Articles on this Page
- 04/19/18--11:08: _Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: _First Look: Whisper...
- 04/24/18--08:52: _'Reigns: Her Majest...
- 04/25/18--07:56: _Web Archives’ Photo...
- 04/30/18--05:38: _I Cook Every Chance...
- 05/01/18--07:47: _Artist Profile: Leo...
- 05/08/18--21:00: _Real Artists Ship: ...
- 05/09/18--11:07: _Notes on a Play for...
- 05/10/18--08:30: _A Social Network fo...
- 05/14/18--07:47: _Swipe Right if You ...
- 05/15/18--09:05: _To Lose the Scroll ...
- 05/16/18--11:23: _Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: _Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: _Artist Profile: Mer...
- 06/04/18--10:32: _American Hospitality
- 06/06/18--10:00: _Collect, Curate, an...
- 06/12/18--09:20: _Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: _Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: _The Paradox of Into...
- 07/10/18--10:46: _An Excess of Consci...
- 04/19/18--11:08: Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: First Look: Whispering Pines 10
- 04/25/18--07:56: Web Archives’ Photoshop Moment
- 04/30/18--05:38: I Cook Every Chance in My Pot
- 05/01/18--07:47: Artist Profile: Leo Castaneda
- 05/08/18--21:00: Real Artists Ship: Recent Projects From Seven on Seven
- 05/09/18--11:07: Notes on a Play for Four Bots
- 05/10/18--08:30: A Social Network for One
- 05/14/18--07:47: Swipe Right if You Love ISPs
- 05/15/18--09:05: To Lose the Scroll is to Lose Your Soul: Presenting Blockedt!
- 05/16/18--11:23: Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: Artist Profile: Meriem Bennani
- 06/04/18--10:32: American Hospitality
- Curated lists can guide users to the most interesting pages in a collection, and with further description and per-page annotation, provide a path through what’s been collected. Especially when lists are displayed in the new sidebar (to the left of captured websites) they can make it much easier for users to browse a collection. As has been the case with collections, users can choose to keep their lists private or share them with the world.
- The main collection view has been redesigned to provide a cover page showcasing lists and descriptions as an easy entry point into collections.
- Webrecorder now features a newly designed table view with filtering options, making it quicker to find a specific URL (page) in your collection.
- Links into Webrecorder collections always contain a user-defined collection name instead of cryptic identifiers. Previously, this meant that if a collection was renamed, its URL would change and outside links would break. With this new release Webrecorder keeps track of renaming and forwards users to the correct new collection page.
- A new visual design with subtle contrasts ensures that the web materials in collections remain the focus of presentation.
- 06/12/18--09:20: Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: The Paradox of Intolerance
- 07/10/18--10:46: An Excess of Consciousness
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Lola Martinez: Blind Spot is one of your earlier works about internet culture in China. Could you explain what it is?
Miao Ying: For the Blind Spot, I inputted every word, from A to Z, in the standard Chinese dictionary into google.cn, which is Google China. Over the course of three months, I spent ten hours a day searching a whole vocabulary of about 65,000 words to see which ones would be censored. When I came across a censored word I would erase if from the dictionary, only leaving its definition visible. So when reading the book, you cannot see the actual blacklisted term, but you can infer which one it is from the meaning. In my search, I came across 2,000 censored words.
What's interesting to me is that there are words that we know would definitely be censored, like something related to politics, but there are many that are blocked yet there’s no clear logic as to why. For instance, there is a term for a sticky rice dessert (Ba Bao Fan), which has nothing to do with the political at all, and was censored. During my search, it felt intriguing to know what was censored by the Chinese government because they never tell you where the boundary lies. Instead, the Chinese internet operates in a gray area. I had to test or search in order to know exactly which word fell into the category of censorship.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: What led you to take on such an extensive search?
MY: When I was a student, I read an article about censorship on google.cn, which stated that no one would have the time nor means to find out what was the criteria for the list of censored words—that it would be an impossible task to uncover what was on the list, and why.
Initially, my curiosity was a driving force which motivated me throughout this project. As this was the first piece that I made about censorship and the internet, this project was about finding out what exactly was restricted in order to make others aware. People in China don’t realize what censorship is—to them it’s just a note on the bottom of the page.
LM: How are you able to tell if your search is blocked?
MY: Originally in China, when you first searched for sensitive terms or subjects on google.cn, your internet service would be blocked for 10 minutes. Later (Google left China in 2010), instead of blocking your service, a sentence on the bottom of the webpage appears stating “according to the local laws, some of the results are not showing.” This phrase let you know if what you are searching is considered censored on google.cn.
LM: I’m curious about the history of internet usage and censorship in China and how it has emerged and developed. What is the context from which the book emerged from? What is it like today?
MY: Over time the internet environment in China has changed. 2007 saw the beginning of social media. At the time it wasn’t popular yet, but most Western platforms were made accessible in China. There was Facebook, Google, and Twitter so many people start using them. By 2010 though, most of these platforms were blocked and became inaccessible.
I think this is when the idea of censorship started to burst. My theory is that before 2010 censorship was one-sided agent coming from only the government, but because of the race of social media, censorship becomes two-sided and the idea of self-censorship emerges. Now that everyone has a smartphone and access to social media, the government implemented heavy censors across all social media platforms.
Then there’s the Great Firewall, which as an organization is really a mystery. No one knows where it is or who works for it, but as a whole, the Great Firewall controls and limits every people’s internet life.
I believe soon there will be a new method of censorship. By 2020, they will be implementing a Social credit system (Citizen Scores) which monitors what you do online. The behavior of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity) in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not. Who are you friends with, what did you say online, will impact your credit and can cause consequence such as slower internet speed.
So although all my work is not only about the Chinese internet, it’s still a main part of it, and I let it consume my work because there is such unique and rich material out there when talking about this subject. With all of these social media platforms developing really fast, and new apps coming out, everybody is using it on the streets. Even old people—they’re scanning barcodes.
LM: Have these shifts in internet usage or accessibility affected your views on censorship? And thinking of these modes of surveillance, did you experience any pressure or tension while conducting your search? Did you feel like you were being monitored while making the work?
MY: These turning points caused my work shifted, as now I am more interested in ideas of self-censorship and how that eliminates or triggers people’s creativity. When you are controlled by this large force for such a long time, you start to develop a bond with those who hold this power. When I made the work, it came with the idea that I could make people more aware, thus causing a change within the system. Over time though, I think I was the one who was changed. My thinking shifted to understand that this overpowering environment is shaping everyone who is using it. My personal relationship to censorship as an artist became more like a sick relationship, almost like a bad boyfriend, a Stockholm Syndrome.
During the time I made the work, they discontinued blocking internet service for short periods of time, but because I was searching so heavily for words that were sensitive, they actually blocked my service for 20 minutes. I was worried when that happened, but no came knocking on my door, so I guess it was some type of warning. I remember the first time when my service was blocked it felt very offensive. That’s why I wanted to make a physical object because It’s not completely offline, but it’s online within limits.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: Have you seen examples of users trying to combat these methods of censorship or access? Or are they generally more complacent to these boundaries?
MY: I don’t think people are bothered by it much. The thing about censorship is that it’s so powerful, that trying to go against creates a great inconvenience. People are definitely aware, but they are complacent because they are so used to it. Most will make fun or mock the situation, but will not do anything about. In the end, you are just like “I’m dominated by it, fine, there’s nothing one can do.”
LM: It’s interesting how you mention that people are very complacent or inactive when it comes to dealing with the constraints of censorship. You on the other hand, went ahead and took on this really intense process, not to circumvent censorship, but to investigate it in a way.
MY: When viewing the work, people aren’t aware of which words. The 2,000 words are never revealed to anyone because it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t censored. The list changes all the time and from the months I spend conducting this project, from the first to the last day, I’m sure the list has been changed or edited. It wasn’t a list to find out why this word is censored, because there is no logic in it.
So unfortunately you cannot really sync the list, but while I was physically searching, those moments were more about pushing myself and the limits of a human being being pushed to those of almost a machine. I started to create bugs—I kept thinking, “Did I check this? Did I miss one word?” At the end of everyday I would go back and forth double checking my results and I felt like a PC that needed to be restarted. This performance of spending time going through each search is a metaphor for the dictionary in and of itself. I think the art is uncomfortable because when you read the book, you don’t see the meaning and all the labor behind it. It’s addressing how censorship is—not why it should or should not be there, but stating that it is there.
LM: It’s interesting to hear of all these different layers of the work emerging—from the dictionary as an object and as a performative gesture. You brought up a tension between man and machine which subtly goes into ideas of labor, as you make a process which can be automated into an intensely tedious gesture. Have you ever considered re-performing this work?
MY: I have thought about it, but since Google left China and only operates in Hong Kong it is no longer the same thing now. Since cannot access Google from Mainland China because it is blocked, the only alternative is Baidu.
It’s not even about censorship at this point. There was a college student, who had a disease so he went to research on Baidu, but he ended up dying. He searched for nearby hospitals, and decides to go to the one ranked first. The issue is that Baidu does not differentiate between what is an advertisement and what is the real result. There is no way for you to tell which is which. They end up putting advertisements first, and it is a huge problem because for many because Baidu is the only search engine they have. For the younger generation who has not experienced Google, they might think that Google copied Baidu, instead of the other way around. Their generation grew up with pure state-run social platforms, so it is their only reality.
Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10, 2018 (still). Digital video and web series in progress. Courtesy the artists.
A collaboration between artist Shana Moulton and composer Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10 (2018) is a continuation of Moulton’s celebrated video series by the same name, and features a performance by the artist as her alter ego, Cynthia. The website offers a new format for Moulton’s premise: an episodic internet soap opera, with original music and libretto by Hallett.
The mountainous California landscape around Whispering Pines, the trailer park near Yosemite where Moulton was raised, serves as a backdrop to her cult video art series, its format inspired by Twin Peaks and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In nine episodes dating back to 2002, Moulton appears as Cynthia—hypochondriacal, agoraphobic, and prone to surreal fantasies. Cynthia’s attempts to escape pain yield only fad cures; her quest for enlightenment leads to new-age kitsch.
Whispering Pines 10 sees Cynthia act out her desire to become an environmental activist, despite not being able to leave the house. Her efforts at self-care lead to anxious hallucinations. The attainment of comfort becomes an insurmountable challenge, heightened to mythic proportions and mediated by faulty technology. Just as peace is attained, disaster hits. The voice of a political activist calls out “What is your tree?” from a public service ad, and the question echoes in Cynthia’s mind, setting her on a quest to find a raison d’être. Decor and objects in her home offer solutions, serving as portals into her imagination; the artist has rendered these in blown-out pastel hues with lo-fi digital effects. Spirit guides sing to her in ecstasy as Cynthia discovers how to stage a sacrifice to the earth, with a ritual that connects political action to performance art.
Moulton’s performance is accompanied by an original musical score and libretto from composer Nick Hallett, who appears in the videos along with vocalists Daisy Press and Katie Eastburn. The web series is adapted from Moulton and Hallett’s electronic opera, which was developed at the New Museum in 2011 (in a process documented by Art21) and went on to tour art museums and performance festivals across the US. The duo received a Creative Capital grant to reshape Whispering Pines 10 for the internet.
Beginning on April 23, 2018, Cynthia’s odyssey will be unveiled over seven unique musical videos, which accumulate into a web series. Visitors may subscribe for updates on when new videos launch. At the completion of the seven-part serial, additional features will emerge—including audio remixes, critical responses, and musical downloads. The web site of Whispering Pines 10 is conceived here as the stage for a new kind of internet soap opera.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Shana Moulton is an artist, born and based in California, who works in video, performance, and installation. Moulton has had solo exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2016); Kunsthaus Glarus, Switzerland (2016); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2015); and Fondazione Morra Greco, Naples, Italy (2013); and a retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, FL, in 2016. She has performed and screened videos at the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Performa, the Kitchen, and Art in General in New York, as well as the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Portland Institute of Contemporary Art; Cricoteka, Krakow; and elsewhere. Moulton’s artistic process and the development of Whispering Pines 10 was profiled by Art21’s New York Close Up series. Her videos (including Whispering Pines 1 through 9) are distributed by EAI.
Nick Hallett is a Brooklyn-based composer, vocalist, and cultural producer working between the worlds of sound, art, and performance. “He draws on a wide range of seemingly contrasting musical genres—from indie rock to early Romantic to electronica to opera—to create arrangements that deploy the voice as an instrument” (Art21). His music has been presented in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Ecstatic Music Festival, Hayden Planetarium, the Public Theater, Town Hall, Performa, the Kitchen, Roulette, and National Sawdust, among many others. Hallett recently completed work on a trilogy of dance-theater scores for choreographer-director Bill T. Jones’s Analogy cycle, which he has been touring with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the past three years. He received a 2017 New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” award for his music in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found, a reconstruction of work by choreographer John Bernd (1953–88). Hallett is the music director of the Joshua Light Show and codirects the Darmstadt new music series.
Whispering Pines 10 is a Creative Capital Project.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
For the past two weeks I’ve been ruling centuries of kingdoms in Reigns: Her Majesty, reincarnated as queen in perpetuum. The iOS game succeeds its king-centric predecessor, Reigns, in which the player makes choices to advance the narrative by swiping left or right on cards, as in Tinder.
Technology and culture journalist and author Leigh Alexanderis the narrative designer for Reigns: Her Majesty. Alexander’s renowned career in games criticism makes her a fitting candidate to describe female perseverance within an oppressive framework. The former Editor-at-Large for Gamasutra and former Editor-In-Chief for Offworld (a gaming site with a focus on diversity and inclusiveness within the gaming community) was among several high-profile women targeted and harassed in connection with #GamerGate. Since that she has been exploring tech mysticism, and producing an ASMR video series devoted to vintage computer games, interests that are both highlighted in the narrative design of Reigns: Her Majesty.
Reigns: Her Majesty is not simply a version of the original game with an almighty female head of state, but is instead a complex examination of the contradictory obligations and impossible choices for a woman in (proximity to) power. In Reigns,the player directly controls the throne and its succession as king, but Reigns: Her Majesty complicates that straightforward idea of power by introducing and focusing on two other practices that have historically empowered women: witchcraft and the pursuit of self-knowledge.
Despite the romantic medieval setting, recurring themes of magic, and speedy reincarnation without much negative consequence, playing Reigns: Her Majesty is both a fantastic exercise in pragmatism, and a lesson in the slow and demanding work of women’s progress over time.
