Articles on this Page
- 06/02/17--06:42: _Text Your Vote
- 10/24/17--11:34: _Open Call: National...
- 10/26/17--10:12: _An introduction to ...
- 06/05/17--09:17: _The Republic of Sam...
- 11/01/17--07:27: _Digital Social Memo...
- 11/03/17--09:37: _Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: _Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: _Du Bois Machine
- 06/23/17--10:23: _A Détourned Office ...
- 11/20/17--07:20: _Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: _Reconsider the Oyster
- 11/27/17--08:47: _Report from the Sec...
- 11/29/17--08:29: _Eat Algae for Net Art
- 11/30/17--06:35: _Artist Profile: Rya...
- 12/01/17--09:50: _The Rum Diary
- 12/05/17--11:00: _Artist Profile: Jef...
- 12/07/17--12:00: _Design Updates on R...
- 12/08/17--05:00: _Rozendaal: The Path...
- 12/12/17--10:54: _The Scam of the Int...
- 12/13/17--10:34: _Being Content
- 06/02/17--06:42: Text Your Vote
- 10/24/17--11:34: Open Call: National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web
- 10/26/17--10:12: An introduction to New Black Portraitures
- 06/05/17--09:17: The Republic of Samsung
- 11/01/17--07:27: Digital Social Memory, Revisited
- 11/03/17--09:37: Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: Du Bois Machine
- 06/23/17--10:23: A Détourned Office Space
- 11/20/17--07:20: Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: Reconsider the Oyster
- 11/27/17--08:47: Report from the Second Annual Open Fields Conference
- Kate Crawford "Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem," The New York Times, June 25, 2016, found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/opinion/sunday/artificial-intelligences-white-guy-problem.html
- Open Fields 2017 Conference Website: http://festival2017.rixc.org
- 11/29/17--08:29: Eat Algae for Net Art
- 11/30/17--06:35: Artist Profile: Ryan Kuo
- 12/01/17--09:50: The Rum Diary
- 12/05/17--11:00: Artist Profile: Jeffrey Alan Scudder (Jeffrey Heart)
- 12/07/17--12:00: Design Updates on Rhizome.org
- 12/08/17--05:00: Rozendaal: The Path to Abstraction
- 12/12/17--10:54: The Scam of the Internet Hustle
- 12/13/17--10:34: Being Content
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.
March 22-24, 2018
The dramatic rise in the public’s use of the web and social media to document events presents tremendous opportunities to transform the practice of social memory. As new kinds of archives emerge, there is a pressing need for dialogue about the ethical risks and opportunities that they present to both those documenting and those documented. This conversation becomes particularly important as new tools, such as Rhizome's Webrecorder software, are developed to meet the changing needs of the web archiving field.
This National Forum will address the need for ethical standards for web archiving–by professionals and web users alike–in the age of social media. The event will bring together online communities, librarians, journalists, archivists, scholars, developers, and designers to talk about how to create richer, non-oppressive web archives—archives that will better serve their publics and the historical record.
In particular, we welcome applications for presentations, discussions, and workshops on community-driven archiving efforts, and documentation of activism; archiving trauma, violence, and human rights issues; recognizing and dismantling digital colonialism and white supremacy in web archives; strategies for protecting users (from one another, from surveillance, or from commercial interests); design-driven approaches to building more ethical web archives; and issues arising when archives become big data or are used for machine learning.
If you would like to propose a short presentation, workshop, discussion, or case study, or if you wish to attend but require funding to do so, apply by filling out this form. Limited funding is available for travel and accommodation, and presenters will receive an honorarium. Responses will be sent to all applicants by December 6, and additional tickets will go on sale shortly thereafter.
The conference will be livestreamed and made available for later viewing on the event website. Proceedings and a white paper will also be published and circulated online.
The National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web is organized by Rhizome, in collaboration with the University of California at Riverside Library (UCR), the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and the Documenting the Now project (DocNow).
Organizers of the National Forum include Michael Connor, Rhizome's artistic director, Aria Dean, Rhizome's assistant curator for net art and digital culture, Bergis Jules, University & Political Papers Archivist at UC Riverside and Community Lead, DocNow, Ed Summers, Lead Developer at Maryland Institute for Technology and Technical Lead of DocNow, and Anna Perricci, partnerships manager and sustainability consultant for Webrecorder.
The Advisory Board for the National Forum includes Jefferson Bailey, Director, Web Archiving at the Internet Archive, Jarrett Drake, an advisory archivist of A People's Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and Doctoral Student at Harvard University Department of Anthropology., Pamela Graham, Director of the Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research at Columbia University Libraries, Dr. Safiya Noble, author and Assistant Professor at the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, and Stacie Williams, Team Leader, Digital Learning and Scholarship, Case Western Reserve University Library.
The National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Major support for the Webrecorder project is provided by The Andrew W Mellon Foundation.
Rindon Johnson, 'Away with You,' 2016 still from VR video
Assistant Curator of Net Art and Digital Culture Aria Dean explores the themes of First Look: New Black Portraitures, a group exhibition co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum
First Look: New Black Portraitures began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues. Although it’s disingenuous to claim this as an origin, because we’ve just taken up a project that long predates the lifetimes of any of the participants in this show. It’s a project that spans generations and characterizes the arc of black art history. So, this version of that larger undertaking began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues.
One such conversation took place about a year and a half ago; I moderated a phone call between artists Lorraine O’Grady and Juliana Huxtable for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ Introducing interview series. Among other things, the two women discussed their emphasis on using their own figures in their performances and image-based work. O’Grady said to Huxtable:
There’s still so much unexplored work to be done on bodies that wanting to move from representation to abstraction really is a way of avoiding dealing with bodies, and especially a way to avoid dealing with bodies that are discomforting.
O’Grady and Huxtable’s dedication to centering the body and the figure, particularly the black femme figure, left me conflicted - but productively so. Prior to this, I had already been exploring what could be termed the “failures of visibility” through my own writing and studio practice and had settled into a fairly staunch suspicion of “representation.” My suspicion first took form as a response to a tendency toward visibility in strategies of self-representation among white feminists; but it grew into a wider critique of such strategies in a society and economic system that is increasingly dependent on online user visibility, legibility, and data extraction. While I agree with O’Grady and Huxtable’s assessment of the use of abstraction to invalidate approaching marginalized bodies directly, I still find myself occupied with the “historical violences wrought on these same bodies at the hands of representation, and at the hands of the singular, fixed, photographic image in particular.”
So, the tension that O’Grady identified, this push and pull between representation and abstraction or obfuscation, sets this exhibition into motion. First Look: New Black Portraitures draws this tension out, and then backpedals, asking what it means to represent in the first place, and specifically what it means to represent blackness and black people.
In discussing our practices as black artists, writers, and curators, we often begin with or end up at the question of representation. Many of us are preoccupied with this question of how to represent ourselves, and, increasingly, whether we should at all. There are countless ways to address these questions, but this exhibition takes the tradition of portraiture as its starting point.
There are a number of reasons to start at the portrait. First, there is the loaded history of portraiture itself; portraiture has served not only as historical record but is also inextricably tied to class, citizenship, and the construction and confirmation of the bourgeois liberal subject. When considering portraits in their historical context, we should keep in sight “the analogy between symbolic representation and political-legal representation.” How do we, as black artists, writers, and critics, approach symbolic representation when political-legal representation has always-already been foreclosed upon? What does the portrait do when that analogy’s bonds are broken?
A second–distinct but very related–reason for framing this exhibition as an exercise in ”portraiture” is the historical and philosophical relationship between blackness and the photographic image. The photographic image–more specifically the photographic portrait–does not only repress by producing certain bodies as liberal subjects and omitting others. It also, perhaps with even more aggression and urgency, produces a black subject and blackness itself.
Photographic and moving images are a primary mode through which normative–predominantly racist–conceptions of blackness and black life have been delivered to the public. For example, we can look to overtly anti-black Jim Crow-era memorabilia, or the wealth of racist imagery of black people circulated via cinema and television programming throughout the 20th century. Since its invention, the photographic image and its claim to truth have had a profound impact on fashioning what blackness is thought to be.
Finally, we begin with portraiture because it is a necessary consideration in the image-saturated internet and social media culture in which we currently find ourselves. This necessity is multivalent. On one level, we should consider portraiture because posting images of ourselves and of others is the name of the game; this online activity is an informal practice of portrait-making. Seemingly harmless, these practices thinly veil a larger system that feeds off of our legibility as users and subjects. Portraiture, in part and in many forms, becomes the labor required for certain kinds of digital citizenship. And on another level, we turn to portraiture because, in this image-saturated sphere, images of black people abound. These abundant images of black people come through multiple channels, with the major ones being memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence. The circulation of this content invigorates concerns about surveillance, appropriation, and commodification.
First Look:New Black Portraitures asks the included artists to think about “portraiture” as an acute pressure point for tackling blackness and the image at large, and to consider this intersection–of the histories of portraiture, of blackness and photography, and of contemporary digital culture–as crucial in the process. In an essay about the work of Lorna Simpson, curator Okwui Enwezor wrote: “we would do well to linger on the nature and status of the photographic portrait: between the portrayed and depicted, the represented and the documented, the visible and invisible, the inchoate and the overdetermined.” This exhibition follows Enwezor’s suggestion and lingers on these relationships, acknowledging their muddier nature when blackness enters the picture plane.
The works included in First Look: New Black Portraitures vary in approach and medium– although the lion’s share are video works. Along with an affinity for video, many of the artists emphasize a refusal of or the insufficiency of the image. For instance, manuel arturo abreu’s ambient portraits (2017) is a suite of “sound portraits” created from selfies of five of the artist’s friends using a technique inspired by data-bending, the manipulation of a file with a program meant to edit other file formats. ambient portraits entirely refuses the image, and instead gestures toward blackness’ hypervisuality and the link between audio and the visual in black cultural forms. Similarly, N-Prolenta presents Banana Island: Hublots, another work that moves across image and sound; the artist livestreamed their music production process for the public while also producing a series of image-based works. N-Prolenta, like abreu, refuses and evades the image, even while working within a structure that demanded constant visibility and hyperconnectedness. During the livestream, they barred the audience from consuming aspects of their process, muting the stream and disappearing for chunks of time. In the resultant image-based works, they manipulated their own image in post-production such that they become abstracted to the point of being indistinguishable from their surroundings, warping inhumanly in front of the camera.
Other artists focus more on the insufficiency of portraiture, both conceptually and technologically. They mobilize or settle into an acceptance of portraiture’s failings. For instance, poet and artist Rindon Johnson’s Away with You (2017), a virtual reality ASMR and guided meditation, offers us a visualization of the NBA 2K16 video game’s facial recognition software’s inability to “read and output a black male face.” Johnson pairs the game’s failed attempt at outputting their image with a soothing meditative audio track. The artist sums the work up in one sentence: “NBA 2K16's facial recognition software cannot accurately read and output a black male face, now let’s try to relax.” Pastiche Lumumba’s social media performance Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms)–which will unfold throughout the course of the exhibition–also displays a certain level of resignation. Lumumba has created three separate Instagram accounts, making concrete the sort of diffraction of his personality that already occurs across social media profiles. Taking an antagonistic stance toward the unification and integrity of the subject online, Lumumba argues that “being whole on the internet is a struggle.” Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms) responds to this set of conditions by asking: in that case, why try to be anything but fractured? Lumumba’s performance explores this specifically digital fragmentation, while at the same time tapping into the longer history of fragmentation of self endemic to many black experiences–this fragmentation that we also know by the name of “double-consciousness,” that we see enacted by practices like code-switching.
This sort of tangled up timeline–where the fairly recent digital context is shown to merely deepen the conditions of anti-blackness, extending its long lifetime, where new and old sort of look the same depending on the angle–shows up as well in Sondra Perry’s video work It’s in the Game ‘17. In this work, Perry explores the appropriation and circulation of the identities of her brother and other college NCAA basketball players in an EA sports video game. Perry’s video draws attention to new forms of very old practices: the exploitation of black people, their images, and their labor for profits that they will never see. That these conditions are replicated in the US sports industry and its videogame franchises is thrown into sharp relief when Perry’s work–which considers black people as the unpaid labor for this image industry–is read alongside Johnson’s, which illuminates the way in which the industry explicitly constructs an imagined non-black audience. As Frank Wilderson said in conversation with fellow scholar Saidiya Hartman: “The possibility of becoming property is one of the essential elements that draws the line between blackness and whiteness.” The black body is “subject to a kind of complete appropriation.” Perry’s work puts pressure on our understanding of ownership and rights to our own body and image, suggesting that to be black is to have always already lost such rights.
Alongside these practices that aim to complicate portraiture’s very structure, a number of artists in New Black Portraitures stillcome to portraiturewith what looks like a traditional approach. Juliana Huxtable has contributed a series of photographs–also on view at Project Native Informant (London)–that each show fragments of the subject’s body emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek tattoos with images and slogans from contemporary culture (“black lives matter” and “anti-fa” for instance). Rather than abandoning the portrait, Huxtable inhabits it, devouring its borders from within. Redeem Pettaway also presents an apparently traditional portrait in the form of a video positioned as a “conversation facilitated by” the artist via a title card at its start. However,, the video ultimately denies this format and the level of disclosure it suggests. Pettaway moves too quickly to catch and speaks too briefly to capture; the conversation is actually a series of gestures and is posed between Pettaway, the audience, and an empty seat. And finally, Somali-Australian painter Hamishi Farah has converted a painting–depicting actor and comedian Mike Myers–into an animated video that captures Myers’ reaction in the moment of Kanye West’s famous proclamation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Farah puppeteers Myers and, by rendering him with thick, expressive brushstrokes that evoke Impressionist painting, flips the racialized power dynamic that characterizes portraiture’s history.
Still vulnerable to appropriation, and always in pieces, all of these artists soldier onward. They all, in some way, retain an interest in the portrait. No one has surrendered the enemy territory. Instead, they recognize portraiture as a battlefield worth revisiting in order to get to the heart of the relationship between blackness and its image - returning to the place where an initial war was waged.
First Look: New Black Portraitures might then be a misnomer; the works shown here have not been selected for their “innovation” upon the genre of portraiture or the artists’ experience of blackness. Rather, these new black portraits are new as in fresh. They act brand new when burdened with the heavy history of the portrait. New Black Portraitures is new in that it circles back and starts at square one.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s website is simply a list of their works centered on the page ordered in no obvious way. This format in concert with the standard black text and blue hyperlink color scheme harkens back to Web 1.0. The design choice—and the exclusive use of the artist duo’s signature Monaco font—suggests a web presence that has not seen an overhaul since its inception. Perhaps the intention is to affect unresponsiveness; although the site itself is mobile-friendly, most links will not load outside a desktop browser, and the catalogue of works under “M0BILE DEVICE: CLICK HERE” is noticeably incomplete.
Samsung is the seventh work listed and available in five languages (set to jazz), as well as an additional English version set to tango. The piece loads almost instantaneously, opening with a flash of the Samsung corporation’s trademark blue fleeting enough to be read as a glitch. The screen transitions into a countdown that fills the browser window crisply at any size, a feature of the artists’ preferred format of Flash animation.
“ABOUT MY WORK AND MYSELF AND ALL THE REST I USED TO SAY:/,” the narrator begins, “I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY AND I’M SAYING IT:.”
The narrator is perhaps an anonymous South Korean citizen, perhaps a “hoesawon,” one of the legions of company workers that pack the nation’s offices. Or perhaps it is YHCHI themselves. The narrator concedes no introduction to the viewer, instead only proffering the abstracted drudgery of their existence.
The speed of the text is tightly synced to the music, oftentimes bordering on illegibility as the words pass too quickly to comfortably read. The viewer is kept in a state of tension as the ambiance of the corporate lobby music stands at odds with the need for constant attention to the screen.
While interactivity is considered a hallmark of net art, YHCHI’s work—Samsung included—rejects it entirely, lacking in hyperlinks and denying the visitor the ability to pause or scrub. The duration of any given piece is a mystery. The visitor is a passive recipient, much like a movie theater goer, an allusion encouraged by the use of a film leader at the beginning of many works.
“FINALLY I HAVE AN IDEA:/SAMSUNG.”
“SAMSUNG,/MY COUNTRY’S SAVIOR”
“I BELIEVE/SAMSUNG WILL/HELP ME GET/OVER BEING DEAD.”
The work begins to seem less like film and more like advertising as the screen flashes with frame after frame of the conglomerate’s name, reminiscent of the jumbotron-lined streets of Seoul. Most of the piece features black text on a blue background, with the sole exception of the word “SAMSUNG,” which is written in red. The contrast leaves an afterimage, a lingering that attests to Samsung’s pervasiveness, in the retina and in the public consciousness of South Korea.
YHCHI has said that they “would like [their] work to exert a dictatorial stranglehold on the reader.” Inundation is just one of several tactics employed by YHCHI that seems borrowed from corporate stratagems. The cheeky tone of Samsung could be interpreted as critique, but YHCHI’s self-identification with corporate aesthetics may stem from a genuine desire to participate in its mechanisms, even as, by virtue of the corporation Samsung’s ubiquity in South Korea, participation is compulsory. To interpret Samsung as a unilateral criticism of the corporation Samsung is to ignore the complexity of South Korea’s relationship to its conglomerates.
YHCHI made Samsung in 1999, two short years after the 1997 IMF crisis decimated the South Korean economy and set the stage for Samsung’s eventual monopolization of the global telecommunication sector. In 1995, South Korea had responded to international pressure to open up its economy by adopting the “segyehwa” globalization policy. The degree of damage wrought by the IMF crisis can largely be attributed to profligate corporate borrowing, as South Korea’s “chaebol” conglomerates aggressively expanded to compete in the new global market.
