This interview accompanies the presentation of EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
AD: Can you start by walking me through the project more generally? What was the impetus for it? The process?
MS: EverythingIveAlwaysWantedtoKnow.com was kind of my thesis project at School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I was interested in automatic writing, writing under constraints, very influenced by OuLiPo. I was using found language to think about American ideologies. So I had been collecting all of my Google searches for two or three years–there was no saved search at the time. I was doing in a document as I was in school, as a kind of a diary. I liked the idea of coming of age and “persona.” I wanted to explore the the creation of a persona as well through this coming of age story. I wondered if I could do it through what I was searching on Google, what, or who, would it reveal?
I wanted it to be a very simple presentation only using a few lines of codes. There’s nothing to it; it’s just a drop-down menu. I didn't want the terms to link anywhere. I made it so that if anything was selected, it would go back to the index. This was a kind of refusal. You could see what I was interested in, but you wouldn't get to see anything more.
AD: Looking back on the work today, it definitely seems to relate to the way people's subjectivities are arranged online. Maybe it wasn't as glaringly the case back then in 2007, but consciously or not it seems to foreshadow the way that search queries and consumer patterns are purported to actually make up who you are. Were you thinking about that at the time?
MS: This was 2007. I was interested in how little this data actually said. You can infer some things from it: there's a lot of stuff about me trying to break a lease, for instance. I was searching tons and tons of stuff like: “tenant's rights organization,” “breaking lease,” “how to get out of lease in Chicago.”
I was always thinking about it more about the way I was talking to search engines, rather than looking at what was actually going on in my life. Today, I often get coded incorrectly in advertising stuff because of Twitter. I recently downloaded my Twitter data and because I tweet about sports, cars, and business a lot, it thinks that I'm an affluent white man. I'm interested in that mis-reading. There's some stuff I'm searching that is coded in other ways. There’s a lot of stuff about art, being a young artist, then there's also a lot of stuff that's about being a young black woman.
So in EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com I was interested in how these multiple subjectivities were rendered and kind of flattened out through the search query itself.
AD: How do you think that this work and your early internet-based work informs the work that you’ve made in more recent years? Have your concerns shifted? Do you have any comments on the relationship between the old work and the new work?
MS: I see a lot of parallels. There are a lot of similarities in terms of both what I'm thinking about and how. Maybe what's become pronounced is my interest in creating an identity–how you're formed by external forces, and the performance that’s tied to that. Because at first I was writing down what I was doing, but then once I knew that I was going to write it down, there was this hesitation “should I search that?” I committed to putting down everything I search. So if I search something weird, people are gonna like know this about me or think this about me. At that time a few people actually did say, “oh your searches are so tame.”
I like the idea of how this type of publicness, which is really private in one sense–you know these boundaries in being what’s public and what’s private are blurred online and how that becomes really performative. I’ve always thought about the internet as a cinematic space, but I think the increase of online video in advertising, social media, and as entertainment makes this very apparent.
In 2018, Rhizome will commission Morehshin Allahyari to expand her in-progress body of work, She Who Sees The Unknown, which takes a position of resistance against digital colonialism and explores re-figuring as a feminist and activist practice.
“Researching dark goddesses, monstrous, and djinn female figures of Middle Eastern origin, I want to explore the symbolic meanings behind traditions and myths and speculate on the effects of colonialism and other forms of contemporary oppression,” Allahyari wrote in her proposal. ”I will devise a narrative through practices of magic and poetic-speculative storytelling, re-appropriation of traditional mythologies, collaging, meshing, 3D scanning/3D Printing, and archiving.”
For her Rhizome commission, Allahyari will focus on two mythical figures, developing a research archive, a video narrative, and a “Ha’m-Neshini” sitting event for each. Upon finishing all twelve parts of the work, Allahyari intends to deposit the full digital archive with an institution in the Middle East.
Allahyari’s is the latest addition to a cycle of commissioned works for 2017-18 that include a new spate of Microgrants, the expansion of Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain’s enron.email, and N-Prolenta’s Banana Island–and there’s still more to come.
Please consider supporting Rhizome’s Commissions Fund as part of your end-of-year giving. If you make a donation of $16, we'll send you our year-end artists’ multiple–an algae-based nutrition bar by Lucy Chinen and Nonfood, dedicated to space dog Laika–to any US address.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and individual donors.
Rhizome is looking for a committed and passionate coder to work on backend infrastructure for Webrecorder, an innovative, open source web application that allows users to create high-fidelity, interactive, contextual archives of social media and other dynamic web content.
This is a full-time position for a mid-to-senior-level developer to take responsibility for a key aspect of Webrecorder’s core systems. An ideal candidate would possess a passion for making a difference combined with strong technical expertise.
N-Prolenta, Banana Island: Hublots (2017). Production still from online performance.
Artists discuss the politics and aesthetics of black portraiture after the internet. Published alongside the online exhibition First Look: New Black Portraitures, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
What is the future of the black image?
Pastiche Lumumba: The future of the black image is generative, autonomous, ephemeral.
Rindon Johnson: I can’t be sure. In relation to this idea of future, I have been thinking a lot recently about the entertainment value of blackness. Like this implication of mobility through entertainment, furthered by the using of things that might be considered stereotypically black to sell an idea about blackness or to sell something… How does the entertainer fit into this painful puzzle of systemic oppression manifest everywhere from the very language we speak to police killings. I’m going to guess that the future of the black image is directly related to the future of capitalism as the black american identity exists and is maintained by capitalism, like every other identity, I mean like everything else. So if capitalism is reoriented, what are we left with?
I was watching this house show recently like a reno build show and this renegade white architect painted the entire house black and in that classic reality tv way the producers really focused on it, this was “black interior guy” and of course you know the house comes out totally beautiful, just extraordinary, reflexive and incredible. They toured the house and kept saying how warm the black felt. Then he said this thing that was like, “I am not afraid of black” and I just had this flashback to Get Out where this old white guy tells the main character “Black is in!”, and I just thought “is this what is next for black?”
manuel arturo abreu: The white cube's lifelong denial of modernist violence, ongoing blackface, and the continued violent circulation of Black subjectivities separate from Black people means the future of the Black image is similar to its past -- non-image (or not totally image), fugitive, caught between abstraction and figuration, between being inherently networked and inherently phantasmic. The most important work will happen and has always happened outside the confines of a notion like 'art' or 'image.'
N-Prolenta: There's a point of maximum density and minimum complexity, where things are so hot that they feel cold. We're doing more of that. And it's more of a condition than a direction. Can there ever be a true future in that, as it is? I find that Black images often deal in multiplicities, and across striations. There will be more tension, and we will witness the dramas coming from that.
Pastiche Lumumba, Community Standard (a poortrait across platforms) (2017). Screenshot from social media performance.
Aria Dean: In this moment, culturally and aesthetically, how do you feel black portraiture is situated? I’m thinking about the art world as one specific world of image, but also in the public sphere at large - online and off.
Pastiche Lumumba: Black portraiture is situated editorially and in archives as an educational tool to prove that we exist and are indeed human. For black people, at this moment, portraiture allows us to revel in the joy and beauty of being black, in ourselves and each other, at irl and on the internet.
Rindon Johnson: I’m from California and the way that voting works there is that there are propositions for bills and laws etc. With propositions you vote yes or no. Sometimes a proposition can be worded in such a way that it will trick people to say yes to something that they would normally say no to. Meanwhile, I came to the realization the other day that a painting is proposition for a plane. Sometimes I wonder if American Blackness is the amalgam of these 2 types of propositions, a sort of grouping together of propositions, a tying together of people who are stratified by class, location, beliefs. The Black American proposition is slippery and we are all in weird ways saying yes or no to one part or another part of one proposition or another proposition. When I try and put the idea all the way through its paces I ask: Is American Blackness a proposition for a people? Since the proposition does not exist in a vacuum, power is still distributed based around education, class, access etc. So, can’t those that have the means to assume more control over the proposition, take it as their own exploit it for some kind of gain? What does that exploitation look like? What do we say about all of that? I guess none of that answers the question. It seems like black portraiture is benefiting from new outlets but is still fighting the same usual demons.
manuel arturo abreu: It's likely situated in a lesser position in relation to selfies, which are easier to circulate and extract value from. A platform like IG would be much less profitable without the daily outpour of selfies from Black women in particular and Black folks in general. I imagine “portrait” generally is now taken to mean a page orientation where the page is taller than it is wide (vs landscape). Does the conversation regarding payment for Black selfie labor involve the portrait vs selfie tension?
N-Prolenta: We're saturated in it.
Rindon Johnson, Away With You, (2016). VR video.
Aria Dean: How does your practice relate to the rich history of black artists exploring portraiture and representation, using the black figurative image? Do you consider yourself an inheritor of this tradition? Do you feel any tension or opposition?
Pastiche Lumumba: My practice relates specifically with how black artists, black people are exploring our representation on the internet. My identity as one whole being with a diverse array of thoughts and feelings and ways of presenting them and myself is subject to the rules of any site in which it exists. This generation of artists and black people inherited sensibilities but are using them to navigate an entirely different information landscape. I feel that tension most acutely when I want to show internet artists in physical gallery spaces. A lot is lost when we translate digital practices into traditional physical presentations for exhibition purposes.
Rindon Johnson: My mother is an art dealer and in my teens she started showing Roy DeCarava, James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks all three dealing very particularly, and differently in black portraiture. I got to spend a lot of time with these images because the gallery is a family business, so I know their lines and angles by heart. Then I went to NYU and studied with Dr. Deborah Willis who, in addition to her own gorgeous images, has created some of the most magnificent and thorough archives in book form of black lives. As I get more into other mediums, I got really into Julie Dash, Howardina Pindell, Sun Ra, Barbara McCullough, Elizabeth Catlett and Senga Negundi, among others. All these deep dives into other people’s work they’re all related somehow to my work, and I inherit them happily, and I think any tension or opposition is maybe just a necessary act of questioning.
manuel arturo abreu: I don't make figurative work, but I find it quite beautiful -- recent figuration by Cheyenne Julien, Eden Seifu, Simphiwe Ndzube, Hamishi Farah, and many others has touched me and shows that this rich history of Black representational work lives on.
Pastiche Lumumba, Community Standard (a poortrait across platforms) (2017). Screenshot from social media performance.
Aria Dean: Are images true?
Pastiche Lumumba: Images have never been true, not even mine.
Rindon Johnson: Well today it was raining but lightly. Walking home I noticed that there was a puddle of milk on the street perfectly nestled into a shallow amoeba hole in the sidewalk. As I got closer the light moved and the milk somehow turned to water. I suppose the milk was always water but if I first saw it as milk was it not also milk?
manuel arturo abreu: No, they just are (and to some, even that is up for debate, somehow). That whole BS of art “lying like the truth” is another means of concealing its market operation. Somewhere between a social constructivist position where images are mirrors of the world that makes them, and the Stravinsky position that art is powerless to represent anything but itself, is where we'll find an accurate understanding of how images function in relation to truth... maybe.
The modern browser has, for the most part, dispensed with UI ornament. There is a URL bar, a handful of icons for extensions, and maybe a bookmarks bar: that’s it. Even Internet Explorer’s spinning globe has been deprecated in favor of Microsoft Edge’s flat-color toolbar.
Firefox and Chrome still allow the user to customize the look of their browsers through installable “themes,” and these might be the last few relics of a time when browser interfaces could be as loud, colorful, or bizarre as the user desired.
Christmas browsers, a phenomenon of the late 90s, are examples of these custom interfaces, full of colorful excess and holiday cheer.
In the mid-90s, users could choose from a variety of specialized standalone browsers, including browsers featuring tools for maintaining e-commerce sites, children’s browsers, and a browser built for Russian-speaking audiences with built-in translation tools. Instead of adhering to a standard look and feel, many of these browsers had interfaces that differed highly from one browser to the next.
However, a handful of specialized browsers survived into the late 90s, due in part to a short-lived Windows software component that allowed custom browser interfaces to be built on top of Internet Explorer 3 and 4. Two surviving Christmas browsers — Santa’s Browser and Christmas Browser 99 — were built using this approach.
Although these browsers were built on top of Internet Explorer, they eschewed the professional aesthetics of the Microsoft or Netscape browser in favor of homemade, Geocities-esque collage. Christmas Browser 99 abstracts forward and backward buttons into a string of lights, with each blinking section representing a previously visited webpage. Santa’s Browser’s refresh button is a festive wreath shaped like an arrow.
Both Christmas Browser 99 and Santa’s Browser can be successfully run in an emulator, but with limited functionality. The READMEs for these browsers document extensive lists of features, few of which function today. Christmas Browser 99’s greeting card functionality redirects the user to a server that doesn’t respond. In Santa’s Browser, e-commerce links go nowhere. Attempts to create a Christmas wish list send the user to registration on a website that no longer exists.
At this point, it is impossible to know what has been lost. Would any of Santa’s Browser’s “2000 links to Christmas-related web fun” function today? Unfortunately, even a complete copy of the installation files for these browsers is not sufficient for meaningful preservation, as most of the interactive content relies on a dead external server. In 1999, it was unusual for an application to make network calls just to load its main interface — but in 2017, many apps have little to no offline functionality, and the very idea of an “app” is itself not much more than a comforting reference to the self-contained software of the past.
The Christmas browser may seem like an odd choice for preservation, but it illustrates a central challenge facing Rhizome’s software curation program. Preserving an application without the context of its network was not sufficient even in 1999, and the impossibility of fully reconstructing these relatively simple apps in 2017 illustrates the need to consider the multiplicitous relationships that define any digital cultural artefact in a preservation context.