The gameplay is similar to the original: the queen is presented with a series of unpredictable requests and remarks from people around her, including the King, members of the royal court, the ever-infuriating Cardinal, and her subjects. She must respond with diplomacy to maintain balance between the kingdom’s factions (the church, the people, the army, and the treasury), or perish. A player advances through the game by unlocking new sets of cards, reaching personal milestones, and both acquiring and upgrading magical objects.
Unlike traditional roleplay games in which a player invents a character, then acts according to their given traits to advance the narrative, ruling consistently in Reigns: Her Majesty will lead to a quick and untimely death. Ways to die include beheading by guillotine, being trampled to death by your loving subjects, rotting away in a locked tower, and, my most recurrent fatal end, being burned at the stake for heresy by the Cardinal. To survive, to avoid deposition, the queen is often forced to compromise her ideals in order to appease the kingdom’s various complex political coalitions. No matter what political ideology or code of ethics the queen subscribes to, blind adherence will cause her to be promptly de-throned. To those not privy to the motivations behind these strategic decisions, the behavior of the queen may seem volatile or erratic, stereotypical of an “irrational woman.” Alexander subverts this misogynist inclination by converting it into a strength. Being strategic and cunning are traits typically reserved for male characters in games, but in Reigns 2, success as a queen is directly related to developing those complex character traits.
Another frustratingly realistic feature of Reigns: Her Majesty is the contingent advancement through the game, a movement that is repeatedly hindered by factors seemingly outside of the player’s control: the astrological sign your reign begins on, for example, or interpersonal politics between eccentric members of your court. The All-Mother, the pagan goddess who controls the magic forces driving the game, will occasionally drop hints about disrupting the system’s mysterious mechanics, but these divine clues are subtle and, in my experience, often indecipherable. However, players who pay enough careful and consistent attention to these hints will eventually unlock crucial items, like the magic mirror and destiny altering clock. These empower the queen by alleviating some of the environmental contexts that impede the progress of a reign: the magic mirror can offset imbalance between the four political factions and the destiny altering clock allows the queen to switch astrological signs without being reborn. With enough introspection a player can learn the effects of ruling during certain astrological signs and can engineer further progress in a single reign by strategically switching and opening up different webs of possibilities.
The queen must become a master of pragmatic choices. At times ways to advance are unavailable to your player, due to the particular political contexts of their rule. Other times, the progressive or kind action seems (or is) futile. And you are frequently forced to act obediently or outright lie in order to persist. It is possible to live through several generations of your dynasty, swiping through similar interactions with people in power, only to meet the same gruesome end as your predecessors, having effected little change. However, the world may surprise you with a kind gesture every now and then. The small accomplishments accumulate, motivating a player to rule again and again in the face of such evident inertia. The ability to reincarnate through multiple generations and experience many different political eras firsthand allows the player to accumulate knowledge directly, in effect, gaining through experience what is usually passed down indirectly, as wisdom from women who came before.
This nuanced depiction of female power extends beyond the design of the overarching political system to the personhood of individual queens. The hilarious and delightful writing kept me engaged and continuously swiping onward. As in life, the player is capable of a range of emotional responses to instances of microaggressions and outright sexism that resonate deeply with contemporary realities despite taking place in a medieval context. The church complains about your plunging necklines, the king wields power irresponsibly due to his prototypical male ego, and a mysterious sect of snake-men harass your subjects and insist on holding free speech rallies. Alexander perfectly portrays these situations with short, quippy dialog that reads like a snarky feminist Twitter feed.
Reigns: Her Majesty critically examines female empowerment beyond sarcastically ridiculing men. There are moments in which it mocks consumer feminism and recognizes that not all means to female empowerment are good or to be deployed. Periodically, an owl will comment on your in-game progress with absurd announcements, satirizing metrics-driven narratives: “Your decisions so far have illuminated a profile of you as THIRSTY, twit-twoo! Yes, that is your prime trait!” and “Twoo-whoo! That answer has lowered your Successful Intersectional Feminism Index below the 32-point threshold!”
This criticality is also evident in the player’s engagement with a neoliberal magic mirror that encourages narcissism and selfishness masked as self-care. Affirming (swiping right on) the magic mirror’s problematic ideologies alleviates any imbalance between political factions. The narcissism helps the queen persevere, which is a nod to the mandatory philosophical concessions women make when surviving and ascending to power within an inherently flawed and inequitable system.
[Spoiler Warning:] The dark humor, marked with a twinge of optimism, that runs through the narrative in Reigns: Her Majesty demonstrates the relatability of the complex struggle of womanhood over time. The frequent futility of a single reign in concert with slow but measurable progress over centuries imbues the player with a sense of increasing duty to, and respect for, queens maneuvering in complicated political contexts before our time. I haven’t yet achieved one of the three possible endings, but in order to achieve the only true end, you have to kill the king.
Meme credit: Michael Nelson.
“Web archives are going to be weaponized to alter existing trustworthy information and to inject fake, untrustworthy information into the context.”
This was computer scientist Michael Nelson at the recent National Forum on Ethics & Archiving the Web, organized by Rhizome and Documenting the Now, and hosted at the New Museum. His words rang true; throughout the conference, panelists had spoken of archiving in high-stakes, adversarial environments where the content of web archives has serious effects on people’s lives, making them a ripe target for manipulation.
Indeed, only a few minutes previously, Ada Lerner had finished summarizing their paper (co-authored with Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner) describing sucessful strategies for manipulating content held in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and thereby manipulating the historical record. (Lerner had shared their paper with the IA, and the organization acted quickly to address all of the potential compromises addressed therein.)
Video from Ethics & Archiving the Web. Lerner’s presentation starts at 1:14; Nelson’s at 1:43:
The concerns that Nelson, Lerner, and others raised would seem to lend credence, then, Joy Reid’s recent claim that she may have been the victim of a Wayback Machine hacker. But in two blog posts yesterday, the Internet Archive and Nelson have cast serious doubt on that idea.
To back up for a moment: last December, Twitter user @Jamie_Maz, unearthed a series of homophobic posts from Reid’s old blog. Subsequently, she apologized; the apology was largely well-received by liberal media outlets. Last week, though, @Jamie_Maz unearthed further posts from Reid’s blog using the Wayback Machine. These were far worse, and Reid denied responsibility, claiming that she was the victim of a malicious hacker, and that she had requested that the posts in question be removed from the Wayback Machine and Google.
Yesterday, the Internet Archive revealed that Reid’s lawyers had contacted them back in December, at the time of the original apology. Their response was unequivocal:
When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions. At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.
We let Reid’s lawyers know that the information provided was not sufficient for us to verify claims of manipulation. Consequently, and due to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives.
Reid and her lawyers apparently found a workaround, though; they added a robots.txt exclusion to the site, a short text file hosted on a given website which includes instructions to web crawlers, such as those used by Google and the Internet Archive to automatically capture content from the web. The handling of robots.txt exclusions has been another hot topic in web archiving, but the IA’s current policy is to stop replaying captures from the Wayback Machine if the live site disallows crawling. It’s one of the few ways in which websites can opt out of being archived.
This has meant that, for the general public, @Jamie_Maz’s recent claims had been unverifiable. But, as Michael Nelson pointed out in another post yesterday, there is more than one web archive. He was able to source a number of the homophobic posts unearthed last week in the web archives of the Library of Congress, which does not follow the robots.txt removal policy:
In summary, of the many examples that @Jamie_Maz provides, I can find five copies in the Library of Congress's web archive. These crawls were probably performed on behalf of the Library of Congress by the Internet Archive (for election-based coverage); even though there are many different (and independent) web archives now, in 2006 the Internet Archive was pretty much the only game in town. Even though these mementos are not independent observations, there is no plausible scenario for these copies to have been hacked in multiple web archives or at the original blog 10+ years ago.
In short, as Nelson argues: this is why we need multiple web archives.
This post originally indicated that web captures are removed from the Wayback Machine if there is a robots.txt exclusion on the live version of a given site. It has been updated to reflect the Internet Archive’s policy to stop replaying such captures on the Wayback Machine, not to delete them.
In the iconoclastic riots of Reformation Europe, where the voiceover of Versions (2010) begins, images were degraded, smashed into cobblestones, discarded in pigsties and charnel houses, or made into something new. Some would be salvaged and eventually found their way into the hands of museums, where, centuries later, Oliver Laric would make 3d scans of their forms and reproduce them in different materials, in polished epoxies and polyamides, or render them as animations. In 1608, a statue of the Virgin Mary was taken down from the façade of Basel’s town hall and reimagined as an allegory of Justice simply by replacing the baby Jesus with a set of scales, and here she has been repurposed once more as a rendered scene in Laric’s film and an allegory of repetition, rising before us out of his glistening black digital gloop. “A sculpture,” his narrator explains, quoting Boris Groys, “cannot merely be copied but always only staged or performed.” Every representation is a flow.
Oliver Laric, Maria Justitia, 2010, rendered image of 3-D model, dimensions variable.
The library of Aby Warburg, a wealthy Hanseatic banker’s son with a singular vision of the history of art, was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933, four years after his death, because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. While studying Italian Renaissance art in Florence, Warburg had become convinced that many of these supposedly revolutionary artworks had their roots in astrology, magical beliefs and esoteric ancient religions and, as such, were just another passage of the neverending waltz of symbolic images and icons across time. He believed that their poses were parts of a visual language that has been passed down through the ages, and that the power of these poses only increases with each staging. Laric’s narrator advances a similar claim when she observes that, quoting Anthony Hughes, “Multiplication of an icon, far from diluting its cultic power, rather increases its fame.” Conversely, when an image is debased, when it’s spat on, pissed on and shat on like the Catholic statues in the streets of Basel where we started, its powers are curtailed; this is why so many of us hope to see the president being pissed on in a suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, and why his “Piss Tape” has achieved the necromantic status of a kind of 21st-Century relic, and the latest in a long history of degradations going back to red-figure paintings of Danaë and the Golden Shower decorating Ancient Athenian pottery.
Aby Warburg also came to believe that his philosophy of images could only properly be expressed through an installation of images, and so he began to construct his Mnemosyne Atlas (Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory) by pinning constellations of interrelated poses and expressions onto large black linen boards. The boards have since been lost but the Atlas survives in photographs, in yet more reproductions, which now decorate the stairwell of the Warburg Library, and I’m reminded of these every time I see a post comparing modern celebrities to old masterpieces, and also by Versions, which feels like a new kind of Mnemosyne Atlas, one able to trace how not only poses but also movements and dances recur over and over again.
When I first watched Versions at Frieze, in 2010, at what was a very optimistic, euphoric moment for most net artists, it already carried an air of exhaustion around itself. In this telling, the digital age wasn’t going to hyper-accelerate us into another dimension but rather help us to connect everything together and realize that it’s all the same; it was going be a plateau where suddenly we can rise above the landscape, above the Disney rainforests and rolling meadows, and observe the whole world repeating under us, and see the waves on which we’ve been riding for tens of thousands of years, since we first started painting on the walls of the caves of Sulawesi.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more,’” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882). “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” There’s something obsessive inside of us: a tightening loop, a romantic pursuit of the infinite. In the pessimistic reading, we may be doomed to repeat our mistakes and to make the same things over and over again. But perhaps, through these endless recurrences, our understanding can become greater, and our versions more transcendent, as images not only gain power but also slowly reveal their essences.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York.
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.
Levels and Bosses, Preliminary Trailer 01, 2017-18. Video of virtual environment; music by Molly Joyce.
Emer Grant: There are several different formats to your practice, realized across the Levels and Bosses project; at what level do we enter into your work? Does it start from the screen, or the gallery, or from the pages on the graphic novel? What do you see as the relationship between the paintings, the drawings, and the virtual reality game? Is it about being in real-time, or about realism? I’m also thinking about the boss and level metaphor. Do concepts of ranks and levels serve as references to traditional hierarchies across industrialization?
Leo Castaneda: The graphic novel is a good place to start. It is a good segue into painting and what I’m doing now, which is translating the graphic novel into a fully realized videogame. It started with a challenge from a college friend of mine, Victor Ochoa, who established a comic book anthology back in 2011; he knew my work and suggested I created a comic book out of the “Level One” paintings. The Levels and Bosses series started in 2009 as an attempt to create a mythology out of randomness by adopting the structure of videogaming. There was something about the imagery in the newer games that was unnerving, and this sentiment moved into the aesthetics of my work. In games, each level has a “boss” that would be an antagonist or gatekeeper at the end of the level to allow you to progress to the next level. It’s a matter of progressing through killing or destroying the gatekeeper. Importing this structure would allow me to have the image freedom of working between abstraction and representation, and also have fun creating characters and worlds.
The Level One painting was created through thinking of interactions with the environment in early games. Traditionally, player characters explored levels. The programmer would decide if a pixel was interactive or not; liquids, gases, and solids were interchangeable depending on what they chose as the principle (or what gaming programs call “collision”). I chose to paint an epic version of this using a muted color palette, one stemming from and related to explosive sci-fi Hollywood blockbusters. The graphic novel took ten paintings that I had done exploring the “Level One” I’d created, and its subdivisions (Level 1-1, 1-2, etc.), a reference to how levels are divided in games. In creating the graphic novel, I got to imagine space between the level paintings. It was like creating a map out of destinations. Through structuring the visuals, I could in turn initiate a story.
Level One, Graphic Novel, 2011, page 6.
I tried to consolidate the narrative in creating the First Boss, a cube abstract figure. A sentient black hole – from which the entirety of “Level One” emerges – was rendered by a happy accident of a damaged monoprinting plate. When I was trying to create the protagonist, I wanted there to be less of the traditional narrative binary between protagonist and boss. I decided to call this protagonist “The Other”; the letter “O” relates to the number 0 (zero), a precursor to the 1 of the boss.
The work’s range and ambition has taken on different characteristics throughout its evolution. I eventually realized that the culmination of the work should be an actual videogame. A videogame that innately deconstructs and expands what a videogame is and can be. The process within my painting has become more of a feedback loop: the paintings are created out of images of virtual spaces, and get re-inserted into the virtual. Some paintings work as textures that inform the virtual environment, and other become translations of it.
Item 93201 with Image of Boss, 2014. Virtual reality sculpture/machine: Computer, VR headset, fiberglass, wood, plastic, fabric. Painting: Acrylic Canvas, Wood, faux leather, projector handles. Sculpture: 10ftx5ftx5ft. Painting: 7x11x2ft.
Item Showroom, 2016-17. Virtual Reality environment and video.
EG: Could you talk a bit more about the relationship of frame and “otherness”; I’m interested in how you might clarify what sociological perspective you are referring to. Are you referring specifically to racial, class, and gendered connotations of “the Other” with the black box? Whose other? Also, do you problematize narrative here in the context of “otherness,” in which master narratives and “otherness” offer a dialectical positionality?