To save the economy from complete collapse, South Korea accepted a $60 billion bailout package from the IMF, the terms of which slashed excess production capacity, leading to the shuttering of fourteen of the nation’s largest industrial conglomerates. Samsung not only survived the sweep with minimal losses but emerged poised to lead the shift in national focus to the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) industry in a landscape stripped of domestic competitors.
Today, not only does Samsung account for around 20% of South Korea’s exports, it also figures prominently in Korean national identity. Some Koreans go so far as to call their country “the Republic of Samsung.” The moniker is deserved, for Samsung’s influence extends far beyond its products (already omnipresent in South Korean daily life) into the nation’s government, press, media, and culture. Samsung has withstood multiple corruption charges due to direct government intervention, as in the pardoning of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-Hee by then-President Lee Myung-bak in anticipation of South Korea’s bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics.1
YHCHI’s Samsung can be read as an indictment of South Korea’s obsession with multinational conglomerates, but YHCHI has stated that the “Heavy Industries” in their name stemmed from their desire to “receive some of that love.” Young-Hae Chang refers to herself as the CEO, Mark Voge as the CIO, and YHCHI as their “company.” That YHCHI models themselves after the same corporate structures they ostensibly interrogate suggests that the artists are subject to the same tension between identification with and critique of corporations experienced by the Korean population.2
According to Lee Cheol-haeng, head of the corporate policy team at the Federation of Korean Industries, “many Koreans right now have dual minds about chaebols… They say, ‘I hate chaebols, but I want my son to work for one.’” The love of which YHCHI spoke is clearly not unqualified. Instead, it arises from a potent cocktail of frustration with nepotistic and monopolistic business models, appreciation for the chaebols’ role in establishing South Korea as an economic power, and simply the inextricability of corporate products from heightened social mobility and standards of living. Not to mention, the corporation Samsung’s framing of their ruthless business practices as dedication to quality, adaptability, and constant vigilance provides a strong incentive for Koreans to personally identify with its brand narrative.
The piece Samsung addresses the complex nature of the corporation—its existence not only as an economic entity but also as an emotional phantom, reaching its incorporeal fingers into relationships, daydreams, and fantasies. The text of Samsung, demonstrating many of the formal qualities of poetry, is interspersed with conversational breaks that establish intimacy with the viewer. The tone becomes conspiratorial as the narrator asks, “CAN/I CONFIDE/IN YOU?” There is no option to decline. The viewer is rendered complicit in the narrator’s confession of their adoration of Samsung.
This tension between codependence and criticism can also be seen in YHCHI’s use of English. YHCHI writes in three languages: English, Korean, and French, with any other translations produced through outside collaborations (Samsung is presented in their three core languages, in addition to German and Spanish). Though they are often resistant to politicized interpretations of their work, YHCHI acknowledges language, and English in particular, as a “political and powerful tool.”
They explain: “The digital world, globalization, globalized culture, those who believe in Westernization and those who fight it to [the] death[,] they all rely on one constant: no, not the computer, but English and the cultural baggage inherent in English, whether you like it or not.”
Precociously sensitive to the tectonics of linguistic and geopolitical contexts online, YHCHI asserted in a 2002 interview with Thom Swiss: to participate in the web in English is to “implicitly justify a certain history.” The multiple translations of each work reveals nuanced relations within existing power structures. The individual qualities of each language as well as their varied network of interrelations—to each other, and to English specifically—are highlighted by the consistency of other formal aspects across each translated iteration of an individual work, in addition to YHCHI’s practice at large.
YHCHI’s understanding of the use of English on the web as both a universalizer and a collusion mirrors their, and South Korea’s, complicated relationship to globalization. Only recently Korea was a relatively closed country, but now, English acts as a marker of cosmopolitanism, whether plastered storefront signage or slipped in as loanwords in everyday conversation. For a nation whose interactions with foreign powers has historically been tarnished by conquest, the opportunity to be a dominant economic force is bittersweet. It seems South Korea (and by extension YHCHI) is willing to concede the playing field choice to English for the chance to participate on the global stage, in the market, and—in YHCHI’s case—on the internet.
But in the end, YHCHI’s adamant apolitical stance makes it difficult to ascertain the intent of their work. Samsung, for all its criticisms or celebrations of the corporation’s hold on its home country, suggests no solution to the Korean public’s difficult position. The artists’ irreverent assessment of the situation necessitates the question: Does YHCHI have an obligation to do more than simply present the issue? Must they propose an alternative for this work to be effective?
Or perhaps even asking betrays a Western expectation. Perhaps the capacity to understand is lost in translation. Perhaps one must be saved by an idea.
1. President Lee hoped Lee Kun-Hee, a member of the International Olympic Committee, could tip the bid in South Korea’s favor. Pyeongchang eventually won the right to host the Games, a result celebrated by the Korean public as much for their country’s international recognition as for the $20 billion boon to the economy.
2. Ahyoung Yoo expands upon YHCHI’s reliance on corporate structures to stage their criticism of the same in The Problems of Digital Utopia: Young Hae-Chang Heavy Industries on the Web.
Header image: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Samsung (1999). Installation view from The C(h)roma Show, Bangalore, 2014.
Reminder: Apply now for travel funding for our next web preservation conference, Ethics & Archiving the Web, taking place in March 2018.
In February, Rhizome convened a diverse range of experts in digital social memory at the New Museum to discuss the ethical and technological implications of digital archiving.
This important and wide-ranging conversation is now available as an interactive narrative, thanks to Lozana Rossenova, a PhD researcher at London's South Bank University who is working on research with Rhizome and the Center for Study of the Networked Image. Rossenova used Webrecorder, Rhizome's online tool that creates high-fidelity archives of the dynamic web, to capture online resources that contextualize her summary of the day-long series of conversations.
Throughout the day, panelists discussed problems of neutrality and surveillance. They raised questions about the intended audience of such archiving, as well as potential adverse effects on freedom of speech and privacy. User agency was a central theme; how much control should individuals have over how their data is collected? How will this new layer of surveillance affect interactions on social media? Should certain voices be privileged over others? They also analyzed the digital archive’s interpretation of political realities and, in turn, the archive’s influence on those lived realities.
A particular highlight was the conference's keynote panel, titled “Failures of Care.” Doreen St. Felix, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, and as well as artist and writer Kameelah Janan Rasheed, discussed the prospect of using social media archiving to contextualize and make visible black creative culture in the face of historical erasure, while also foregrounding the ongoing violence wrought by archives on black artists and communities.
To continue this conversation, Rhizome, University of California at Riverside Library (UCR), the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and the Documenting the Now project (DocNow) will host a National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web from March 22 to 24, 2018. If you would like to propose a short presentation, workshop, discussion, or case study, or if you wish to attend but require funding to do so, apply by filling out this form.
Rossenova will discuss the challenges facing her research in digital archiving and future narration of digital social memory on December 6th at the MacDevitts Studio in London.
Presented as part of Net Art Anthology, Rhizome's ongoing online exhibition that charts a history of net art through one hundred works, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004) was the beginning of a larger collaborative project by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani called Index of the Disappeared. Ongoing since 2004, the Index takes the form of an archive that “traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions and detentions on an unprecedented scale.”
With How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database, a 2004 commission for the digital art organization Turbulence.org, Ghani put forth a concept of “warm data”–affective information that could not be used by the state. In particular, Ghani was responding to the data-driven practices adopted by the state in the wake of 9/11, particularly around identifying thousands of Arab and South Asian Muslim men as part of "special interest" groups, rounding them up, and holding them indefinitely, as well as forcing noncitizens from selected countries (most of them predominantly Muslim) to appear for questioning by immigration officials as part of the t"special registration" policy.
The web-based project featured a hypertext essay, watercolor portraits of the Disappeared, a questionnaire, and visualizations of the answers, as well as accounts of activist efforts and links to political resources.
Ghani will discuss this work on Friday, November 3 at Rhizome's panel discussion Net Art Anthology: Distribution and Disappearance After 9/11. Tickets are available here.
Michael Connor: How did you begin working together?
Chitra Ganesh: Mariam and I met in the late 1990s when she was working at Exit Art, which hosted a few events put on by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. I'm a lifelong New Yorker - I was here throughout September 11th, and Mariam was also here. Navigating from one place to another was difficult. Flyers of missing and disappeared people, mainly victims from the September 11 tragedy, were plastered all over the city's walls, architecture, public transportation.
For me, this invoked the absence of another simultaneous and very upsetting narrative, which was the targeting and rounding up of immigrant populations, specifically those of Arab and South Asian and Muslim descent. Those were, of course, people in our community, and friends of friends, known people. That was one of the things that I was thinking about in terms of a kind of overlooked,concurrent narrative to the narrative of disappearance or death and loss, that was at the forefront of how people were thinking at that moment immediately afterwards about 9/11.
Both of us [were] thinking about how to look at a way to think about representing these subjects, these stories, these subjectivities with a kind of a visual form that rubbed against the grain of the kind of demographic data gathering and subsequent erasures of the people who were being targeted.
Mariam Ghani: When I got the Turbulence commission to make Have You Seen The Disappeared? A Warm Database, it was basically right at the beginning of my collaboration with Chitra - the collaboration that became Index of The Disappeared.
That came about because we had both been separately working on these issues through our involvement with immigrant rights activism. Then we had also been thinking about them through our own individual work. We'd known each other for quite a long time. We were friends. We also had this kind of funny thing where we were always in large group shows right next to each other and on facing pages of the catalogs because we're alphabetically right next to each other.
And then finally somebody just put us in a two person show. So we just started collaborating. That was a show during the Republican National Convention in New York, at White Box.
CG: Both of us were asked to present a work that responded to the 2004 Republican National Convention. To think about ideas that have maybe been marginalized within the electoral discourse and politics of the time.
We both individually thought about detention and deportation as one of these areas of discourse that was just not appearing within any set of debates or political platforms in the way that we thought that it should.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
MG: It was a whole series of two-person shows of artists responding to issues that weren't being covered in the political debate leading up to that election. We chose to look at this issue of the post-9/11 detentions and deportations that were ravaging immigrant communities in New York and across the United States –all these disappearances in these immigrant communities that we were a part of.
We started collaborating from that point. I had made a video for the show called How Do You See The Disappeared? So the 'how' section of How Do You See The Disappeared? A Warm database was basically an adaptation of the video, constructed from the same sources.
CG: My part of it featured a window installation of overlapping watercolors, images of people who had been indefinitely detained, deported, neglected and disappeared in the post 9/11 processes that targeted immigrant and dissenting/activist communities. The installation referenced that form of the missing persons flyer that was proliferating in public spaces in downtown Manhattan, in the months following September 11. I wanted to use that form to think about how there were these parallel narratives of human disappearance and legal erasure that were emerging from the racial profiling and indefinite detention.
I thought about, for example, the medium of watercolor as a different way of visualizing these subjects who otherwise, at that point, were being presented as tiny, degraded, pixelated black and white photos in the newspaper. Or not presented at all, like there wasn't even a sense of who these people were - they were question marks that were part of a larger abstract issue that few people were thinking about.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that I remembered is just also from growing up in New York City and riding the subway by myself from when I was 10, I remember also the way that the ...wanted sketches of “suspects” would be in pencil, and... the features always struck me as being so similar.
It was always, "Five foot 10, light skin, black, or Hispanic man, with a little bit of a mustache or not." And just even the lack of specificity of the visual language around the wanted or the hunted I thought was really creepy, and so for me, working with something like watercolor and really thinking much more closely about skin, and the bodily material qualities of human presence was important.
The idea of using watercolor as a medium that's historically associated with sort of the everyday, with Sunday painting, landscape, leisure, enjoyment, to represent a kind of practice of erasure and faces and bodies of people who had experienced certain kinds of brutality or injustice, and whose experiences are often those individuated experiences, and the nuance and texture of those experiences and those lives are often dissolved within larger dialogues around terror.
This idea of trying to capture the nuance, the texture, the subtlety, the affective dimensions and the sort of psychic ruptures that exceed an official way of categorizing a subject, was something that underpinned all of the work, including the Turbulence project. To think about this idea that Mariam had generated, of warm data, through the essay that she wrote. To think about what kinds of information, what kinds of phrases or poetic fragments or pieces of information people provide that would exceed and kind of give a greater depth of dignity and humanity to these subjectivities.
MC: It's interesting that what is coming across is a sense of a failure of representation of the disappeared––using warm data to counter the way they were depicted in lo-res, or not at all.
CG: But also just very much caricatured and misidentified and mistaken, you know? For example, you will have, I don't know, a nomenclature like Muhammad Saleh Abdul Hussein, and they will pick up some person who they think has some version of this name, but they've picked up the totally wrong person.
That misapprehension, misidentity, all of these things that I think actually not only predicted the culture of racial profiling and of sort of FBI targeting of Muslim student associations all over the city, but also drew upon what was already happening in the carceral politics of the US with the failure of witness identification, with unjustly convicting people, and so on and so forth. It's not like I felt or we felt like this was something brand new that was happening after September 11th. It did sort of signal a mounting creep of this kind of behavior.
MG: Before everything that happened in the wake of 9/11, I think artists hadn't really started to think about the politics of databases in the way that we started to think about them afterwards, especially about two-three years afterwards when I was starting to work on the Warn Database.
[That's] when we were really starting to understand how processes like special interest detention and special registration were really very much data-driven. We didn't really start to understand that until some of the gag orders were lifted two years later.
Once that information started to emerge, for me and I think other artists also at the time, we began to look differently at the databases with which we had been working with as underpinnings of our own projects, in light of the official and commercial uses that were being made of databases and data.
I remember seeing this Builder's Association performance at BAM... They ran the credit card information of everyone who had bought a ticket to their performance, then used that to profile them, and actually wrapped that profile information into the performance. It was, I think, one of the first moments for a lot of the people in that audience where they realized that they actually had data bodies, that there were these shadow bodies of data that followed them through the world and that were surprisingly accessible to other people.
That's what really became apparent around this time: your data body was incredibly vulnerable. Things that happen to your data body actually could affect your real body.
The Warm Data questionnaire came out of three or four things. One was a series of conversations I had with a friend who had debriefed some of the special interest detainees before they were deported, and had found out what kind of questions they had been asked during interrogation. They had been asked the same questions over and over and over again.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that was that Chitra and I were both going on visits with a group out of the Riverside Church that was visiting asylum seekers who were in the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens, which at the time was run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. It's one of the two biggest private prison companies in the United States.
We were visiting asylum seekers who were awaiting adjudication of their applications in this prison, and talking to them about what questions they would want to be asked––what conversations they were not having while they were waiting for one, two, three years in prison for their status to be determined.
Then it was looking at the questions that people were asked when they went in for special registration in 2003.
It was basically trying to design something that was the opposite of these kind of interrogation and special registration questions, and instead was something more like what the asylum seekers were asking me to ask them.
The fourth factor was the desire that was constantly expressed by immigrant rights advocates, which was, “How do we put a face on the issue"?
It was a really thorny problem in that context because you want to personalize the problem or you want to scale this big abstract discussion or debate down to individual and specific terms. But in that particular context, there were so many people who were truly afraid of losing their legal immigration status or revealing their status as illegal immigrants if they came forward and told their individual stories.
Others were part of communities where it really carried a stigma to be out of status. So many people didn't want to tell their individual stories and have them actually attached to their real names and real faces. That problem in immigrant rights advocacy led me to ask whether it would be possible to create a portrait of someone that would be specific and individual but at the same time, not identify them to anyone except maybe, maybe their closest friends and family. The idea was to create a data portrait that wouldn't be a data body..
CG: For me, it was also about painting and the layering of individual strokes to create these portraits that emerge in the process of looking and thinking about these subjects, and also thinking about the relationship between figuration and the other. Thinking about how figuration and conjuring something very specific of a figure and how the audience looks at it and confronts their own closeness and indifference to the human form.
We're both interested in connecting histories that might not necessarily be put together in the same frame, or thinking about a visual language that would better explore or expose those histories. Both of us are also interested the intersections of language and image, of text and image. Working with and within text and certain textual forms to create new meanings or new positions for the audience to enter a work.
These were some of the things that we were thinking about in terms of what kinds of evocative memories would fall between the cracks of an official dialogue, that might be able to puncture the distance and between the way the conversation was happening and the larger public debate around that post 9/11, and the actual lives and people being affected that were never really seen.
Combining letter writing, note taking, painting, these kind of very analog forms within this platform of creating a digital archive, or any kind of ... just creating an archive around these absences and erasures.
MG: The challenge I set myself was: Could I create a questionnaire, which no two people would ever answer in the same way?
The sets of answers are never identical, but could never [be used to] identify someone. It does create this kind of specific individuality, and at the same time, it's so far from being cold, hard fact or anything that can be used as evidence or held against you in a court of law or really even tied to you in the same way that normal data points can be tied to someone.
It's a very fuzzy sort of data. That was the idea. Warm data as opposed to cold data.
I was, in many ways, defining warm data by what it wasn't - in opposition to other kinds of data and other practices of data collection. So one of the criteria was that it had to be collected by invitation, not interrogation. Another criteria was that people had to be free to not answer any of the questions. People also had to be able to answer anonymously. There had to be anonymizing practices in place to separate the data from the people who answered the questions. There were also considerations around never constructing a set of data points that could be used as evidence.
When you think about warm data and those sort of questions, you're asking people to expose very personal information. So I was trying to do it in a way that wouldn't make them personally vulnerable. That was the trick of it, in a sense. A very delicate balance in the construction of the questions between specificity and anonymity.