Lyndsey Jane Moulds is software curator at Rhizome.
In June, I curated a screening of video works by artist Jordan Wolfson at the New Museum as a part of the First Look series, an ongoing exhibition and event program co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum, online and off. After the screening, Wolfson and I discussed virtual reality, white masculinity, and violence. Watch video of the conversation below.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
1. The Social Contract
To begin, here’s a nice, pared-down Libertarian bricolage calling into question the foundations of society.
2. Distracted Boyfriend
2017 was a year in which male sleaziness was acknowledged, and punished, as never before, and this change in the popular mood seemed to have been foreshadowed by the most prevalent meme of the year, the “Distracted Boyfriend”.
As we’re returning to more irrational, pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking, Greek mythological memes have been in the ascendancy. Sisyphus, for instance, has become something of a hero in recent meme culture, which is often characterized by a sense of hopelessness and futility.
The last panel was already a popular meme, but has now been placed into a larger, more epic narrative.
Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic’s popularity amongst the extremely online makes perfect sense: he rejected the trappings of conventional society, choosing instead to drop out and troll his supposed betters.
This variation, which includes one of its precursors as an inset in the corner, reflects a growing movement towards complexity and meta-narratives, a subect that is discussed in some depth (and with reference to Wassily Kandinsky’s drawings of the dancer Gret Palucca), on the Philosopher’s Meme page.
5. Enlightened Pepe
“Enlightened Pepe” is another template that lends itself to loquacious complexity: here’s a version promoting the kind of leftist transhumanism that friends keep shilling to me at house parties.
6. Dancing Hot Dog
Bleak, defeated existentialism was the order of the day in 2017. Here, in a rare example of an augmented reality meme, we have a cartoon hot dog that speaks like Søren Kierkegaard.
I love this video, and have watched it so many times. I love how the repetition of the video, combined with the building intensity of the music, keeps heightening and heightening the dramatic tension.
8. Bert & Ernie
A beautiful tale of friendship, stoicism, and perhaps also repressed sexuality, which, nonetheless, has a depressing message: the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. It’s too late.
Bert and Ernie’s silence, their retreat into bland pop and intoxication, represents our collective denial. Every meme is a self-portrait of the networked society.
9. This Man Dispenses the Cubes
Like all the best surreal humor, this speaks to an underlying reality: a fear of our own redundancy in the age of automation.
My grandmother lives alone in Yokohama and has a talking sink. Because I never learnt to speak Japanese, I have never had a proper conversation with her. Compared to her sink, I am nothing.
It’s a rush of pure emotion. It’s how we see ourselves, and how we cling to our pasts. It’s Gatsby’s green light across the shimmering water, and all our hopes and dreams for the future, as we move, once again, into another year.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
2017 has oftentimes felt like being in a holding pattern over choleric lava; each rocketing incendiary force keening to fuck us down to hell with the disappointment that our last moments will smell like the sulphurous farts of an elderly dog. Last night some friends and I took shelter in an underground Edinburgh bar in the last country that has not gone insane and suggested that America and England’s daily life is now like walking down a long corridor of endless doors and trying to multitask to agonizing screams; when you open a door a Silicon Valley algorithm firebombs everything you hold precious in front of you while you try not to cry and drop coffee on your shoes.
2017 was also quite funny, if you ignore everything I just wrote.
CORBS AND CANS
For example, the last politician in England who has (for the most part) held steadfast and admirable values for most of his life (despite the New Labour policy of steamrolling every non-neoliberal in town) went out in the 2017 weather to get some Special Brew tins & coffee in something that can only be described as the robbed shell suit of a nineties swamp monster. The overall effect is of a man who has dedicated his life to politics and poor people but has no idea about PR: the exact opposite of Satan’s cheese puff, Trump, and therefore, one of the most soothing men to read news and smile about.
Scotland’s been doing okay despite England forcing it to leave the EU, membership to the EU being the only thing that assured we did not vote for an independent country, which I assume we now deeply, deeply regret with the power of a thousand suns. But something that stern English Daily Mail readers like to whine about is that when Scottish tennis winner Sir Andy Murray is Going About Winning Tennis Things around the world he better be smiling about it, he better be happy to be trotted out the athletic pet of the dead British Empire. Sir Andy Murray (not a fashion model) has been told to smile so often it’s like he’s permanently a pretty teenage girl walking past a building site. But in 2017, Sir Andy Murray proved the frown is his super power: when he tells this complacent reporter that Sam Querrey was the first male US player to reach a semi-final since 2009, it was like the scowl had X-Men-like qualities and it lit up the reporter: if you listen carefully you can hear the man’s flesh sizzling in the background as Murray basks in the simultaneous arousal of thousands of heterosexual women around the country who can’t help but be impressed by baseline male respect. As if you could forget Serena Williams and be a sports journalist.
This year my friend Megan Farokhmanesh noticed that on the 20th anniversary of the best worst Batman movie, Batman And Robin, (which I still maintain has a tie-in novel that is dynamite, a much better rendering if you ask me) Joel Schumacher was talking about nipples on the batsuit again. Megan correctly surmised that this is the most important thing about the film: the objectifying of the male form that the film seemed comfortable with. Schumacher himself said that he hadn’t realised what a firestorm he’d cooked up by erect male headlamp inclusion. The reveal is that when objectification is reflected at men themselves, we start to ask if Batman would be sexualizing his own suit: if yes, that says something very interesting about Bruce Wayne, possibly one of the most interesting things any writer might have said about him. If no, then we must ask exactly why it is most female superheroes in films always create impractical sexualised outfits for themselves without fail and without the audience immediately rupturing with questions about the believability of her character. I guess some might live in a fantasy land where dressing that way does not interrupt the ‘rescue small children from a burning building’ plot with mundane sexual harassment or some dude pestering for a date, but I suspect this world is not like Gotham City. In Batman and Robin, Alfred made his niece a Batgirl suit that in Terry Pratchett’s words might be "six weeks work for an experienced panel beater." But don’t let’s look at Hollywood too closely; we might find a gaping maw of rotten garbage.
Tula Lotay, Wonder Woman, poster drawn for @MondoNews. Source: https://twitter.com/tulalotay/status/870724076062609410
This year the artist Tula Lotay has been tapping her boots and then solidly knocking balls out of the park. Best known for her work in comics, Tula Lotay is someone whose feathery lines, hard-jawed men and voluptuous-lipped femme fatales remind me of the creatures on the front of old golden age Black Mask magazines (only when I look those up, they pale in comparison). Her colors, especially, are the most vibrant palettes and pop art joys to look at, but my favourite scenes of hers are the romantic clinch, or when her characters look meaningfully at each other. There’s something electric in the art she produces, like she vibrates a wild abandon or ecstasy into her characters. Probably the greatest compliment I could give her is that she draws like she is in love with people, and what better reason to wake up in the morning than to see love like that on a page. I have given her all my money.
Welcome to the section of the article where I tell you that you are in love with Jon Bois. It’s true; I am in love with Jon Bois too. I have never met Jon Bois. But his interactive fiction masterpiece 17776 is one of the most important pieces of internet art I’ve ever been exposed to. He would probably laugh derisively at this; this is why I am in love with Jon Bois. That, and I too love American football as romantically as he does. Please read this. It is wonderful. It is hilarious, exuberant, and it is also as beautifully paced as any TV show you will watch.
The fact that Frankie Boyle can make me laugh about the terrible political situation we are in, and still preserve the anger I need to get things done, is probably the only thing making me feel generally jovial any more:
Him and Big Nev Southall, the gentle giant of Twitter, who looks down sternly upon racists and bigots, and succinctly inquires as to why they might be such twats to strangers, and who listens intently to when he is given new information about how to be kinder:
Since The Toast died I’ve been bereft, but Nicole Cliffe is still around to teach me things. For example, the phrase “cum gutters” is now firmly a part of my vocabulary, and Joe Mangianello’s golden retriever-like insistence on wolfing down blocks of cheese is now something I’m aware of thanks to her:
Where I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a place beset by climbing and bouldering walls - we have Europe’s largest indoor climbing wall, situated in an old quarry, as well as a wealth of actual massive motherfucking mountains surrounding us. There was much laughing and rejoicing at my local bouldering wall when this rebuttal of a GQ mess about climbing was published, which sees women climbers pictured in their natural state: actually climbing. With clothes on.
I read Carrie Fisher’s Princess Diarist this year, and it broke my heart in two. Harrison Ford treated her very cruelly, and it occurred to me that he probably didn’t know that he was abusing his power - it is common of men to think that because women have ‘power’ over them sexually that that somehow puts mouthy nineteen year old girls on an equal footing with married male co-stars 14 years older than them. Perhaps male sexuality is invisible to male heterosexuals. But she also knew that she was in love with him and he wasn’t in love with her (I assume, from his actions), and it’s always hard to read about that sort of thing. I loved this interview with Mark Hamill, where he says that he and Carrie made out and gambolled around like teenagers more on an equal footing, and I think it shows an extraordinary amount of respect and fondness for her, something I think her memory deserves. Though I don’t believe Mark Hamill is a good kisser, so, there is perhaps one false claim to be considered.
I assume that many people will recommend this read on millennials to be worth your time, but I consider this next article the most valuable Serious piece of 2017: Brit Marling on the Economics of Consent. A woman may say nothing and a powerful monied man has still decided whether he will give her work based on how likely it is she will say yes to him on any subject. If she starts to say no, even to sex (one of the worst abuses of power) it is no longer a disagreement on professional values. He wrongly interprets her as her rejecting him as a person. And sometimes the woman said yes once, and then has used up her ‘professional’ value after that: she deserves no politeness or courtesy any more. And this has egregious effects on the ability of men and women to work together, to co-exist together. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed.
If 2018 doesn’t continue to hit the “enable all disasters” button on its SimCity 2000 game, I’ll see you next year for more ways you can prevent yourself from doing any work. Until then, death to the bum rag The Daily Mail.
Cara Ellison is a writer and narrative designer for videogames. She is currently working on the game Dreams for PS4. She has made a corner of the utopian internet here: http://caraellison.co.uk/
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
How do you summarize the hellfire of a year that was 2017? There’s so much to cover! Where to start? Rather than let this list get very dark, very quickly, I wanted to focus on some of the Internet Things that made me pause, made me smile, and gave me some hope.
1. Chelsea Manning’s Emoji Use
Chelsea Manning’s use of emoticons and emojis to express joy, make jokes, offer support and send up dumb motherfuckers on Twitter. She is bringing a joy to the Internet that is equal parts earnestness and snark, backed by a foundational leftist activism, and I 👏 am 👏 here 👏 for 👏 it. 👏
#MeToo was important for so many reasons: the movement was started by a woman of color (crucial given that the dominant conversation already excludes so many WOC voices). The hashtag is potentially causing a real sea change. Of course, it is not without its problems, and it is yet to be determined whether we’re in the midst of actual cultural change, a flash in the pan zeitgeist, or a fade, but for now, #MeToo is creating much-needed dialogue around sexual harassment.
3. Slicey Bois
I’d call this a burgeoning meme as it is not widely used. Ben Gullard, an artist and classmate from my master’s program, posted this celebration of guillotines, newly called “slicey bois,” on Facebook. Perhaps it’s the happenstance of discovery, since it appeared in my timeline right after the Republican Senate voted for the largest overhaul of the US tax code in 30 years, one that enable drilling in the Arctic, attacks core components of the Affordable Care Act, and treats corporations better than people. So, I loved the idea of the slicey boi, as well as the timing of when it appeared in my feed. Why not have more guillotine memes shared by teens, just as US Republicans are having very much a “let them eat cake” moment? https://me.me/i/who-would-win-an-abusive-ruling-class-a-few-slicey-19362799
4. Expanding Brain/Whomst
Generally, I love all expanding brain memes, but this one and its variations, especially. Grammar correction is deployed as a petty tool in digital conversations. It’s fascinating to watch used in debates, because the move is both incredibly disarming, and it is designed to be that way. Seeing a meme that then uses made up formal grammar to mock this pettiness is hilarious.
Bail Bloc is one of my favorite activism and art projects of the year. It can be incredibly effective; it was incredibly well researched and executed, and it is the best use of a cryptocurrency I’ve seen out there.
7. Twitter’s Redemption
This. Thread. Right. Here. It reminded me of why I love(d) Twitter, which is harder now with the continuing harassment and the Nazis. Sometimes there’s magic on Twitter, a very broken product with broken leadership that doesn’t seem to care about community.
8. RIP Vine, RIP AIM
This year saw the death of Vine and AIM, too. Rest in Peace. RIP. We will miss you, for forever. You were too good for us, and we didn’t deserve you, but we will remember you. A/S/L and seven second videos 4ever.
9. Wendy’s Social Media
I briefly worked in advertising and was allowed to write tweets for Mastercard (why would anyone let me do that is beyond me) but I learned just how much copywriting and approval goes into managing a brand’s social accounts. These clapbacks from Wendy’s areonpoint and fucking savage, because either Wendy’s HQ DGAF or they are super on board with being assholes. Either way, it’s amazing.