LC: The game addresses controlling a thing, a something, that is explicitly not your own body. Videogames are often segmented into first- and third-person perspectives. The frame here is the point of view; a central idea of the game is a possibility of switching, meaning, the potential shift in the relationship between protagonist and antagonist. The player character at the beginning is a humanoid figure, seen in third person view, a genderless, posthuman, ethnically ambiguous cyborg who explores ambiguous landscapes and encounters various “bosses” that challenge perceptions about boundaries and roles in games. In most videogames, you generally work through a linear progression, starting at point zero and chronologically moving through the game by winning, traversing entities, killing them, taking their essence, for the sake of climbing. There is no specific awareness and it's also very binary, very antagonistic. I wanted to challenge that.
Levels and Bosses: Level One interior, “in-game” still, 2017-18.
EG: How do you address the contrast between pleasure and leisure and rules as architecture in drafting videogames as a critical medium?
LC: I'm aware that whatever is pleasurable to me is also a construct of societal conditions. Going back and analyzing my choices involves breaking down decisions into distinctions, which is intrinsic to my methodology. What basically happens in the graphic novel, is that from the point of creation (represented by an explosion), there is the gravitational, coordinated, and choreographed journey between the self and other that flips between boss and protagonist. The perspective feels like it is always pending, in hold, about to change.
EG: The explosive scene reminds me of themutation scene in Akira; the character Tetsuo loses control of his powers and transforms into a giant human amoeba that consumes everything it touches. You are spared no mercy in terms of visual affect and effect. From that point on, it is relentless. I see the reference to anime as a stylistic choice in your work. Anime references can be problematic because of their heteronormative undertones; they are frequently criticized for darker fetishistic tendencies. If you are in fact referring to fantasy animation as a stylistic choice, what kind of value do you extract from it?
LC: Plenty of anime is an inspiration for the work. I think of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even Dragon Ball Z, using these titles as a jumping off point for the development of a more critical framework. Take the cycles of power in Dragon Ball Z. In my mind, they resemble how I see capitalism functioning at the moment, in which one character’s power level endlessly increases, and likewise, the strength of the enemies increases, both to a point so exponential that their purpose ceases to matter.
As a piece bridging gaming and art, it was important to me to focus or to create the aesthetic of spectacle that draws gamers in. Audiences are already more familiar with games industries, or the movie industry as cultural gateways. I'm happy for people to enter into my work through spectacle and while they're there, differentiate between the imagined and traditional roles of bosses and environments, and in this tension, find ways of creating meaning.
For instance, in my game, I started to play with the idea of an exponential and unbalanced power dynamic between characters, such that each violence and defeat are choices made by both parties. Throughout Levels and Bosses, the Other’s engagement with each boss reimagines relationships of contact between players and antagonists.
In this space, I wanted to allow for a moment of vulnerability, in which the boss would just be still. It would be a matter of continually striking until the protagonist realized that a different approach was needed, one that involved contact. There is a sense of being reprimanded. So, at one stage, a character makes the realization and is teleported, but their insight still would lead to some sort of damage. These wounds accumulate from traveling through the game. The game has a specific fictionalization of violence in this metaphorical wounding. Contact really comes in the moment when you're given the choice to hit or touch the boss; contact is the in-between. Rather than defeating someone to attain victory, the goal is more progression through contact. We expand through these choices to hit or to touch, and progress through each choice made.
EG: Is this work intended for one person to experience at a time? Or is there a community that can emerge, a utopian gesture from audiences participating in the piece, and if so, how to you express this as a strategy in art? There are many possible stages of the piece in an exhibition, but could you talk about the ideal stagings, which create the community you suggest the work imagines?
LC: Exhibitioning involves multiple angles. If I'm thinking about an imaginary audience I guess it would be people who can relate to my understanding of videogames as possessing multiple layers of meaning. The primary platform for this work is Steam, where a lot of videogames get hosted. With at least 125 million users on the site, you can find artistic or independent videogames are either free, or distributing between 1000 and 1 million copies globally for $5 -$10. Gamers come in a whole range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds. It is interesting; most of the people who make videogames are white males but many of the people who play videogames come from all different types of ethnic groups.
EG: I wonder if that dynamic – white men making games for non-white players, if we simplify it – is possibly an iteration of colonialism, but in new form? Ethics and representation come into play in creating narrative, especially when interactivity is a dominant axis. How you see your works as providing an alternative to the industry standard?
LC: Yes, this is an iteration of colonization. I think about this often. The gaming industry is ripe with decision makers in positions of power who ultimately get to decide the validity of narratives and which stories matter. In addition to the ways in which this affects representation, there’s the example of the recent purchase of the StarWars IP: Disney has disowned whole subsections of previously made stories, such as the animated Clone Wars, as out of canon. Fan-created content isn’t even taken into consideration; the company has hard copyright hounds that stifle community participation. People love to draw fanart and fantasize about their interpretation of gaming and movie characters, and for my game I am thinking about the possibility of future user-generated content for players to be able to add their own levels to this game, even with financial retribution. The game establishes a master narrative out of randomness, frames it as rather arbitrary, and then makes it flexible for communal re-interpretation and change, an oscillating flip and reversal of the colonization of the narrative.
Item with oVerhead Reality, 2016. Virtual reality sculpture/accessory: headset, fabric, controllers; interior virtual environment made through videogame software. 10x10x48 inches. Human interacting - Variable. Painting: Item Showroom Screenshot #143
Poster for Entering Virtual Reality Machine, 2013.
EG: How do you see artistic production changing, in terms of collaboration, collective labor, given the increasing complexity of gaming, its companies, artists, designers, programmers? What can artists learn from proximity to these large, complex groups of technologically skilled professionals?
LC: Currently I'm thinking about all of this in terms of authorship because I struggle with how I use my name in this context. In the videogame industry, there is a team and a company that is behind a project. I wouldn’t want this to be known as Leo’s game; for the range of the piece, it makes sense to release it under a company alias.
I struggle because I’ve gone through all the traditional art world steps: art school, an MFA, teaching, to build my practice as an individual working artist. I have to jump through certain loopholes to just have the game present on the Steam platform. Then I think about collaboration, and how a programmer would want to work with a company. I think about working as or through a different entity, not as one that will just serve my “fame”, or notoriety, as an artist.
The other side of this is my identity as a Latin American artist and the voice in the work that is created culturally. My background and upbringing appears in my choices. I consider the reception of a company in the art world, versus the reception of an individual. It’s interesting now, as across the art world we are seeing the system of credit emerging, in which everyone’s work or labor is somehow acknowledged as part of the creative process. And I wonder if operating as a company open this system up beyond mere gestures. For now I’ve played it safe as an individual in the studio.
EG: You’re creating an environment where people engage through initiating endless possibilities. This is a philosophical manifestation of the virtual, through the virtual. It’s a way to stage possibility, even, and offer a model that can be replicated. And you also refer to painting as a thinking process which translates as a strategy across industries. It seems these methods – creating an environment in which possibility multiplies and the audience has agency, or using painting to work across audiences – is a type of a speculative proposition, for renewed participation.
LC: In the gaming and movie industries, painting and drawing are used to create “concept art” as the visual plan towards the creation of worlds and characters. This is usually a team effort towards finding a coherent narrative, and as mentioned before doesn’t leave room for audience input. In my work I try to use the strategies of “concept art” to arrange randomness and thus allow multiple viewpoints to merge through sequencing and proximity. If the possibility of audience participation can add to those narrative nodes of randomness, I hope the work in the end is an empowering or hopeful proposition.
Location: Miami, FL
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Actively, 2013, and indirectly 2009 through the concepts; back to middle school through interests.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Cooper Union for BFA and Hunter College for MFA, both for Studio Art.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Art practice plus teaching 3D animation and drawing at Florida International University this year as a visiting instructor.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Seven on Seven pairs seven artists with seven technologists, asking them to create something new: a prototype, an artwork, an app, or whatever they imagine.
Over nine editions, Seven on Seven has served as a testing ground for leading figures from both fields to try out new ways of working, and of working together. Their collaborations address major contemporary issues, but do so in ways that are free from the usual pressures of success in software development, entrepreneurship, or artistic practice. This allows Seven on Seven projects to take unusual forms; they are cultural hybrids which may not fit easily into an art exhibition or the app store.
This online exhibition brings together recent software-based works that were produced as part of Rhizome’s annual conference Seven on Seven, from a play for bots to an anonymous social network in the style of artist Bunny Rogers.
Tickets are available now for the tenth edition of Seven on Seven on May 19.
Claire L. Evans and Tracy Chou: SVS
Chou and Evans’s play for four bots is set in a workplace where AI entities labor alongside humans. It randomizes the names, genders, and nationalities of its main characters, as well as their voices, which were performed via text-to-speech software. The action is always the same each time the play is run, allowing users to experience it in multiple ways and, serving as a kind of bias test. Originally written as a Python script, the play will be available online to coincide with this exhibition.
Bunny Rogers and Nozlee Samadzadeh: Collectable.art
Collectable.art is “a social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.” This anonymous publishing platform, available as an iOS app, allows users to create their own web pages based on Rogers’s websites, which feature hand-coded HTML pages dedicated to topics such as lamb-shaped graves and awareness ribbons.
Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka: Big Glitter
Three works by Lialina and Tyka mine the social network Blingee, which allows users to create collages from GIF animations and stamps. Lialina has researched the platform for a number of years, drawn in particular to the digital folklore practice of one especially talented user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova (IVK). In *Once again to IVK*, a script follows the usage of animations through compositions made by IVK and others. In *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling*, users are asked to answer captcha-style quizzes in which half of the compositions were created by bots. And for *Treasure Trove* (all 2017), hundreds of individual animations were “liberated” from the locked-down Blingee platform and collaged into a composition that’s surely one of the world’s most beautiful web pages.
DIS and Rachel Haot: Polimbo
“How can we convert Tinder users into active voters?” asks the team behind Polimbo. Developed with designer Pat Shiu and researcher Ethan Chiel, the app allows users to swipe right or left on a series of speculative scenarios tied to real-world public policy, ultimately “matching” them with like-minded politicians and offering a visceral glimpse into possible outcomes of seemingly abstract issues.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti: Blockedt
Blockedt is a social network available on iOS and Android (pending app store approval) that boasts no other visible users, no visible content, and an invasive end user license agreement. Founded by Musson’s billionaire CEO alter ego “Guy White,” Blockedt’s only function is to allow users to scroll endlessly on an empty screen.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, GIPHY, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
Additional support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Seven on Seven's 10th Edition After Party will be cohosted by Rhizome and Impossible Foods at Spring Place.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
Additional support is provided by Kickstarter and Phillips.
My recent work focuses on identifying and highlighting contributions from women in technology history, making sure these people are remembered before the paint dries, essentially, so that women and girls can understand themselves as central, rather than incidental, to the development of the most important forces of our age.
What I admire about Tracy Chou is that she does that in the present—her GitHub repository is a living history of women in tech, for example, and she highlights women while there’s still an opportunity for the tech establishment to react to our presence in the present without the filter of nostalgia, or the loss of context that the passing of time creates, and to make actionable changes in the here and now.
When we first talked about what we would do for Seven on Seven in 2016, I had the impression that between us, we spanned past and present. It quickly became apparent that we wanted to tackle the future. We talked about the ways gender plays out in technology—not just in the workplace, but in the tools that emerge from working environments that are still so predominantly male. One touchstone for us both was gender in AI, and the predominance of female gendering and voicing in artificially intelligent agents like Cortana, Siri, and Amazon Alexa, as well as in GPS navigation, public-address, and customer-service bots. We talked about how a generation of children, growing up with these tools, were becoming accustomed to barking commands to pliant, subservient lady machines. Weird.
SVS, the product of our collaboration, is both a play and a kind of bias test. It’s “written for four bots,” but the names, genders, nationalities, and voices of those bots are randomized. This shifting “casting” helps to tease out the audience’s own biases about what the implicit dynamics are between the characters. The action is always the same, but it feels different every time. The play is short enough that one might play through it more than once, to see what changes. It unfolds in a Silicon Valley work environment, so the changing dynamics on display are additionally imbued with issues of power, authority, and workplace diversity.
Complicating matters, three characters in SVS are written as human, while the fourth is an AI. When the AI is cast as a female, some might interpret that character with a sexualized quality, and its relationship with its keeper as something like the relationship between Theodore and Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her. When it’s cast as male, it can feel more like like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An audience less steeped in such heteronormative narratives might read it entirely differently. And so forth. The assumptions we make reveal a great deal about how we expect gender to be performed by machines, and are often influenced by films and by the very tools in our pockets. In reality, it’s all assumptions, cultural biases, and projection. The bot is just a bot, and it’s running through the story as written.
A corny little detail: the play is a workplace drama, and although “SVS” is ostensibly an acronym for “Sentient Voice Systems,” the Valley company where the story unfolds, it’s also an allusion to Karel Capek’s RUR, the Czech play from which we get the word “robot.” RUR takes place in a factory—Rossum’s Universal Robots—and its action unfolds along a similar arc, over which the illusion of human mastery over machines is slowly revealed to be impractical, if not immoral. SVS is made up of letters adjacent to RUR, just as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HALis one alphabetical step away from IBM. An IBM 704 was programmed to sing “Daisy Bell” in 1961, seven years before HAL did the same in the film. Truth is stranger than fiction, although it’s never truly unentangled with it.
Tracy’s program is so beautiful, and full of these thoughtful details, like how she handled pauses and beats in the dialogue to make it flow more naturally. Once we had a working program, it was fun to manipulate the text to see how we could force human-like cues into the voices using low-tech tricks, like punctuation. I found that placing periods in between words made the bots enunciate more clearly, which we ended up using for emphasis in a few places. Making such concessions to the bots was an unintended consequence of building this infinite-variation play. I imagine playwrights do this for actors too—writing with performance in mind. It was one my favorite surprises of this collaboration.
Finally, I can’t remember if this was a reference for me while we were working on SVS, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about the play in relation to Brenda Laurel’s wonderful book Computers as Theater, which argues for a dramatics of interface design. Every software session is like a play, with a beginning, middle, and end. Just as a play exists as both a script and a performance, software has both a static existence as code and a fluid expression in every user session. The more deftly programmers and interface designers can conceal the rigging—the beams and rafters and the stagecraft of it all—the more transformative the experience is for the audience, or the user. That’s just to say that there’s an elemental similarity between plays and programs, and there’s something very right-feeling, to me, about a software experience that’s never the same twice, where the user fills in so much of the associative and emotional context from personal experience and subjective bias. It’s just what we do. Hopefully SVS makes that clear.