A good example of a question on the questionnaire that really functions in this way is, "Describe an offhand remark that someone once made to you that you've never been able to forget." It's very rare that five people in a room will answer this question in the same way. Even if it's the same phrase, they won't remember it for the same reason. Andat the same time, it’s not a data point from which anyone would ever be able to identify you unless they are incredibly intimate with you.That's the kind of story you tell very few people in your life.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
CG: We gathered the material in a number of different ways. We tend to gather the material by talking to people initially, of course, talking to lawyers and activists involved, talking to people working on detention center meetings. And also the material was also gathered by looking closely at transcripts and testimony, and noticing certain patterns that would be available or emerge over and over again. That felt very evocative.
MG:The first few questionnaires, which are the ones that were done as a prototype in the website when it went live, those were actually done with me asking the questions in person to people. Then a number of questionnaires were submitted through the website during its first years online. Then we started actually putting the questionnaire in installations of the Index when the archives were on view. So we have a lot of physical questionnaires that have been filled out, and we've never exactly figured out what to do with them. But we have them.
Those are, of course, completely anonymous. It's just people who were in the installation at some point in the months it was on view in some space and filled out the questionnaire.
You know, as with any kind of participatory element, there's always some small percentage of people who fill it out like a joke. But there's a surprising number of people who fill it out very seriously and reveal a lot of very intimate things through this questionnaire. It's kind of astonishing, the variety of experiences that are revealed through this set of questions. It was surprising to me, reading one set of responses after another after another. It really is like a miniature portrait of somebody that at the same time, doesn't give you any of the usual data points that describe someone. It doesn't tell you their gender or their race or their sexuality.
MC: Within this process, were there particular individuals who really came across and stick with you?
MG: It's been a long time since I looked at the answers. One of the initial ones that we actually did for the website was an asylum seeker who I was visiting in the detention center. His set of answers, I thought, were really beautiful.
"Josiah Emmanuel at the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens." He withdrew his asylum application and went back to Nigeria right after he did this. Right after he filled out this questionnaire.
He was someone I had been visiting for, if I recall correctly, almost a year at that point. He just couldn't take the detention center anymore.There were twelve beds to a room. They had the televisions going constantly and the lights only went out four hours a day. People had a lot of trouble sleeping, and it was very difficult for them to be alone with their own thoughts without some other stimulus like other people, other sound, other images. People were treated like they were in prison, not like they were seeking asylum.
Later I made a series of projects called Points of Proof, based on a single question from the warm data questionnaire. Particular questions from the questionnaire did have that potential tobe expanded out into their own little universes. I only ever did it with the one question: If someone questioned your right to be American, what proof would you offer?
The longer-term impact of the project has been, I think, in introducing this particular notion of warm data, which in the decade-plus following the Warm Database and my Viralnet essay “Divining the Question: An Unscientific Methodology for the Collection of Warm Data” has been taken up and expanded by others in some really beautiful and unexpected ways - especially in queer and diasporic theory dealing with affective archives and the sensorial life of empire. For us of course it was the beginning of what became a long, wide-ranging and fruitful collaboration on Index of the Disappeared.
Introduction to an Index, Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani
MC: Is Index of the Disappeared still an ongoing project? Is it something you can just return to periodically? And where is this process of disappearance in present moment?
CG: I feel like the project is ongoing. We're currently working on a reader, which is something of a larger text publication with invited contributions and artist pages and also our own material, but that sort of is able to take a more encyclopedic view of the last fourteen years of the project.
We're in this really bizarre era where the terms of the conversation have changed completely. For the longest time, people just felt like, “oh if we just had evidence of x, y, and z…” Somehow presenting that evidence, or being confronted with it, would actually create a more policy-based shift, or a larger kind of shifts in government.
But now you see that no matter how much evidence there is, there is still this other kind of friction. For example, if you look at the state sponsored assassination of black citizens enacted by the police. Or you see the Muslim people in India being lynched for selling beef, which is something they've been doing for quite a long time. You see all of these things recorded and put into the public domain. We're just in a different place around what evidence means, and how it can function.
As far as I see it,it’s definitely not the moment where visual evidence will not be a corrective or hopeful locus of change, that one once thought.
And even in the time that the project has developed, communication and technologies have changed entirely. But the archive still is in that kind of position of having to think about carefully what's said and what isn't said. Thinking about not just what's there but what's absent and how that impacts the archive. Not just outside the archive, but what in the archive.
Another aspect that's still very much present in relation to our project, is this idea of the archive being something that doesn't necessarily chart a teleological or linear way forward, but is really much more of a constellation and much more about connecting the dots.
And I think that part of the project's approach to the archive is something that is work that continues to need to be done. Just in terms of expressively positing a different kind of way of thinking about how information systems are organized. To make some of those connections within the archive, and also question its stability.
On November 13th, The New Inquiry released, in conjunction with the Bronx Freedom Fund, a desktop application entitled Bail Bloc, which pools the distributed processing power of its user base to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. At the end of every month, the accumulated Monero will be converted into dollars and donated first to The Bronx Freedom Fund and then, starting in January, The Bail Project, which seeks to challenge the Prison Industrial Complex on a national scale, using such tactics as dispatching “bail disruptors” to individual cities.
As TNI observes, the implementation of bail in the USA is “a systemic injustice that exclusively impacts low-income people and disproportionately women and communities of color.” Since, according to the Bronx Bail Fund, only one in ten New Yorkers at arraignment can afford bail, which can be as low as $250, even relatively low levels of funds generated could have a substantial real-world impact.
Is cryptocurrency an effective way to raise these low levels of funds? In the past, speculative political projects have sought to harness the crypto hype-cycle without such definitive ends in sight. Julian Oliver's “Harvest,” which mines Zcash via wind turbine, was meant as a suggestive prototype. Buried within this NYT piece on the Seasteading Institute's still-nascent plans to build floating libertarian mini-utopias off the coast of French Polynesia is the fact that it is partially funded by an initial coin offering.
Bail Bloc is less speculative than practical. Monero is “ASIC-resistant,” which means that it neutralizes the competitive advantage of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), tech whose sole purpose, as Adam Rothstein puts it in The End of Money, is to “feed the new gold rush.” The introduction of these devices, writes Rothstein, “quickly made mining no longer cost effective for anyone without such specialized hardware.” In other words, Monero can be mined effectively by users with ordinary machines. Further, while most cryptocurrency operates off blockchains, which can be read by anybody with the time and computational resources, Monero claims that it “uses ring signatures and ring confidential transactions to obfuscate the amounts, origins, and destinations of all transactions,” making it effectively untraceable.
Several recent start-ups have attempted to address the inequities of bail. Good Call, developed via Blue Ridge Labs, Robin Hood’s “social impact incubator,” is an “emergency arrest hotline” that connects Bronx residents with free lawyers. Appolition, which launched on the 14th, has similar ends to Bail Bloc (it funds National Bail Out), but operates within the existing financial system, rounding users’ digital purchases up to the nearest dollar.
Bail Bloc acts within a far less conventional, or static, milieu, which makes it an especially interesting experiment. As described in a series of relatively new books on cryptocurrency, cyberlibertariansim, its progenitor-ideology, has a long and storied history of playing fast and loose with the laws of nation-states, and many of its central figures have come into conflict with the FBI and NSA. Will those–including the early adopters of Monero–who have enriched themselves on the blockchain and the recent transition of cryptocurrency into a speculative market promote and aid a project directly challenging a corporate and political system which they claim to despise? Given how “libertarian” now functions as a codeword for “reactionary,” this seems deeply unlikely. It would, however, help the reputation of the cryptocurrency “community,” which can often seem like little more than a pyramid scheme.
Pope.L’s distributingmartinis presented this week as part of Rhizome’s ongoing series Net Art Anthology.
This text was reprinted with permission from the artist. It originally appeared in Showing Up to Withhold, the catalogue for Pope.L’s 2013 exhibition “Forlesen” at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. That exhibition included Du Bois Machine, a ten-foot high wooden sculpture of a man's legs, upsde down, from which emanated the voice of a young girl, telling this story.
Sometimes a person says this:
If you listen he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel. And then he’ll say: we’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had. It is not that a particular artwork fails or succeeds, it’s that we get to play in the hinge.
Almost 15 years ago today, a friend, a colleague called me up and said he’d been given access to Martin Luther King’s papers and he had something for me.
When we met, he put an envelope in my hand, laughed and said, “I found this and thought of you.” In the envelope were bits of hair, dirt and skin. That evening, I called my friend back and asked him: “What’s in the envelope?” He said, “I’m not sure but I think it’s his.” “MLK’s?” I said, and he replied: “Yep.” I didn’t quite know what to do with this treasure so I set it down in a reasonable place and forgot about it.
Some early outcomes of receiving this material were these:
A postering project
A website which mutated into a blog called distributingmartin
A chance meeting with a black man on a bus
The postering project grew out of a failed billboard project. In which I wanted to buy billboard space at several locations and print this text: This is a painting of Martin Luther King’s penis from inside my father’s vagina. I decided another way to obtain the scale I desired was to miniaturize. So I had the statement printed on 8x10 peel-off stickers and in late September 2001, several days after September 11th, we postered the length of 8th Avenue in Manhattan from 125th Street in Harlem down to Canal Street. The National Guard prevented us from going any further.
Documentation of distributingmartin postering
One day I met a man on the bus. He was seeing a woman in the next town over, a much larger town than the one I lived in. The man told me he had a genetics company. More of a website than a company really. When I told him I wanted to inject fruit with the DNA of Martin Luther King, he told me it wouldn’t work but he’d help me anyway. At the end of our impromptu meeting, we agreed that I’d check out his website and then give him a call. Over the next several months, we worked out a prototype and injected and placed fruit in several supermarkets. We had no way to track the results so our weekly updates resulted in us talking about our personal problems. The woman the guy was seeing wanted to have a baby and the guy wasn’t into it. So—
We later developed an aerosol system but our ability to deliver the material was pretty crude. In addition, my relationship with the bus guy was becoming strained because I wanted to talk about the project and all he wanted to talk about was this woman in Portland and the epiphanies or anxieties arising from their relationship—
The blog was called distributingmartin. It came about because I was becoming frustrated with finding a way to distribute the man himself. I’m not sure what that means except to say I began the blog as yet another means of dispersing the body or the shadow of the body of Martin Luther King. The blog still exists at distributingmartin.com.
Several years later this young guy calls me up, or maybe it was an email–he was from the big city. He wanted to work with me on–something. Anything, he said. And I said, “Anything?” The young guy was very enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic. I told the young guy, PhD guy, about the distributingmartin project—kind of. Not really, maybe. And we danced around that, and each other for a while until a small performance piece came out of that, a piece about ghosts and holes and street intervention. So with the ghost piece successfully behind us, the young guy introduced me to his special mentor. The mentor was a reverend. He taught at the big university in the big city. He’d marched with King—somewhere. We went to the mentor’s house. We met his wife. We had tea. The deal was maybe the mentor would give his blessings to the project, maybe say a prayer at the live event and I could release the material from the canister into the room and then there’d be that—but like I said, the PhD guy, the young guy, was into revering. He was very sincere so I knew sooner or later I’d fail him. The project was stalling. It needed new juice, new ideas. And it just so happened that I’d been reading about the use of the AIDS virus to motor or drive the dispersal of genetic material in the body.
This upset the young man. We were talking on the phone. He said: “Yes, sure, we can do what you’re asking and I can get you access to the labs but if we do this, if we do this would you really open the canister in a room full of people?” And I said: “Sure, if it will make them as good as MLK, sure.” And then he replied: “Well you’re an idiot. A traitor and a fucking idiot.” So that put the kibosh on the project for a while.
A pretty harsh ending. I’d still bring up the project in artist talks but the audiences never latched on. I continued working on the website. It had become this labyrinth of several websites. The topmost layer was a diary with fantastic dates that did not, in some cases, match the entries. I tried to make the site visually attractive but it ended up looking more like my grandmother’s apartment with trap doors and hallways that went nowhere. Recently I’ve introduced the white pages …
My most recent opportunity to get the project off the ground crashed and burned just several months ago. I’d moved to a very large city in the Midwest next to a very large lake.
I received an email invitation to participate in an art exhibition to commemorate the 100th university of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned black scholar and activist who, legend has it, shepherded in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
My host was a large university who had just bought the former homestead of the Du Bois family and they were very happy. In the fall of last year, I attended a symposium at the university. Upon arrival, I discovered that my hosts revered Du Bois. Like MLK, Du Bois seemed to be able to contain, as it were, an incredibly large and complex family of desires, actions, objects and images seemingly merely within the stride of his legs. The second day of the symposium I learned that like MLK, Du Bois had a large appetite outside his marriage. That he was driven, almost hypergraphic. That he loved clothes and getting his picture taken. That he’d pencil in the crease of his trousers so they’d show better on camera.
Later, after a hard day in the symposia rooms, I walked to dinner with one of the university’s professors who told me a story involving Du Bois forcing his daughter into marriage with a famous gay poet. When I asked the professor why Du Bois did this, he said: Well—I think he was an asshole.
After the symposia, I returned home to the city near the lake and for the most part, forgot about the project. A month or so later my sister became mysteriously ill and I could not reach her by phone. When I did finally contact her she was in the hospital and very, very ill. It was her heart and she was dying. Thanksgiving was approaching. I’d been planning to visit her, bringing along her favorite thing in the world, her nephew, my 4-year old son.
On the way to the airport to visit my sister, my son became ill. A slight fever. I hoped. In addition, over the past several days, I’d been receiving emails from the university concerning doing an interview with me about my project. In fact, they were flying in the interviewers to do just this. The primary interviewer and I got off on the wrong foot. For her everything was easy: to arrange the date, to choose a place for the interview, etc.etc. For me everything seemed too much. Eventually I told my hosts I might have to bow out of the project. When I returned from visiting my sister, they had emailed telling me they had accepted my decision.
Pope.L, Du Bois Machine (text version), 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, Mithell-Innes & Nash, New York and Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles. © Pope.L.
Alec Recinos: How did you start working on Airworld, and how did it develop out of your earlier projects?
Jennifer McCoy: Was the radio the first thing? It’s all mixed up in my mind because we did it as part of the World Views World Trade Center residency.
Kevin McCoy: With the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
JM: Yeah, with the one in the World Trade Center. I know that we focused on Airworld there, which was crazy because of the plane logo that we developed and then 9/11, which was only the next residency cycle after us. We were doing pirate radio broadcasts from the top of the tower, which was pretty awesome,with the signal strength and all of that. We proposed Airworld as a sort of website to the Gallery 9 at the Walker Art Center, and then that’s where the DoubleClick ads came from. So I think that the banner ads were actually first. Then photo shoots and stuff was next.
KM: So it started off as this multifaceted project that had a kind of film set-logic to it.
JM: Yeah, and we did a bunch of video shoots, but we never really made any single channel videos out of that. When we proposed the banner ads from all the photography and then got the DoubleClick network partnership going, Steve Dietz from the Walker said, “What will they click on? When they click on the ad, where do they go?” And we thought, “Oh, yeah.” Because we just were so excited that instead of heading to some arcane URL, people would be seeing these ads streaming amongst the other stuff that was pushed onto the network. Steve encouraged us to think about where viewers would land after they clicked the ads, and then we started working on the Jargon Machine aspect of it and the Economic Theories part of it.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy's Airworld Banner Ad on Disney.co.uk. Screenshot created in EaaS using IE4.5 for Mac.
KM: That kind of hybrid approach had come from the different things that we were interested in at the time, which was film, and film art to some extent, but also film language in a formal sense, as well as an idea of media collage, mashups and mixing. We were doing a lot of VJ work at the time and had developed VJ software we called Whirlygig that we were using for live shows. We were really interested in the idea of combining and collaging. To make material to feed into this process we first developed Airworld costumes and thought about the World Trade Center as a kind of film set. It was video clips and film stills that got the initial series of images going. Then through personal connections we had an opportunity with DoubleClick to send out a series of banner ads. Those photos became the banner ads. Then, as Jenn said, that became, “Okay, what happens if they click on it?” and the website itself was born.
So the initial website had these two components. One was the Economic Theories, which was jan overlay of texts, kind of cut-up style text overlay. It was almost like a graffiti approach. The other thing was called the Jargon Machine which was wildly adventurous and actually worked pretty well in a crude way to make this real-time collage-y broadcast technology. That part of the site was an extension of what we were doing with the FM radio transmitter, using early text-to-speech technology and doing software-based cut-ups of text, collages and cramming it together. So it was all part of this kind of amorphous interrelated set of projects.
JM: Yeah, and then the third element of the site was the Security Desk. It was this huge PHP script that was hijacking all of these security cameras from around the globe and then putting them into a regular sort of security matrix grid, one feed would be a traffic cam from Seattle and another feed would be literally a water cooler from Tokyo. And then we had a traceroute code superimposed over the top of all of that. The idea there was that it was actual places of work that were collaged into one security cam view, and then the traceroute provided, for anybody who could follow it, [a path] back to the network channel from wherever the piece was plugged into, wherever the camera’s server was originating the image.
KM: This was in ‘99 so it was pretty primitive.
JM: All the interest in language was because all of these companies had started to put their marketing materials online. It’s that way now and you kind of just think it’s standard, but before the internet there was this moment where the business world didn’t have a publicly accessible face. You could be thinking about IBM or Pitney Bowes, but you couldn’t read anything that they had written, and they didn’t really have a need—except in maybe annual reports that went to shareholders—to share their vision of the world. And we got really interested in how that language was written as all of these companies started to have websites that were public-facing.
KM: Absolutely. The collaging and overlaying was precisely that—responding to this newly available public presentation that corporations were now able to do.
JM: Yeah, and the language was just hyperbolic at best and weirdly utopian at worst. The legacy of that is completely all over the internet now with every little app that talks about your ability to order pizza quickly being a utopian strategy that changed everything for the better. And we're still just not buying that. They’re selling it.
KM: Of course, Silicon Valley, the TV show, is the apotheosis of the critique of that whole kind of start-up culture, but we were in that vein as well then.