Consider CongressEdits, a bot that tracks all of the edits made from the IP address of the US Congress. You can see things like the Sean Hannity article or human feces or the legend of Zelda videogame being edited. You know, really important political stuff.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
⭐️ Slime Vids
If you were born after 2000 you already know that slime vids are the shiiiiiiiiit. They constitute a mostly unrecognized fetish, in the same vein (and often in tandem with) ASMR and other physical deformation vids, like press-crushing, sand-slicing, and so on. Slime vids are a culmination of so many satisfying elements into one gooey, bubbly, and probably highly toxic paste. They remind me of wanting to eat screen printing ink, a desire I can't say I've grown out of.
Slime vids have also been cited as a cause of glue shortages in stores, which is fun. You can find them easily online, whether on Instagram or Youtube. For whatever reason, I've stuck with @theslimeyhoe, who in addition to being a child with brilliant branding sense, is more or less an aggregator account, posting other peoples' work but adding small notes about their day, or integrating back and forth conversations with other slime accounts, like some sort of embedded slime-diary.
In keeping with our society-wide, ever-developing skill of smiling through gritted teeth, here's a “best” live event of the year. I challenge you to name a more illustrative indictment of the state of new media art than Mark Zuckerberg high-five'n in VR, in front of flooded Puerto Rican homes. Here is a gleaming, wide-eyed tech demo of Silicon Valley individualists patting each other on the back with millions of dollars, bundled in hollow platitudes, all the while submerged in a heavy fog of incalculable human sadness that they have little vested interest in correcting.
A better commentary than any art show I’ve been to on how imperfect and absurd the future (regardless of the marvels of its innovations) will be and is, and a spiritual successor to the Boring Dystopia Facebook group, @Shitty_Future is a welcome counterpoint to all the hyperbolic promo-babble that startup bros inundate us with on a daily basis.
A number of artists have been plumbing the depths of drag makeup for some months now, and I’ve probably only just now caught the wave. The medium has transcended hyperreal facial feature embellishment and moved into surrealist mask-making or abstract illustration over, and on, the skull-canvas. Belonging to a mostly Insta-centric world, the artists I've been following closest have included @isshehungry (aside: she was actually hired for the recent Bjork Utopia cover, which was a refreshing change from stylists and editorial directors' using the usual hackneyed and hollow artist copies via their most evil weapons and executors: the moodboard and the sullen studio intern), along with the brilliant @matieresfecales, @suckgenesis, @monar.x, and salvjiia.
⭐️Russians use videogame screenshot as propaganda
The intersection of 3D graphics and propagandistic fakery is always captivating to me, so when the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation’s Facebook page posted a screengrab of the mobile game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, it seemed like a moment of true comedic confluence.
As someone who is moving increasingly towards surreal children's animation and Youtuber garbage in my personal practice, and also as someone who genuinely feels unending glee from watching the fascinating proliferation of (seemingly) procedurally-generated 3D kids' vids, the very good article "Something Is Wrong On The Internet" by James Bridle strikes me as maybe slightly alarmist, but a nonetheless vital read. The piece captures a cross section of vids that lie between borderline-fetishy fanfic, democratized 3D animation, and commandeering of search keywords for anonymous Youtube cash schemes, and then discusses the possible health implications for the children that voraciously, and innocently, inhale it all.
⭐️ Weird Mike gets repeatedly and savagely dunked on in his AMA
Not one to make resolutions, but my main move next year is to practice a bit more self-care. So together, let's all pinch and chef kiss our fingertips, mmmm omma nom nom, at this delicacy of soul-restoration that is Pizzagate-peddling, white supremacist shitbag Mike Cernovich getting flogged within an inch of his contrived life in his Reddit AMA.
A Truly Good Internet Thing that's begun happening with more frequency this year is a growing push to unionize digital media companies, despite pushback from their supposedly progressive bosses (group negotiation for fairer wages stifles all that innovative disruption, guys!) and just outright assholes submarining the whole thing out of greed. Vox, Vice, Gawker/Gizmodo, Huffington Post, and many others have seen measured successes in organizing for a transparent wage scale, severance, and collective bargaining for workers’ rights.
There's a relatively small, cultish subsection of image macro creators on Facebook who have taken the format to a place that rides the line between alt-lit poetry, memes, and self-medicated depression-core journaling. I've found myself following the field passionately this year. I won't post the link for fear of the banhammer (and art communities such as these are so tenuous anyway, that a passing article can easily break their equilibrium) ... but they're People, Umm ... what can I say that doesn't give it away? ... who sometimes ... layer text in simple, deskilled ways over found imagery ... and are also ... oohhhh, IDK. I bet you can find it.
⭐ The Boston Dynamics backflipping robot
Look, you’ve probably already seen this, and maybe upon review an ambient sense of singularity-borne apocalyptic dread is a bit more pronounced, but to come full circle, let’s just marvel at how siiiiiiiiiiiick this robo-backflip is, one more time. Before it’s not cute anymore.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
This post contains semi-nudity.
After a year of death and doom, we all started 2017 hoping for it to get better and for things to make sense. So when Beyoncé, peace be unto her, announced her pregnancy via Instagram, on the first day of Black History Month, not only pregnant but with twins, there was joy and hope in the world (and the picture quickly became the most liked image on the platform).
Super Bowl LI
What better event is there to invest all the affective energy of the country’s political strife than a football game? This year’s Super Bowl was more than just football. It was symbolic with precise parallels to the real world: The New England Patriots as Trump, the Atlanta Falcons as the Resistance (their official slogan: “Rise Up!”) and Lady Gaga’s halftime performance as the Women’s March on Washington. The underdog Falcons gained a historic lead, Gaga’s performance was praised for its apolitical feel, and the Falcons blew their lead and lost. Having laughed my black ass off the day after the election, I was sad about the outcome of this stupid game and I was not alone.
Dana Schutz Fake Letter
The whole Open Casket controversy was a mess and grossly mishandled by the curators, the Whitney, the artist, and the powers that be in the community at large. Debates raged on and ultimately, nothing happened. During the media firestorm, an anonymous individual sent a letter to Art.sy, claiming to be Dana Schutz apologizing, which they published—as did many other sites—for a couple of hours, until word got out that it was fake. The art world got duped into believing that the artist had taken accountability, which never happened.
2017 was a great year for music and for rap music, even greater. There was one track, specifically, that exploded in the way a rap song hasn’t in years (no, it wasn’t “Bodak Yellow”). It was a 7-minute diss track by Remy Ma called “SHEther” in which she skewers Nicki Minaj in easily one of the most relentless takedowns ever, creating the most Hip Hop moment of 2017 (sorry, Black Thought). Nicki pretty much failed to effectively respond, which greatly harmed her credibility, similar to Ja Rule's withering away after 50 Cent's evisceration. Nothing was the same.
Speaking of Ja Rule, he came back in to the media spotlight this year, and not for his music, but Fyre Festival, a catastrophically botched music festival that he and venture capitalist Billy McFarland attempted to mount in the Bahamas. People paid hundreds and thousands of dollars, expecting luxurious amenities and headlining acts (red flag: those acts were Rule himself and Blink 182) but were met with tents and lettuce sandwiches. They were also stranded on a beach with stray dogs. The tragicomedy wrote itself.
The Oscars was another metaphorical battle between the whiteness of La La Land and the Blackness of Moonlight as frontrunners to win Best Picture. Somehow, an envelope got switched and Warren Beatty mistakenly announced La La Land as the winner, but it was fake news and corrected (after waaayy too long, like minutes). This provided a perfect possible template for inserting more fake news, like Beyoncé winning the Grammy for Best Album, or The Falcons winning the Super Bowl.
If the World Wide Web is an iceberg, its tip is the Surface Web, the Visible Web, the Indexed Web, the Lightnet of detectable cyberspace. This is the 4% through which average internet users navigate each day, while the remaining 96% rests beneath a veneer of public search engines and social media. This vastly uncharted alternate multiverse is colloquially termed The Deep Web. Yet even further within such recesses, lies a Dark Web—through which the Silk Roads of the e-scape wind over, past, and beyond servers, where cryptomarkets offer goods to buyers without the utility of exports, imports, and governments in general—undulating and virtually untraceable. Whereas these darknet zones originally served to sell anything from illicit drugs, pornography, and weapons, to prosaic merchandise, the digital marketplace today has evolved into an arena of legitimized transactions and investments out in the open, involving digital currencies (also known as cryptocurrencies) such as Bitcoin.
Meanwhile, though online art networks have been in existence for quite some time, the art world has often lagged a step behind the breakneck developments of the tech industry. But over the past several years, in what could be considered a “digital media art” vogue, the exhibitions, galleries, and collections of today, such as Dot Dash 3, Vngravity, Daata Editions, and Sedition, have increasingly moved—sometimes entirely—into virtual marketplaces. For better and worse, the fate of these initiatives will be taken as an indication of the answer to a long-standing question: can art display and collection be sustained in the screen-contained expanse of game engines, AR, unsupported plugins, mobile apps, defunct links, and the swelling necropolis of extinct sites?
Harm van den Dorpel, Autobreeder (lite), 2016
Left gallery, based out of Berlin, is a particularly enterprising model, the first to directly employ Bitcoin and blockchain technology, though it does not (yet) operate on the Dark Web. Co-founded in 2015 by artist and programmer Harm van den Dorpel with anthropologist and partner Paloma Rodríguez Carrington, it is perhaps the most organic offering within this space, given its adaptation of cryptographic exchange and computational language. Supported by cleancut content, sleek aesthetic form, and the mission to “produce and sell downloadable objects,” the platform’s matter-of-fact UI—designed in collaboration with Beautiful Company—mimics the feel of an app store that meets contemporary art gallery. All available works and curated exhibitions are viewable via the click of a button and horizontal scroll. Said “downloadable objects” are available for purchase by credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin in file formats such as, but not limited to, .epub, .mobi, .app, .exe, .saver, .mp4, .html, .gif, .txt, .rtf, and .m3u.
During his studies in artificial intelligence at the Vrije Universiteit and then in time-based arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, van den Dorpel first noticed the art world’s lack of affinity for and indifference towards the curation and preservation of immaterial media. After he attended an event at the Austrian Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts (MAK) in Vienna in 2015, by invitation from Cointemporary, left gallery was born. The museum bought one of van den Dorpel’s works, Event Listeners, which became the first recorded occasion that an artwork was purchased by an institution using Bitcoin, and eventually all one hundred editions of the work sold out. With the hope to fill a gap while extending the precedents set by platforms such as Cointemporary, van den Dorpel and Rodríguez Carrington geared left gallery’s vision toward a generation acclimated to buying smartphone apps, icon packs, and subscriptions to software and streaming services.
This model, centered around “affordability,” translates into a collection of large editions (often in editions of one hundred) made accessible to a wider demographic of collectors, while simultaneously made scarce on the web in order to sell exclusive, largely commissioned work. So far, the gallery’s growing collectorship includes a wide sample set, from graphic designers to startup offices, individual collectors from the tech and business worlds, to speculation-focused art collectors in China purchasing with Bitcoin.
Damon Zucconi, uneel cbggre naq gur fbeprere'f fgbar, 2016
A quick primer here for those unfamiliar with the lingo: cryptocurrency is an electronic currency type for the online market, and Bitcoin is the earliest and most popular decentralized cryptocurrency. Underlying Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies is the technology of blockchain, which helps create and then serve an open consensus of synchronized data that records transactions between two parties efficiently, in a verifiable and permanent way. By design, blockchains are immutable to any data modification without the consensus of a majority of users. Bitcoin is just one of many possible applications of this particular blockchain, and there are many other customized blockchains, each with many possible applications built on top of them.
In an application of ingenuity, left gallery’s platform further authenticates its editions through a platform called ascribe, which facilitates the connection between art world makers and collectors and auctioneers. The platform further registers all works, offering artists a way of selling with a certificate of authenticity attached to the moment of timestamping ownership. Any information can be stored in the blockchain. If ascribe or left gallery cease to exist, that information will remain verifiable as long as the blockchain is around, since ascribe only offers the interface which places the work on the blockchain. Through a seemingly complex technical story, ascribe reveals itself to be quite a basic service. Once collectors understand how their ownership is stored independently, the purchase incentive increases. Perhaps most credibly, ascribe’s system allows the resale of editions independent of the gallery’s interface, as opposed to other digital edition sites that vendor-lock work into their platforms. Left gallery therefore makes it possible for collectors and buyers to take that artwork out of its original context for recirculation in the wider art market.
William Kherbek, Retrodiction, 2017
In a vignette published in Spike Magazine, the gallery’s curatorial vision explores “the quasi-colonial relations that are increasingly being built into the internet’s infrastructure, a mentality left gallery seeks to confront and oppose.” The mobile landscape has undoubtedly been dominated by heavy corporate censorship. The only way to get an app on a smartphone is through an account with Google or Apple which earns 20% of the revenue from purchases. And for every app purchase from any kind of service or shop, there is a further sum deducted just to allow the transaction to take place. Left gallery offers a way of bypassing this system by offering apps otherwise disallowed by Apple or Google (given that there are no categories for “art” in those app stores).
The question of obsolescence is a pressing one.“Digital editions” of works shown by galleries are often limited to video, and do not necessarily take full advantage of the new medium-specific capabilities that software offers. Even software and files are now becoming outdated with the advent of online streaming media. Packaging the works as standalone “files” simplifies some of the issues inherent in browser- and network-dependent works. Left gallery takes a pragmatic stance towards conservation issues, exploring a range of strategies depending on the artist’s project alongside practical considerations. For instance, when macOS does not support a particular screensaver file format anymore, the software will be recompiled in collaboration with the artist.