SVS was adapted for the web by Rhizome developer Mark Beasley with software curator Lydnsey Moulds. The original code can be found on Tracy Chou’s Github repository.
It wasn’t long into my collaboration with Bunny Rogers for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference in 2017 when we realized our similarities might outnumber our perceived differences. In our early, wide-ranging conversations, we discovered a shared interest in online anonymity, early internet communities, personal data archives, and certain books we’d both read as kids, to name a few topics.
But the differences remain: I’m an engineer at Vox Media, where I write code for the internal software that writers and editors use to write and publish articles. My job involves balancing the needs of the company at large along with individual workflows, making decisions bolstered by user testing and data. I’m also a seamstress, which I use to experiment with process, automation, and efficiency as much as to make clothing.
Bunny is a multimedia artist and poet whose most recent solo exhibit is up at the Whitney Museum. Her work explores her past and present using a variety of media, from stained glass panels to video art. On her extensive website, she also maintains a variety of hand-coded, single-topic sub-sites: an archive of awareness ribbons; poetry about a Neopets character; a database of lamb headstones, traditionally used for the graves of children.
A social network for one
The first sketches of what would become the Collectable.art app
I suggested that we create a tool to allow Bunny (or anyone else) to create, maintain, and display these single-topic sites. The idea appealed to Bunny, who had spoken before about the idea of creating work with a single person in mind. It would be both a far cry from the decision-making consensus of my day job and an automated step beyond Bunny’s hand-coded work.
So instead of thinking about an imaginary generalist user, the app only needed to make sense to Bunny, its intended audience. While sketching our ideas for this tool, Bunny came upon a name—Collectable—and I came upon a tagline: “an anonymized social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.”
Like any social network from Facebook to Twitter, we needed a “private” setting where work is done and a “public” place where work is displayed; I wanted the private view to be limited to your phone to keep it all the more personal. The .ART administrator, which sponsored the 2017 Seven on Seven, generously helped us out with a domain, and so our project was born: Collectable.art is a platform for collecting and sharing text and images via an iOS app and website.
Building the app
The representation of the app’s interface in Xcode
With only a few weeks in which to work, I had to make decisions about what tools to use in order to complete our project in time. I leaned heavily on Google’s Firebase tools for the app’s database and user authentication, which freed up time to customize the app’s user interface to match the early sketches Bunny and I worked on.
Apple has a lot of opinions about how iOS apps should look and feel—opinions that were not shared by Bunny, whose online work is formatted with Web 1.0 styles like Times New Roman and default blue-and-purple-colored links. Replacing the modern gradients and icons of a 2017-era mobile app was a funny and refreshing challenge; I found myself occasionally going against what I had been taught was “right” for an app, although of course user experience has no objectively correct answers.
We replaced the idea of a user profile with Bunny’s “adoptable” awareness ribbons, which allow unique identification without having an identity connected to the real world. She also created the icons and assets used throughout the app, as well as the web page templates that the user’s collected data slots into.
Both the Swift OS app and the Node.js web app are open source and publicly accessible on Github.
Adding an image to a collect using the app
Using the app, you can create and store “collects,” which are sets of text-and-image pairs. These images can be taken with a phone camera or downloaded from an external source, so the app can be used anywhere. Public collects—it felt useful to provide a way to “hide” work if desired—can be seen on the website. There are nine templates, created by Bunny, that you can choose from to format your data. (Because not everyone can be Bunny Rogers, the app itself also contains help instructions.)
Currently on Collectable.art you can view Bunny’s lamb graves, photos of incorrectly formatted social media icons that I have collected over the years, and more—I even used Collectable.art used to document the Seven on Seven conference as it was happening. More recently, students at PS 317 in Queens have been working on their own collects, including slime/squishy things and noods.
To make your own anonymized collects the style of Bunny Rogers, get started at collectable.art/app.
The FCC has announced that net neutrality will expire in the US on June 11. This Wednesday, the US Senate will vote on a measure that would reinstate it; this measure is currently one vote short of passage. Email or call your Senator today.
Polimbo (the name is a portmanteau of “Policy” and “Limbo”) is a policy education tool presented in the form of a quiz. The app presents player with a number of scenarios which connect back in one way or another to net neutrality. Some of those scenarios are more science fictional than others — a world where video conferencing calls almost never freeze is probably closer at hand than one where “Data Police track data obesity and waste” — but all have to do with the flow of data and how much control corporate and government entities, real or imagined, have over that data.
For each scenario the player swipes left or right, indicating disapproval or approval. After twenty swipes the player is given their result: either their choices indicate they’d prefer a world with net neutrality rules in place, or the reverse. Each result also comes with a list of politicians and civil servants who feel similarly.
The app was conceived of by members of the DIS collective and Rachel Haot for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference last spring as an experiment in familiarizing people with sometimes difficult-to-grasp public policy. Policy is often complex and abstract, even when it has very real and material consequences, and the point of Polimbo was to offer a slightly tongue-in-cheek way to clearly and simply connect policy to those consequences. I can tell you that with some certainty because in the run-up to Seven on Seven last year, I helped DIS and Haot with research on what eventually became the net neutrality scenarios presented by Polimbo.
Like its swipe-based forebears, dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble, Polimbo’s decision tree doesn’t have a neutral option. The player has to choose whether they like the scenario the app confronts them with or not. The idea was that throwing some uncertainty into the mix and muddying the waters of what’s good policy and what’s bad policy and then forcing players to choose might make them better think through and better analyze the reasons for and consequences of their positions.
Assessing the game frankly, we probably didn’t do a very good job of muddying the waters. If the speculative prompt “your content is flagged as a low-level national security risk, and your site is subject to broadband speed penalties” didn’t give away where those of us in the room when the game was made stand, one of other nineteen probably did: we were broadly in favor of net neutrality. Many of the prompts on Polimbo were tweaked to make them less dystopian, and others were tossed in production because the stories they told were too obviously sinister, but our own thoughts and opinions are clearly present. That isn’t to say there wasn’t a genuine attempt made to allow for the ser to find themselves on either side of the net neutrality debate. However, in practice, all but the most zealously devoted Verizon shareholders and/or libertarians were probably presented with the result “You are for Net Neutrality” and photos of the beaming faces of Barack Obama and erstwhile FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
By intimating (even jokingly) that Polimbo was a neutral platform, we weren’t necessarily forthright about the opinions and intentions that we held about net neutrality, except in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of way. Thus, the app was less a way for player to determine their opinions on policy than an effort to persuade–an effort to prompt players to think through some of the possible consequences of net neutrality’s rollback.
Winking and nudging is fine, even ideal, for art, but it’s a little too subtle for policy, especially so for a policy debate over something as poorly named, deeply complex, and politically contested as net neutrality. And so, if we could do it all over I would give the player have more information, to show them that these scenarios aren’t just stories or jokes. Tell them everything, or at least everything that occurs to you as designer, researcher, artist, wonk, whatever. If Polimbo’s net neutrality quiz felt like a speculative dystopian experiment in May, now it feels urgent and real, with looming consequences for the player. They’re just a person trying to make their way in a world of often complex policy, and it behooves us to be forthright with them. It’ll be the best way, when it comes to that policy, to allow them to play without being played.
Blockedt! by Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti is part of First Look: Real Artists Ship, a selection of works from recent editions of Seven on Seven. The Blockedt! iOS app, developed by Noah Keating, is currently under review for inclusion in the app store.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti have created what some would call an anti-social social networking app and, as part of their collaboration for Seven on Seven, produced an introductory pitch video explaining its functionality. The network, aptly named Blockedt!, may well be the first application that has no visible features, no distinct content, and no other visible users, despite its invasive end user license agreement.
It’s not uncommon to come across an advertisement that urges us to take a step back from our devices—to take a deep breath, and embrace the richness of our surroundings, without the need to document, record, or share them. When we look at contemporary life, it is evident that our experiences are frequently punctuated by technology. No one is free from the magnetic pull of social networking. On the feed, companies and users unite in endlessly reciprocal adoration. We’re expected to wake up to our twitterverse, “like” our former boss’s vacation photos, and comment on our distant cousin’s newborn, all the while feeding our every digital motion into an ominous sea of marketable data.
For their Seven on Seven project in 2018, Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti decided to take a closer look at the imminent digital fatigue that results from social media, albeit from a humorous perspective. The two produced Blockedt, a fully functional application that invites its users to participate in the soothing, meditative gesture of scrolling, while freeing them from the obligation of sharing, viewing, or re-posting any content whatsoever. The app is, essentially, just a blank white screen. Its impractical nature reveals an uncomfortable dichotomy between our basic need for deep human connection, and the basic gesture of touching glass that we habitually engage in on impulse.
Musson and Perretti introduced Blockedt in a stylistically familiar pitch video, aimed at potential shareholders for the app. In the video, Musson takes on the persona of a fictional, buttoned-up CEO named Guy White, who is described only as “Visionary, Not Poor.” Smiling at an office desk, fingers tented, he proclaims, “Technology has had a profound impact upon all of our lives with its immediate interconnectedness. We've become shackled to our timelines. Indentured servants to our smart devices.” He then introduces what he, jokingly, calls an American-sized solution: Blockedt. Blockedt is arguably the world’s first app to openly acknowledge our technology’s addictive qualities. But on Blockedt, the unique experience of social navigation has been reduced to the singular activity of the platform: scrolling.
In some sense, Blockedt is a satirical response to the way that social media has capitalized on our natural need to share content, preying on our human impulses. The app is pending approval by the App Store, but in the meantime users can get scrolling on the web-native app. Because as they say at Blockedt, “to lose the scroll, is to lose your soul.”
As part of their contribution to Seven on Seven 2017, Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka took a closer look at a modern digital folklore legend: Blingee.com. The collaboration resulted in a collection of three works, presented as part of First Look, the ongoing series of digital projects co-curated and co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
In a 2010 blog post titled All That Glitters, Olia Lialina discusses the transition from the early animated GIF to the glittering GIF of the new millennium:
No matter how funny and unprofessional early animated GIFs appeared, they were animated. The figures or objects were in constant action—running, dancing, rotating around the sun, or working on an endless construction. With the new millennium came new GIFs, glittering and blinging graphics created with new tools called glitter graphics generators. The principle of these was to take a static image—photo or graphic—and decorate it with all sorts of glittering-sparkling “stamps,” from stardust to rotating necklaces.
Lialina has long credited the popular graphics generator, Blingee.com, as an important piece of modern digital folklore. As an avid Blingee adopter, she has explored the site as a tool, subject, and community base. The web service allows users to create animated GIFs by compiling and layering “stamps” into collages, adding to the website’s massive collection of clipart, icons, and digital stickers. The site does offer limited communication through comments, voting, and forums, but its most distinctive attribute by far is its navigation system. Users can endlessly surf from one image to another through stamps and Blingees, much like you would use a series of text links, or back and forward buttons, to browse the early web.
For their Seven on Seven collaboration, Lialina and Tyka aimed to survey the data and the philosophy behind Blingee. *Once again to IVK* (2017) uses an automated tool they’ve created to mirror the process of surfing through Blingee by identifying the corresponding stamps that lead to each composition, and surfacing other Blingees created with these stamps. In one iteration of the piece, called staying with IVK, they use the tool to trace the animations of Lialina’s favorite Blingee user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova. Another version (away from IVK) follows various compositions throughout the network.
Tyka also used machine learning to replicate the Blingee creation process itself. In an attempt to influence the machine to create political images, he began feeding the system images of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with popular sets of Blingee stickers. Using these images, the system reproduced its own—very convincing—political Blingees. We see Obama donning a glittering chain and baseball cap, or devil horns, and McCain signage overlaid with flower blooms and flashing dancers.
The bot-generated political Blingees are comical, amateur, and deceptive. What is alarming, though, is our own inability to distinguish between human and automated cultural production. *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling* (2017) measures exactly that, tasking users to respond to captcha-style quizzes, and determine which compositions were created by bots.
For their final collaboration, *Treasure Trove* (2017), Lialina and Tyka expropriated 440 individual jewel animations from the Blingee platform. Lialina created a colorful multi-layered composition using hundreds of glittering images that dance, flicker, and rotate across the page. Visitors to the site can click, drag, and reorder the sparkling GIFs as they please, freed from the restrictions of Blingee’s own interface.
The gaps among these three works highlight the parameters of the Blingee interface, as well as the role of the user in interacting with and perhaps manipulating it. A single flashing stamp on a transparent background can serve as source material for dozens of user generated images. A page of “Southern Belle” Blingees can lead to a series of Saved by the Bell Blingees. The format offers millions of animations, and each one can be thought of as a singular, shining, static composition. Alternatively, they can be thought of in terms of their fluidity—their connection to, or departure from, the images uploaded before and after. Whatever the case may be, it would seem worrisome, to say the least, that in an age of the “post-factual,” this vernacular can be performed and produced by machines.
Watch Lialina and Tyka’s full presentation for more on the theory and practice of Blingee:
Header image: Screenshot from *Treasure Trove*, 2017 by Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka.
Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian at Seven on Seven 2018 (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
The historic tenth edition of Seven on Seven took place before a sold-out audience on May 19 at the New Museum, with an afterparty co-hosted by Impossible Foods at Spring Place. The participating duos revealed seven new art-tech projects, ranging from a Photoshop add-on to a make-up tutorial to a decentralized religion. The event also featured a presentation of digital art projects by third and fifth graders from PS317 in Queens (thanks to the support of Deutsche Bank) and a print publication on the state of culture and tech, created by Rhizome and Wieden+Kennedy NY.
At the close of the day, Rhizome revealed that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be presented in Beijing in October 2018 as part of the EAST Conference at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
Video of the full event will be online shortly. Photos from the dinner and afterparty, co-hosted by Impossible at Spring Place, can be seen on Rhizome’s Facebook page.
WHAT’S TO BE DONE: A Seven on Seven Magazine
Photo: Aria Dean
Marking ten editions of Seven on Seven, What’s to Be Done? takes stock of art and tech as seen by Seven on Seven alumni—Mike Krieger, Tracy Chou, Miranda July, Paul Ford, Kate Ray, Martine Syms, and Claire L. Evens—other luminaries—such as Paul Chan and Fred Turner—and, via an open call survey, the Rhizome community. The publication was edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome's Special Project's Editor, and designed under the direction of Richard Turley, Global Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy New York. A limited number of magazines are avaiable by request to Rhizome members (contribute!)