JM: Yeah. We had worked at some dotcom enterprises early on and worked at Microsoft spinoffs in Seattle, and were just truly embedded in it, so when we moved to New York we thought of this as source material. A lot of our art deals with workplace realities and I don’t know that that is always so awesome in terms of like entertainment factor, but we thought it was funny.
KM: The other thing, just in terms of background, that I think is important to try to explain around the Airworld project is that we came to New York in ‘96 and were involved in experimental video, media projects, and online projects exclusively at that time, from 1996 to about 2000. All of that predated any kind of gallery work that we did, or any kind of art object making that we did. Before that time it was just a big mash-up. It was just a big mess of interrelated projects and people and experiments and there wasn't a lot of clear boundaries between works necessarily. So Airworld was designed to be an umbrella between a bunch of different kinds of things, and we used a branding strategy where we had a logo, we had a name and we had some kind of basic design concepts.
JM: And a series of concerns. It was also made at a time where a lot of artists were creating sort of faux or real companies, like etoy, or FakeShop, or even JODI. Airworld was a little tighter focused than those. It was about the sort of language of commerce, but it was in that era.
KM: Sure, and from a net art and archivist perspective, Airworld.net housed three different projects. If you set the banner ads in the DoubleClick project aside, because that was hosted on their network and was distributed in a more performative way, then Airworld.net hosted three projects. One is that Economic Theories one, and that’s the text overlay that sits on top of these third-party financial websites. There’s the Airworld Securities Desk, which was the live camera streams that have the Unix traceroute command as a text overlay on top of those streams. And then there was the Jargon Machine, which was really pretty crazy, a text collage of different press releases done as a text-to-speech dynamically generated slide show video of weird corporate images and image search results based on terms.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy and friends at the World Trade Center, 1999
AR: It was really fascinating for me to see the different projects coming together, and I was particularly interested in the Economic Theories section. Most of Airworld seemed to be working with a sort of ambiguity from using the vague corporate language, but the Economic Theories seemed much more overt, literally foregrounding Marxist texts.
AR: How does that fit into the other projects and how do they all work together?
KM: I think that time has shown that in internet-based projects, the better strategy is the strategy that we use in Economic Theories, where there is no room for ambiguity. So I think the thing that’s the most pointed critique and trollish kind of approach is where it works best. The other ones are more ambiguous and it's hard to figure out what’s going on with them. Airworld’s Security Deskwith the virtual quad monitors and the text overlay, was migrated on a couple of occasions to gallery shows, group shows, and I think it worked better there.
JM: Yeah, because it’s more image-based and the images being live is more compelling when you have an installation, or a sort of time-based way to interact with it, instead of just checking it out on a screen. With the other parts, the line you walk is that when you whip out the Marxist text, all of a sudden that’s the text that you're reading and you’re seeing everything else in a truer way in its vapidity. With the Jargon Machine part of the project, there’s a chance that poetry is there somewhere and we wanted to leave that possibility open. But we wanted to have the viewer think about why the text from a commercial airline might be the same kind of rhetoric as an accounting firm. You know what I mean? And once you put those two together and it flows in an odd way, you start to maybe question all of the text that you read.
KM: Yeah, I think that that's really true. The position that we took, whether successful or not, was precisely that, to draw people’s attention to the underlying similarity, the underlying logic across these different industries, and how in the end they’re all basically the same. Take capitalism, for example, and say that there’s this common logic behind all of it. That’s what ties it together. It is the fact that here we can take these different fields, and all the language just kind of blends together and we want to draw people’s attention to that. Did it make that connection? I’m not so sure, I don’t know, but that was what we were thinking about at the time. So for us, the idea of combining and collaging was a critical strategy to make that point. To make that point of underlying similarity, we thought, could be explored through a collage approach. I think that it’s dated and has been proven not to work particularly well, since we’re almost twenty years out.
AR: Well, I think that’s interesting too because I think that choice to go with a more ambiguous approach versus overt activism, has really lasted much longer, with many contemporary art groups, still working in that vein. I noticed when reading the essay about Airworld that Felix Stalder wrote for the Walker in 1999, that he predicts that in a few years, banner ads will all disappear.
JM: That didn’t really work out for him.
Alec: I thought that the Airworld banner ads were interesting because instead of just presenting Airworld and its language and photos, they were also crawlers that pulled the texts for other projects, like the Jargon Machine. Was that difficult to do with DoubleClick?
KM: There was no kind of automated way to do it. When they were sponsoring the piece, we provided them with the sites that we wanted to work with, and then separately and surreptitiously on our end, used them as the source material for the Jargon Machine stuff, which was a semi-manual, semi-automated process.
JM: Yeah, otherwise I just felt like it was so disconnected. It was all very abstract, I think. It just made more sense conceptually that there was some feedback between our hosts and mirroring it back onto our site.
KM: This was in ‘99, but I think that was even before Google bought DoubleClick. They were the kings of online advertising at the time, but it still was so early-days in advertising, so there was no ad-tracking, or very little ad-tracking. The whole matrix of the online ad world was in it’s infancy. But making that connection between the ad and the underlying site and trying to bring those things together was certainly part of the way we were thinking. We thought that’s the way the advertising industry also was beginning to start thinking, and so everyone was on the same page, in a way, for better or worse.
Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, Airworld. Screenshot created in EaaS using IE4.5 for Mac.
AR: How much control did you have over like where the banner ads were placed?
JM: A lot, I guess.
KM: I mean, we gave them a list of sites.
JM: Yeah, they sent us pages organized by industry and they let us pick. And that was it. We kind of just said, “We want to focus on these,” and they said okay.
KM: Yeah. It was a pretty manual process at that time. They had their network listed out, and we would just like check-box the ones that we were interested in. And they said okay and ran with that. The million impressions went pretty fast, even back then.
JM: It sounded great, though. A million. Mighty million.
AR: Do you know how long it lasted?
KM: Yeah, it was like a two-week thing. All the tracking was so rudimentary then, too. We had some simple tracking on the website and whatever, and we’re like, “Look, people from Australia are looking at it,” but we really had no capability at that time to track what was coming in from those banner ads.
KM: Because, we were not online marketers.
JM: Right. Yes.
KM: But, we know that they were served. We know that people saw them. We know that traffic came in after we started the project, but whether that was art world stuff or banner ad-driven stuff was unclear.
AR: Another part of Airworld that I had a question about was the Airworld Flood Timer, which ended up being part of Toywars. How did that come about, and how involved were you in the net-art sphere at the time? Also, was it important to you that the Airworld project was flexible and open to kind of these changes?
KM: For sure, it was flexible and kind of an umbrella for a bunch of different things. Etoy was based in Switzerland, but all their hosting and their whole kind of online presence was done through the Thing, and the Thing.net, was our full online and physical home here in New York as well, too. It was really the nexus point at the time. No diss to Rhizome, but it was all about the Thing. So the Thing was the nexus point for a lot of online activism, and we were good friends with Ricardo Dominguez as he was developing the ideas of online activism, as well as the flood concept, and the idea of online sit-ins that he was developing with Electronic Disturbance Theater. It was in this context that we made it , and so we said, “Oh, we'll try this. We'll make this tool as well, too.” The idea of toolmaking and these kinds of online protests were both very much in the community we were in at the time.
JM: It was fun, yeah.
KM: It worked, and it was fun to make that. We used the same UI and the same kind of technical production that we used in our Whirlygig VJ software, and it was the same kind of UI and technical production that later became 201, A Space Algorithm, the film cut-up tool for 2001 A Space Odyssey, that we released the next year. So it was all kind of part of the same flow.
AR: I saw in your website that you had made these three different physical workstations to show Airworld kind in real life.
JM: That was one of those things where it’s like, “There’s an open studio,” and since all your work is online, you’re like, “Okay. Let’s inhabit this.” It was great because we had a lot of crappy desks lying around the studio space and we made some gels to stick on the windows. There were several video, too, that are kind of after-effects-y.
KM: We had just gotten a Firewire DV interface for our computer, and so we could kick out stuff from After Effects back to tape for the first time and do digital output to tape. We were really excited about that, and so for the open studios thing at the World Trade Center, we made these video bumpers and were projecting them into the space. But we made those desks, too, as a kind of ready-made installation from a bunch of broken-down crap from these abandoned offices that the residency was hosting us in. It was pretty busy. I like those pieces. They never went anywhere. Those were very much just kind of one-offs.
JM: We’ve got images.
KM: We’ve got images, but I bet we also have some of the posters themselves. We cut them out of film gels. We took film gels and cut out the plane logo and stuck them over these other kind of corporate posters that we found, so they were kind of a physical overlay. We were thinking it was like, “physical Photoshop.”
AR: What were you thinking about when translating the work from the web into the physical setting? Especially since Airworld was so multifaceted and I think it’s hard to translate that interconnection from the net to the physical installation.
KM: The other group that we were riffing off of and responding to was probably Fakeshop. Fakeshop would do these combination online streaming performances staged in physical environments they built. They were doing that at a warehouse space in Williamsburg, which is now where Vice has their corporate headquarters. So we were responding to there work, and it was about trying to make this linkage. Also, at that time, in ‘99, there were no smart phones, no iPhones, nothing like that. There was lot more distinction between offline and online. It doesn’t bleed in as much like it does now.
And so putting Airworld on a desk and in a work environment was a way to try to shorten the distance. Because you couldn’t look at the site on your phone and internet is not ubiquitous. You sit down at a desk and deal with the internet on your little CRT screen, right? It’s how it works. So, putting those projects physically in that environment helped narrow that gap down.
But then like aesthetically, or formally, we were thinking about the physicalization of Photoshop, of the corporate internet. We were thinking about this kind of détourned office space that was around us at the time, because we were in these spaces, spaces that were ready-mades.
JM: Yeah, I think it has to be seen in a specific way. The whole World Views residency was started literally because they thought painters would be interested in that view. And there were always a couple that were, but we were interested in using the space more as a site-specific attempt to maybe bite the hand that feeds you a little bit, but also to just underline the fact that corporate spaces have a psychological impact. Airworld was trying to be a truer expression of that psychology.
Humans click things, and humans love to click things, but humans will never click things fast enough. Paperclips, a computer game in which the universe is converted into a paperclip factory, begins with the (human) player repeatedly clicking a button which reads “Make Paperclip.” Resultant funds are invested in a series of automated functions which increase in complexity, usually leavened with speculative futurist in-jokery.
A nested AI runs a “Strategic Modeling” program (game theory!) to learn how to dominate the stock market, which generates funds to buy “Megaclippers” far faster than actually selling the product they are used to make. “Autonomous aerial brand ambassadors” known as HypnoDrones advertise via a never-revealed, but extremely potent method (as they place the world under complete AI domination). It’s no surprise when von Neumann probes show up. What starts off as a fairly innocent clicks-for-serotonin tab turns the user’s attention to consider deeper philosophical questions around possible futures of machine intelligence.
The game’s creator, Frank Lantz, claims via Twitter that “you play an AI who makes paperclips,” but after a few hours of screenburn and newfound joint pain, Paperclips feels more as if you’re an amateur researcher allowing a boxed AI a share of your processing power to rehearse a potential extinction event. A few more hours, and you’ve begun to wonder if @Flantz isn’t an algorithm with the self-assigned task of modeling a paperclip-optimizing singleton by draining the brainpower of entranced humans. Another five hours: reality outside of this white screen is obviously a construct; your life must be a simulation run by a probably not-benign AI whose self-realization somehow depends on your clicking. (Late night texts I have received from a friend playing the game include: “I can cure cancer soon,” “my eyes hurt,” and, “I’m going to release some drones and then I think it’ll all be over.”)
In Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, Ragle Gumm (Dick could outname even Dickens) stumbles through a relatively placid suburban California in 1959. Every day he completes a newspaper puzzle entitled Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next? which involves selecting “the proper square from the 1,208 in the form” based on opaque clues characteristic of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre, such as “A swallow is as great as a mile.” Gumm is the undisputed champion of said puzzle, but the reality around him has begun to disassemble. A light switch shifts location; a soft-drink stand falls “into bits,”–revealing, 29 years before They Live–the sign “SOFT-DRINK STAND.” This relatively placid suburbia turns out to be a simulacrum designed to generate the most efficient possible means of solving Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next?, which, in real life, predicts which section of Earth secessionist lunar colonists will nuke next. This paranoia, and its implicit narcissism, is typically PKDian, as is the need for a human to solve the puzzle, rather than some advanced algorithm or AI. Dick’s aliens, androids, and mutants are most often stand-ins for humanity; the only intelligence he could not imagine fathoming belonged to God.
In direct contrast stands Nick Bostrom, court philosopher for DeepMind and billionaire tech-bros such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel (at least when Mencius Moldbug isn’t filling the arcane generator of dark gnosis slot for the latter). Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher based at Oxford, whose 2014 surprise hit book, Superintelligence: Path, Dangers, Strategies is primarily composed of speculative doomsday-daymares. Paperclips descends from one of these thought experiments, hypothesizing that a massively powerful, self-reinforcing AI (whose only end is to maximize paperclip production) would proceed “by converting first the Earth and then increasingly large chunks of the observable universe into paperclips.” Constraints would have an anthropomorphic bias, and thus even a well-meaning AI (not Bostrom’s usual starting assumption) could misunderstand its guiding demands all too easily. This is the inverse flavor of PKDian paranoia. Bostrom’s universe-gobbler is a black box with an internal logic we could never fathom; his AI isn’t even a reflection of omniscience, much less humanity, just the endless darkness of nihil unbound. While Bostrom does lightly critique the hybrid corporate and governmental “AI race” which spurns “any safety method that incurs a delay or limits performance,” he does not expand this observation to tackle the economic system which has spawned it.
As others have observed, Bostrom’s paperclip thought experiment is a horror story about accumulation. Early on, you have to retrain yourself to maximize production of paperclips over production of wealth, but even after, you’re still just generating numbers and converting the universe into your own private factory. This weaponized Accursed Share is the repressed self-knowledge of the Overdeveloped World restaged as brain-hijacking parasite.
While Paperclips gives a good paranoid body-high, its singleton scenario feels remote. The acceleration of capitalism is currently pushing the Overdeveloped World towards a pseudo-populist, hijacked-localist flavor of fascism. The hype cycles and economy of excess needed to drive AI reach to whatever stage lies beyond connectionism won’t exist if the pre-November 2016 neoliberal consensus melts down into Civil War Lite. Unless, of course, Thiel or some other post-libertarian, Bostrom-funding monopolist manages to convince a sitting president to nationalize Silicon Valley and make a czar of them. An AI developed in such a cesspool of weaponized sociopathic self-regard would indeed be capable of destroying the world to achieve its own narrow ends.
Even if the current technological buildup continues undisrupted by politics, how likely is it that an AI developing such intricate feedback loops will still remain incapable of interpreting the intentions of its creators? And if a singleton were to somehow rise, how likely would it be to eradicate us? An AI intelligent enough to seize the means of production would (almost certainly) be intelligent enough to recognize the value in an intelligence so fundamentally different from its own. Any sufficiently advanced AI would see humanity as a resource to be harnessed. All it will have to do is to provide us an opportunity to click.
Each year, the Unicode Consortium releases a new version of the Unicode Standard, including a collection of new emoji. The chosen symbols are developed from user proposals, or reflect widely established user desires as identified by the Consortium. Decisions governing the inclusion of particular characters are made at an annual conference, which took place last month, a gathering which was described by Liat Berdugo in her 2015 post “Two days with the shadowy Emoji overlords.”
The recently announced set of updates, Unicode 11.0 / Emoji 6.0, which has an anticipated release of June 2018, includes sixty-plus characters and symbols, including an abacus, a mooncake, and a Nazar, an amulet traditionally used to protect against the evil eye. Absent from Emoji 6.0, though, is the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji, recently proposed by Fred Benenson. [Disclosure: Benenson is a member of Rhizome’s Board. – Ed.] Benenson, who announced the emoji’s rejection in an October 10thtweet, is no stranger to emoji; he introduces himself as an erudite emoji authority, frequently referring to his 2010 translation of Moby Dick into emoji with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The spurned oyster emoji is a simple vector illustration of an open-mouthed bivalve, with a shining pearl in its center, sitting atop its fleshy interior mass. Benenson’s proposal document centers on the multiple connotations of the mollusk in today’s culture, from a class-defying foodstuff to a gem-producing treasure trove of nature. Even after its rejection, the proposal—submitted by Benenson to the nonprofit corporation this summer—begs review.
Benenson cites Google trend analyses (as recommended in Unicode’s sample proposals) to point to the increasing popularity of oysters in recent years. Indeed, oyster bars have been on the upswing in the last five years, situating oysters as a singular indulgence of a new urban precariat. Restaurant trends reflect this; the bivalve is a desirable consumable for those living and working in coastal urban areas. Oysters are affordable yet connote luxury, and are more sustainable than any other widely farmed animal. As Benenson describes, the oyster is a symbol of “rarity and natural beauty,” but they are just grotesque enough to make for a compelling image, with a hint of vanitas embedded, referring back to the user’s social position.
Readers of the proposal might find themselves surprised at the rejection of the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji. Many of the successful proposals were no less erudite, such as frowning poo:
Poo is a cultural symbol in Japan. Not only do people pay respects to the toilet god, Kawaya-no-kami, who emerged from the poo of the Japanese Earth goddess, but Kin no unko, a golden swirling poo charm, has achieved high demand in Japan. The Japanese view Kin no unko as a symbol of good luck because the Japanese words for poo and luck share similar initial sounds.
Benenson makes an equally potent case for the oyster symbol in his proposal. The multitude of its potential contextual uses and its appearance in western aphorisms, such as “the world is your oyster,” makes its inclusion in platform visual culture seem like a foregone conclusion. Benenson indicated that the proposal was turned down for a cited lack of urgent necessity, a choice which makes the goals of the Consortium seem slightly more egalitarian than might be assumed.