Jeffrey A. Scudder, JAS 22.214.171.124.3, 2016
In a conversation over Skype, van den Dorpel muses, “left gallery offers software so that the art can be interactive and generative. Not only using decentralized technology for ownership but also for payment, and calling it left gallery, is a political conviction. We have very limited means of opposition or rebellion, but generally, art has a very small but direct force.”
As Rodríguez Carrington elaborates, “The most important thing is that we offer art, and that people can buy this art without understanding blockchain or Bitcoin. We don’t perceive these works as purely digital or virtual; they are actual objects, hence ‘downloadable objects.’ The blockchain enables us to offer people a decent and relaxed way of ownership, of collecting art, while supporting the artists directly.”
Rodríguez Carrington’s background in anthropology with a concentration in popular culture has further driven left gallery’s broader interest in the art world as interdisciplinary community. The gallery hosts events in physical spaces, its owners understanding that an exponential increase in online peers has not diminished—and perhaps has only exacerbated—a longing for physical contact. Offline events have incorporated digital painting, live performance, music, and cooking as a way of increasing visibility, introducing artists and the gallery to the public, and expanding dialogue. In one collaboration with the artist William Kherbek, the gallery worked with a bookstore in Amsterdam selling physical copies of the artist’s poetry, and organized a poetry reading in conjunction with the launch of their virtual poetry pieces. Other collaborating artists include Micah Hesse, Dorine van Meel, Damon Zucconi, Gene McHugh, Sean Lockwood, and Ryan Kuo.
Gene McHugh, Bang Bros, 2015
It may be interesting to note that despite the exclusivity and legitimacy which comes with physical gallery space (versus the lack of scarcity in cyberspace), software-based works that are inserted into actual physical spaces take on a newfound scarcity via a subsequent need for programming. This demand adds value and legitimacy to the software-based artwork, bringing value full circle. Perhaps one recurring lesson is that founding utopian ideas driving the development of the internet and the internet art lauded in the 1990s do not and cannot survive on their own, without adaptations of hybridity, and hybrid exchanges between on- and off-line, as left gallery practices deliberately.
In terms of expanding a long-term vision, left gallery has also begun to offer “mastery editions”—unique, extended, and exclusive editions which are further bound to hardware—equipped for those collectors looking for guidance in terms of display, an output the gallery describes as more “backroom” and off-model. While there aren’t necessarily plans to start sending out small computers or screens to individual buyers, left gallery does aspire to find solutions for digital art collection in real time. “We’re not looking to get the next thousand digital artists to use our platform. The curatorial process here is very important and we include works that we believe in,” van den Dorpel affirms in conclusion. “We’re not a startup in the capitalistic sense, which is very much based on quick growth, quantity in user-base, investors, and exit strategies. I think it’s most critical that left gallery as a whole has an experimental and collaborative structure. The future is to maintain what we do, while making what we do clearer and clearer. We’re not in a rush.”
While the value of the few million existing bitcoin across the globe is on a parabolic rise, with a predicted end-game value of $400,000 each, according to analyst Ronnie Moas, left gallery hopes to meet the increasing demand for digital artwork by offering an organic solution to the precarious complications of virtual art circulation for both artists and collectors. While the blockchain-based space certainly operates on left-leaning attitudes regarding accessibility, the platform itself is one where the worlds of tech and art, software and hardware, virtual and actual, collide at a generative center.
Header image: Dorine van Meel, Disobedient Children, 2016
Fold-out drawing from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale, Naples 1599.
This report is published in partnership with DAOWO, a series that brings together artists, musicians, technologists, engineers, and theorists to consider how blockchains might be used to enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture. The series is organized by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others.
When discussing the uses and implications of blockchain at “Reinventing the Art Lab on the Blockchain,” a workshop and panel held at the Goethe-Institut in London on October 26, conversations pivoted around a central concern: while the decentralized structure of blockchain may liberate us from centralized powers such as banks, the highly precise identification and registration of data through automated transactions can reduce meaning to code and trap us in totalizing systems.
Order is both clarifying and restrictive. In the panel discussion, curator Helen Kaplinsky and artist Hito Steyerl drew similarities between the Victorian cabinet of curiosities and blockchain: both reduce the individual to its category. Looking at a stuffed bird, arranged in a cabinet of curiosities, fills us with both wonder and revulsion. This exotic animal, once full of life, is abstracted. Something of its beauty may be captured in the taxidermy, but essentially it has become a sad specimen, categorized in an index of the species. Moreover, creating a cabinet of curiosities asserts mastery over others: the Victorian aristocrat affirms their wealth and social hierarchy through the act of collecting, ordering and display.
This oscillation between freedom and entrapment could be seen throughout the workshop conversations. After an introduction by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers, instigators of the DAOWO series, the participants—a mix of artists, researchers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and public institutions—were divided into four groups each led by an arts practitioner who had been experimenting with blockchain. The groups were asked to explore how blockchain is affecting the arts and to delve deeper into the pragmatics of applying blockchain to specific scenarios. This led to more questions than answers.
Holgrave shared her research charting the use of blockchain in the arts. From authentication of artworks to digital currency payments and resale rights, the sheer number of companies offering blockchain-based services highlights the speed at which blockchain is being applied to the arts, especially the art market. With so many competing entities, many with little understanding of the art they seek to “disrupt,” the question became: how might best practices, standards, and ethical guidelines emerge?
Kaplinsky’s group took the “Temporary Custodians” project, a fundraising initiative and artwork, as a use case to explore investments that are blockchain-enabled and cooperative. Models such as Temporary Custodians offer new ways to think about how we sustain the arts, but as the ongoing Ethereum fork debate has shown, gaining consensus in shared ownership structures is a challenge that technology alone can’t solve. With a range of competing values at work in the arts—from making money to supporting experimentation—how do you agree what’s best?
Once sold, artworks may be resold and inherited many times over. Waugh explained how DACS is experimenting with blockchain as a way of managing the complexities of artists’ resale rights and assuring provenance. He also put some of the emerging practical and theoretical challenges to the group. This led to the question: how can we ensure that the use of blockchain does not inadvertently reaffirm existing inequalities in the circulation of art? For example, if blockchain becomes a memory bank for art, one effect could be to marginalize work that is ephemeral or philosophically opposed to entering into contracts.
New economies for digital and networked art
Inspired by Furtherfield’s Do It With Others(DIWO) collaborative ethos and blockchain-based, self-sustaining artworks such as Plantoid, Catlow asked her group to explore how blockchain could be used to create art and sustain artistic practice. Can blockchain help generate the resources needed to sustain art making as an end in itself, rather than at the service of the market or other imperatives? What models of coordination and new formats for production would be needed?
Blockchain may be used to free us from centralized power structures and increase artistic agency, but may equally reinforce existing inequalities and reduce meaning to code. What values should blockchain serve?
The conversations held in the working groups were evidence that a complex array of values are at work when we apply blockchain to the arts. The design and structure of technologies such as blockchain are shaped by the values of whomever develops the system—largely fintech startups and major tech companies. The mix of perspectives among workshop participants also highlights the range of competing values already at work within the arts, for example within commercial or not-for-profit galleries. Given this complexity, initiatives such as the DAOWO series play a vital role in helping us understand the pros and cons of using blockchain in any given scenario. This is necessary if the arts are to rise above the potential limitations and hazards of blockchain, and as the DAOWO instigators intend, focus on how blockchain can “enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture.” Gaining consensus on what values inform the culture which DAOWO aspires to may turn out to be the biggest challenge of all. This is a political and moral challenge rather than a technical one.
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.
Aria Dean: I read in an interview that you felt that Afrofuturism had long ago reached the limit of its usefulness. I’m interested in this claim considering the visual language of your work—which, like afro-futurism, appears to highlight blackness, technology, and science fiction. Can you speak a bit about this refusal of Afrofuturism? If not Afrofuturism, what are you looking toward?
Bogosi Sekhukhuni: Afrofuturism leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m petty, firstly I have an issue with the “afro” prefix, which quietly suggests that in futurism there is no afro to begin with?
That there are shared goals and concerns between afro-futurism and the direction of my practice, is very much true. Such as the desire to study and interpret the past in order to understand the present and to project visions of a Afroic future. Afrofuturists aren't the only people doing this. I find that there is an Atlantean false light diasporan lense to African history and culture that I don't relate to. And this lense also seems to direct where the conversation goes.
I do look towards the writings of people like Marimba Ani and the lengths she goes to present a clear Afroic critique of western ways of thinking and I don’t quite know how to to explain this tone/attitude/lense yet but yeah.
People often refer to Toni Morrison’s thought experiment which sees Africans who were part of the transatlantic slave trade as being the first moderns. The very idea of the modern man can’t be the presupposed reality.
I’ve been harsh on Afrofuturism in the past mainly because I feel it’s a lazy way to read my work.
Consciousness Engine 2: absentblackfatherbot, 2014, 2-channel video installation
AD: Can you talk a bit about your relationship to what might be named “black aesthetics” in general? How do you view your work, particularly when it comes to articulating a black aesthetic versus—or in tandem with—an African—or even more specifically, South African—aesthetic?
BS: The thing about an “African” aesthetic, specifically within the art world, is that the celebrated examples of this tend to exist as a response to a colonial heritage. Many of the established African artists working in Europe and the Americas present juxtapositions of western art history with the artists’s own cultural heritage which to me is a tired thing. I can’t help but be influenced by how dominant American popular culture creeps its way into a global visual language of advertising and architecture and how that’s interpreted through regional cultures, and the snowballing of references that bloom as cultures evolve.
I feel like Black aesthetics has to do with a global appropriation and innovation of consumer technologies, which Black people are at the forefront of…
Also what is “Black” and “African” to you even?
AD: Your work conceptually and aesthetically draws on mysticism and African cosmology as well as net aesthetics and technology. Can you talk about the relationship between these two forces in your work?
BS: I’m really drawn towards practices that contribute, for better or for worse, to unassociated areas of study. Like engineers who take an interest in how ancient structures are built or rappers who have something to say about architecture. I like processes that involve and reference mixed disciplines because I’m typically suspicious and concerned with how institutional thinking is traditionally set up. I think there’s a thread that runs through all the associations in my practice. To me net aesthetics is about an immediacy of communication that has something to do with the so-called untrained eye. It also exists in many of the spaces I grew up in so I’ve never really approached it as an “online thing” tbh. Its also a language that I use to experiment with new visual codes, and hopefully that gets filtered through the flatness. These codes are developed through investigating Afroic traditions of light and space, which considers both scientific and esoteric thinking.
Thus Saith the Lord, 2015, Print and video
AD: A lot of your work exists online. Do you consider yourself an internet artist? A net artist?
BS: Nah, I don’t understand why that is so important a distinction for people to make. I think conversations around the tools and medium can be interesting but for me it’s a consideration that is the least of my priorities with the practice.
JPMD, Reflective vests mounted on frame, 49 3/5 × 40 1/5 in
AD: What is Open Time Coven?
BS: OTC is a semi formal channel and umbrella organization for the different elements of my studio practice.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
About five years ago, I've always maintained a strong interest in tech and electronics but it was really a residency program at Google in 2014 researching chariot programming that put me on.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to a Dominican Convent in Jobug. And studied visual arts at University of Johannesburg.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I work professionally as an artist rn.
I've interned at a designer furniture co-op for a year in 2012, wrote and edited for a online youth culture pop journal for a year in 2013.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
In 2007, Google launched Street View, a new feature for Google Maps. For the first time, users could leave the map’s default bird’s-eye view perspective, and enter a 360° immersive street-level world. To build this world, Google launched a fleet of cars that used automated multi-lens digital cameras to photograph every street, highway, and alley. The images were then analyzed, altered and corrected, and stitched together to produce Street View’s navigable three-dimensional environment.
Shortly after Street View’s release, artist Jon Rafman began to explore its world, taking screenshots of scenes he found along the way, which laid the foundation for the collection Nine Eyes (2008-ongoing). In terms of form, Nine Eyes of Google Street View is perhaps best known as a Tumblr (http://9-eyes.com/) but the images have also been printed and exhibited physically (as in the exhibition “Mirror Sites” at M+B in 2012), as well as remixed into other works, such as You, the World and I (2010). It is important to note that Rafman was not alone in his Street View travels, as many artists and photographers—such as Michael Wolf or Douglas Rickard—were pursuing concurrent projects. What distinguishes NineEyes of Google Street View, however, is its pursuit of the sublime in the postinternet age.
Rafman’s approach to photography is unmistakably postinternet. Following the definition formulated in Artie Vierkant’s essay “The Image Object Post-Internet,” postinternet art refers to objects and images that have been created “with concern to their particular materiality as well as their vast variety of methods of presentation and dissemination.” For Vierkant, this type of production is always inherently informed by certain characteristics of life under Web 2.0 such as “the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” Google Street View, as an attempt to fully map physical space onto the digital screen, provides an exemplary source material for such work, since it presents life itself in the same way Guthrie Lonergan described “Internet Aware” art: “when the photo of the art object is more widely dispersed [and] viewed than the object itself.”
As postinternet photography, the images in Nine Eyes of Google Street View testify above all to the processes of their own making and dissemination. There is no coherent subject matter unifying the images. Certain themes recur, such as glitches in the stitching system or people giving the finger to the camera, but what organizes the photographs together into one single work is simply that they have been selected from Street View during one of the artist’s marathon surfing sessions. Rafman highlights the digital aspects of his photographs—such as pixelation, watermarks, and the navigational interface which appears in nearly every image—but this never detracts from the sense that the photographs portray something real. Instead, they declare the extent to which offline life is always already structured by the online. This is what leads Geoff Dyer to describeNine Eyes of Google Street View as giving the impression that not only is Rafman not an “old-school photographer,” but that it almost seems as if he has never even been outdoors, and that “his knowledge of the world derives entirely from representations of it.”