Art & Technology Residency at PS 317 Waterside Children's Studio School
With funding from Deutsche Bank, Rhizome held a six-week residency led by arts educator Diwa Tamrong in Queens public school PS 317, the Waterside Children’s Studio School.
Students made online artworks inspired by past works from Seven on Seven, including a quiz inspired by DIS and Rachel Haot’s Polimbo (from Seven on Seven 2017). Polimbo was designed to help users understand the potential consequences of policy decisions; the students’ version focused on the issue of whether phones should be allowed in schools. Students also made blingeesinspired by Olia Lialina & Mike Tyka’s Blingee research from last year's Seven on Seven.
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Cortright and Tashian’s project was the culmination of a friendship that stemmed from one of the technologist’s earlier projects, “Lost in translation,” which the artist had used to title many of her works. Their collaborative project was a new set of scripts for Photoshop which produced randomized interventions into Cortright's celebrated digital paintings, made on the app, which often comprise hundreds of layers of individual brushstrokes. Cortright usually exports the paintings from Photoshop at a “decisive moment” to a more finite form, on silk, aluminum, acrylic, linen, or paper, but this new set of scripts allows them to live on in a variable, ever-changing state.
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Cwynar and Sherwin premiered a new performative lecture and video derived from '80s-era VHS and contemporary Youtube-based make-up tutorials, intertwining the histories of color and representation in image-making tools and cosmetics. Shayna Gold oversaw make-up and designer Tracy Ma starred in their video. (Read more at Garage.)
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
The pair premiered chapter one of a new sci-fi book, Cardboard Friction, which explores the development of a distributed autonomous organization (DAO) against a tyrannical e-commerce company. Chapter one is available at http://cardboardfriction.com/, and was accompanied by a book trailer by culturesport.tv.
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Raspet and Tseng began their project exploring potential to arbitrage phosphorous as a way to impact global energy consumption. When this project faced unexpected issues, they pivoted to cell.farm, which seeks to use blockchain technology to collectively model a ribosome, en route to one day modeling a full cell. Their white paper can be downloaded at http://cell.farm.
Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green presenting at Seven on Seven (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw
Tajima and Green explored the toxicity of Twitter speech by developing a series of bots generated from the accounts of celebrities and bigots. They then visualized the toxicitiy of various genres of online speech speech through an analogue sculptural kaleidoscope.
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
The pair premiered "0xOmega," a new consensus-based crypto-religion that aims to foster collective consciousness on the blockchain. The religion will launch with the future release of Omega, a token which empowers their followers’ participation in the faith. The pair additionally premiered the religion’s white paper—described by the duo as a “flame paper”—and its first sacred object — the Dogewhal — in the form of a 3D-printed totem and video created by Singer.
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Rezaire and McDowell closed the event with a meditative session on the sonic origins of the universe, a means of communication, and a method of finding healing. McDowell performed musical compositions, while Rezaire narrated a guided meditation and philosophical reflection. Rezaire’s narration drew on vulnerable forms of knowledge held by cultures that are generally excluded from narratives of technological progress.
The event closed with the ringing of a gong, as participants slowly came back to themselves.
Seven on Seven Beijing
Rhizome's Executive Director Zachary Kaplan and, via video, Qiu Zhijie, Director of EAST (Education, Art, Science, and Technology) and Dean of the School of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, announced that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be held at the school in October as part of their 2018 EAST conference. This program is jointly organized by Rhizome's curatorial team and Baoyang Chen, organizer of the EAST conference. Details to be announced in the coming months!
We thank our 2018 Partners
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.
Meriem Bennani grew up in Rabat, Morocco, and Paris and has lived in New York for the past decade. Her multimedia practice engages identity as related to femininity, feminism, and the intersection of religious and secular pop culture in her native Morocco, New York, and globally. Bennani’s practice encompasses video works that appear in expansive and immersive spaces, from a farcical advertisement for festive holiday hijabs that screened on the giant oculus screen of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (Your Year by Fardaous Funjab, 2017), to whimsical interactive viewing stations that presented playful portraits of Moroccan women at the Art Dubai fair in the United Arab Emirates (Ghariba/Stranger, 2017). She both celebrates and exposes the private lives of women—from her own family members, to those on the street, in popular media, and in her digitally tuned-in world. Straddling these oft-disparate cultural interstices, her clever, socially pertinent works resist simple categorization.
Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017)
Simone Krug: Your delightful video Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017) is a mock-reality show that follows the life of a fictional hijab designer who creates futuristic, campy, almost ludicrous designs using a tennis ball basket, a multi-tiered wedding cake, and so on. This piece troubles the way Muslim women are portrayed in the media, where the hijab becomes a fun, silly fashion accessory. Do you see works like this one as narratives? Of course, you apply the imaginative potential of the digital to animating and creating comical anecdotes. With this in mind, how do you engage with or consider the idea of storytelling?
Meriem Bennani: Most of my work is about stories and how to tell them best. I believe so much in the super stickiness of the emotional continuity that defines storytelling that I don’t ever treat it with care. I like to submerge it and hit kick lick it implode it in any way possible … in a very organized fashion, though!! I don’t care for a single way of telling the story throughout. I think that if each segment can be told in the language most adapted to it, why not?
So you know the love scene can be from a soap, the argument, reality t.v., and the party scene, wedding footage. The storyline pierces through, and it holds all the experiments together. It is like playing Jenga super dangerously, but really, you’re using superglue in between. At the end, the tower looks like never before. Hopefully in a good way ...
SK: Video pieces like Fardaous Funjab delve into the cultural import of the traditional Islamic women’s head covering and seem to both glorify and critique the image of the hijab in both Moroccan but also in global visual culture today. Could you expand on your interest in this subject and the themes it evokes for you?
MB: These works are mostly from 2015. You know, I age like a dog or a pop song, seven years at a time. I lost some interest in the subject in some ways. Although absurd and surreal, these works are descriptive. For a woman who wears the hijab every day, or in places where most women cover themselves, I don’t think that the veil is seen as a religious object every single time it is put on. On a daily basis, fashion also plays an important role. If you look at all the Modest Fashion bloggers, it’s very clear that the hijab has established on its own an existence in the fashion world. Fardaous Funjab can be about reality television, success, money, and fashion in general, not only in the Middle East. I want to depict and reimagine these ideas, without having to establish them in an occidental setting to reach universality.
Ghariba / Stranger (2017)
SK: More recent examples of your work think about womanhood differently and take on a more documentary style. You've exhibited the multichannel video and installation Sifam & Hafida (2017) at The Kitchen in New York City; in it, you explore a generational rivalry between two women who sing traditional Moroccan prose poetry known as aita. You’ve also presented the multichannel video and outdoor installation Ghariba/Stranger (2017) at Art Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a piece which depicts a personalized perspective into the lives of four Moroccan women as they go about their day. Considering these more recent pieces, could you speak more about how your work has changed?
MB: I guess from Fardaous Funjab to these pieces, the biggest shift happens in my process in choosing the starting point for the piece. Fardaous came after mostly making drawings and animations, which means constantly making work that is some sort of invention of a fictional setting, or through a heavy filtering of reality. Fardaous was almost fully scripted. When I shot it, though, I realized my favorite scenes were when my mother (in the role of Fardaous) would improvise and word things in ways I could never have written alone because I’m not a screenwriter. I don’t have that (very impressive) skill which makes writers come up with voices outside of their bodies! In Ghariba and Siham & Hafida, I adopted a more collaborative approach and tried to use the moment of shooting like an opportunity to bring these outside voices into my work, which is more collaborative and scary for me. I moved the invention part to post-production, in the edit, where I recreate an artificial and amplified version of the narrative and characters through editing and digital manipulation.
SK: Shifting gears a bit, I want to ask about your interest in digital culture. You've made pieces in which you comically elongate iPhones or animate the Apple logo such that it's a shimmying, jiggling icon, as in your work iButt (2015). These slight tweaks are comical in that we still recognize the commonly used objects and universal logos you're playing with. On your Instagram last year you posted a hilarious, if not disquieting, animated clip of Donald Trump staring up at the August 2017 solar eclipse, wearing sunglasses with lenses that both resemble and then transform into hooded KKK figures in the sky. Could you elaborate on what draws you to manipulation and distortion as an approach to making? Further, what's appealing about using these mainstream images, commodities, and brands?
MB: Those short clips and Instagram videos are disposable ideas more than full pieces, much like the products or events they are referencing. It’s funny to reference things that are very time sensitive and then watch them sink into obsolescence at a high speed. When I watch the video from my show FLY from 2016 and hear Rihanna’s Kiss It Better in the soundtrack which featured in this piece, I feel nostalgic for that summer. It feels dated. I remember choosing that song as a time experiment because it was a hit then, and it would act as a chronological marker. Using popular songs and mainstream or iconic references is just a tool, the fastest shortcut to some type of universal signifier that will land a joke or idea in a heartbeat. I only find it useful or interesting when it’s made for a specific format that needs to be efficient immediately, almost like a cartoon or a meme. I care less about this when it comes to other longer term projects.
SK: Pivoting from this discussion of the internet, I want to ask about the way you’ve discussed your work in terms of its “frantic internet pace” in the past. This jerky, speedy momentum is notably present throughout your immersive multimedia work FLY which you just mentioned; FLY showed at PS1 in 2016, featuring a buzzing animated fruit fly flitting around diaristic footage of a day in the life Rabat, from the open stalls of an outdoor marketplace to a wide boulevard where locals congregate around a tiled fountain. Presented on multiple, sculpturally stacked monitors, this colorful, mesmeric piece emanated a convulsive, fast-paced cadence. What’s appealing to you about this pace? Do you ever think about slowing down?
MB: My work would only slow down if I did, which seems difficult these days. I’ve been thinking more and more about how production schedules and budgets end up shaping art and its frequencies. This is not the sexiest idea and most of us don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. I sometimes think about that fruit fly, a digital character I created for FLY, and how she would probably collapse if she stopped moving, almost as if her robotic body was powered kinetically. This way of rushing through the world and ideas shapes the speed of my edits. A lot of the movements are most likely inspired by the experience of browsing, so in a way my fast pace mimics the pace of the first steps of online research, and at the end the research itself becomes the exposé: it compiles content from different sources, all served in their original containers.
Siham & Hafida (2017)
SK: Let’s move on to discuss the physical environments you create for your videos, which are often projected onto multidimensional screens, as in Siham & Hafida, 2017. How do you think about the idea of using surfaces as mediums for conveying larger concepts? Does that idea hold any significance for you as you create?
MB: The word surface makes me think of projectors. Something feels very old school about projecting, a two-part apparatus (the projector and the screen) circulating the moving image. I wish I could get an image on a full wall or sculpture without projection mapping, but from within. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to turn any three-dimensional object into an LCD screen? It reminds me of the use of gold in Russian miniatures as a divine light being produced by the object, rather than depicted as an idea of itself. When the light comes to the surface from within, the object feels like it has a mysterious origin. Not to get too spiritual! With projectors, you trace back the light source and it’s ... a projector! And that machine becomes part of the work. Many artists who work with video and installation are trying to stretch the poetics and aesthetics of projectors and their hanging, and expose the devices inside the installations, but their position outside of the screens is always a reminder of the surface.
SK: What is the significance of creating immersive spaces with whimsically shaped screens and seating for your video pieces (as with Siham and Hafida, and many other pieces)? Is there something about the act of viewing that necessitates this type of space? Do you see yourself as an artist who works in installation? How do you see the body interacting with your works in space
MB: I see my installations as experiments around new viewing solutions. The single channel option was inherited by cinema from art and photo history, and it feels like our relationship with screens today should help update the way moving image is presented. We got so good at navigating multiple devices, yet the single channel prevails as a default. Initially, the immersive space is not necessary to the viewing but as I work on the videos and the 3D drawings of the installation simultaneously, and inside the same laptop screen, they develop a relationship. They make the jump from my harddrive to the world together, are shown for the first time as a pair, and become necessary to each other through that process. It’s kind of emotional. I started making installations and sculptures to host moving image. In this way, caring so much about the viewing of the video tricked me into becoming someone who works in installation and sculpture. I never thought I would think in those terms.
SK: Do you consider the way that distraction and attention function today in creating spaces like this?
MB: I think about it a lot! I always think: how do I make people want to be in this space for the full time of the video loop? And this challenge is getting harder as I move towards longer video formats with a storyline that requires one to watch the video in a linear way. First, I always make sure it’s comfortable, kinda like the installation where you can take a nap and end up watching the whole thing. Here again, the storyline is great glue: for your body to stay, I mean! There is a constant push and pull between the story or characters allowing you to engage, and the sculptures or special effects pushing you out. But in this way, the distraction remains within the piece. You are in and out of the core of the story but still inside the space of the video and its installation. And even if you take a phone break, you are inside the video, another character negotiating your life on and offline, along with the ones on camera.
SK: Can you talk about new themes you're working on now?
MB: I am working on a science fiction project that has to do with immigration in a teleportation era, with a focus on the African diaspora.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? When I was a teenager. I used Photoshop and made music on the demo version of this software I got in a cereal box.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris for animation and then Cooper Union here in NYC.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I do a lot of animation and after effects for production companies.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
It’s very simple :
This article accompanies the inclusion of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 and b.a.n.g. labs' Transborder Immigrant Tool in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool, developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab at UC San Diego between 2007 and 2012, is a straightforward app: it’s simple, equal parts code and poetry integrated into cheap Motorola burner phones that are meant to provide border-crossers, at any given border but particularly the Sonora-Arizona desert, with direction and sustenance in the form of locations of nearby water caches, first aid kits or law enforcement. The water caches are placed there by various volunteer organizations, and anyone can adapt the open source code with coordinates applicable to their own hellscape border-localities, but the artists, theorist and poets behind the tool collaborated directly with Border Angels, a non-profit organization based in San Diego working for migrant rights and prevention of immigrant deaths at the border.
Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, Transborder Immigrant Tool (2007; photo courtesy 319 Scholes)
The Border Angels have a lot of work, and it seems like it increases daily. Deaths peaked in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration flooded the INS and the Border Patrol with cash to aggressively expand their Prevention Through Deterrence strategy, “boosting its effectiveness with state-of-the-art technologies, upgrading its fleet of vehicles and aircraft, and installing better fencing, lighting, and passive sensors.”1 The idea was to militarize the urban border areas with the highest traffic. For Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego they deployed 1,500 agents at a time; for Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, 750; and for Operation Safeguard an increased number of agents were assigned to the Tucson urban area, effectively siphoning immigration to isolated, extremely dangerous areas.