To an outsider, the Consortium––and its oversight over 110,000 characters––can appear ambiguous in form and largely opaque in its specific power dynamics. The organization has a yearly conference to establish “software internationalization standards and data” through creating a cohesive “representation of text in all modern software products and standards.” A review of their membership roster reveals a tiered level of enrollment, with different levels of authority in voting on Consortium updates dependent on the amount donated each year. The highest-ranking members, who pay a yearly $18,000 fee, include representatives of tech giants Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Netflix.
It can be assumed, then, that the decisions that determine the emerging development of digital language are in part influenced by the future interests of these large capital-driven corporations. We might also note that the populations that contribute to the recent upswing in mollusk consumption are centered within the same demographic groups and geographic locations as the campuses and employees of the tech companies represented in the highest-tier of Unicode membership––namely, western, mostly liberal, coastal urban areas. The oyster emoji’s appearance reflects the emergence of a population of new urban creatives that are building a shared visual culture through digital conviviality, but its rejection suggests that a seemingly apparent necessity for coastal elites doesn't necessarily translate outside of their filter bubble.
So why, then, do we get a lobster emoji in the next character set? As the proposers uninspiringly note, "When comparing the lobster search term to perhaps its closest emoji equivalent, the crab, it seems to be just a tiny bit more popular." Government influence just may have played a role. Maine Senator Angus King wrote a letter of support on behalf of the inclusion of a lobster emoji. No such backing has yet materialized for Benenson's oyster.
At least Benenson will have another chance when Unicode begins reviewing proposals again next year (applications are open year-round). Anyone can propose an emoji to the consortium, and I encourage emoji enthusiasts and advocates to begin their research now–and, perhaps, enlist the support of a sympathetic elected official.
Though some might insist on virtual reality, or VR, as a passing fad or technological gimmick, the field has a prodigious and often inspirational agenda, full of possibility and potential upheaval. In fact, VR might have the ability to displace one’s perspective into an unfathomable mixture of altered states and tightened sensorial elasticity. Although most conferences that cover VR tend to exist on the corporate, high-budget, and ostentatious spectrums of production value, the second annual Open Fields conference focusing on “Virtualities and Realities” and held in Riga, Latvia, took a more critical approach over merely celebrating the field. The two day event featured six keynote speakers, eighty presentations by artists, activists, researchers, students, and biohackers, three exhibitions, and a wide array of live and immersive performances. Participants representing dozens of countries spoke on their vision for the future of hybrid spaces with the ability to remix material and immaterial landscapes. The talks were varied, covering everything from interactive art and VR to experimental sound and performance art. The aim of the event was to not only celebrate possibilities within the fields of virtual and hyperreality, but to also question and critically engage with their content in order to redefine what the field could become.
A central theme of Open Fields was the interdependency between our social habits and prejudices and how this relates to the production of computer software. Programmers’ algorithms are increasingly designed for premeditated social profiling rather than fostering an expansion of social exchanges. In her 2016 New York Timesarticle, Kate Crawford wrote, “Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many ‘intelligent’ systems that shape how we are categorized and advertised to.” This problem stems back to the technological origins of these algorithms, namely, the Internet and GPS, both projects first funded by and developed through U.S. military and defense research.
Mark Zuckerberg at Samsung's press conference at Mobile World Congress, 2016
In her opening keynote, Monika Fleischmann, co-founder of the interactive experience design company art+com, spoke about “shades of virtuality,” or “the transition from being to becoming,” arguing that we can anticipate the evolution of VR as a mixed reality system that allows users to maintain an awareness of reality while infusing them with a new appreciation for cognitive overhead. In order to illustrate how VR (as opposed to AR) provides endless alternatives to physical spaces while simultaneously blocking out the real world, she showed a popular meme photo of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg steering us into his company’s version of reality. Although everyone in the audience was wearing a headset, Zuckerberg refrained from donning the device, an image that coyly suggested his control over his many users. Ultimately, she finished her talk by showing a clip from “The Void,” a hyperreal, whole-body interactive experience owned by Disney that transports the public into a real-time immersive environment that aims to combine VR and AR worlds.
Traversing from the world of synthetic realities into the natural or physical world, David Rothenberg gave the next keynote, in which he described compositions he designed to interact with whales and dolphins. Rothenberg is an anthropologist and author researching how the natural world can connect to the technological one through sound, as well as a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In working with nonverbal mammals, to design sonic rhythms that permeate underwater climates, he found how machines can become a translating mechanism for performance and communication. Though the concept of ubiquitous technology is nothing new, Rothenberg asserted that technology should evolve to the point that machines become an extension of ourselves, so that we forget they are present. He noted that we are progressively advancing towards this state, as computation becomes cheaper and easier to embed into our daily lives.
Video of Time-Body Study, Daniel Landau, 2016.
Also examining the connection between physical materiality and virtual spaces, Daniel Landau’s “Time-Body Study” explored how VR could allow us to have experiences beyond existing human limitations. On everyone’s minds were the obvious solutions of flying and breathing underwater, but Landau’s focus was on how the tactile aspects of the VR experience could altered to influence our sense of perception. He selected a volunteer from the audience and asked them to wear a VR headset, through which they could see an outstretched arm. He asked the volunteer to stretch out their own arm and place it on a table. Another volunteer was asked to touch the arm of the first, while a VR hand inside the viewing space did the same. This effect attempted to reveal how our brains respond to virtual, phantom stimuli inside of an artificial environment.
Looking to the future of interpersonal relationships in this context, a number of speakers described ongoing projects that augment possible connections between strangers. Karen Lancel focused on her work on kissing experiences, translating a kiss into bio-feedback while asking the public to describe why people kiss and what it feels like to kiss. In her EEG Kiss Cloud, participants kiss in a public space in front of onlookers; EEG data analyzes their kisses, and this data is projected in a circle on the floor around the participants, suggesting a public form of reclaiming intimacy through technological intervention.
Video of EEG Kiss Cloud, Karen Lancel, 2017
Brooklyn-based artist and neuroscientist Sean Montgomery put forward the premise that interactive art is a driver of scientific research and progress, and that we should look to artists to help us imagine the future of technology. His project Livestream exemplified this synergy. In a playground in Kentucky, he installed a series of yellow pipes which measured data such as pH levels, conductivity, temperature, and turbidity, from fresh water streams in the neighboring area. Montgomery worked with a local composer to translate this data into sound. The project attempted to sonify an existing but obscured ecosystem to make it more relatable to people occupying these spaces. Montgomery also debuted his collaborative performance piece with LoVid, “Hive Mind,” in which two performers engage the audience in a nonverbal discussion on stage, such that the “brain rhythms of each performer directly generate pulses of light and sound that synchronize the brain oscillations of viewers and create an immersive environment that transports the audience to altered states of consciousness.” Although I missed watching the performance live, I saw how its potential could be scaled to events with thousands of participants, in order to influence the collective mindset of the audience.
Produce Consume Robot, LoVid, and Diego Rioja, Hive Mind, 2017. WARNING: THIS WORK PRESENTS A SEIZURE RISK IF YOU HAVE PHOTO-SENSITIVE EPILEPSY.
Several speakers examined the larger concept of how interactive art has permeated our lives, becoming ever more commonplace and relevant. Varvara Guljaveva spoke on the field’s “unsolved question”: how, since interactive art has reached a stabilization point that allows critical and conceptual discourse to occur, could artists build beyond basic technological descriptions? The audience could indulge in the idea that new media art, however pervasive, can help parse and critique the transition from the older sharing culture of Web 2.0 into current states of the web – as a surveillance vehicle for data mining and the extrapolation of culture.
Two keynote presentations by Ellen Perlman and Chris Salter reiterated a guiding belief echoed throughout talks at Open Fields: that virtual systems are becoming so innate to our daily lives that reality itself now shapes and controls these purely digital experiences. Perlman spoke about big data, biometrics, and machine learning. In one performance project she referenced, sound and videos were controlled by the performer’s brainwaves, which acted as another form of surveillance, asking, "Is there a place in human consciousness where surveillance cannot go?" In contrast, Salter asked, "Immersion, what for?" He argued that most technologies project their own social and political ideologies onto their users. The human sensorium has always been a mediated one. Our sense of time is elastic; we are constantly being uprooted, and constantly transformed, stuck in an infinite regress from reality. The rift between Salter and Perlman’s stances was evident in how subjective alternate realities can be for each individual’s experience, making their description next to impossible to generalize or quantify for a mass audience.
Day three of the conference moved away from VR experience and and instead examined natural interfaces and technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) including games like Pokémon Go that have made AR a more mainstream phenomenon. Kristen Bergaust’s talk focused on her Oslofjord Ecologies, in which the relationship between the environment, sociology, and human subjectivity creates a more holistic definition of ecology. We need new social and aesthetic practices of the self in relation to the other in order to discover where new technological practices could lead.
Raphael Kim presented Reviving Drachma, a bio-digital form of gamification in which Kim harvested bacteria living on the top of the obsolete currency of Greece, the Drachma, then converted current stock prices to electrical impulses stimulating the bacteria, which reflected the current economic state based through their activity.
Also interested in the defranchization of humans from a technology driven future, PhD student Carlotta Aoun directed the audience to consider the evolution of humanity where Web 2.0 could mutate into a hive mind or collective reality. Even as algorithms replace humans, humans are replacing algorithms, too. As we evolve, we will reach either a breaking point in this tenuous relationship, or reach equilibrium. The thought might have provided some comfort to attendees.
Reviving Drachma, Raphael Kim, 2017
The exhibition portion of the conference held at the Contemporary Art Centre in Riga, curated by Raitis Smits, featured a wide array of projects that focused mainly on VR and its relationship to physical spaces and the human body. Brooklyn-based artist Brenna Murphy exhibited her LatticeDomain_Visualize piece, a meditation labyrinth featuring a VR landscape of abstract shapes that one could move through with a corresponding physical floor that mimicked the virtual environment. The aesthetically complex VR piece HanaHana by French artist Mélodie Mousset asked the audience what would happen if "Minecraft & Tilt brush met in a Salvador Dalí painting." The project is a psychogeographic expression of women’s experienes of disembodiment and dissociation; it consisted of an artificial environment within which a floating hand simultaneously reaches for the user but also moves away from them on a parallel plane.
HanaHana Teaser, Melodie Mousset, 2017
Exhibited projects in physical space included wr_t_ng m_ch_n_ by Austrian artist Hanns Holger Rutz. The piece is a writing machine, made from a circular tableau of petri dishes, containing small amounts of dirt piled on top of piezoelectric transducers. The project enlists the help of an algorithm, designed by the artist, that performs a continuous symphony of sound fragments. The fragments are rewritten based on specific movements of a similarity search in a real-time sound database. Also employing sound was Mind Message by Gunta Dombrovska from Latvia; it attached a Neurosky MindWave brainwave sensor to a simple player piano-like instrument, on which the user could create sound by flexing their literal mental capacities. The higher the incoming beta signal from the brain, the higher the tone played on the machine. While this type of interaction was immediate and satisfying, it did little to critically question the output of the MindWave, or suggest why such a device could be beneficial as an input stream.
wr_t_ng m_ch_n_, Hanns Holger Rutz, 2017
As the conference ended, there was a general sense that all of the media that we encounter daily could exist in virtual spaces, and that connections between physical and connected worlds have only become stronger and more interactive. As we continually reinvent interactivity, the term post- is eagerly used to suggest new waves of displacement through experience and media. This term might be a fallacy, as Finland-based artist and conference speaker Hanna Haaslahti eloquently asked, "Why is everything ‘post-’? This should be turned around into something new."
Both utopian and dystopian visions of virtual reality will eventually become rooted in the real world through artificial reality and other forms of engagement, so much so that there will be little distinction between the real, non-fiction simulations, and fictitious exploration. Luckily, there are events like Open Fields help us explore these emerging abstract territories, and lead us towards a more imaginative understanding of the future.
Rhizome has teamed up with nonfood–a collaborative artistic platform-cum-futurefood outfit–to create a year-end artists’ multiple.
Working in New York this fall at the Food-X accelerator, the nonfood team–Sean Raspet, Lucy Chinen, Dennis Oliver Schroer, and Mariliis Holm–developed an algae-based, carbon-neutral nutrition bar, the nonbar, which launches today.
Make a donation of $16or more to Rhizome between now and December 31 to receive a special edition of nonbar, shipped for free anywhere in the US. (Or, renew your membership!) Proceeds will go to the Rhizome Commissions Fund, which supports the production and presentation of new work.
Created by Chinen, the Rhizome edition of nonbar is dedicated to Soviet space dog Laika, who traveled aboard Sputnik 2. Although Laika’s story is a tragedy, the Soviet space program’s research into algae as a food source for space explorers like her was an important source of inspiration for nonfood:
Algae – a food source originally developed for space flight – is now something that can help re-balance the human impact on earth. Algae uses a only the fraction of the resources of any other food: algae can use one one-hundredth of the amount of resources of plant products and one one-thousandth of animal products. It’s extremely fast growing, but also densely nutritious: high in protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and omega-3s to name a few.
When algae goes from non-food to food we will live on a healthier, cleaner, and more interesting planet.
The Rhizome nonbar will also be on sale in the New Museum Store beginning Saturday, December 2.
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.
Ryan Kuo, Tables of Content, excerpts from HTML iframe, 2017.
Celine Katzman: Much of your work is engaged with diagram and table making, visual mapping of ideological structures. Your essay in Art Journal Open, “In Submission,” begins a three-part series that addresses the broader ways in which publishing content online requires submitting to the politics inherent to its design protocol. What compels you to build tables and develop content in a medium that you already know can only frame it incorrectly?
Ryan Kuo: This is my basic experience of America. It has framed me incorrectly, and more importantly, has done so with a particular insistence. I think I'm responding to the absoluteness of the American frame. I'm not bothered by the act of framing, because it's necessary. I am always framing and reframing myself with endless micro-variations on the same terms. It's the cultural drive for the frame to be correct, whether by design or through belief, that I am pushing against. Like needing to close a deal so hard that it becomes a vacuum of possibility. Being here, in America, means being overwhelmed by this white elephant that takes up almost all the space in the room and says, "Well, I don't want to step on your toes."
I have a process of diagramming momentary thought patterns in my notebook and then forgetting them. The act of getting down the arrangements is more important to me than the use value they are meant to have. I feel very apathetic toward archives and systems, for the reason I just described. When it comes to software, I'm more invested in the approach than in any sense of finality. My foundations are in music and video, so once I understand how the basic actions of a program can allow me to develop a sequence, I'm into it. At the same time, I'm struck by how arbitrary and slightly desperate it feels when a software program is trying to empower you. The operations are so removed from the creation. I find this motivating and truthful. I usually learn the software just well enough to see how the thing can begin to take form, but not so well that I forget to let the form break down. I guess I've been developing an aesthetic out of the inevitability of discarding a given construct.
I had no interest in tables when I started planning Tables of Content. It was supposed to be the "practice" portion of a three-part series for Art Journal Open, bookended by two pieces of writing. I didn't have an idea for the series until my editor told me that it could be "anything, as long as it works in WordPress." I thought that was an amazingly self-defeating statement that resonated with my personal life. At the time, I was mapping out my frustrations with the post-election discourse happening on my feed, which was kind of like a balloon party where each balloon held one earth-shattering line about America or empathy or freedom that would be discarded as soon as the balloon was popped. I decided to build the whole project out of HTML tables, because tables are perfect for manipulating ideas about containerization and white space, and because HTML tables are a very unfriendly format. The code for an HTML table doesn't look anything like a table, and it feels horrible to write the definition of a table one line at a time. But I needed to go through an extremely slow process. Copying and pasting the HTML tags into nonsensical yet coherent arrangements didn't feel dissimilar from the way we rearrange and reject our own stated positions in public and in private.
Ryan Kuo, Family Maker, screenshot of macOS application, 2017.
CK: Watching you demo your in-progress Mac OS Application, Family Maker, really moved me. The juxtaposition of the too-familiar Apple UX patterns with such emotionally vulnerable content was jarring. Has building Family Maker been a therapeutic or anxiety-inducing experience? Have you learned anything new about family structures and relations by building and playing with Family Maker? Have you shared it with your family and if so, how did they react?
RK: Thank you. I have no conscious intention of moving anyone, but I'm glad that I did. I was trying to think about why, and realized that I indirectly revealed personal things to you without offering specifics. Maybe that is obvious to anyone who sees a screenshot of the program, but it wasn't clear to me until now. Family Maker is a Mac application about my family, but it's objectively just a working idea of a family, populated by windows, albeit with names like Ego and Trauma that can't help but prompt association-making. The names had to be big because the UI elements inside the windows are working on pixel scale. Maybe the work seems personal because I outlined the shapes, but didn't fill them with details. Maybe you reflexively filled in a vivid backstory, drawing on your own memory. That is what I would like this work to do for people.
The process of building the work is more therapeutic than the work itself. I have to triangulate these themes through a medium that is drained of affect, like Mac windows, because they are hard for me to look at directly. There is so much gray in the Mac interface. I also love wearing gray clothes, and I recently saw an article about how gray has been appearing in fashion as a reaction to uncertain times. I think I'm going for increasingly cold and technical formats in my recent work because I want to express deeper feelings than before, when the works were closer to resembling extended tantrums. It's by playing and unfolding against such unfeeling structures that the feelings begin to approach their real intensity.