The sense of slipperiness between these two modes is furthered by the work’s form as a blog, which acknowledges and facilitates the sharing of the images. By organizing the photographs in a Tumblr, where users frequently reblog and circulate images produced by others, Nine Eyes of Google Street View never exists in a stable state, and instead takes its potential circulation as inherent to the work. The fact that Nine Eyes of Google Street View remains ongoing—despite last being updated in 2014—reflects the temporality of the blog, where there is never a clear sense of finality, since as long as the blog still exists there is always the capability for one more post. Online image sharing is also evidenced by the physical prints Rafman makes, which detail how an image spreads, transitioning from the screen to the gallery, before once more returning to the screen through exhibition photographs.
Like much postinternet art, Nine Eyes of Google Street View does not take a compelling critical stance, but for Rafman, this is intentional.1Nine Eyes of Google Street Viewmay at times gesture towards critique—it shares a name, for example, with an intelligence sharing alliance composed of nine countries, bringing to mind issues of mass surveillance—but its focus lies elsewhere, in aesthetic experience. As Rafman states in a 2011 interview with AIDS 3D, “Aesthetic experience for me is self-justifying… it is very important for me to maintain a separation between art… and politics and critical theory.” While most postinternet art draws upon contemporary corporate aesthetics, Rafman instead draws influence from the romantic period, bringing the search for the sublime into the virtual realm.2
Though the concept of the sublime dates back to classical antiquity, it came to renewed prominence in the romantic period due to the writings of Immanuel Kant, who devoted a lengthy section his Critique of Judgement to the topic. For Kant, the sublime is a sensation in the mind that is aroused through a specific type of encounter. It is a carefully balanced sensation, simultaneously evoking displeasure—caused by an awareness of inadequacy and the limitations of human thought—and pleasure, “arising from this very judgment of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason.” In order to evoke this feeling, the subject must encounter a seemingly limitless, violent, though not harmful, object. In Kant’s schema the ideal object of the sublime is nature, since it is an outside to the enlightenment society in which Kant lived, governed by reason and logic. In its most chaotic, violent, or terrifying forms it pushes the subject into a sublime encounter, initially evoking the limitations of man and society, but ultimately leading to joy through the mind’s capability to overcome this displeasure. More precisely, for Kant the sublime is “an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.”3
Though Kant privileges Nature, as historical moments shift, so too do the objects of the sublime. In his characterization of the postmodern period, Fredric Jameson updates the enlightenment concept of the sublime into what he terms the postmodern or technological sublime. Since “the other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all,” Jameson replaces it with technology, as it “seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.”4 Jameson wrote, however, at a time when global networks of communication like the internet were novel and still in their infancy. How can the postmodern sublime be conveyed through postinternet art, when “the internet is less a novelty and more a banality”?
The key to the sublime in Rafman’s work lies in the way the indifferent, mechanical gaze of the automated Street View camera renders even the most banal moments as other, re-presenting life as something alien to the human. Rafman describes seeing in Street View as “looking at a memory that nobody really had”; the scenes depicted in the images be recognizable and banal, but the images themselves are nonetheless foreign. In many of Rafman’s photos, this distance between the viewer and life is laid all the more bare by his inclusion of the “Report a Problem” button in many of theNine Eyes of Google Street View images. Here, the only element that even approaches some form of reciprocity or communication between the viewer and the networks in which they are enmeshed is made viewable, but inoperable. The viewer is held at a distance, experiencing the sublime as they confront the absolute otherness of Street View.
Beyond the camera itself, the sheer scale of the Street View project strengthens the sense of the sublime in Rafman’s images. As Luc Vincent, an engineer who pioneered the Street View project, states, Google’s intention is to “paint the world,” at the resolution of “about one pixel to the inch.”The sheer ambition of the aim of such goal—not to mention the resources necessary for such an undertaking—exceeds the rational, and even approaches the limits of the positivist dominion inherent in mapping. The images ofNine Eyes of Google Street View place the viewer on the edges of the map, faced with something vast and ungraspable. Instead of making the world known, Rafman reveals how Street View renders the sublime.
1. See “The Perils of Post-Internet Art” by Brian Droitcour
2. Rafman’s interest in the sublime is evidenced in exhibitions such as In Search for the Virtual Sublime II at China Art Objects in Los Angeles. The sublime as an aesthetic concern can also bee seen in Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2008-2011), produced contemporaneously to Nine Eyes of Google Street View. In many of the videos and images that make up the work, the Kool-Aid Man, the artist’s avatar in Second Life, is shown alone, starring into the vast abyss of the digital world, bringing to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).
3. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
4. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Do you remember when people misheard the words “fuck that” on the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.” as “fuck thought?” Well, fuck thought. Kind of. Let’s talk about it.
REANALYZING THE THOUGHT FETISH
By means of “lack of reason”—with religion, language, appearance, and other aspects serving as a litmus—the animalization of Black and brown people has been a critical tool of domination, invented to justify the white conquest, genocide, slavery, and other violence that engendered the contemporary.
What does it mean, then, that art today prizes thinking and the aesthetics of thought such as criticality, divestment from the sensory, and a demeanor of philosophical objectivity? The white West used these very criteria to dehumanize the global south and facilitate Euro expansion; in a specifically aesthetic context, modernism itself was premised on the spoils of imperial conquest.
Despite clarion calls of posthumanism, it is possible to excavate an exclusionary humanism in the fetishism for “objective philosophical thought” in contemporary art which preserves the modernist dynamic of treating Black and brown people and aesthetics as raw material. We can recalibrate our definitions of art from the contemplation and production of the beautifully useless and self-referential. A continued utilitarian project of the violent subsumption of non-white aesthetics is possible through reading Allan Kaprow’s concept of post-art in the context of the Middle Passage and its afterlife.
David Joselit defines the contemporary as a mode of aesthetic governance relegating marginal practitioners into a position of debt to modernism. For Joselit, this imposition of debt mirrors governance by debt in neocolonialism, rendering what he calls heritage or local context merely a dividend of debt, serving to diversify the art market and globalize its structural tropes (such as painterly abstraction, the white cube, the biennial, etc).1
Joselit’s analytic is useful for unearthing not only the originary violence of modernism with respect to Black and brown aesthetics, but also the ways the contemporary continues this project of subsumption.2 Aesthetic governance by debt allows the increasingly marketized art world to commoditize difference and deploy it for its own ends, whether financial, nationalist, or otherwise.
Yoked under modernism, marginal artists must assimilate to standard aesthetics3 and allow themselves to be deployed in service of institutionality. At a deeper level, aesthetic governance by debt allows art to deny modernism’s own constitutive debt to Black and brown aesthetics, which it used as raw material to shirk the constraints of earlier white art such as three-point perspective and objecthood.
The contemporary is an echo of modernism, it continues the edict of modernism while developing new forms of governance over marginalized artists.
THE END OF ART
In the afterlife of conceptualism, thinking overcame and reframed making, and embodied a Hegelian assumption of teleological human evolution, such that Western society has outgrown the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the Absolute. Hegel says “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine and worshipping them… Thought and reflection have spread their wings above fine art.”4
During Western industrialization, art’s dependence on the sensory caused it to fall behind thought as the highest vocation and prime engine of knowledge, whose “very essence… is to go from the observable to the non-observable, from the immediate to the mediate.”5 For Hegel, human cultural developments like art and religion are vestigial forms, reflecting an older dependence on the sensory before the modern mastery of nature represented by industry.
For Hegel’s teleology, art is over, but it remains a necessary step in human development: aesthetic contemplation and production indicate the gradient between human and non-human, setting the stage for reason to flourish. It is precisely the intimate revelry of the sensory which, when refined, allows for the philosophical flight into the immaterial, the theoretical, and the nonsensory. Without art, philosophy could not have risen.6
THE CONCEPTUALIST GAMBIT
By dint of art’s putative necessity to human development, conceptualism attempted to salvage the patrimony of Western art by ushering thought itself into the set of available artistic mediums.
From this lowered position, modernist aesthetics worked to expand the boundaries of what could be institutionalized as art. Conceptualism went further, and deployed the autonomous inutility of the art object inherited from modernism to show how, as Allan Kaprow states, “art has served as an instructional transition to its own elimination by life.”7
While this may have partly emerged from idealistic notions of thought as medium precluding subsumption into the commodity form, the result was that the subject and role of art—which for Kaprow was “the ritual escape of Culture”—simultaneously subsumed and supervened on the sociopolitical, becoming instead a kind of immaterial or diaphanous residue which could coat any imaginable life context. In modernism, the idea that anything could be art was scandalous, whereas in conceptualism, this indeterminacy became mundane.
With art more deeply yoked to culture, art became a toolkit for interacting with the lived conditions of humanity akin to a social science or school of thought. The modernist decline of art’s primacy resulted in the simultaneous expansion of art to whatever; the reduction of art to commentary on world affairs and meta-comments on its own history; and the valorization of thought as the ideal medium for aesthetic practice in this new context.
Kaprow’s concept of post-art exemplifies this, blurring the line between art and life since “nonart is more art than Art art.”8 Whatever a person wants to get out of art, life has more of it, and art’s duty is to take on a managerial relationship to the sensory by existing in a state of fluidity, even precarity—and in this ephemeral state it haunts life, it folds all life into it. With this vastly expanded aesthetic field, thought as artistic medium engenders a process of art mimicking the disciplines of thought—namely science and philosophy.
AN OAK TREE (1973)
It is instructive to consider a work that exemplifies the conceptualist gambit of folding thought into the set of available artistic mediums, with its resultant valorization of reason and philosophical aesthetics.
Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) is a conceptual work consisting of a glass of water placed on a glass shelf 253 centimeters off the ground with an accompanying text.9 The work was first shown at the Rowan Gallery in London, 1974. In Q&A format, the text explains the artist’s process of “changing a glass of water into a full-blown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The oak tree resulting from this metaphysical alteration “will not ever have any other form but that of a glass of water,” and when pushed to answer the question of where the art is, Craig-Martin states in the text that this resultant oak tree is the art object.
Image courtesy of Michael Craig-Martin.
An Oak Tree (1973) plays on the Aristotelian supremacy of essence over accident. The essence of the oak tree persists, despite all of the sensory evidence to the contrary. The ostensible transformation is not aesthetically accessible, and therefore the particular oak tree presented to the audience has no aesthetic dimension at all. Rather, the aesthetic dimension is entirely accidental to the essence which is intended for gallery display: the former is a glass of water, the latter is an oak tree.
The work also reflects the artist’s Catholic upbringing, drawing on the concept of transubstantiation. At the last supper, “Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”10
At communion, Catholics ceremonially consume a cracker and wine to signify the bread and wine which at the last supper was, in essence, the flesh and blood of Christ—despite the accidents of the bread and wine. With this shade of meaning, the artist intends to “deconstruct the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his [sic] capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he [sic] has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art.”11
An Oak Tree (1973) is a fine example of the conceptualist gambit and its vaunting of thought: it simultaneously extricates itself from the abject sensory, and more deeply yokes itself to it (since after all of this metaphysical transformation from a glass of water into an oak tree, the sensory dimension still indicates only a glass of water). In dissecting the social contract between artist and audience, it speaks to contemporary art as a secularized iteration of an originally theological endeavor, one which served as a litmus for humanity.
Kongo-Yombe Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Picasso, Head of a Woman (1907).
CARTESIAN DUALISM AND ANTIBLACK ANIMALIZATION
The concept and value of thought in the West belie a desire for divestment from the ostensibly inferior world of sensory phenomena in line with Cartesian mind/body dualism, where bodies are organic machines, and only humans, with reason and language, have souls. As Descartes claims, non-human animals, are simply one more facet of nature ripe for use: “they have no mental powers whatsoever… it is nature which acts in them, according to the disposition of their organs; just as we see that a clock consisting only of ropes and springs can count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can in spite of all our wisdom.”12
According to this idea, a body can only supercede the machinic laws of nature with rational thought; all else serves as the sandbox in which to perfect reason, living and breathing but nevertheless objectified. In this way Cartesian dualism demonstrates that “the practical elaboration of making a commitment to humanity is inhumanism… humanism is by definition a project to amplify the space of reason,”13 Humanism’s project to expand the scope and analytic power of reason requires a corollary dehumanized faction to serve as its foil and ground of deployment.
Building on Cartesian dualism, Hegel argues that “in Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence, … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”14
Hegel frames his mention of Africa as perfunctory, but his portrayal of Blackness as primordial is a necessary assumption for his teleological understanding of history, which evolves toward European reason. Hegel transfers Descartes’ human/animal dichotomy to the realm of human difference, and positions Africa as an inhuman prehistory without thought in order to naturalize slavery and conquest in the “development” of the West.