As archaeologist and author Jason De León puts it, the Prevention Through Deterrence policy meant funneling people trying to reach the United States into the Sonora desert of Arizona and the backwoods of Texas so that they’d get hurt or die. The hope was that if enough people died, perhaps that would deter and stop others from trying.2 A 1997 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited in De León’s book includes a graph that lists different metrics by which to measure the effectiveness of Prevention Through Deterrence, and one of them is the increase of migrant deaths: The numbers are apparently read as more deaths equal more deterrence.3 This policy is still in place; the U.S. Government knowingly corrals immigrants into harm’s way, deserts, rivers, steep mountains and canyons, in hopes that their very-possible death or injury will serve as deterrence to their fellow would-be border-crossers, and it has not worked.
De León and the Border Angels believe that the official number of deaths, 2,000, is vastly underestimated, and consider it to be closer to 10,000. The weaponization of wilderness turns the landscape into the “unsung hero of the border patrol”,4 a fixer that both kills and gets rid of the mess. As Amy Sara Carroll, a member of the EDT 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab and the author of the poems in the Transborder Immigrant Tool, writes: “Ecology holds trauma and promise simultaneously, [it] becomes part of a larger built environment that regulates the policing and disciplining of ungrammatical bodies.”5 The TBT directly addresses this, the poems are read out loud by the phone to the travelers and they provide survival guidance to overcome some of the harshest circumstances. The Tool is meant as a last-stretch resource for the user to turn on once they’re in desperate straits, likely because the GPS and audio features drain the battery in an hour.
image courtesy of Ricardo Dominguez
The poems want to be welcoming rather than distracting, “to enact a place of hospitality”.6 They try to alleviate some of the hostility surrounding the traveler by conveying information with a tone that is both encouraging and soothing: “The desert catches water in unlikely places that it resists divulging. Do not expend all your energies searching for its secret stashes, but likewise do not assume that its pockets of moisture are nonexistent.” The poems offer advice on water sources (“Walk in the footprints of coyote or fox to the freshest water available”), desert storms (“Sand becomes sandpaper against the skin. Turn your back to the wind.”), rattlesnakes (“Diamondbacks, too, are creatures of habit, returning to rest stops.”) and edible cacti (“Consume the fruit of prickly pear, saguaro, organ pipe, yucca, or cholla for their mosure alone.”)7; useful and possibly life-saving words sprinkled with lyrical and kind gestures. They exist mid-way between the aesthetics of instruction manuals and folk knowledge,8 the kind of tips that only long-time desert-commuters like the people indigenous to those areas would have. The Tool is meant to be both effective and affective, an aesthetic intervention into the political and material realities of the border.
As deadly as the journey they are willing to embark on is, the mostly Mexican and Central American would-be border-crossers have it worse at their places of origin. Mexico and many other localities in Central and South America are immersed in what Sayak Valencia has defined as Gore Capitalism, for a few decades now. Invoking “gore” as in graphic violence, the term refers to the “explicit and unjustified spilling of blood, the high percentages of entrails and dismemberings frequently mixed with economic precarity, organized crime, the binary construction of gender and the predatory uses of bodies, all through the most explicit violence as a tool of necro-empowering.”9 Valencia paints this picture of life in Mexico to make clear the consequences of a detonated nation-state that mutated into a narco-state, a description that can also apply to nearby countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Necro-empowering indicates “the processes that transform contexts or situations of vulnerability and subalternity into the possibility of action and self-power, reconfigured in dystopian practices and perverse self-affirmation achieved through a type of violence that is profitable within the logic of capitalism.”10
This results in entire countries that, under the grinding pressure of “global hyper-consumerism, colonial after-effects, binary constructions of gender and despotical exercises of power by corrupt and authoritarian governments,”11 are transformed into narco-states ruled by a necro-politics in which government and organized crime are significantly enmeshed. The role the United States’ interventionist and extractionist policies play in all this chaos is not minor. Its sponsoring of international state-inflicted violence, its preternatural thirst for illegal drugs and weapons, and the feudal-like economic conditions it demands from less powerful and less white populations within it and around it, have created a perfect storm of genocidal proportions.12
So, the United States protects its borders, and people continue to be undeterred from trying to cross them. And yet the Transborder Immigrant Tool was conceived from a place of hope and of “commitment to global citizenship.”13 Its makers describe a world where “GPS technology is ubiquitously available and every border crosser is equipped with not only GPS, but other technological enhancements: night vision, anti-infrared clothing, Bio-Nano HyperHydration fluids or high jumping prostheses.” As the dreams of global citizenship and the “obsolescence of physical borders”14 slip further and further out of the grasp of our reality, it takes a special kind of artivism to imagine a time in which those instruments are readily available to border-crossers and not to those hunting them. Ironically, the TBT itself was never in use by actual immigrants in the desert. Perhaps this was because of the intense backlash it received during its development from people like Glenn Beck,15 or maybe because of how hard it is to make things within an academic or art environment that can ultimately be functional and scalable to the real world, specially if they are not chasing a profit.
As the current president of the United States walks amongst prototypes of the ultimate border wall and coyotes rub their hands together in anticipation of the increased fees they’ll charge for digging under or climbing over it; and as the renegotiations of NAFTA point at even worse terms for Mexico’s workers; and as the U.S. Attorney General promises more punitive measures against migrants, they are still coming. And they will keep coming, until the necessary, radical change comes that gives them back their basic human rights.
1. Attorney General of the United States. “1995 ANNUAL REPORT OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES.” Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/annualreports/ar95/chapter3.htm.
2. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018.https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
3. Jason De León. The Land of Open Graves : Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015, 34.
4. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
5. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014, 2.Accessed May 7, 2018. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/bitstream/handle/1828/7136/ElectronicDisturbanceTheater_TransborderImmigrantTool_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
6. Micha Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Domínguez, and Brett Stalbaum. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool: Violence, Solidarity and Hope in Post-NAFTA Circuits of Bodies Electr(on)/Ic.” MobileHCI ’09 Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, 2009.Accessed May 7, 2018. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.561.1854&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
7. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014.
8. Marino, Mark C. “Code as Ritualized Poetry: The Tactics of the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 007, no. 1 (July 1, 2013). Accessed May 7, 2018. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000157/000157.html.
9. Triana, Sayak Valencia. “Capitalismo Gore y necropolítica en México contemporáneo.” Relaciones Internacionales, no. 19 (2012): 84. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://revistas.uam.es/index.php/relacionesinternacionales/article/viewFile/5115/5568
11. Ibid., 25
12. The number of deaths in Mexico that are a consequence of President Felipe Calderón starting a Guerra Contra el Narco (War on Narcos) in 2007, is around 250,000. The Mérida Initiative, discussed under George W. Bush’s presidency and signed into law under Obama, had allocated US$2.5 billion to Mexico’s politicians for this conflict by 2015. The initiative also funds similar measures in Central America, and has led to the militarization of entire countries, and the rampant abuse of power and unquestioned immunity for military and law-enforcement that it entails.
13. Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab. “Border Research and the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Media Fields Journal, no. 12 (2017), 4 http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/707453/27403322/1483769740987/Dominguez-Formatted+1.pdf?token=P5QUtZIB945fHA%2FWqqzZV0tWlXY%3D.
15. “Fox Beck Indoctrination.” Video, 2010.http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/markcmarino/clips/fox_beck_indoctrination_100902a.flv.
Rhizome is very excited to announce today’s release of an updated and expanded version of Webrecorder. As with earlier versions, users can capture web pages, including interactive features, and share their collections. Webrecorder now has gained a robust new set of tools for organizing and sharing pages in a web archive. We have also refreshed the platform’s look and feel. See our steadily growing user guide for instructions and educational resources.
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Head to Webrecorder.io to try out these new tools and features!
Behind the scenes improvements in this release include the separation of Webrecorder’s user interface (front end, using React) and technical architecture (backend, relying on Python and Docker). This new API-based framework will improve performance, make more rapid development possible over time, and open up ways for other tools to interact with Webrecorder.
With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we look forward to further growing Webrecorder and its suite of services. In particular, keep an eye out for news about automation and professional tools.
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Led by Ilya Kreymer, our development and design team—Mark Beasley, Pat Shiu, and the newly joined backend developer John Berlin and summer developer fellow Aarati Akkapeddi—have done an incredible job bringing this new release into being. Dragan Espenschied and Anna Perricci have led product and partnership development as use of Webrecorder has steadily grown, particularly in libraries, archives, and museums, both in terms of number of users and levels of engagement.
If you have any questions or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a free, open-source platform offered by Rhizome, Webrecorder is advancing our mission to make web archiving available to all. The generosity and knowledge of our user community, including testers for this new release, contributed immeasurably to the improvements you will see in this new version of Webrecorder, so we would like to especially thank:
Hélène Brousseau (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
Sumitra Duncan (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Anisa Hawes (Victoria and Albert Museum/Posters Network)
Stefanie Hew (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Jasmine Mulliken (Stanford University Press)
Lelland Reed (NSCAD University Library)
Léa Trudel (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
The artist duo exonemo, formed by Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa in 1996, work with media in a humorous and experimental way to promote “explorations of the paradoxes of digital and analog computer networked and actual environments in our lives.” Their 2004 work, Natural Process, is an “installation hack,” consisting of a hand-painted recreation of Google’s homepage (at the time) displayed in a gallery and then livestreamed into an online exhibition. Today, the work is on loan and online for the first time since 2004 as part of “Open Space 2017: Re-Envisioning the Future” at ICC in Tokyo, and on view as part of Net Art Anthology.
To begin, how did the two of you begin collaborating as exonemo? What was the community of artists working with the internet and technologies in Japan like at the time?
Everything was chaotic, so what we were creating was not categorized as art at the very beginning. At that time in Japan, there was no artist mainly working with the internet, except us. In the late 1990s, some collaborative projects with artists, such as “Sensorium” or “Postpet” had come on the internet. And a big anonymous BBS “2ch” had a big influence on Japanese underground communities. In 1999, we met JODI at a restaurant in Tokyo. It was the first encounter with the internet artist in actual space.
How was Natural Process conceived? What was the reasoning for choosing Google’s homepage as the source material of the “landscape painting”?
The idea came up when we had an opportunity to participate in a“contemporary art” group exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Most of exhibits were painting, photograph, sculpture or installation which could be construed in the context of contemporary art. Therefore, as an alien from the internet, from outside of contemporary art world, we tried to install new reality of the internet era into the museum. Then we decided using a traditional analog media (painting) in combination with a symbolic image of the internet (Google's homepage). At that time in 2004, we had frequently accessed the “Google front page” when searching something. We thought it was a new landscape seen through our virtual “windows.”
In Natural Process, there’s a strong focus on transitions between the digital and analog presence of the landscape of the digital––an “installation hack,” in your words. For you, what occurred in the spaces between these different representations of the webpage?
In the process of continuous transition between digital and analog, we made a situation which would be able to slip some sort of noise or human error. (ex. a painting by painter who was unfamiliar with the Google’s homepage. visitors at the museum had been captured by a webcam set in front of the painting, and a visitor tried to hack it...)
This faulty (we dare say it “natural”) process had revealed gaps between nonphysical and physical media/space clearly.
What differences in reception occurred when the work was viewed online versus in the exhibition space (at the Mori Art Museum)?
People online accessed individually to the digital image from their personal space, but people at the museum met the painting in a public space with many other people.
A digital image had been copied and spreaded on the internet. It brought a personal experiences for people online. On the other hand at the museum, physical painting is one and only, hence people gathered and related to each other in the public space. That was one of big differences between two different spaces.
The artwork is now in Google’s collection–– how did this happen? Do you still see the work as being complete as only a physical object, not livestreamed?
We contacted with Google after opening the exhibition. Then we got a feedback that a founder of the Google saw the livestream and he liked it. Therefore we asked Google Japan if they would like to own the work. They wanted to have it but without a webcam. We wanted to installed the whole system including livestreaming, but it still seemed to have meanings to install even only the painting. In fact, meanings of the painting have been changing along with Google’s growth; thus, the process is still underway. We are glad to be able to present with original installation again after many years.
Since Natural Process was exhibited in 2004, Google’s place in the digital hierarchy has radically changed alongside general human interaction with the internet and its associated technologies. Have you noticed your practice adapting to these shifts?
No. But we chose Google's front page because we usually started "net surfing" from that page and it was necessary for us. In 2004, Google search was the simplest, fastest and had a potential to change the internet (actually not only the internet), and they still has been expanding their influence. However, their front page will not be chosen as a landscape of 2018, because today we all see different landscapes through individual social media windows.
This report about Ed Fornieles’ recent workshop What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? 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.
Imagine an island not far off the coast of French Polynesia, floating quietly while it absorbs hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in crypto capital. Idyllic animatronic palms made of stainless steel manufactured in Germany and coated in organic coconut husk waft gently in the breeze, while an underwater generator noiselessly converts salt water to a drinkable resource. A backdrop of impossibly green hills glimmer with solar panels coated in a thin layer of hyper-absorbent algae, courtesy of a Swedish start-up whose CEO lives in a villa nestled into the landscape. Welcome to the future of Seasteading.
A few years ago, when British artist Ed Fornieles began researching the social dynamics of the blockchain and cryptocurrency, this sort of scene was an ecstatic fantasy conjured up by what’s generally perceived as the delirious imagination of the rich and bored; of opportunistic Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and a pack of wily investors on the hunt for the next lucrative buzz. “Now it’s become our present reality, and it’s not so funny,” says Fornieles of the burgeoning crypto society. We’re gathered in the Goethe-Institut London on a drizzling afternoon in March, and Fornieles, embodying the role of a digital coach and dramaturge, is introducing the concept of live action role play, LARPing for short,to a motley group of around two dozen participants including students, artists, techies, architects, and–unbeknownst to all–IRL Seasteaders in disguise.
Convened in collaboration with Ruth Catlow, co-founder of online research platform and gallery Furtherfield and Ben Vickers, CTO of the Serpentine Galleries, the workshop, titled What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)?, is the fifth installment of DAOWO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization With Others): a series bringing together artists, writers, curators, technologists, and engineers to investigate the production of new blockchain technologies and their socio-political implications. It’s also an effort “explore the hazards of formalizing the idea of ‘doing good on the blockchain’,” according to Fornieles.