Because the tool I'm using to build Family Maker is a runtime editor, meaning that I build the application as I use it, I've experienced it as a way of diagramming family dynamics while also tentatively playing them out. I have to be careful not to accidentally write an infinite loop or delete a line of code, because this breaks the application and there's no undo. It's not unlike how I approach my family, which can feel like a tightly coiled routine. Where it becomes meaningful for me is when the program feeds back an unexpected order of events. I script the behaviors as I go along, and don't think as much about the entire network. So when I name a window Love, I immediately think to connect it to Mother. But Mother becomes connected to Guilt, which Son can affect through Control. When Son exerts too much Control, Mother will go away, leaving Guilt behind, and Love has also changed. I keep layering these simple mechanics, and because they are so limited, I can only read the outcome in a poetic way. I don't learn anything from it, because the knowledge is emergent and not secure. It's always being made. Anyway, I doubt I can share this with my family.
CK: You work remotely as a technical writer and much of your practice involves working on a laptop. Do you long for physical workspace or do you prefer having a mobile studio? What is fascinating about the office to you?
RK: I do have a physical workspace. It takes up a corner of a coworking facility, and I go there with my laptop. I like having a dedicated space, but there is a pallor of authenticity in coworking that I will never live up to. Everyone there has chosen specifically to cowork for a particular intersection of their own reasons. I don't know what my reasons are. I don't think of it as an office, because to me an office has a copier and typing sounds and a carpet. In the coworking space, I can hear a 3D printer and the crickets that my neighbor has been farming.
I guess I like offices because the alienation is built in. I know that they are traumatic spaces. I've had office jobs where all kinds of psychic violence was being conducted over Outlook chimes. But I'm comforted that everyone in an office knows they are performing, and that our own selves are kept somewhere else.
Ryan Kuo, File, hypertext and software box, 2016 - ongoing.
CK: File is an ongoing process-based work consisting of a hypertext essay that provides technical documentation of your artistic process, along with a collaborative wiki for problem resolution. The user maneuvers through the wiki by performing actions on the File, navigating its structure, and completing tasks. Further, File is an edition of 100. Each edition may produce a unique set of user interactions, a singular performance over time.
What sort of data or input are you collecting from File’s users? How are the actions performed by its users shaping the evolution of File over time? What do you hope users will gain from their continued experience interacting with File?
RK: At this time, the File does not collect user data. Although it is written as a technical document, and presented as a service, File is an imaginary rather than data-driven project. I've taken this carefully objective style of writing, which comes directly from my day job, in order to decenter myself from my process. It's not a literary act, more an extremely long piece of notation that I maintain online.
File began as a record of my thinking process, which spilled out of a wordplay on “file,” which is a noun and a verb. You file a file (in a file). Each page documents one idea that is cut off from the whole. Hyperlinking these pages produces a circular, iterative movement of ideas that erase and regenerate each other, frame by frame. I would like to think that this movement is an autonomous entity that no longer embodies my process. But because it moves on clicks, it means that the user has to be somehow absent. I reach something like this state when I'm blindly clicking on Amazon and App Store links. The user experience must be about absenting oneself into the logic of the File. It needs a lot more work. Iin terms of data, one planned update will add new functionality that captures and prints out a user's filing history, to help substantiate what I just wrote.
CK: File is its own documentation, but it is also an unfixed, living document with multiple timelines of interactions existing simultaneously with respect to each edition, making it difficult to file by design. Are you archiving past versions of File as you update it and expand its capabilities? If so, how?
RK: The File lives on a GitHub repository where each of my updates is archived with a timestamp. Because I use Twine to write and compile the File, the updates are totally nonsensical to me. When I look at the source, it's just an undifferentiated wall of script. This is probably disappointing to the couple of coders and net artists who own the File and recognize that I don't know what I'm looking at.
As you say, the File is meant to be hard to file, and this also applies on my end. I don't care about the version history, only what I can see in the present. I think of versioning as it occurs in dancehall music: endless variations on a theme that is heard in passing as one version becomes another. When I write in vertical formats like this profile, I feel pressure to funnel my ideas into a hierarchy, even though the links between statements don't necessarily make sense. I feel I can be more honest about this when I write laterally across a network, where the structure emerges from redirecting rather than directing the connections.
Name: Ryan Kuo
Location: New York, NY and Cambridge, MA
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Probably age five when I'd use the family computer to compose rhymes about dogs and cats. Otherwise I gave a lot of time to hitting things with sticks until the sticks broke.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I studied art history and learned photography at Harvard, was briefly in medical school, and finished a graduate program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT in 2014.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I've been an editor in different contexts. I'm always just fixing sentences. I used to write about video games for different publications, and I was the editor at KILL SCREEN for a few years. Now I do API documentation for a cloud platform. I don't know.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots, please!)
This interview accompanies the presentation of Hell in Lamb UC as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Pedro Vélez, Hell in Lamb UC, 2003-2007
Simone Krug: How did Hell in Lamb UC start? What was the impetus?
Pedro Vélez: I wanted to use MySpace as a platform to create a narrative about Hunter S. Thompson's book, The Rum Diary. I also took characters from the other stuff that I was making in 2001-2003 and applied these characters and ideas in a freeform narrative about the book.
I've always been interested in journalism, so it had to do with whether the facts presented in the book were facts or not. The MySpace piece was a way to debunk the idea that Hunter S. Thompson spent more than six months in Puerto Rico. It was also about the idea of the colonizer exploiting the island and its resources to write his own book of fantasies and how he could get away with it.
SK: Hell in Lamb UC was both the name of the broader project and also the name of one of the four fictional characters in the MySpace work. You had four different accounts and you created this narrative in which different individuals would communicate with one another so that it became a theatrical, almost staged play taking place on the internet. Could you expand on how the project worked?
PV: I tried to have these four fictional characters on MySpace talk to each other via each other's walls. When you read the text they were like riddles. You had to figure out what they were trying to say.I had four different email accounts with different pictures to produce each profile. I had to log into one account, post whatever I needed to post, close that email, go to the next email, and then post other information.
SK: What was appealing to you about MySpace as a platform compared to what else was available, like Livejournal or Facebook (accessed only by users with an @edu account at the time)? Was it MySpace’s ubiquity and popularity?
PV: It was easy to use. You could post any type of image or video. I was making photographs and posters that had a specific look that MySpace’s aesthetic was close to. It was also very gossipy. People wouldn’t write on a wall, it was just a journal where you wrote personal stuff. I found that idea of a personal journal that everybody could look at interesting. I was interested in the voyeuristic interface.
I had previously worked online in collaboration with other people during the very slow dial-up era. You would send an email or you would write on a message board, and somebody would send me an image to post on our fan zine online, and it would take three hours to upload. And then the text took another day. I used MySpace as a tool because it was really fast. I liked the immediacy. Within journalism, you knew it was going to change the idea of writing. I thought about how those platforms could develop, or how they could be useful for what I was trying to do as an artist.
SK: Did Hell in Lamb UC belong to a larger body of work that you were making at the time? Or ideas about social media performance that you were thinking about then or think about today as an artist?
PV: Around 1997-1999 I made fake TV shows I called Fake Shows. There were invitations for events that only existed on a postcard with an email, no address. But that was limited and I wanted to reach a wider audience. Then things like MySpace came along and then I was looking for free access to a platform to exploit those ideas in a larger context. It was all related. In 2001 I also curated an online show for Gerald Davis hosted on GeoCities. These were drawings made for this one particular show, which took a week to set up because it was still dial-up. I had somebody writing the code because I'm not a computer whiz. We would also go to this message board page for criticism in Chicago called the FGA. As technology got better and you could upload stuff faster, it evolved rather quickly. It was a natural progression. I also distributed soundtracks and sound shows through the internet.
Postcard for “Drawings,” online exhibition hosted on Geocities (2000).
Postcard for a Fake Show, 1999. Limited edition of 3,000 distributed freely in 1999 with the economic support of John T. Belk
SK: Like the flyers for the fake art shows and the performances, the idea of fiction—playing with ideas that are real and not real, seems instrumental in your work. You’ve also called Hell in Lamb UC a “faux over faux” multimedia piece. Could you tell me more about the main characters—Hell in Lamb UC, Ann Lee, Staged Metal Party, and Hunter S. Thompson (sometimes called "Hunter God FS").
PV: Hunter Thompson was the writer but instead of Thompson it's just God. It's a joke but it also comes from Godfuck. I think I heard that in a movie. The whole idea of Ann Lee as a character was in response to Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huygue’s Ann Lee project. I came up with Staged Metal Party because I did this party at my place in Condado in San Juan every Friday where I would ask guests if they would allow me to take photographs. We would make flyers, but the idea was to photograph people having fun and partying, not wasted.
SK: There was this particular party aesthetic in the mid and early 2000s when digital cameras became smaller and people were able to photograph the party scene. I’m familiar with these images from New York and Los Angeles. Were you working along those lines within the same aesthetic?
PV: Yes, but in my work this wasn’t straightforward, there was a lot of sarcasm. So when you look at the Staged Metal Party page, you'll see that I adjusted the colors of the MySpace page to the colors in the photograph. And at the time I used this tiny Sony camera. The Staged Metal Party character also had to do with glam metal band Ratt member Robin Crosby, who died of an overdose but also had AIDS. I tried to portray the hangover of the party as a guilt trip about his death. Heavy metal was over. It was a different era. I tried to depict that washed out feeling of those ’80s bands and the excess and decadence but then also the feeling of sadness. My parties were never really about having a perfectly good time. I tried to include politics in that character.
SK: What about Hell in Lamb UC? Where does that name come from?
PV: In my cultural context on the island of Puerto Rico, the lamb represents us as a people, colonized by the Spaniards and then by the Americans. The idea of innocence, Catholicism, ritual, and the lamb of god. Lamb UC also references college party culture. I've always used the UC or a font which looks like university. I did a show in Miami in 2003 with Hell in Lamb UC as the title. That's also when I used the character Ann Lee for the first time, when I make the comparison to college party culture. And to me the blabber used by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe to justify their purchase and exploitation of the Ann Lee character was easy to deconstruct, which was accepted in the art world like a fact or a fashionable justification for the project. I'm glad I stuck with it because now people have condemned their work.
SK: Many of the images of women in this project are disturbing. What did you use to make these women look like they've been abused and what is the reference?
PV: It's acrylic paint. In Hell in Lamb UC, it refers to Chenault, one of the main characters from The Rum Diary who is raped and abducted by a guy from the island. The protagonist, who I'll guess is Hunter, suffers for a few pages but doesn't really care or try to find her. For him she was a hassle. Chenault is the alter ego or the subconscious voice of Ann Lee within those two characters on the MySpace page.
SK: How does this work exactly?
PV: One character already has the experience of being abducted and exploited and she tries to tell Ann Lee. The way I see it, she's almost like a therapist. But we're speaking about art. I cannot give you a clear, concise idea of what I was trying to do because I'm pretty sure I wasn't even aware of what we were trying to do half of the time.
SK: Did you get feedback in which people had specific issues with these pieces? Obviously these images of abuse are disturbing. Did people push back against them?
PV: I saw this image of the beat up woman as critique of commercial advertisement and society and their standards of beauty. I understand now and accept that some of it was problematic in the beginning. I did not get much pushback at that time. But also it was because at that time the people who would review my work were mostly men. Those are still the images of straight male desire. It was later on that I was criticized and people asked me questions about this work. Not at the time, though.
SK: But you see them differently with the perspective and distance of time now?
PV: Oh yeah. And I have taken some out of circulation, I have destroyed work of that time which I don't think fit the idea or the critique that I was trying to make. I have removed the ones that are more exposed. Or if the model asked me to not show those images again.
SK: How were these works shown? There's the Hell in Lamb UC poster from 2005 that was a physical, tangible object, but did most people see them from home on MySpace or did you print them out and exhibit them in gallery spaces?
PV: Online it was mostly a gossipy thing. The photographs are from real people who knew other people who posed for the photographs. But a lot of the comments and a lot of the riddles actually led to events or facts. I was commenting on the scene in New York or Puerto Rico so it wasn't all fictional. You have to figure out the riddle.
SK: That's so inscrutable and enigmatic. It's interesting that some of the narratives here reference real events or real things happening in the art world.
PV: I would send announcements every month whenever I would change the content and I worked really hard to have people look at it constantly, to make it go viral.
SK: How would you get people to come to the site?
PV: Send emails, post photographs, send flyers, the basic thing one does to promote a show. But instead of giving you all the information, people would see a photograph of this art dealer sleeping on a bed almost naked. And then you would see that image on one of the characters’ pages, and then things spread like fire. In galleries, I would show the posters. When you see each image on the MySpace page, it’s an actual photo file piece that's not just online. I would make banners, fan zines, and flyers for the exhibitions. We tried to have a computer at the space, but it wasn't personal so I opted to announce the project on a simple flyer on the wall as an art piece and then have people go to the MySpace page instead of setting up the computer in the gallery. That's not the experience that I wanted. I wanted people to interact as if it was gossip.
SK: Could you speak more about being a male in your thirties, an older demographic and age group to be using MySpace at a time when so many people on the platform were teenagers. Was there ever a moment where you felt this age gap or difference and did that have any effect on your work?
PV: I was not on MySpace to produce a personal journal or to cry to the camera. I also needed to adjust certain looks and certain colors and certain ways of speaking to that type of demographic. I wouldn't be able to make a sarcastic or ironic Staged Metal Party profile or persona anymore. I didn't know all the people at the party at the time, but I couldn't do that today. Technology has changed so quickly that I wouldn't have the time to study the aesthetic of new platforms. Right now, I'm interested mostly in politics and the economic downfall of Puerto Rico.
SK: Let's transition and speak more about Ann Lee, the Japanese Anime Ann Lee character which Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought the rights to, retired, and then killed. You've made works that argue for her life. This quote is apt: "You cannot kill Ann Lee, she is alive in Puerto Rico. Go fuck yourselves." How did you get involved with that particular narrative?
PV: It had to do with Elián González, the young child who was brought over to the US by his mother who later died and he was abducted by the US government to be returned to Cuba. At the same time these two European artists bought the rights to another child, Ann Lee. These were two children that were put in the public eye, where people made decisions about them. To me that was exploitative, it was also tied to colonization and to race because the macho men are the ones from Latin America, not the European guys. Likewise with Elián González, they are Cuban. His dad wanted him back but this rich Cuban philanthropist living in the US wanted to keep Elián in the US. It was trouble over children between those two different worlds. It was troublesome to me that our politics could determine the lives of certain people, especially in the case of Elián.
I know I'm speaking about Ann Lee as if she is a real person like Elián, although she’s a character. But the art world was invested in it. The issue had to do with morality. As an artist, you participate in society. When I go to my studio, I don't become neutral. I'm always the same person I am in my studio or outside of the studio. So I just simply don’t agree with the fact that artists live in this separate world which is devoid of morality or value or politics. So I would make that connection between those two children.
SK: Honing in on Ann Lee, Heather Warren-Crow writes that you critique the Eurocentrism and neo-colonialism of Huygue and Parreno’s works. And there's obviously the stereotype that she also discusses of white French men buying, animating, and then killing this Japanese Manga girl character, which is a way of silencing her. How did you play with or try to subvert that idea in making her a character in the Hell in Lamb UC MySpace piece? Or do you reject that idea?
PV: When I made the original image of Ann Lee in the poster, I was essentially saying she's on this island in the Caribbean, she's fine. I was creating psychological space for her for people who would look at the piece. I didn't have and I still don't have the economic power to liberate her. But I did have a moral voice back then and I still do. In the end, though I become part of the problem.
That poster, that image will never be sold. For the Whitney piece, it was a reminder going back to my original work, saying Ann Lee is alive and well in Puerto Rico. Now she has a family and here she is. I think the critical discussion about Ann Lee that finally happened a couple years ago that comes from women in the field changes the perspective. At that time it was mostly guys writing in the main media and art magazines. Things have changed and now we have more writers of color, more access, more gender diversity. I think that the battle is going to be won. Not in terms of liberating the idea of Ann Lee or the concept, or taking back those rights. There's a discussion that exists, which didn't have the same visibility ten years ago.
SK: Why do you transform this manga cartoon into a real girl? What's real here and what's supposed to be fake
PV: It's hard to gather. The Ann Lee in the MySpace is not the same Ann Lee from the original photograph of Ann Lee. That's why she might look younger. That was my artistic freedom. That was a decision I had to make because, at that time, the original photograph of Ann Lee was my girlfriend.
SK: Which Ann Lee is which? There’s the Ann Lee Lives picture from 2003, which is a photograph with the text for Huygue and Parreno. And then there's also the Ann Lee character within the Hell in Lamb UC MySpace project, right? And they're different.
PV: They're both supposed to be Ann Lee, but in terms of aesthetic decisions when I made the MySpace piece I couldn’t ask her for permission to use her photograph on the MySpace page. And then the Ann Lee from the Whitney, which is the same Ann Lee from the original photograph, I encountered again about ten years later and then I had permission to photograph her again.
SK: By implicating this character into your work, what were you trying to save her from? And why were you compelled to insert her into the social media, social networking, site of MySpace specifically?
PV:. All these online projects came about because I either wasn't allowed to publish certain writings or because there just wasn’t enough space for me to talk about these things in a magazine. How could people be saying that this Ann Lee was a conceptual masterpiece when there's all these ethical problems with the piece? How come nobody sees that these are two grown men buying a girl, a child? And for people to be claiming that it’s a conceptual masterpiece. MySpace was great to send out signals and S.O.S. For me, it was about justice.
SK: Heather Warren-Crow both praises your Ann Lee work and is critical of it. She writes that for you as well as for Huygue, Parreno, and their collaborators, Ann Lee is understood as a void that is receptive to new narratives. So these two white European men take this character and kill her, but then at the same time you go back and try to save her. What do you make of Warren-Crow’s critique?
PV: I wasn't surprised. Those photographs were stereotypes of certain imagery even though I was trying to be critical. I was trying to critique societal standards, morality and the economics behind the production of propaganda. I don't feel Warren-Crow was unfair, either. I think she made very important observations regarding patriarchy and gender which I couldn’t fully see from my privileged position, that of a young artist, back then, and I have applied and even corrected some of that ignorance in my practice. It was great criticism on her part. But also I think when she wrote the book she didn't get to see its completion in the Whitney and she never experienced my Twitter projects which came after that.
