do you know where the auditions are going to be?” Or, “Do you know how I can stand out at the auditions?” I can’t even reply to all the emails.