Participants are sorted into four groups, or islands, adopting the personas of crypto-millionaires and billionaires in order to configure a speculative society upon the Seasteading frontier. The LARP is organized into four sessions, including a period of self-actualization, where the committee members of each island settle upon an operating structure for their crypto-community; a four-year throwback, where the group reflects upon the success of their fledgling island’s socio-political structure and makes any necessary adjustments, and finally a fifty-year “truth and reconciliation” process followed immediately by a super convention, where each island proudly presents its success story – or laments its struggles – to the broader international Seasteading community.
In order to introduce different practical challenges and ethical quandaries, Fornieles throws two Seasteading communities on artificial islands and two pre-existent (and potentially already inhabited) islands into the mix. While Seasteading technically excludes such “organic” islands, the idea of “mining cryptocurrency in paradise” has mutated into colonizing real communities ravaged by natural disaster, as many critics including Naomi Klein and Nellie Bowles of the New York Times have noted about Puerto Rico. He’s also established a dozen roles for participants to assign themselves: from Ministers of Religion and Education, to Island Architect, Mayor, and Chief Technology Officers, in order to jump-start the camaraderie (or anarchy). “For first time role players, there’s a tendency to be the sociopath you always wanted to be,” cautions Vickers in the warm-up introduction. “Please try to suppress this desire.” Otherwise, it’s game on, and immediately after we separate into groups, all kinds of strategic and ideological questions emerge: Do we want a central government, or is it best to leave politics to algorithms? Should we convene a Church of Something, or are we all too woke for religion? Do we need a justice system, a formal corrective center, or a Sims-like human rating system to self-regulate behaviour? Maybe we can just vote people on and off the island?
I’m relieved to be sorted into an artificial island established by Paypal founder Peter Thiel, therefore bypassing what plenty of cultural theorists, including Klein,1 have pointed out as the immediate and unmistakable stench of neocolonialism. We’re given a name, “The Pilgrims,” and a socio-political disposition: as “Modern Libertarians,” we’re supposed to be a “free-thinking community that believes the only way to create an honest, new, distinct way of living is to set sail and create a new network.” Filled with neoliberal buzzwords like innovation, entrepreneurialism, and disruption, Pilgrim Island is the paragon of Seasteading ideology. Oh, and we’re really into wearing all-black hi-tech athleisure. Seriously–it’s the stuff of neoliberal dreams.
But without a pre-existing ethical quandary to mediate, the need to immediately establish an ideological commons stays airborne. The island’s socio-political landscape ricochets between one participant’s idealized utopia and another. Still, whether by defaulting to their actual areas of expertise or diving head-first into a full-fledged crytpo-billionaire alter persona (I suspect the former), the founding committee of my island quickly jumps on their self-assigned roles. I note with interest as the player to my right, a small, sassy woman sporting a bowler hat, a markedly “business casual” blazer, and big, blinged-out hoop earrings, promptly elects herself mayor without much resistance from the rest of the group. Almost as if by reflex, she launches into a compelling speech that touts the glory of the hands-off and unregulated economy of Seasteading; the imminent intellectual and financial capital to be gleaned from the “limitless potential of high-tech islands based on real life values.”
Things quickly slip off the deep end. Less than twenty minutes in, the island’s architect has gone on a minimalist-inspired rampage, apparently inspired by a very jovial spiritual pilgrimage with his “good friend” Elon Musk to Vegas. Conjuring a Panopticon2-like self-corrective facility-cum-worship center in the middle of the island known as the PayPal Meditation Center, the architect introduces an elaborate system of self-enacted punishment for residents involving a penny-by-penny payment for one’s sins fulfilled by the obsolete performance of extracting Real Money from an ATM (the horror!). Meanwhile, the Minister of Religion is busy ordaining a Thiel-inspired sect that ties spirituality to physical health, brandishing a harsh, zero-tolerance approach to dissenters.
She colludes with the Minister of Agriculture to debut an all-seeing pineapple that simultaneously provides sustenance to Pilgrim Island’s speculative inhabitants while also monitoring their spiritual commitment. The Minister of Education crafts a secret p2p anarchist boot camp on the Northwestern coast of the island, for the self-conscious younger generation eager to find deeper meaning in this brave new digital world. For a reason that still escapes me, Peter Thiel is then involved in a tragic water-taxi accident that ends in the ultimate demise of he and his partner. A referendum is held for a new leader amidst the for-profit utopian soul-searching…
As for myself? In order to preserve proper journalistic objectivity (obviously), I’ve self-identified as a ghost (more specifically, the ghost of reason). This works great at first, but when we hit the four-year benchmark, I learn the Minister of Religion has been voted off the island, a movement initiated by the Energy Manager and Local Representative. As the spiritual attachment, I also get the boot; we’re shipped off to a neighbouring island called Blue Frontiers that’s likewise self-fabricated, and also exhibits the same weakness of a spiritual void. With an algorithmic overlord, the (not-so) speculative island is situated after the unfortunate ravaging of French Polynesia by an unavoidable natural disaster: A narrative that oddly parallels that of Puerto Rico. Fast forward 50 years into the future, I am welcomed to join them in a painful process of reflection.
We quickly learn that an existential ennui due to lack of faith and purpose amongst the island’s population has led to a mass suicide. “There have been lots of residents killing themselves, but our technology is so good, can it really be that bad?” asks the island’s hands-off Mayor, who apparently doesn’t believe in building. Having fired the Architect early on (“We’ve all enjoyed the beach, why pollute it with architecture?”), whose algorithmic approval rating sits at a measly 32%, the Mayor proceeds to gloat over his 90% approval rating, while the Chief Technology Officer also curiously boasts a sky-high rating of 96%. Suddenly, Pioneer Island’s schizophrenic governance starts to look pretty good.
Minutes later I find myself at the mid-century International Seasteading Convention, where I am exposed to the triumphs and tribulations of our near-present Seasteading future. Alt-right acceleration gives way to a hyper-libertarian group named Sol declaring allegiance to a new religion steered by Crypto-Christ that touts a new hedonistic world order, completed by furnishing its children with sex robots. An Anarcho-communist community has catapulted its Mayor and Minister of Education to a new planet, and tout the great success of introducing an emotional currency to the island’s residents while skirting around the issue of a veganism-inspired massacre. “We’re leaving a very beautiful piece of archaeology for other nations to learn from,” the Mayor proudly asserts from her new life across the galaxy.
An animatronic tear rolls down my cheek as I hear the recent struggles of Pioneer Island. With their reputation system based on the blockchain overloaded by a sea of new residents, their dwindling natural resources (“We have plenty of crypto, but no food or water”) leads to an appeal from the rest of the bitcoin billionaires to lend a helping digital hand. Still, the Mayor remains unshaken, once again delivering a solid speech that praises the blockchain mantra of “pioneering small, self-organized projects that lead to independence,”; of “never aiming for total cohesion and never following democracy,” but instead “generating local, self-sufficient systems” in order to achieve success.
Curiosity takes over, and I approach the brilliant spokeswoman after the workshop winds up in order to uncover her background. Turns out she’s none other than Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, the self-termed “Seavangelesse” and research strong-arm of Blue Frontiers. Currently pursuing a PhD that investigates the politics and sociology of Seasteading at the University of Warwick, Mezza-Garcia was recruited by the Blue Frontiers team in 2017. Now, with the company just months from unveiling to the public its island off the coast of French Polynesia [after this report was filed, the island nation pulled out of the deal–Ed.], she’s keen to spread the message amongst the masses and change some minds. Naturally, we go for a drink.
“If someone like me who basically lives and breathes Seasteading 24/7 can get so much wrong, it’s no wonder the general conception of Seasteading is so far from the truth,” says Mezza-Garcia. “The biggest mistake people make is laminating the ‘evil billionaire’ narrative onto the whole enterprise.” Still in the midst of her research, Mezza-Garcia has nothing but admiration for the wealthy patrons of Seasteading. Rather than using the enterprise merely as a tool to acquire more capital, Seasteading companies like Blue Frontiers are more interested in the limitless social, political, and ideological benefits awaiting this post-human frontier, she argues. “It’s a step into a world where we all have more decisions.”
As for the regular members of society who can’t afford their own slice of animatronic paradise on the enlightened blockchain, hotel accommodation will soon be available on Blue Frontiers’ islands. For now, role-playing is a valuable exercise for warming up a heterogeneous batch of the general public to the idea, so they can form their own opinions. For Mezza-Garcia, What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? is the first time she’s seen artists – “instead of libertarians or blockchain people” – engage with the principle ideas of Seasteading in a direct, open, and low-stakes way; many attendants of the workshop voiced a similar sentiment (but thought another round or two of role-playing would help them with the trickier bits–like avoiding vegan anarchy, or summoning a Bitcoin Jesus).
As the once-distant dream of Seasteading is eclipsed by its imminent reality, the potential of role playing as an educational strategy emerges on both ends of the chain – but the takeaway is by no means consistent. Eager to make the operations of Blue Frontiers accessible to a broader audience, Mezza-Garcia celebrates activities like this as a potential source of new recruits. She even intends integrate LARPing into Blue Frontiers board meetings to encourage a top-down empathy with non-billionaires of the blockchain. Yet the results of the workshop–in which speculative future Seasteading communities are ravaged by a despairing lack of faith, suicides, and massacres–paints an entirely different story: One that becomes increasingly problematic when one considers the flawless criminal, mental, and physical health records Blue Frontiers’ selection process requires, alongside the obvious economic factors.
For a community keen to “enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity,” according to Blue Frontiers’ co-founder Joe Quirk, their operating logic seems to reinforce many of the social stigmas and power structures already responsible for much of the suffering and inequality within contemporary society. Rather than offering any single narrative or conclusion, LARPing underscores these divergent visions of Seasteading’s (failed) utopia just before the ship sets sail.
All illustrations by Maz Hemming.
 In a piece published on The Intercept on March 20, Klein blasted Bitcoin as “the most wasteful possible use of energy”, characterizing leading cryptocurrency figures as opportunistic “Puertotopians” keen to capitalize on the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico. Klein also equates the “wealthy libertarian manifesto” of Seasteading to the colonizing powers of the new world that seized once-free nations and converted their indigenous inhabitants into slaves.
 Though conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, the idea of the panopticon was popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Says Foucault of the Panopticon’s unlucky captive: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” Remote island or bustling city center, the Panopticon’s relevance has resurfaced in the realm of the digital; see Thomas McMullan’s 2016 piece in The Guardian about the relevance of Panopticonism amid the cross-fire of data capture and digital surveillance.
This interview is taken from What's to be Done?, a publication produced by Rhizome and Wieden + Kennedy New York for the 10th edition of Seven on Seven. The magazine was edited by Rhizome special projects editor Nora Khan, and designed by Richard Turley, global creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. With a donation of $30 or more to Rhizome, we'll send you a copy of the full publication, which features texts and interviews by Paul Chan, Fred Turner, Claire L Evans, and more.
We watched Tracy Chou's collaboration with Claire Evans with admiration: bots with randomized genders and voices played out a tense, tight drama about a plausible Silicon Valley office. Chou, a software engineer, entrepreneur, and tireless diversity advocate, has a clear and intuitive understanding of programming and systems, which she passionately applies to engineering of equitable frameworks to counterbalance gender discrimination and bias.
We thought Chou's focus on systemic institutional issues would intersect will with Kate Ray's interests. Ray, a programmer, engineer, and journalist, deploys her accessible, allow amateurs to replicate media giant website designs in an hour, and address gender violence and sexual harassment through both low-tech mediums and open-source design processes.
On a Saturday at NEW INC., the discussed their mutual interest in systems and representation, Silicon Valley's blind spots, neoliberalism, what an ethical design of systems might look like, and the present and future of women in tech.
Nora Khan, Rhizome: I’d like to start with both of your collaborations – Kate, yours with Holly Herndon and Tracy, yours with Claire Evans. What did you learn from the experience?
Kate Ray:I had a really good collaboration. I do most of my projects solo, aside from work, which has to be collaborative. I remember being really nervous ahead of time that I would have to work on something with somebody, especially in a high-pressure situation. I was really happy with how our conversations went, and that we were really building on each other. I don't know if I've worked so well with someone in that intense way. Maybe it just shows that you're really good at picking; I think you guys paired us really well.
The project was SPYKE, which was like an old chat app where you had to enable your video camera in order to start talking with somebody. But here, you wouldn't see a video anywhere. You would just see the chat box. You could take a picture of them at any point along the way, and they wouldn't know that it was happening. You'd sort of be spying on them even though you've authorized them to do it. I have been thinking about this a lot this week with all the Facebook revelations. I feel like we were sort of just exploring stuff, and it was really abstract. In the conversation we got into some of the ideas around surveillance; what if you give someone permission to watch, but it still doesn't feel like they're actually surveilling you? The project feels much more concrete when you think about what Facebook has been doing. It started out in this really abstract and emotional place, but certain aspects of it feel more relevant right now.
Tracy Chou:It was great, my project with Claire. So, Claire is a very multi-talented person. She is a singer and songwriter, and a writer. She recently released a book too [Broad Band: The Untold History of the Women of the Internet.] I had a little bit of anxiety because I just didn't know what we were supposed to do. I think in contrast with you, Kate, most of my projects are in collaboration. I've mostly worked on teams with other people. The collaboration part wasn't scary to me. In most cases, I have relatively well-defined output goals: I'm trying to build this project, or product. I'm the engineer on the project, and there is a product manager and designer, and it is very clear. In this case, the goal was just to produce something cool. We didn't know each other before, so there was a bit of mutual discovery around the different perspectives, skills, and experiences that we wanted to bring.
Pretty quickly, we found some common ground around gender issues relating to technology. I thought because she was a singer, she'd want to do some musical. She said, "No, I'm actually in a band with my partner, and I don't feel whole making music without him." That's interesting. I'm not artistic at all. I guess that was the point, pairing a technologist and an artist. She asked, "How about we do a play? And I will write the play." I don't know anybody's who's ever written a play. It's just so far out of my domain. Then she started a Google Doc, and just started writing. I was watching her type out the play in real time. It was kind of amazing. I had never seen that happen before. I had never really spent time with writers in real time.
NK:It seems like it had been labored over much longer. Watching that construction of artificial language was fascinating. Artificial languages demand care and creativity and thought, because the bot- writer thinks long and hard on how a person will respond, on what will make a person feel warm or responsive.
TC: Claire just kind of knocked it out. I was watching her compose it, and then I wrote the Python script to read it out loud in all different permutations. I was amazed by her writing process. Similarly, she watched me do the technical side and was like, "Wow, how did you make the computer read these things aloud in different voices?" She was writing a play script, and I was writing a Python script, and they came together so well. That was cool, to be able to jam together. I started playing with different things, like how long we should pause in between the different characters, how we should slow it down for the robotic voice. She got to test the voice out as well, adding different punctuation based on how the voice would read it differently.