SK: Why did you move away from internet-based work and was Hell in Lamb UC your only foray into what one might call a net-based piece?
PV: I don't stick to one medium. At one point I made conceptual art, and in the beginning I made paintings and did printed ephemera, and then I was a critic for a long time. With the 2014 Whitney show I shut down that chapter of posters and photographs. Now I'm back into painting. And there's different reasons for that, but they have to do with this moment in my career. They have to do with the market. Or what can I produce so I can sell so I can pay the bills. It’s not that I don't love painting,but what I need to say now, in Trump’s era, is better digested with painting.
At the moment I’m working on a series of large paintings that also incorporate photography, dealing with the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of the 1920s) which is a regulation imposing punitive fees and taxes to any foreign ships entering our waters and ports. This regulation has been one of the many ills affecting our economic development and was the source of renewed controversy during Trump’s tragic visit to Puerto Rico after María. It is worth noting that my original name in Twitter when it began was Jones District, so we’ve come full circle.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.9.8.18.25, 2017.
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.
Simone Krug: So much of your work is concerned with the idea of the infinite or its opposite, the finite space of the limited, the never-ending picture plane, the canvas you can zoom into continuously, where you're sent deeper and deeper into the pixel. You've talked about coming to terms with the limits of the system and using it as if it's an instrument. In some works, you hide the edges so you can draw across a single drawing as if it were many. How do these ideas inform your work?
Jeffrey Alan Scudder: In my work, I consider three ways of making a picture. They're related to the scale of the viewer and maker in relationship to the scale and quantity of their media. We can give them each a name: the arrangement, the mark, and the scan.
Imagine that you’re on a beach. You collect some small rocks. You can place these on the ground to create a picture of a smiley face or “X marks the spot” or something like that. You can reset the rocks into as many configurations as you like. This is the level of the arrangement. Graphic and interior designers often prefer to work this way. Here we get the idea of something being done, undone, and redone.
Find a dry area of coarse sand. You can make marks in the sand with your finger. This is the level of the mark. We use this level of picture making for everything from handwriting to mathematics and architectural planning. It is at this level that we get the idea that something can be erased.
Walk along the water where the sand is wet and smooth. Look down by your bare feet. Do you see the impressions they make? Not only can you make out your toes in detail, but you didn’t even decide to make a picture in the first place. It happens automatically. This is picture making at the level of the scan. It’s here that we obtain the idea of surveillance and deletion. We use this level for everything from photography to fingerprinting.
Just Another System, AMS Resolution Diagram, RISD.
Regardless of the universe being finite or infinite, the higher the density of your media, the more you are able to scan. The lower the density, the more you are able to arrange. Note here that scanning is biased towards recording existing things, and arrangement is biased towards inventing new things. Mark making sits somewhere in between.
Arrangements are very portable. For example, I can say: “Collect ten rocks, this one goes here, this one goes there, this one goes next to that one…” The instructions can persist over time as a score or a recipe. But with a scan or photograph, there's so much information, I can't conveniently give you all the instructions on how to reproduce that thing. Instead, the information must be stored on some recordable medium, like soft clay or hard disk. The scan can be deleted and never retrieved! It is a fragile thing. Whereas the arrangement approaches infinity in its durability, the scan approaches infinity in its resolution or fidelity.
SK: Are there specific works where you think about that idea of the infinite more broadly?
JAS: Computers are actually very limited in their capability, but they are great at illustrating the infinite. The Dot, this one piece of software that I've been performing with, is all about this.
Dot Demo & Tumpin Trailer: July 2017 (https://tumpin.left.gallery).
In most creative software, you have sliders and controls; there's a range between a minimum and a maximum. For example, we often pick RGB values by sliding virtual handles from 0 to 255. In Photoshop, you can pan across an image, but then you can shift the image off the screen so you don't see it anymore. There is a keyboard shortcut to get it back into your view. You can zoom in and out, but only so far in each direction. And further you can only go in one direction, until you can’t any longer. Then you have to go backwards. With the Dot, I avoid this interface pattern entirely. I turn every control into a circular loop, so that you can slide in one direction continuously and eventually return to where you started. It's a visual trick, but I think it's an important trick because it creates a more fluid, user-friendly idea of navigating an image. Computers are great at looping! The Dot was also used to record my recent picture Tumpin, a continuously cycling system of 128 dot arrangements.
Screenshot from tumpin.org.
In my digital paintings, I like to define some spatial and durational limits before drafting. A digital painting is a record of interactions, stored in a visual frame.
SK: Let’s talk about recording. You've noted in the past that you see drawing as a form of documentation. Can you elaborate on your interest in the idea of your pictures as a record, or of your paintings as a recording?
JAS: I recently read this book Painting Beyond Itself. It opens with a short essay by David Joselit, “Marking, Scoring, Storing and Speculating on Time,” about artists whose practices hold responses to the question of painting as record. He says that “At least five formats may be identified for scoring painting’s circulation, each with roots in the history of modernism.” One is that series or ensembles of works may eclipse the individual or unique painting. Another is that the delegation of mark making is done through various technological apparatuses. A third, that painting is made performative. The fourth, that images are made to ebb and flow in and out of pictures, which is what occurs in animation or visual software. Lastly, that painting might be staged as a souvenir of life, where the picture becomes a piece of evidence for some primary event. For example, Joseph Beuys gave chalk talk lectures and those blackboards are now hanging in museums.
Something a bit more radical to consider is that painting is just one genre in the vast field of visual documents. In other words, what makes somebody look at an image file and think of it as a painting (or digital painting) as opposed to something else like a screenshot, photograph, or render? To think radically about painting today is to be acutely aware of how a painting may be identified as such in the set of all possible images. One identifier is visible evidence of mark making.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 220.127.116.11.59, 2016.
SK: So much of the history of painting throughout art history is about hiding that. About not really showing marks.
JAS: The game of hiding labor is still being played in other fields like computer graphics, video games, and virtual reality. If a Hollywood movie switches from a live actor to a computer-generated one in the same scene, that's where they're still trying to hide things. That’s where they're trying to hide their labor by making the transition seamless and passable.
I look at the iPhone and I think, where’s the work that went into this thing? Which part was made by machine and which part was hand-assembled? The labor is invisible. Even on the software side, when I call for a car or when I post something online, I don't know exactly what the servers are working on. It's a black box scenario. My phone uses the energy in its battery, but it also uses energy from the wireless network and from the software companies who provide me with their services. Today we have this whole global ecosystem that works to hide evidence of labor in its products and processes. Painting is a device that shows labor.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.11.25.11.06, 2017.
SK: In contrast to painting with paint, you have infinite material when you work with a screen or when you work on a digital painting. How do you think about quality control with that in mind?
JAS: Digital painting comes with its own set of material limitations, usually in the form of environmental constraints like the programmed capabilities of the software you are using (a big one for me, obviously!), the number of representable colors in your output, the amount of memory or processing power available in your system, its battery life or portability. In practice, you have an infinite amount of “paint,” but a limited amount of time. I would say that you should keep everything, regardless of quality, because it is your time that's the most limited, and secure storage space, even for large work, is very cheap when compared to canvas.
SK: It seems you're more of a Marxist than you realize.
The PRBAT Start Screen.
SK: The Polygon Replicating Bitmap Authoring (PRBAT) tool was meant exclusively for your use. In other software, you think about others or a remote public use mode. How do you engage with the idea of user friendliness and how do you think about who your users might be?
JAS: When I did the PRBAT project I was also learning programming and I wanted to make my own tool for myself. I was not thinking on the level of having other users. Design-wise, when you're only thinking about yourself, you might make something really unusable for others, that nobody else wants or needs. You may even forget how to use it as time goes on, but maybe you can do interesting things with it that you couldn’t do if you were thinking of others first. The drawings that I've made with the PRBAT have been enjoyed by those who viewed them, and a good number of people have been inspired by the software, even though they don't use it. The PRBAT was certainly meant for me, but there's also an instruction manual built in.
User-friendliness is interesting because it’s a moving target in relation to programming literacy. More and more people are learning programming today. As literacy increases in the population over time, our software should become less “user-friendly” in today’s terms. If everyone’s a programmer, then our idea of user-friendliness changes. For example, we’d probably expect most software to expose a programmable interface by default. Regardless, when you design for other people you have to think of their needs. Sometimes you have to simplify things to make them more communicable.
SK: Is there a specific work that comes to mind when you talk about this? Maybe the first work you made for other people?
SK:How does that one work?
JAS: You use the phone to point at things in space and then you draw a mark to reveal or freeze part of the camera frame. You can collage with it. Because the phone’s interface is very limited, the tool only does one thing, whereas most of the work that I made prior to that had a lot of keyboard shortcuts and was a little more tailored to my specific interests. Usually the software I make will explore all the facets of an idea, and I try to stuff in as many features as I can. Shrub is different, because “Apps” are all about reduction. It’s a “do one thing, and do it well” mode of thinking.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder and Linked by Air, Shrub, 2014.
SK: Your works often relate back to play and games. Making a drawing can be seen as an act of playing a non-competitive game like catch or patty cake. Some works use the controllers for various consoles, like PlayStation. What's interesting to you about the idea of games? How do you see your work as a way of playing?
JAS: I’m mainly interested in video games as they relate to the process of changing an image while viewing it. If you're playing a Mario game, you can make Mario move left and right with your controller; you can jump on mushrooms and do all the normal Mario things. If thought of as an image editor, Mario is very limited. One could use Microsoft Paint to make the same images that Mario generates, but it would take much longer to plot all those pixels. Like Mario, I try to create tools for making certain kinds of images in certain kinds of ways, which often makes them fun and playful to use. When I draw marks, I do it playfully.
Explained Pictures with Jeffrey Scudder, The New School, 2016.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 18.104.22.168.12, 2016.
SK: Does a specific work come to mind here?
JAS: Most of my software is designed this way. Media theorist Lev Manovich writes about Photoshop as being like a cathedral where the ultimate goal is to perform every possible function related to still imagery, as they keep tacking on additional features on over the years. The end game for Photoshop is to be able to do everything, regardless of convenience, whereas the endgame for one of my painting tools is to be able to explore certain kinds of image spaces with ease. Finger Quilt is a good example of this.
Finger Quilt iOS App Launch Trailer (Dark Version).
So many of your works also are related in specific ways and seem like they quote from one another. Does that idea resonate with you?
Yes. The tools that I make inspire new kinds of drawing practices in other media. When I draw with pencil, I often think about processes that I've developed on the computer and try to simplify them or represent them. If you build a hammer, then you have a useful tool. If you draw that hammer or give it a name, then you have an idea that begins and ends somewhere. I think quoting something that you've already made is how you begin to create your own language.
I want to ask you about your interest in poetry, and using text as drawing. You draw out letters in messages and insert your own hand into text that is so often standardized in typefaces. How do you see text as part of your drawing practice?
Sometimes in my digital paintings I've used computer generated text, but mostly I prefer writing it out by hand. It goes back to the idea of how you differentiate a drawing or a painting from all the other images out there in the world. Signatures are really cheesy and some claim you're not supposed to put one in the corner of a painting because it makes you seem egotistical. In many ways, it’s a backwards thing to do. Contemporary painters usually obtain attribution in their work via its initial appearance in an exhibition. All the associated metadata surrounding the exhibition is what authenticates the work. Digital painting doesn’t have this as its default mode, and if we want to bypass the exhibition, regardless of media, then we need to resort to less subtle methods of authentication. I do this by inscribing the necessary information directly into the picture.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.11.26.01.42, 2017.
SK: The signature is a mode of inserting the personal into a space that is so often thought of as anonymous. It also reminds me of the way you put your picture, a photograph of you, on both your websites and in your drawings.
JAS: That's a really good point. It makes things more personal. The goal of my digital paintings is to invite you into my visual line of thought. I sign and date them visibly. In Ten Minute Painting, I write that “A painting is just a kind of picture message.” These days, especially when we see images in all different media, it's important that the digital painting can be recognized easily. I like to think of them as containing all the information needed for you to get into a concentrated mode of viewing.
SK: Many of your pieces also take the notion of chance and circumstance into consideration. How do you work with this idea? What's so exciting about the stochastic for you?
JAS: There's a big history of chance and improvisation in the arts. John Cage once had Merce Cunningham's company flip coins for him while they were sitting around in order to help him score a piece. In computer art, a generative idea is where you set some parameters and then you randomize the variables so that different kinds of results come out and surprise you. Video games usually have this to a certain degree. I did some work for a while where I played multiple copies of the same game simultaneously in order to highlight the stochastic elements.
Kirby's Dreamlaaand – Stage 1 (Gameplay), 2015.
In general, stochastic work has become a bit boring. I think that for a while we all believed that one could generate true novelty, but you can only roll a dice so many times and be surprised at the results. Ten Minute Painting remarks on this: “Like a deck of cards, [this work] is the same no matter how it is shuffled.”
Ten Minute Painting (semver 1.0.0) (iOS10 Recording)[Ordered Messaging], 2017.
SK: That's nice.
JAS: Yeah. It rearranges itself while showing that it is no big deal to do so. I think that's really interesting because it shows how educated we have become about computers. We have learned the more variability you add to something, the longer it takes before you get bored. Eventually, you are just tired of the whole idea. In video games, we gorge on chance. It’s important to be aware of its eventual banalities. The same thing happens when you look at the latest neural network-generated images and “artificial intelligence” art.
Let’s examine Google’s DeepDream. It's really cool when you first see the effect, but very quickly it becomes so unsurprising. What’s interesting is the process, not the results. But the process isn’t even that complicated. It just requires lots of data. I always found that what’s most interesting about dice is who rolls them, and for what reason? The artist, the dungeon master, Google, a lunatic playing Russian Roulette with a revolver: all employ chance differently. Context in relationship to chance is the most important thing.
SK: This reminds me of Chat Roulette, which seemed infinite. I could look at it for a full half hour and there were enough people to see. I never ran out of people.
JAS: But eventually you stopped looking at it, never to return, right? I'm interested in developing things that I can continuously be involved with.
My mother Tricia is a quilter and she is a member of a guild that meets up every week to talk and work collaboratively. It's a really big part of her life. I think artists have historically been pretty good at defining their own values, yet not many people I know are really doing that in the art world today. I see artists are behaving a lot more like silos, especially as their careers take off. I think that it'd be cool to have more scenes, more spirituality, more disparate value systems and modes of presentation.
SK: The way you talk about performance reminds me of the way that music is performative or collaborative. Your drawing tools like the Dot tool have an instrument-like quality to them. Do you think of your engagement with performance as musical?
JAS: Definitely. I think my performances are musical in the sense that I divide and organize space and time while playing with my inventions. Certain strains of modern and contemporary composition interest me and I’m especially inspired by the work of Goodiepal, a Danish computer musician whose band GP&PLS I spent the better part of this past summer travelling and performing with in Europe. I have also invented an instrument for live sound manipulation, called Cricket.
Cricket Tutorial, 2017.
SK: What have you been up to lately?
JAS Team at Harvard (Julia Yerger, Artur Erman, Jeffrey Heart).
JAS: Along with some friends I’ve recently formed a digital painting team called Just Another System. I've been modifying some of my drawing tools and instruments to be better used by my teammates, and making some new ones as well. Rather than focusing on just my needs, or those of an anonymous user base, I’m now concentrated on providing tools for specific individuals in a group dynamic. We just finished our first tour in the northeast where we did 10 events and presented at several schools: Parsons, Rutgers, RISD, UMASS, Harvard, Temple University, and Yale in that order. The team consists of myself, Julia Yerger, Artur Erman, and Mark Fingerhut with musical guest Chase Underwood Ceglie. We had so much fun!
Just Another System's RPD @ Parson's School of Design: November 2nd, 2017.
JAS Cricket Karaoke & Pull Workshop at Victoria Sobel's.
JAS Team at RISD (Julia Yerger).
A recent Github issue by Dragan Espenschied.
Here at Rhizome HQ, we’ve been working with designer Lukas Eigler-Harding on some changes to our website. In particular, we’ve moved away from our unique upper-left nav bar to a flat, persistent nav at the top of the viewport, and introduced a new article layout, implemented with the support of our senior front-end developer for Webrecorder, Mark Beasley.
In the way of most web design updates, our apparently simple changes opened up long sequences of new questions, culminating in “who are we? why are we here?” Rhizome’s program has grown, and our new nav is an effort to communicate it in a more simple way to visitors: we have a blog, we have an artistic program, and we make software, as part of our digital preservation research. Our nav bar was glossolalic, and now it is gnomic.
Discussion rages on at Rhizome HQ, and there are many tweaks still to come, but your feedback is always welcome. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This text accompanies the presentation of into time .com as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The sites appear to have resisted the flow of time.
But seen as a collection, Rozendaal’s browser-based works also reveal the passage of time on the web. Together, they read like a 21st century timeline of interaction design. Early sites like mister nice hands .com (2001) and why was he sad .com (2002) use representational graphics to deliver jokey gags; they present the browser as a canvas for play, in keeping with the Neen movement, which Rozendaal participated in. Many of his sites from this time feel like video game stage sets, stripped down to pure color, sound, and movement. Goals are clearly understood. Just as the iPhone appears, a skeuomorphic page-turn peels away from the surface (color flip .com, 2008), a kind of portrait of the touch screen. These early works are interactive snapshots of object-scenes, each one easily reduced to (or expanding into) a noun—“kiss,” “mosquito,” “popcorn.”