THE VIOLENCE OF MODERNISM
In art we find a similar process. It was through the animalization of Black and brown people as lacking reason that white artists could render non-white lands, aesthetics, and bodies as raw material to modify and deploy in response to Western art history, both conceptually and materially. By confining Black bodies to what Orlando Patterson terms “social and ontological death”, the West could render us simultaneously as the fungible cornerstones of its program, and as valueless vestiges of prehistory.15 As Murrell states, the stolen objects that served as the inspiration for modernism “were treated as artifacts of colonized cultures rather than as artworks, and held so little economic value that they were displayed in pawnshop windows and flea markets.”16
Armed with the fruits of conquest, white art ‘developed’ away from representation (and eventually objecthood entirely) by means of positing the supremacy of thought as surfing on colonial spoils. Picasso, for example, said “African sculptures had helped him to understand his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind.”17 The same tendency continues today, with Black and brown life “inspiring” white art, with non-white artists strategically included to absolve the white cube and diversify the market.
In response to the squalor of phenomena, art turned the lived into solely a surface for thought: thinking itself is the best medium for art when the entire universe is accessible as source material, allowing a performative divestment from modernist values while simultaneously arguing for the value-neutral availability of its tools in a newly managerial aesthetic practice.
The vaunting of thought in the contemporary in which criticality is a prime currency can be read as an echo of Cartesian disavowal of the sensory. In various histories of conquest, this acts as a defensive response to the excavation of the violence of modernism, and of art history more generally. This is perfectly in line with the speculative turn in global financial capitalism and its various projects of governance by debt, brutal resource extraction, and sanitized diversity, all of which serve to conceal the constitutive violence of capitalism.
From 1,000 Rivers (2014), a photo series by Winslow Laroche. Image courtesy the artist.
In stark contrast to Hegelian notions of art and human development as embodied by conceptualism and its afterlife, Brooklyn artist Winslow Laroche’s reading of post-art is useful for critiquing the supremacy and aesthetics of thought. For Laroche, art conceals the modernist debt to Black and brown aesthetics. In a text-to-speech sound piece featured on the inaugural episode of The Diamond Stingily Show on Know-Wave, Laroche polemically states “All white art is Black face or Brown face and all white people are cops and lurking snitches.”
He questions the post-artistic valorization of objects that fluidly move between commodified art and nugatory non-art—precisely the fungible position the slave occupies in the longue durée of the Middle Passage, situated there by an imaginary deprivation of reason. In light of slavery, such fluidity and spectacle as a “talking commodity” is old hat. Fred Moten disagrees with Marx that the talking commodity is an impossibility, given the reality of transatlantic African slavery.18 Further, Black folks have long known all sociality and aesthetics are always already subsumed into the commodity form under capitalism.
Venerating post-art fluidity only conceals art history’s antiblackness, conforming to the tradition wherein, as Keith Obadike states, “to many white artists, blackness represents some kind of borderless excess, some kind of unchecked expression.”19 Just as Picasso was titillated by the spoils of African colonization, the ostensible supremacy of thought and the corresponding fluidity of aesthetic processes relies on the erasure of modernist violence.
Laroche allows us to argue that far from living in a time “after art,” the West has not yet actually reached the conditions for art: all the West knows as “art” since the Enlightenment is an ecology of criteria for inclusion which relies on the colonial subsumption of Black and brown aesthetics. From this vantage all Western aesthetic developments simply serve to conceal this subsumption. Art objects are not useless contexts for the contemplation of timeless ideas like beauty or art itself; they work to continue the modernist project of treating non-whiteness as raw material for white speculation.20
The conditions for art as autonomous non-utilitarian endeavor will never emerge as long as art’s erasure of its own debt to Black and brown practice continues. Western aesthetic developments simply conceal the violence of modernism, betraying their anxious inability to come to terms with its reality. Autonomous inutility is simply a simultaneous escapism and market capitulation, a covertly useful endeavor of continuing modernist violence.
The supremacy of thought upholds this erasure of white debt. The West has expanded humanism to include everyone, marketizing reason and detaching it from European patrimony. In this sense traditional conservatism—from which reason as litmus of humanity emerged, and which seeks to uphold traditional European values like racial superiority and slow culture—is at odds with market conservatism, which thrives on speed and welcomes any increase in profits including multiculturalism, which it recognizes can easily coexist with white supremacy.21
Consequently, Black artists, if we choose, can operate under the assumption that art owes us. We are the true inheritors of the fluidity between art and nonart. We don’t need to make things or think or write or create value in any way for art’s patrimony: our flesh was used to build it. But we should also recognize that our inclusion into white cubes is not enough. Such inclusion is the least to be done. We must advocate that “Art art” pay dues to the marginalized bodies of aesthetic practice it violently treated and treats as raw material, and return the stolen objects that haunt its institutions.
Image courtesy Rafia Santana.
It is instructive to consider an example that reflects Laroche’s post-art concept. #PAYBLACKTiME is a project which multimedia Brooklyn artist Rafia Santana began on November 9th, 2016. The artist describes the project as a “white-money transference system that provides free meals via Seamless / GrubHub to Black + Brown folx across the North Americas.”22
A description of the work reads: All orders are paid for by the White Guilt Reparations Fund for white people who ask “What can I do?” during a time when we have heavily publicized evidence of their race’s direct connection to the continuous suffering and disenfranchisement of Black / Brown people worldwide.
In an interview with FELT Zine, Santana states that the project’s name is “a play on the phrase ‘Payback Time,’ and also a demand to pay back black people for the hundreds of years of free labor and continuing trauma in the US alone. It is time to pay back / pay black.” The project not only offers white audiences an easy way to make concrete change, it translates the call for reparations into a service answering a need anyone could understand—hunger—and brings the audience into the conversation of what America owes Black people.
When I asked via Facebook chat whether #PAYBLACKTiME was art, Santana responded that “I haven’t thought of it specifically as art but everything I do is art I guess.” In its banal fluidity between art and non-art, and its delegation of audience and aesthetics into potential financial utility in service of feeding Black and brown people, #PAYBLACKTiME exemplifies Laroche’s post-art. It rejects the modernist premise of art’s autonomous uselessness, which is just complicity with white supremacy and a fantasy of escape from the constitutive violence of art and capitalism. #PAYBLACKTiME calls on its audience to recognize the aesthetic value in the concrete, useful act of paying for non-white people’s food. Rendering aesthetics as utility reveals the covert utility of the modernist art object: the hoarding of resources stolen from conquest, which must be redistributed.
From we need the memories of all our members, a show by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape at HKS (Bergen, 2015). Image courtesy the artist.
This essay has concerned itself with the Middle Passage and its afterlife, but Africans who remained on their native lands also faced and continue to face violent colonization processes orthogonal to that of the New World.
Wikipedia is touted as a digital democratization of information, but it often exhibits mob mentality, and its acceptance requirements can be exclusionary of information that does not fit the dominant paradigm. In particular, Wikipedia echoes the general lack of information online about Africa that one would expect from a digital sphere dominated by Western concerns. According to Wikipedia, Africa is the world’s third largest market and the most culturally diverse continent, “and yet it has the lowest and least informed profile of any region on the Internet; moreover, what does appear is often selective, lacks context and reinforces outdated stereotypes.”23
As Tabita Rezaire discusses in her video piece Afro Cyber Resistance, the Cape Town-based collective Chimurenga experienced “the controlling and geographically biased architecture of the internet…Engaged in cultural African history and theory, they tried multiple times to upload African content onto Wikipedia, so as to Africanize the world’s most visited online encyclopaedia and fill the lack of information online about the continent.”24 Elvira Dyangani Ose notes that many of those proposed entries were rejected, some “because their relevance was not proved, others because the style or tone of those entries was too personal or not deemed appropriate to the world’s most ‘open’ Internet platform.”25)
Founded in 2007 by nonprofit lettera27 and contemporary art platform Africa Center, WikiAfrica is a collaborative project aimed at generating content sourced from Africans for publication on Wikipedia. Acknowledging that Wikipedia’s content restrictions are an accessibility issue, WikiAfrica conducts workshops and training, engages field experts, and deploys other initiatives (such as Wiki Loves Women, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut) to facilitate and encourage the publication of accurate, respectful information about Africa onto Wikipedia. The project intends to exist in concert with efforts to increase African internet access, which in June 2016 consisted of around 340 million online users, or 28.7% of the population.26
There is a long way to go, but the production of true information about Africa, sourced from real Africans navigating Wikipedia’s oppressive informatic norms, is valuable groundwork for dispelling anti-African stereotypes and increasing online African representation. Since one dimension of reparations involves knowledge transfer and the violence of in/visibility, WikiAfrica is a good rebuttal to the potential replication of Hegelian anti-black fantasies of Africa.
Though the project is a collaboration between a nonprofit and a contemporary art platform, it is not necessarily art, shirking aesthetic concerns to focus on the project of Africanizing Wikipedia and increasing digital literacy. As Rezaire states: “even if this endeavour is not thought of or seen as Internet Art per se, it can be understood as an online platform for active social resistance against occidental hegemony and online information control.”27 The art / non-art fluidity of WikiAfrica is not new to the African scene, and neither is its treatment of aesthetics as secondary to utility.
Reparations has a fiscal and resource access dimension as well as a representational dimension, but it also has a theoretical dimension. To stand against the supremacy of Western thought begins to lay the ground for the reclamation of critical aesthetics against European reason’s history of Black dehumanization. Black feminist literary critic and theorist Hortense Spillers argues that the Black position is the critical position: “Because it was set aside, black culture could, by virtue of the very act of discrimination, become culture, insofar as, historically speaking, it was forced to turn its resources of spirit toward negation and critique.”28
At a moment when criticality is so “in,” Black criticality remains violently punished and pilfered. Its reclamation from assimilation to Western modalities becomes imperative. While complete non-assimilation to Western thought may be unavoidable due to the coloniality of the world, rejecting thought itself remains a possibility—fuck thought, fuck that—but it doesn’t necessarily respond to the central problem.
Instead, we might look deeper into the utility of thought itself, its use as a litmus for humanity to dehumanize Black and brown people in service of conquest. The institution of thought represses the stark fact that dehumanized people, historically argued to lack reason, are in fact thinking humans. We can recalibrate the situation along the lines of Lewis Gordon: “Blackness… reaches out to theory, then, as theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself.”29 (Gordon 2010: 196-8).
Building on this, Jared Sexton argues that “1) all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought and, consequently, 2) all researches, insofar as they are genuinely critical inquiries, aspire to black studies. Blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory.”30 Just as the autonomous inutility of art remains impossible until the West repays its debt to Black and brown aesthetics, so does a true theory detached from the sensory remain impossible until theory reconciles its antiblack dehumanizing uses.
Image courtesy of @delashereen.
Reclaiming criticality as properly Black may mean grappling with the possibility that, as Hortense Spillers argues, “black culture—as the reclamation of the critical edge…has yet to come.”31 If Black culture as reclamation of criticality’s Blackness is a horizon, it remains clear that the intersection of Black assimilation to American imperialism and American genocide of Black people engenders what Joy James calls a dead zone. “The nexus at which black achievement meets black genocide appears as a conceptual void.”32
Art in a Larochean sense, as the conditional inclusion of Black artists to reify power and conceal modernism’s debt to non-white aesthetics, is one such conceptual void. This foregrounds the necessity for action without a complete or cogent analytic, an imperative to redistribute resources now and ask questions later—or rather, an imperative to see such action as theory itself: repairing the schism between ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking in black.’
James acknowledges the stumbling and illegibility involved in deploying an analytic from the dead zone: “The intersection is unlit…as we repeatedly cross our own past while projecting a real and imagined future as critical thought radically invents meaningful engagement.”33 While the reclamation of Black criticality remains but a horizon, we can look to projects like #PAYBLACKTiME and WikiAfrica as examples of subversive engagement with the always already commoditized technics of sociality in order to repair the injustices and unequal access faced by Black artists around the world. In their fluid status and delegation of aesthetics to a utilitarian reparative role Black artists challenge the contemporary continuation of modernist violence, in line with a Black post-art to lay the groundwork for the reclamation of criticality’s Blackness.
1. Joselit, “Heritage and Debt” (lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, December 3, 2014), February 12, 2015
2. As part of Home School—a free pop-up art school I co-facilitate in Portland—I taught a class called Contemporaneity: building a better white supremacy, which further explores these ideas.
3. “I call ‘standard’ those aesthetics whose principles (1) are recognized and accepted, across a number of variations, by institutional and academic communities and which thus constitute the object of confirmed knowledges; (2) whose principles define either a foundation for art or a philosophical description of art or, more generally, a normality and a normativity; which is to say (3) a determinism of the reciprocal causality of art and of philosophy. It poses well known questions of the type ‘What is art?,’ ‘What is the essence of art?,’ ‘What can art do?,’ and it believes it can answer these questions with certainty. In accordance with these questions, standard aesthetics describes the styles, forms and historical epochs of art in a broadly realist manner, for it believes it is possible to define both art and philosophy.” Laruelle 2012
4. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol. 1, 10. With respect to art, Hegel focuses on the contemplation of beauty, but for our purposes a tautological definition of art as whatever is called art works fine.
5. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 8
6. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 27.
7. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 102.
8. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 98.
9. This text was at first was handed out as a leaflet but is generally wall-mounted behind glass today.
10. Matthew 26:26-28 NIV.
11. Craig-Martin, Landscapes, 20.
12. Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, 48.
13. Negarestani, “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.”
14. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 111-12, 117.
15. The work of Orlando Patterson, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and others lay the ground for the emergence of the Afropessimist texture of thought. The former’s analytic shift of focus toward the position of the slave allowed for the work of Frank Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, Christina Sharpe, and others to build on arguments about the fungibility of the Black body in racial capitalism, the social and ontological death of Black life, and the structure of multiracial global antiblackness. A simultaneous analytic trend of “black optimism” ostensibly in contrast to Afropessimism is exemplified by the work of Fred Moten and others. However, Sexton convincingly argues that the two are not so distinct, as embodied in the paradox that “black social death is black social life.” Both Afropessimism and Black optimism engage the impossible possibility of Black existence as such. Further, “the object of black studies is the aim of black studies,” that is, the horizon of Black liberation from social and ontological death. Sexton continues: “The most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world. Afro-pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism” (Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”).