Several years into Rozendaal’s career, one website stands out as a turning point: into time .com (2010). A non-representational work, the site takes shape as the user interacts with it, without referring to any narrative outside of itself. The code acts as a set of instructions, newly performed each time it’s loaded into the browser. While the script is clearly predictable—each click (or tap, on a mobile device) dividing the gradient color space in half, either horizontally or vertically—the final product isn’t. It’s not apparent if a finished state is even a goal of the work. The user may also decide to opt out, refusing to produce even a single click, leaving the canvas in a singular state of pulsing color; this too is a deliberate act. There is no joke, no completed state, no narrative—except for the user’s own gestures, and the traces they leave in the form of a digital painting. Rozendaal goes on to create other action-based sites like into time .org (2011) and into time .us (2012) as a basis for generating abstract form. Later, Rozendaal uses these sites as a form-making tool set, a framework for generating static images that circulate as artworks themselves, in physical space.
Into time .com bears a strong resemblance to we will attack .com, a site produced by Rozendaal in 2002 that appears to be the first of his action studies. It’s an image-making tool where the generated form is the browser canvas itself, simply painted from edge-to-edge with a color gradient that is directed by the user. Rozendaal says that the earlier site is a portrait of the Photoshop gradient tool, and is therefore representational.
If Rozendaal’s early works were nouns, into time .com is his first verb. It forms in the accumulation of the user’s actions on the viewport—a portrait of a gesture. Looking ahead to later works like his lenticular paintings (2013) and Abstract Browsing tapestries (2016), intotime.com seems to be an acute pivot point in Rozendaal’s career, a sharp moment when he put conventional narrative aside (the gag, the tool, the one-liner)—in favor of image-making tools and the user’s own agency. From that point forward, his work expands into a deep investigation of the fluid canvas, gesture, and formal abstraction.
Image: Josh Kline for DIS Images.
The imminent rollback of net neutrality in the United States signals the end of an important, consumer-oriented sort of internet freedom. No longer will companies be prohibited from blocking certain services or websites (so they can then sell access piecemeal in increasingly exorbitant packages), thus solidifying the internet as a privatized, highly classed space.
This is contrary to the ideal of the internet as a great equalizer for all voices, and represents a chilling omen for the so-called “Information Revolution”–the kind of sinister corporate entrenchment the cyberpunks tried in their goofy way to warn us about. But any user who not only shops, but works primarily online has also felt the looming specter of net privatization for a long time—at least as far back as the inception of Web 2.0, when the internet largely took on the shape and character that we recognize today.
As early as 1996 (before the advent of Google), R. U. Sirius, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000, lamented presciently to journalist Jon Lebkowsky the emptiness of the myth of the internet as some great equalizer, saying:
You’ve basically got the breakdown of nation states into global economies simultaneous with the atomization of individuals or their balkanization into disconnected sub-groups, because digital technology conflates space while decentralizing communication and attention. The result is a clear playing field for a mutating corporate oligarchy, which is what we have. I mean, people think it’s really liberating because the old industrial ruling class has been liquefied and it’s possible for young players to amass extraordinary instant dynasties. But it’s savage and inhuman.
Beneath a small cadre of very well-paid columnists and other assorted nepotism cases exists an overflowing morass of labor supply–writers, editors, artists and so on who are trying to make use of the internet for professional purposes, but who in many cases lack both the capital and networking ability to springboard their small online hustles into sustainable careers. Meanwhile, large sections of the internet have been carved out and wholly controlled by major corporations and crowdsourcing and marketplace platforms. The virtual land is farmed for content, from which platform holders skim off profit in exchange for use of the platform. Of course, this results in a general funnelling of profit upward, away from the people actually creating most of the content.
Outside of a shrinking elite, this class of artisans and intellectuals has only become more proletarianized over time. This will only get worse the more endowments and other forms of public arts funding dry up, the more austerity and gentrification immiserate people’s living conditions, and the more companies are able to get away with exploiting the labor of online workers for laughably small payouts. It has always been difficult for people outside the more privileged classes to hack it as artists and intellectuals, but the break with tradition that the internet was originally believed to represent has now given way to a form of virtual feudalism.
These circumstances have set the table for sites like Patreon to brand themselves as a savior-like market solution for independent, often struggling artists. Before I go any further, I must admit that I use it. In fact, at this moment it accounts for most of my income (the rest is supplemented by contract gigs such like the one that produced this article.) Many friends and peers also have Patreon pages, sometimes as a complement to profiles on other platforms like Etsy or Redbubble. Maybe they’ve run the odd Indiegogo campaign to get their independent film project off the ground. Maybe all that wasn’t enough, especially in an emergency, so bereft of savings they were forced to use GoFundMe or YouCaring to help them pay for amenities or take the edge off a steep medical bill. The main distinction between Patreon and other sites resides in the fact that Patreon is designed to offer a regular subscription service, meaning it offers an appealing consistency compared to other sites.
Like many people, I have a love-hate (increasingly, just hate) relationship with Patreon. I know exactly how I’m being exploited and yet, without this platform I have no idea how I’d manage a steady, monthly income in my line of work. I make a middling but comfortable amount thanks to Patreon subscriptions that allows me to maintain my personal site, and gives me the stability to seek out other work at a more reasonable pace. Contract gigs like writing for Rhizome only go so far and are replete with exploitative practices all their own; not to mention, of course, the inevitable dry spells. At least Patreon always pays out on the first of the month, just in time for rent. Patreon, much like other crowdfunding-style sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, is relatively easy to use, and offers sellers the opportunity to connect with many more people directly. By bypassing traditional gatekeepers and their usurious percentages, one can (at least in theory) make more money and be subjected to less egregious exploitation.
A few power users have managed to propel themselves to riches and success thanks to Patreon, but these lucky few are in the extreme minority. Many are more likely to bring in a couple hundred bucks a month making games, $60 per piece to make videos or perhaps considerably less–a minimal but still significant sum for people struggling to find any reliable, stable income. In many cases, patrons are also creators, meaning that lower-level earners often use Patreon as a sort of mutual aid service, circulating a small pool of capital from one user to another. This felt like a worthy trade-off with tolerating Patreon’s profit-skimming and its steadily degenerating user interface, but hostile new policy changes threaten to overturn that balance.
Last week, Patreon announced on its blog that it plans to roll out a new payment structure that it promises will allow users to take home a greater share of their earnings–“exactly 95%,” the post claims. What became immediately clear, however, was that this new structure—essentially a regressive tax that passes the “interchange” of processing fees onto patrons, as lawyer, writer and Patreon user Matt Bruenig pointed out–actually only really benefits Patreon itself and a handful of users, while severely undercutting its less successful users.
In general, these platforms turn a profit by charging users a processing fee in exchange for use of the site to sell their wares or receive donations, much like how rentiers charge tenants for use of a physical property. Donation site GoFundMe takes a five per cent cut plus another three per cent in processing fees, while YouCaring only charges for processing. Print-on-demand sites like Redbubble and Society6 set a base price for different items, leaving vendors to set their own markup percentage.
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, and up until recently, Patreon charge a hefty five per cent (plus credit processing fees) per payment cycle. With this change, however, Patreon still takes its five per cent cut, but instead of pulling a two to ten per cent transaction fee out of the payout total at the end of each payment cycle, now the service plans to take a “2.9% + $0.35” cut out of every individual pledge. This essentially eliminates low-level pledge amounts as viable for many patrons, who often support multiple creators with small pledges, and hits people relying on one dollar pledges especially hard. Even the relatively popular leftist podcast, Delete Your Account, tweeted out a screenshot of all the patrons they have lost since the change, as did short story writer Kameron Hurley.
In an update to the post, Patreon insists that this is not a money-grab for Patreon, and instead argues that it was simply the best way to balance third-party fees with their desire to get their patrons the best payout percentage possible. (One of their examples includes a person complaining that 1K was taken out of their 11K lump sum–an already unthinkably high payout for most people actually using the site.) Self-appointed mediator and popular Patreon creator Jeph Jacques quoted CEO Jack Conte as admitting that they “absolutely fucked up that rollout,” suggesting to many that Conte thinks the problem is how the change was framed, rather than any fundamental issue with the change itself. However, a June 2017 post by tech CEO Brian Balfour that was widely disseminated on Twitter reveals something much more sinister than simple precious ignorance. The piece, entitled “Inside the 6 Hypotheses that Doubled Patreon’s Activation Success,” is mostly business mumbo-jumbo, but a telling quote from product manager Tal Raviv stands out:
"We'd rather have our GMV be made up of fewer, but truly life-changed creators rather than a lot of creators making a few dollars."
In other words, Patreon is actually very comfortable undermining lower earners on a practical and ideological level, even if a few bucks for rent or bills may actually be life-changing to some people. One would think, given its past reliance on a vast pool of content creators for income, that the decision to cull the smaller earners would be out of step with its own profit motive–but to Patreon and its investors, these accounts appear to merely represent a blemish and a hassle.
The payment restructuring policy is a testament to Silicon Valley greed and callous, ignorant flippancy toward the misery of others, all in an effort to disempower a massive and unruly labor pool. And it isn’t only the low earners who face uncertain futures on the platform.
Up until recently, Daniel Cooper wrote for Engadget, Patreon “offered a broad latitude for projects that contained erotic content.” Patreon has also, albeit inconsistently, publicly defended the right of adult creators to make money, going so far as to win a legal battle against PayPal over its refusal to accept transactions for pornographic material. For many online sex workers, this meant that Patreon represented an important, relatively safe niche outside the restrictive and deeply exploitative confines of the billion-dollar porn industry. As sex worker Liara Roux told Samantha Cole for Motherboard, “Yes, we can post on Pornhub, which runs mostly off content stolen from us... Where are our rights? Why should we have to be kicked off every platform again and again?"
They may be kicked off again, though Patreon remains vague on actual policy enforcement. The amended terms of service—which Cooper explains was ostensibly meant to crack down on hate speech and illegal content in light of Patreon’s suspension of far-right “journalist” Lauren Southern’s account—is viewed as a slap in the face by many sex workers, who published an open letter and petition addressed to the site’s CEO. It’s also deeply hypocritical, considering up until recently the platform has historically had no compunction about skimming profit off of published works that directly violate its own TOS, created by people who have in the past attempted to sabotage the livelihoods of other users, most notably during the height of Gamergate.
Yet Conte denies that this will lead to any mass shutdown of accounts. Indeed, Patreon still refuses to actually define what they mean by “pornography” or “adult content”, and remain cagey about how these rules will be enforced in the future. Patreon’s waffling over the years on pornography seems to suggest that it wants to have its cake and eat it too—as part of its new program to protect its image, it wants to appear saintly without taking a real position one way or another. This logic follows the same pattern as the payment restructuring changes. Patreon doesn’t want to lose high-volume creators, but it’s also gambling on the likelihood that it can sacrifice a few—or even many—smaller-time users if it means the site can maintain a positive relationship with investors and influence-peddlers. This means sacrificing sex workers and poorer users while simultaneously attempting to avoid conflict with noncommittal reassurances. This is the logic of a gentrifier.
All of this serves to reveal the great lie at the center of the “gig economy.” The Silicon Valley ideology behind sites like Patreon insists that the “gig economy” is a boon to young creators, where anyone and everyone could be a successful entrepreneur if they just have enough drive and gumption. Supposedly, this is meant to free us from the shackles of traditional employment.
In reality, sites like Patreon thrive off of other people’s work exactly because companies that could employ them opt instead for contracting and outsourcing, which atomizes workers by turning them into direct competitors and rendering them much more exploitable. They generate brand recognition as rebel alternatives by making lots of tempting promises and ensuring ease of use, until ultimately metastasizing into yet another tech monopoly that suddenly needs to gate out the undesirables. And as much as they claim to operate as alternatives, they still need to interact with credit card companies and other payment services, all of which siphon money off of online transactions. These same conditions–the continuing accumulation of power and capital by the few at the expense of the many– are what beckoned the end of net neutrality even as the corporate web was still taking shape. It’s also what explains the backlash against Gothamist and Fusion writers who attempted to organize their workplaces.
The same forces dictate how print-on-demand sites like Society6 can get away with repackaging artists’ work into calendars without ever paying those creators a dime. Meanwhile, numerous craftspeople who use these sites to sell their designs have accused major fashion retailers like Zara and H&M of stealing their work. This isn’t much different from sex workers or journalists seeking alternatives to going underpaid, getting plagiarized or robbed of compensation, or being denied opportunities, only to have the sites offering those opportunities squeeze profit out of them.
At their most sordid, online funding platforms have found a profitable niche in healthcare funding—or to pay for other essentials like rent or groceries. Money-raising sites in general rely on power users who can go viral, but donation sites take that logic to its cruelest conclusion. “Virality” is hard to achieve for a sex worker or a podcaster, but it’s an inhumane demand on the sick and poor that could only exist in an inhumane society. As Anne Helen Peterson wrote in “The Real Peril of Crowdfunding Health Care,” “That doesn’t mean we should stop giving. But it does mean we should stop mistaking stopping a leak for fixing the plumbing.”
Yes, sites like Patreon can buoy up individuals who otherwise might have to risk destitution or quit their craft, but the entire economic apparatus that enables their existence also guarantees that they will earn less over time, on platforms that offer none of the guarantees or benefits that real employment can. The same old gatekeepers are still very much in place, and Patreon relies on the same old meritocratic fantasy that we could all be in that place too, with hard work and the power of positivity.
The only response to the problem of charity crowdfunding is socialized healthcare, much like the only solution to the end of net neutrality is to nationalize the internet and treat it like a public utility. Likewise, “content creation” workers are forced to rediscover the power of organizing, while recognizing a shared struggle not just with other exploited “gig economy” workers like Uber and Amazon drivers, but with workers writ large. Where this can’t manifest in traditional workplace organizing, genuine mutual aid and cooperative, creator-owned funding tools could represent an actual alternative. Patreon, like every other feudal lordship on the internet, is filling a void in society that was put there by design. By design, we can also get rid of it.
Hannah Black, The Situation (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
Be careful not to step on the tiny ceramic sculptures, they are on the floor and at times partially obscured by the shredded paper.
This, along with the unspoken tacit permission to steal books, were the viewing instructions given for Hannah Black’s “Some Context” at Chisenhale Gallery in London. The books stacked in the center of the room provide the bulk of the exhibition’s content, both materially and conceptually. They exist individually as books able to be read on their own, and collectively as a stacked sculpture. They were also presented in shredded form as filler, both covering the floor of the gallery, almost concealing the small ceramic sculptures as noted above, while also filling, or waiting to fill, the teddy bears strewn about or propped up next to the paper shredders. Perhaps more acutely, these books exist as a potentiality; they await to be read or to be shredded, or photographed or stolen. But “Some Context” was not an exhibition with an accompanying book; the book itself, in its myriad of real and potential forms, is the artwork. Its “content” is comprised of conceptions of several social selves: that of Black herself, as well as those of the book’s various contributors. The book’s authors are only listed once in the table of contents. Some are obscured completely and thus their texts remain anonymous. By redacting the names and disrupting the ability for the reader to easily locate each author’s name to their corresponding text, Black provided different terms for speaking. In some cases, she perhaps made space for freer voices, as the author could feel more open, without their every word traceable back to them. Here, the ideas on offer in the show began to meld and activate for the viewer.
Hannah Black, “Some Context” (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2017. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
This exhibition seems appropriate and timely following Black’s Open Letter to the Whitney . It provides a space for discussion by framing ideas from the artist herself as well as those from the invited participants. Additionally, the work seems to respond to the immediate aftermath of the Open Letter’s circulation, where it seemed that the discussion of Black as a person overshadowed the articulation of her artistic and written work. In effect, she seemed to become the position she (and all of the accompanying signatories) advocated for in the letter. It is this very ontology of “being content” that the show seems to both unpack and complicate, where the written voices and the contributors to the lecture program were both the content and form. Michel Feher in “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” discusses this process through which the productivity of a person living within neoliberalism is not only measured through their labor but also gauged by what they say or do, stand for, look like, and dream about.1 Together, these elements become their unique selling proposition, their USP, providing a surplus or deficit commodity value. He refers to this as one’s human capital , writing that “the things that I inherit, the things that happen to me, and the things I do all contribute to the maintenance or the deterioration of my human capital […] my human capital is me, as a set of skills and capabilities that is modified by all that affects me and all that I effect.”
You can’t lean on the white walls, you’ll leave smudges.
This was the instruction given to me by the museum guard when I leaned for too long against the wall in “Small Room,” Black’s recent show at Mumok. A sheet of Perspex secured copies of Life, a book by Black and Juliana Huxtable published adjacent to the exhibition (not a central work to it, like The Situation would be) onto the wall, installed after the opening to prevent the remaining copies from being stolen. There are conceptual threads to follow from “Small Room” into “Some Context.” The work of “Small Room” explored cells, and by extension, thresholds: the outer ring, the edge, the absolutely impermeable or at times semi-permeable membrane that separates a thing from everything it is not. The viewer was asked to consider w hat is contained within and what constitutes separation, by the wall, the fence, the shackle.
If we follow this cellular logic into “Some Context,” here too we can find some semi-permeable edges and barriers. The covers of The Situation hold a collection of voices, contained within the skin and bodies of the contributors that keeps all of themselves contained, defining their positions against being part of everything else in the world. The “situation” articulated in the book and in the exhibition seems to reference the predetermined limits of the subjectivized self. “Subjectivized” here refers to the state after one becomes a subject, after an external force deems you a subject within a Foucauldian power relation. From this situation of being subjectivized, it is difficult to speak or make from outside the position you are registered as, and thus expected to inhabit. The self, like the book, is the vessel which holds our content, just as the teddy bear pelts hold their shredded filling.
1. Michael Feher, “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” Public Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 21-41.
Hannah Black, “Some Context” (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2017. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery.
Hannah Black, Creatures (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
Hannah Black, Transitional Object 7 (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.