16., 17. Murrell, “African Influences in Modern Art.”
18. Moten 2003: 6
19. Keith Townsend Obadike, interview by Coco Fusco, in Mendi + Keith Obadike, September 9, 2001
20. abreu, “Notes on the Garage Residency.”
21. Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism.
22. $6,398.79 = Total orders and dollar amount for #PAYBLACKTiME as of December 26, 2016
23. Wikipedia contributors, “Wikipedia:WikiAfrica,” Wikipedia
24., 27. Rezaire, “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” 188.
25. Dyangani Ose, “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary” (lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012)
26. Miniwatts Marketing Group, Internet Users in Africa March 2017
28. Spillers, “The Idea of Black Culture,” 28.
29. Gordon, “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” 196.
30. Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”.
31. Volcovici, “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.”
32. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 460.
33. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 476.
abreu, manuel arturo. “Notes on the Garage Residency,” SFMoMa Open Space: Work on Work Blog. September 14, 2016.
Descartes, Rene. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dyangani Ose, Elvira. “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary.” Lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012.
Gordon, Lewis. “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 18.2 (2010): 192-214.
Hegel, GFW. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol 1. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975.
Hegel, GWF. The Philosophy of History. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.
James, Joy. “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 108.3 (2009): 459-481.
Joselit, David. “Heritage and Debt.” Lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis , December 3, 2014. February 12, 2015.
Kaminsky, Jack. Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics. New York: SUNY, 1962.
Kaprow, Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Laruelle, Francois. “The generic orientation of non-standard aesthetics.” Lecture, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, November 17, 2012. October 21, 2013.
Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Murrell, Denise. “African Influences in Modern Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. April 2008.
Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.” e-flux Journal #53. March 2014.
Obadike, Keith Townsend. “All Too Real The Tale of an On-Line Black Sale.” Interview by Coco Fusco. Mendi + Keith Obadike. September 9, 2001.
Rezaire, Tabita. “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 12.2 & 3 (2014): 185-196.
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Sexton, Jared. 2012. Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts. Lateral 1. Cultural Studies Association.
Spillers, Hortense J. “The Idea of Black Culture,” CR: The New Centennial Review 6.3 (2006): 7-28.
Volcovici, Geoffrey. “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.” Black Quantum Futurism. January 1, 2017.
Tomorrow, in between presentations by the likes of Mel Chin and David Byrne, visitors to IdeasCity New York will have the opportunity to try out a demo of the augmented reality project Patternist, recipient of a 2017 Rhizome Microgrant. Exploring a three-block radius surrounding the festival hub at Sara D. Roosevelt Park in downtown Manhattan, users will use the app to collect elements in an augmented cityscape. When they've stockpiled enough, they can reveal site-specific virtual structures floating above the neighborhood–an exoplanet, in the game’s narrative.
Patternistis a project by Lina Bondarenko, Martin Byrne, Holly Childs, Kei Kreutler, and Jelena Viskovic with designers Mark Fridvalszki, Aaron Gillett and Anna-Luise Lorenz and sound designers Sezzo Snot and Daniel Jenatsch. Byrne and Bondarenko will be on hand along with Rhizome staff to demo the app; visitors will be able to test it out on desktop computers, or borrow a handheld device with which to explore.
The creators of Patternist, who began the project as part of the New Normal program at Moscow's Strelka Institute, see it as an urban research platform which can allow users to experience their own city in unfamiliar ways, and collaboratively imagine alternatives. Thus, it responds to the core themes of this year's IdeasCity New York—digital citizenship and the networked city—by taking a speculative approach.
IdeasCity is a civic platform of the in New York that starts from the premise that art and culture are essential to the future vitality of cities. IdeasCity New York will take place September 16, 2017.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Special thanks to Google and Google Arts & Culture for providing devices for the IdeaCity presentation ofPatternist.
We’re thrilled to announce today that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Rhizome a $1 million grant to underwrite the next phase of development of Webrecorder, our platform to create and share fully interactive, high-fidelity archival copies of websites past and present. This largest gift in Rhizome’s history will support Webrecorder’s implementation in institutional contexts, while upgrading capture and usability for all users. We’re proud to offer this innovative, open-source service free-of-charge at https://webrecorder.io—take it out for a spin! (Or check out the code.)
You may have noticed that “Software” tab appear in our redesigned header. This is merely formalizing a program thread—software development—that is core to our multi-tiered support of born-digital art and culture, and embodied in Webrecorder. This is also a longtime commitment, dating back to the development of rhizome.org (then .com!) in 1996, the ArtBase in 1999, the various ArtBase interfaces thereafter, and various projects involving the Emulation as a Service framework, among other significant code-based endeavors.
This program is led by preservation director Dragan Espenschied and software director Ilya Kreymer, who conceived the Webrecorder initiative. Along with what’s next for this effort, we’re excited to welcome archivist and educator Anna Perricci as Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships, and a “Co-Principal Investigator” on the Mellon grant, along with Dragan and Ilya. Anna will be focused on growing Webrecorder's user base and helping it become recognized as an indispensable tool in web archiving practice broadly. She’ll join an already stellar WR team, with Mark Beasley, our multi-talented software engineer, and Pat Shiu, who is tasked with creating a voice, aesthetic, and identity for a product without much precedent. (We’re also hiring a new backend developer—applications due January 16!)
Rhizome uses Webrecorder to preserve and present born-digital art, including the works in Net Art Anthology, our online exhibition retelling the history of net art. Other active users include institutions such as the New Museum, the Frick Art Reference Library, Posters Network at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Newfields, the Stanford University Press, the City University of New York, and the National Film Board of Canada; the activist groups NetFreedomPioneers and Documenting the Now; and the artist studios of Cory Arcangel and Constant Dullaart.
We complement the Webrecorder initiative with research into the cultural impact of web archiving and preservation practices, research referred to at Rhizome as “Digital Social Memory.” With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Knight Foundation, we’ll host the Ethics & Archiving the Web conference at the New Museum in March 2018. EAW is being planned in collaboration with the Documenting the Now project at the University of California at Riverside Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
For now, we are extraordinarily grateful to the Mellon Foundation for their continued support of the Webrecorder initiative. And we’ll be sure to share what’s happening with this major undertaking as it develops.
“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. The notion that the web might offer a site of radical mutability for the formation of new identities, unhindered for the first time by the constraints of “meatspace” seems to have been primarily, although unevenly, dispelled by way of the quotidian creep of the private sector’s stranglehold on the public sphere. In contrast, the shift from an understanding of the web as predominantly characterized by “immateriality” to one that recognized its reliance on material infrastructures—undersea cables, electromechanical generators, low-wage content moderators—required an intervention on the level of discourse. Perhaps the question of online identity is felt more strongly. One thinks of the viral photo of Zuckerberg walking confidently through a packed press conference, as if it were his birthday, surrounded on all sides by an anonymous sea of eager attendees donning his company’s VR headsets; Zuck has the viscerally world-historical power to make his fantasies our reality.
The ubiquity of Web 2.0 has changed the way that we see ourselves, offering indispensable means for individuals to feel themselves out, learn about who they are or want to be, and find communities of like-minded users. And yet, the sense that the web demarcated a liberatory elsewhere pervaded by a democratic ethos has diminished greatly in recent years, precipitated by the re-recognition of the material grip of social forces that have long predated social media. A decent amount of net discourse was centered around this since-eroded premise, and as a result ended up engaging with what turned out to be oftentimes illusory notions of networked identity as malleable in a historically novel way. Despite the fact that it was made in what was for many a very futuristic-feeling moment, New York-via-Philadelphia artist Jayson’s Musson’s Art Thoughtz (2010-2012) project is remarkable for how much it sticks with the slow grind of history. The work is a vlog series that comedically explains contemporary art concepts ranging from beauty to “How to Make an Art” through the character of Hennessy Youngman, and its virality significantly helped put Musson on the map as a contemporary artist. It remains powerful due in equal measure to its hilarity, historicity, and almost uncanny prescience of certain tenets of contemporary meme humor.
Much net-engaged artwork—from Ryan Trecartin to DIS Magazine’s visual practice—has been heavily engaged with the new as a foremost point of departure, often for understandable reasons: new ways of seeing, new modes of governing, and new ways of relating to one another are all conditions that ask to be explored. Fetishization of “the future” as a reified concept has underpinned many of these investigations, and proved to be indispensable to their commercial potential in the contemporary art market. Interestingly, Musson’s Hennessy Youngman character invokes the future much less often than his peers. A memorable time that he does, though, is in the 2010 clip “How To Be A Successful Black Artist,” when he encourages fellow Black artists to use “brainy” terms like “post-Black” in order to secure legitimacy in the art world. “Honestly I don’t know what the fuck [post-Black] means,” he says, “‘cause it means ‘after black,’ and n*ggas is still n*ggas … Is it like, did someone from the future come back with that term and n*ggas is like, pink in the future?” In a moment of brilliant denouement, Musson cuts to David Hammons’s 1988 painting How Ya Like Me Now, featuring a white Jesse Jackson.
It is not an accident that Musson-via-Youngman’s commentary on one time-buzzword themes like “circulation,” “dissemination,” and “networks” doesn’t sound dated several years later, despite the fact that most commentators completely ignored it as such at the time. Throughout Art Thoughtz, Musson actively recognizes and comments on the vulnerabilities built into the circulation of his own Black image in an anti-Black art world—based upon a libidinal economy that takes pleasure in his suffering, following Frank Wilderson III1—and anticipates them, teases them, and deflects them. The series as a whole anticipates what Aria Dean would later theorize as the blackness of memes: “Memes move like blackness itself, and the meme’s tactical similarity to historical black cultural forms makes them — predictably — vulnerable to appropriation and capture. The meme is a form that allows for a sense of collective ownership among those who come into contact with it — black or nonblack.”2 Is it really possible to talk about circulation in the context of global capitalism without invoking the transatlantic slave trade, the history of colonialism? To the white viewer blackness is always already property, first and foremost; Musson reminds us that “circulation” has a history. For some, meatspace is not flexible, particularly when we consider this term’s resonance with Hortense Spillers’s concept of the flesh as the “degree-zero of social conceptualization,” where the distinction between “body” and “flesh” demarcates the difference between captive and liberated subject positions.3
In a particularly memorable passage of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen, the Jamaican-born American poet discusses Youngman’s discussion of the marketability of Black anger in Art Thoughtz alongside Serena Williams career-long battle against pervasive racism in tennis, a field that like fine art is notable for its overwhelming whiteness. Rankine writes that Musson’s work prompts the recognition that “no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” With this in mind, Youngman’s suggestion that artists embrace ambiguity in another, earlier video, entitled “How To Be A Successful Artist,” takes on new resonance. He makes the recommendation after advising that the artist 1) be white, or 2) be a white man, or 3) be a white woman. Perhaps his proposal, as the flip side of its parodic intent, suggests a certain a strategy of refusal—enacted via something like hypertextual, non-verbalized memetic dissemination—as much as it is wry parody of the seemingly limitless supply of rote gallery press texts quoting continental philosophers for no apparent reason. “The less mothafuckas’ is able to understand the artwork,” he says, “the more they can put into it.”
For all of Art Thoughtz’s incisive commentary, though, it is important to remember that the project is a fundamentally comedic series that initially took the form of a (staged) live stand-up set.4 Although Musson quickly abandoned the stand-up format, he retained the direct address to an audience and unpredictability typical of live comedy. It is nothing like a manifesto, and its ideological alignment is hard to pin down or tie to a certain political position in any conclusive, thorough sense. Unlike the strands of humorless, MFA-core artistic production that Youngman offhandedly skewers, the mode of address in these vlogs is captivating for its fundamentally unpredictable approach to performance and the consolidation of meaning. Comedy undergirds all of Musson’s work, from social media to the white cube, and he excels in bringing out the genre’s “epistemologically troubling” characteristics, in the words of Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai.5 Humor has a unique ability to render perceived distinctions and modes of typology fuzzy and unstable, ungrounding assumptions and subverting everyday behavioral codes. Art Thoughtz is so effective in part because Musson’s virtuosic control over this mode of playful cognitive incursion is simultaneously devastating and blasé, genuinely conveying the sense that he would make the videos when he felt bored. His video on institutional critique opens with the Diplomats’ NYC rap classic “I Really Mean It” and features the line, “Auschwitz was and still is the premiere institution of the 20th century, making the MoMA look like nothin’ more than an over-glorified collection of thrift store paintings.” What are we supposed to even do with this information?
Each successive era of popular online culture has had its quintessential meme style, and it is remarkable to consider how much Art Thoughtz presaged forms and styles of the mid-2010s. From the style of plain-spoken, at times risqué gallows humor he perfected to the ways in which the project was designed for widespread informal dissemination—sidestepping institutional gatekeeping in the process—the work is almost uncanny in its prescience of the current moment. Additionally, it engaged the affective dimension of what Hito Steyerl has called “poor images”6 while anticipating the contemporary omnipresence of what manuel arturo abreu has called Online Imagined Black English, or digital blackface.7 The degree to which this phenomenon is absolutely essential to the online economy of intertwined cultural capital and moral capital8—all across the political spectrum, notably—is perhaps best summed up by a post by meme maker Cory in the Abyss which declares, in a riff on high-budget Hollywood movie posters, “You wouldn’t last a week without digital blackface.” As abreu states in an interview with another meme producer, Gangster Popeye, “Lots of people think weird Facebook [and its associated meme culture] popped up out of nowhere, but in reality a lot of non-black meme production draws from black language, visual style, and meme content.”9 Musson doesn’t “predict” this contemporary confluence of forms so much as he seems to stumble upon it, which makes the historical linkage all the more striking. In another prescient move, Art Thoughtz manages to anticipate the popular pedagogical function of memes-as-poor images, where intellectual concepts designed to dismantle dominant power structures are deftly employed clearly and cuttingly, without the baggage of institutional ostentatiousness.
For many commentators, what Art Thoughtz had to say was illegible either because it was too much to bear or because they were limited by a preconceived idea of what they were watching. In two separate pieces of press published around Art Thoughtz’s initial release Musson/Youngman is compared to Ali G according to some kind of alchemical pretzel logic, while one particularly overt piece calls the character an “idiot” and a “moron,” citing his “over-the-top thug speak.” It is an understatement to say that Musson/Youngman’s analyses of mainstream contemporary art’s pre-packaged script for success wasn’t taken seriously by most commentators. A revealing aspect of this coverage is the slippage it figured between Youngman as an avatar of excessive blackness—both a voyeuristic object of desire and revulsion, love and hate—and Musson the person. In terms of Art Thoughtz’s palatability in terms of respectability and assimilability, the blackness portrayed in the videos seems to simultaneously be deemed too much and yet not enough; Tavia Nyong’o has written about the ways in which Dread Scott and Coco Fusco “employ masquerade to reveal potent anxieties about displays of excessive blackness, excesses that are almost always read through gendered expectations of appropriate behavior.”10 This recurring theme raises a question: would Musson have been able to circulate his work and get gallery representation in the New York art world if he didn’t take on the Youngman character?
By virtue of cunning in combination with being in the right place at the right time, he succeeded in hacking the cybernetic feedback loop of value accretion in the culture industry on the protocological level, subversively appropriating the then-emergent tactics of the “power user” while highlighting the inbuilt limitations of the system he gamed. As it gained traction online, the work demonstrated a keen understanding of the way viewership accumulates and multiplies itself on networked social media platforms according to what content is most likely to be shared. In other words, Musson anticipates and plays with the way his work will be aggregated—filtered for consumption through search algorithms and screen-based interfaces11—both in and outside of the art world, while highlighting the ways in which information capitalism’s mass systems of circulation are inherently anti-Black. “[Art Thoughtz uses] a different form of dissemination than we’re used to in the gallery system,” said the gallery owner of Salon 94 at the time of its presentation of his first New York solo show, “Halcyon Days,” in 2012. “He’s probably the first artist who has been able to bridge that online audience and the art audience as well, so that’s always been interesting to me, how to break through audiences and cross audiences.”
Musson’s hilariously sharp Art Thoughtz video about relational aesthetics is striking to consider in connection with the fact that in 2012 he was invited to do a project at relational aesthetics-affiliated artist Maurizio Cattelan and curator Massimiliano Gioni’s Family Business exhibition space in NYC. For “Itsa Small, Small World” he created a call for entries video as Hennessy Youngman, inviting anyone and everyone to drop off work to be included in the show during a three-day window, with no one turned away. The project sounds curiously like a riff on relational aesthetics themes in retrospect, as it brought together an assortment of people from all walks of life in a block party of sorts on the hallowed grounds of Chelsea, facilitating a highly unusual and defamiliarized mode of social relation in the process. Musson later wrote that the exhibition was partially “born out of a curiosity to see what the audience for my Hennessy Youngman videos looked like, to basically see what the internet could look like in physical manifestation.”12 Later, in 2015, he received a double platinum plaque for having his voice sampled on the drop of electronic producer Baauer’s “trap” single “Harlem Shake,” released on a sub-label of Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint in 2012. Although Musson was originally sampled on the song without his knowledge or permission—the recording came from his since-disbanded rap group Plastic Little’s 2001 song “Miller Time”—he described compensation negotiations with the label as friendly in an interview with the New York Times, conductedafter Baauer’s track topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.13 To many, the song and the viral dance video craze it spurred constituted a straightforward form of semiotic gentrification in its essential disavowal of the original Harlem shake dance created in 1980s New York City. Here, Youngman’s elucidation in “How To Be A Successful Black Artist” of the market logic of the “jazz principle”—whiteness’ insatiable desire for the exotic other—comes to mind.
It is worth situating Musson’s work in relation to the history of Black performance art engaged with themes of humor and stereotype. Relevant works include David Hammons’s 1981 performance Pissed Off, in which he photographed himself urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture named after the Transport Workers Union, only to be accosted by police moments later. Another is William Pope.L’s The Great White Way (2001-2009), which saw him crawl across 22 miles of Broadway in Manhattan in a Superman outfit, channeling unbearable trauma like an abject jester, while a third is Adrian Piper’s 1983 video Funk Lessons, where she teaches her non-Black audience about funk and how to dance to it. In contrast with these disparate works, which all stage iterations of encounter and symbolic exchange in various concrete ways, Art Thoughtz remains striking for how off-the-cuff it feels, as if it weren’t even invested in itself; improvised cunning, as opposed to extensive premeditation, comes to mind again as an apt descriptor. The project’s lack of self-seriousness also contrasts with much contemporary art dealing with “identity,” which often shares a grave, scholarly, and sincere vernacular with activism and academic thought. “Intellectualized or aestheticized trauma is displayed for institutional, artistic, or academic validation, but physical and emotional trauma goes untreated, because it falls outside the bounds of institutional relevance,” writes Hannah Black.14 While Musson’s underlying messages are indebted to a lineage rooted in high-stakes political resistance, the work comes across as a little bit more ambivalent. We can sense what he thinks and how he feels, for the most part, but he mostly seems to be moving in his own singular orbit, outside the bounds.
Considering Art Thoughtz in its original context, it is helpful to revisit Seth Price’s highly influential 2002 essay “Dispersion,” where the New York-based artist argues that artists should embrace mass media in order to pursue a “categorically ambiguous art, one in which the synthesis of multiple circuits of reading carries an emancipatory potential.”15 In her introduction to Rhizome’s group exhibition “New Black Portraitures,” Dean notes that the most abundant images of Black people are of “memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence.”16 We are left wondering if mass networks ever truly had anything like “emancipatory potential.” Might that just be hardcore romanticism? Cue Youngman’s video on the sublime, searching but unable to find it in the forest, shooting a gun into the sky. In a way the clip is shockingly beautiful in its low-res haze, a banal irruption of the real that requires no drastic mode of seeing.
Michael Connor: Can you tell me about what led up to Art Thoughtz? What were you doing before you came up with Hennessy Youngman?
Jayson Musson: I started graduate school in 2009. It was about eight to nine years in between undergrad and graduate school. I still made art in between those times, and I made music. Going back into the school setting was somewhat of a culture shock.
Philly, it’s kind of a debaucherous, free-form kind of world, and academic fine art is just the total opposite of that. For me, school was quite an alien culture.
MC: Before going back to school, were you involved in the Philly art scene, like Space 1026?
JM: Yeah. I had a studio at 1026 twice, in 2002 and then again in 2006. There are many, many artists in Philly. The art world in New York is vastly different than the art world in Philadelphia, because so much capital and media is centered in New York, and it doesn’t necessarily look outside of itself, except maybe if it’s looking at like Los Angeles, or Berlin or London. Philadelphia is very overlooked, and in some ways it’s good, some ways it’s bad.
It allows the city to develop its own innate cultural markers and values, and Philadelphia kind of resists being homogenized by trends in contemporary art.
I didn’t make art with the idea that it would A, be exhibited in large spaces, or B, make any money. I did text-based posters. I did a lot of cartoons, political satire. I definitely was more playful in my younger days, and I think that’s really important.
If I was in my late teens, early twenties, going to school in New York, and being in proximity to all these great institutions, it would have steered my art-making towards being enveloped in those institutions, where in Philly, I was just like, “That’s not an option ever at all. That’s like, something else, so I’m gonna fucking make these stupid cartoons, and do my like, vitriolic text-based posters. The Philadelphia Museum is not gonna show these, that’s not on the table. Museums, that’s just not for me.”
MC: Were you involved in an online art scene at this point?
JM: No. I think I had a website. I wasn’t aware that were people using [the internet] as a platform in and of itself, which is fucking rad, but I was a colloquial traditionalist with my brick-and-mortar drawings and writings.
MC: So how did Art Thoughtz begin?
JM: I think around my first semester [of grad school] I came up with the idea—in 2009—for the character, but I kind of sat on it. Essentially, I wanted to create a stand-up comedian who talked about fine art, but in a comedy setting. Hennessy Youngman was conceptualized as a comedian, like a lesser-known comedian from the Def Comedy Jam era of the early ’90s.
The first video I filmed (in the bar I was working at, at the time) was modeled after a stand-up set. It’s called Hennessy Youngman! Live at the Laughway House!I enjoyed it, but when you kind of create this mock setting for a comedy club, it becomes more about how you fabricate the environment and simulate the stand-up set.
I did a second video, which was just a talking head video, which is me taking my same notes and doing it in monologue format to the webcam, and that felt better to me. The focus was on the words, the dialog, not on like, “is this a real comedy club?”
Initially it was wanting to discuss a quote/unquote refined fine arts culture, but in this garrulous kind of way. The kind of cultural opposition at play. This person who seemingly didn’t have, at first glance, the position to discuss these things with any authority.
MC: Did you actually perform the character in comedy clubs?
JM: No. I’ve never done a live comedy set in my entire life.
MC: Was it always the intention to put the videos on YouTube?
JM: Nah, not at all. I initially made them as video art. They were actually initially conceptualized to just be shown in a gallery setting or an exhibition setting, whatever that might be. Even though I was addressing the internet, saying “what’s up internet?”, that was just a part of the performance. It wasn’t until I showed them for review in grad school that I decided to put them online.
MC: Do you remember what was the impetus for doing that?
JM: It just seemed like a waste to keep the videos in the context of an exhibition. Exhibitions just don’t happen frequently, and I felt that it’d be interesting to give the videos a chance to live in a more dynamic context.
MC: When you began to upload them, can you talk about the initial reception? Who were the first people to find out about the videos, and when did you notice they were starting to become popular?
JM: Initially, the viewership was people and friends from Philadelphia, and those friends adjacent to them who might share friend networks and social media. The viewership was really, really small, actually, maybe a couple hundred views for each one of them.
Then I did the Post-Structuralism video at the end of 2009, maybe. That was somehow picked up by Art Fag City(now ArtFCity). But they shared that, and then that was shared more widely within the art world at large, the New York art world, I guess. Then that kind of began the mass sharing of those videos in the larger art world. [That video] was taken down from YouTube for the fucking scene from The Crying Game–which I originally pulled from YouTube. I think someone just reported it, because why not?
I kind of lived in a weird Philadelphia bubble, and I wasn’t an avid reader of those blogs. Honestly, when I started that project, I didn't think anyone would watch the Hennessy Youngman videos. I was looking at other video art pieces that had somehow ended up on YouTube, and the viewership numbers were pretty low.
I didn’t really expect people to watch them, but I did want the videos to have some kind of public life.
MC: Did you notice your online audience shift away from art at some point, or cross over to a wider public?
JM: I did notice. I don’t really know when, but the videos did end up receiving viewers outside of art, that I guess enjoyed them for the humor.
The opening of Itsa Small, Small World at Family Business in 2012
MC: You had an opportunity to meet your online public when you did the open call project in 2012. What did it feel like to meet those people that had connected with that character you created?
JM: Kind of insane, man. That project, Itsa Small, Small World, I knew that I was gonna be stopping the project, and so I guess for me, that project, the open exhibition was kind of like a goodbye and thank you in a way. I didn’t make an official farewell, but I wanted to do something that could have some kind of physical catalyst to bring people together. But, I also was just curious to see what, who, the online audience, what this audience kind of looked like, and what do they look like coalescing through a space.
It was an interesting experience, partly because I didn’t really know what it would be. The opening wasn’t anything that I expected. We were already jam-packed. People were still bringing work in. People were just dropping their work off after the exhibition opened. People turned the opening into their own performance space. People took it into their own arms, and I really, really enjoyed that, because I have this static idea of an exhibition. Then to have different people turn it into their own venue in their own ways, it was awesome to me. It absolutely defied the narrow scope of what I had initially intended it to be.
People just kept dropping their work off. It was like 550 official submissions in that tiny space.
MC: Oh, wow.
JM: Then we took the unclaimed works and just distributed them on the street after the show closed.
I didn’t really give it that much thought, that that would be an opportunity for people who haven’t really had a chance to exhibit, to show their work. I don’t know why. I think YouTube had rotted my mind into thinking that everyone has a chance to get their voice heard, put it online.
There are a lot of people in New York, or just in general within the art-making world, that really don’t ever receive any kind of platform or audience, or have a venue to share their work with anyone. For a lot of people, I think that exhibition was a minute chance for them to present their work to the world, present themselves to the world.
That was a really endearing experience, ultimately, and I re-evaluated my own luck in having a project that received any kind of attention at all.
Installation view, Itsa Small, Small World (2012). Courtesy of Jayson Musson.