NK: You both talk about or work on redesigning systems through your work, to either reveal or address the unseen. Kate, you have your map where people can mark places they have cried throughout New York and elsewhere. Spyke gives us intimate glimpses of people alone. Bots, maps, language trees. How do you imagine systems revealing the hidden, whether they're biases, microaggressions, or, say, emotional nuances flattened out by sterile, impersonal environments, like work?
TC: The first thing that comes to mind is a discussion I was having with one of my professors from school, who's leading in the AI field. We were talking about this issue of bias in models built from data that is biased. One very promising thing is once you've identified that bias, you can, in some cases, remove it. There was one study that's been floating around about gendered language. If you are training your models over a corpus of general human language data, they'll often pick up gender affiliations between male and doctor, female and nurse. You could say in that case, that the model's working really well. It picks up exactly what it was being fed, which is, unfortunately, biased data. But then we can actually choose to go zero out those biases if we think that there shouldn't be a male correlation to doctor and a female, to nurse.
What's promising there is once we've identified the bias, we can remove it, which is not the same with humans. If you talk to a human, and identify that they have some sort of bias, whether it's sexist or racist or some other form – it's very hard to behave in a way that's not biased. With the machine learning model – with the right types of models – you can just go and manually zero out those parameters. It's not the case for all models. There's a lot of work being done right now in the AI field, especially around deep learning, to make the models interpretable. So, there's been a little bit of a trade-off, where the models that are easiest to interpret are often not the most performant ones. You could imagine, pretty easily, a decision tree. What it is doing is it is walking down a tree of yes, no. Does it cross a threshold or not? You just go down the tree. It is pretty easy to understand how the model made a decision.
But those models don't perform as well as the black box neural networks. There are a bunch of researchers working now on how to understand what those black boxes are doing inside. So, if a decision is made that is not ideal, we can go in and examine why it happened. A lot of times these systems are just training on things you don't understand. When you look at the data, you have some intuition for the domain. You can figure out what it is. In other cases, it's about finding some smart thing in the data. We can't figure out what it is when we're just presented with all of the numbers that are the parameters.
NK: Playing devil's advocate, one might say that this is a road to creating politically correct AI and “politically correct systems.” Meaning, we’re creating data that is equitable when people themselves are not. The flip side of that is, what would a trans-feminist data set look like? An anti-capitalist dataset?
TC: I think it's hard to say what something should be. You can say, let's devise the system, but what does a non-biased system look like, and what does it mean to create an optimal system? There's still a lot of human editorialization, and as you pointed out, what we accept to be good also changes very quickly. Our norms change very quickly. Do we also update all of the models that we're building to map to the new versions of what is correct?
NK:And our positions change based on emotional context, too. Kate, what I really appreciate about SPYKE, is the unearned intimacy with these people front of their computer scrolling through their feeds. It is voyeuristic, seeing these private moments, faces morphing from happy to glum within minutes. Could you talk about your projects as they frame our relationships with technology as extremely human and emotional?
KR: I would say my projects are all very intentionally anti-technology. In general, they have required humans to do human work to make them even a little bit interesting. The only time I have thought of using machine learning was if I could use it in an artistic way, as opposed to creating utility out of it.
A project that I made last year, for Ingrid [Burrington]’s conference about science and speculative fiction, was a really simple bookshelf app. You could use it to make a set of book mixtapes that you could like. You could just name a bunch of books and put them together into a list, and give the list a weird name. Being the opposite of Goodreads is what I was going for. There's no action that you're doing that is creating data. The app is just you, the person deciding what data you want it to make, and then creating it. The same goes for the Cry in Public app. There is nothing interesting there, except for the human's personality being funneled in a very particular way.
I would rather work on projects that use technology but are kind of anti-technology in ethic. I want to investigate the limits around what technology is doing to your data, and find some interesting things going on there. I'm not even using it to make something happen.
NK:It’s a mode of turning people's attention to alternative possibility. This is why your Scroll Kit was used so heavily. There’s a nice divergence here between creating shifts in perception through software experiments, and creating shifts in perception by revealing institutional inadequacy. Do you both think about the tension between experimentation and professionalization within tech, especially as you work with activists now, some of whom worked in Silicon Valley and decide to leave? What types of communities are you able to build within institutions versus outside?
KR:I've struggled a lot with this in the last year, because I used to be immersed in tech. I see a lot of solutions there. But in the last year, I've not wanted to work in it at all. I ask myself, okay, what do I do? Work-wise, I've found a job that honestly isn't a tech company; I work at Pilot Works, which helps people start food businesses. We are renting kitchen spaces and getting people to cook, enabling that communing with a bunch of technology. I do all of my side projects just for myself, with no money coming from anyone. That way I can keep it the way that I want it to be.
NK: Is there value in creating your own communities versus working alone? How has that changed for the both of you throughout your careers?
KR:Well, I've been thinking a lot about gender stuff with the #MeToo movement. Once that came through, I started trying to work on something to address it. Even there, I got in over my head. I said, I don't think I should be making anything. So I started volunteering for an assault hotline. That is the lowest tech. It's an ASP app that breaks all the time when you're trying to train. It's actually interesting, because it's like a really pure form of humanness coming through this not-great chat app; sometimes you feel like you're behaving like a robot, because you have all these scripts to say. But the only thing that you are providing is your human empathy and human presence, your being there. I like how this is the lowest tech, that is enabling some humanness to come through.
I don't know if this will be my solution forever, but I feel like I am backed away from a lot of problems that I don't know what to do about anymore.
TC: Yeah. The tension between working with or within problematic institutions, versus outside of them for a change, is one I see all the time. I personally felt to be more effective to be within institutions or on the inside, because then you understand how those systems work. You know what the leverage points are, and who the right people are to go to. In the end, these are all the people, so you just need to have that human map. From the outside, it's hard to know what drives people to do things or not do them. Obviously, working from within the system has its challenges because then you feel like you are complicit with the bad system, and potentially compromising your values. There is something nice about tracking the totally ideologically pure route, but often, it's not very practical. When you're not following what you believe to be ideologically pure, it can be hard to defend the line in the sand that you've drawn, whatever it is.
I've seen both sides of it. Not intentionally, because I wanted to step out of a major institution, but because I've worked in Pinterest for a number of years and wanted to go on to do other things. I'm no longer at a big-ish tech company, but I've still been operating within the system. I've been working on a few different startup projects. I'm on my third startup idea project since I left Pinterest.
Startups will often participate in incubators as they grow. We had a lot of heated discussions about which programs it was okay for me to participate in, because many have not always had the best record on diversity and inclusion. I still thought it was valuable to go and see these programs from the inside. I have many friends who have gone through these programs and work for them. However being in a cohort was very eye opening. It enabled me to give a lot of concrete feedback. I have no idea if they're going to take my feedback, but there's a lot of daily reminder elements that would only be caught by somebody going through the system.
Take one minor example. When you submit an application, you usually have to indicate your areas of expertise. You check off areas like artificial intelligence, backend engineering, marketing, sales, all these different things. Diversity and inclusion is never one of those things. It's like, wow, no one has thought this would be an important area of expertise. And I don’t think this issue is critical, but it's just one symptom of a greater problem.
Another time in a similar context, a presenter spoke about how people view the valuations of their companies like they do the size of their manhood. I was looking around the room, thinking, did nobody else hear that? Why is nobody else upset? There's like hundreds of people, but no one else seems to be upset. There are always a lot of little things. Accumulated, these instances are not intentionally trying to push someone like me out or anything.
One of the other takeaways for me was that, when you’re a startup, most of everything is about growing your company, so even the female founders or under-represented minority founders for the most part are not thinking about the microaggressions they experience, or how to make spaces and places more equitable. They are just trying to focus on growing their companies. I pay a little bit more attention to these things, because I worked so much in diversity and inclusion. I am naturally primed to pick up these little cues. But I acknowledge that the bulk of people's attention is not going towards these issues.
NK:You have spoken about the idea of diversity as a kind of “lowering of the bar,” which is of course a really insidious kind of racist thinking. When you logically deconstruct this language and thinking, there’s a kind of beauty to that. So when person A says, person B was just brought in because of inclusion, you can eye their assumptions. They assumed the working plane was flat to begin with. And what person A is really saying is that, person B, in their mind, doesn’t really have the capacity to do the job. Where does that come from? It comes from centuries of racialized hierarchies in which one group assumes what is in another’s mind. It’s like moving backwards up a messed-up decision tree.
And first-generation immigrants learn the myth of meritocracy the hard way: If I just do my best, then that shields me from being harmed. I wonder about this idea of “just working hard” and “sheer talent alone,” and a pure system. But there’s no pure space without politics. We are all embedded in social reality and history. So when we claim an objective purity, purity for what, and to what end?
KR: It makes me think about a lot of stuff going on in the science fiction and speculative fiction communities. Recently, the prominent award-winning books have been suddenly from women of color writing science fiction. The backlash to those awardees is saying, “Everything is just political now. All the science fiction is all about politics.”
NK: There were the protests around the Hugo and Nebula award nominees.
KR:As if it weren't political, as if you were just writing about the future, and that had nothing at all to do with how the world that you were coming from functioned, or how what you wanted to live in the future wouldn’t relate to politics. That's the most stark, funny example of this purity to me lately.
TC:Also some of the responses are very emotional, and they usually come from people who feel like something is being taken away from them. They don't want to give up their positions of power and their representations as good or superior. It's fundamentally an emotional response, but then couched in rational language. It's like, let's just walk it through. Let's look at the numbers. The graduation rates. But people will find ways to justify their point, and they don’t always make sense. That wasn't really the point. The point was that they felt defensive and didn't want something taken away from them.
KR:Yeah. The friends who have come out strongly on this side have so much more to say to me, than I have to them. I remember after the Google Memo incident, I had older friends from college asking me, "So, what do you think about this?" I would say, well, it's stupid. Then they would just want to talk for 45 minutes about why they thought the Google employee was right, and about the memo and why it was important and why it was good. I had so much less to say, but they had been doing all this reading. Sometimes it felt like the reading and researching was primarily to not face their much more emotional, personal reaction. By reading and listening to podcasts and stuff, they would have an argument that they could present.
One of the more negative projects I planned, that I haven't done, was to take some of these emails that I was getting from friends and just make a bot to generate sentences to mimic them. They would all use the same language. It started to get to the point where if I just saw someone arguing about free speech, well, that plus certain other words, you just knew what someone would argue.
TC:I've actually been happy in some cases when people were not so sophisticated around the packaging of their ideas and straight up said what they were thinking. It gave me insight into what was really going through their minds before they may have found better language. I've talked to people, like Asian male engineers, for instance, who say, this is all we have, this is the only thing we're good at – why take that away from us? I'm like, oh. Our society is really deeply problematic. [laughs]
NK:And that is the precarity of a system that wants us to fight over little parcels of land. I think of the protest against tent cities in California, the growing conservatism of immigrants, and the violence engendered by the model minority myth.
What changes have you seen since 2013, when you started to gather data on women engineer hires in Silicon Valley and place them online?
TC: I think there's been some shifts in the conversation to be less about women and slightly more intersectional, which is positive. It’s less about let's get some data, map out the problem, and more, now we have data, what do we do to fix the problem? There have been some exploratory attempts at solutions, most of which have not been very successful, but you have to start somewhere. We've found some programs that work to mitigate bias. Other programs require a lot of effort. You see a bit of gains from them, but they can't be widely scaled; we haven't found very many successful scalable solutions.
So for example, some companies are doing apprenticeship programs, which are much more intensive on mentoring and onboarding people. It is great to be able to provide those on-ramps for people who aren't coming from the same, traditional feeder backgrounds. But it doesn't work to do that for most of your new employees. You don't have enough bandwidth, practically speaking, to continuing building the business and also onboard new people.
So, there has been some slow progress. One big change is that diversity is now a trendy PR thing for a lot of companies and firms. That can potentially be more damaging, because there are a lot of people who are raising this flag of diversity and inclusion and really aren't doing anything. They are actually counterproductive to the movement. This talking too much – without actually achieving – is also inciting some backlash, like some of the men who think it's all “gone too far.”
I think progress is going to be uneven. We'll make some forward strides, and then some will try to pull back. On the whole, at least the party line is that diversity is important. If that's what people are saying, eventually we'll start pulling in that direction, even if not everyone feels it yet. I think it's better that people say diversity is important than they say it's not important, even if they're not quite yet there with their actions.
NK:The alt- right challenge a shallow form of what identity politics really is, a neoliberal conception of diversity, a flatly marketed idea used as protection by many companies. Ignore our drones; look at our staff. Diversity is not just one different person in a room; it's also diversity of thought, engaging in other’s difference.
TC:What that's demonstrating right now though is, that that same group of people co-opting a lot of this language, even “diversity of thought,” they will also say, well, you're also saying you want biases, but not our biases. I think it falls into the paradox of intolerance. I forget the exact wording. Something like, “we cannot be tolerant of intolerance.”
KR:That's good. I'm going to write that down.
NK:So you create different paths of access, like creating an onboarding process when the resources aren't there. Kate, you put up simple, beautiful, and accessible tutorials for coding. You tell people that coding is difficult, acknowledge what that they might be afraid to ask in a classroom. Early programmers championed being an autodidact. When you didn't have access to a great education, you could teach yourself, tinkering in your room.
KR:That idea of the genius tinkering in his room – that is what the programming community is still attached to. It is the ideal. I got into a good Twitter with some statistician lady who was tweeting a seventh grader's homework assignment. It was a puzzle, about laying out five coins, more than a math problem. I said, oh, here is why I didn't get into advanced math. Then I never got to take calculus. I studied journalism, and then only later did I find myself programming.
When I tell people that learning to code is hard – my idea is that code is not just for people who have math brains, who are able to see the five coins and make a leap of intuition about how they should be arranged. For most of programming there are still certain areas that are highly mathematical, and machine learning is one of them. But most of programming is about being careful and thoughtful, and actually working well with people. Most time gets lost when someone's not paying attention to what someone else thought was happening.
I'm excited for when programming splits into something that's more like the work of biologists and doctors, rather than just being one field. Working at it and just being good at your job are really different from being the math genius sitting in a room who can suddenly make Google.
TC: That there are alternate ways to think of systems and alternate communities. The more diverse perspectives you have, you have more different ideas of what tech can do.
KR:Right. There's alternate ways to judge value in work too. Programming can be something that you can do, if you work hard and gets good grades. This tends to be what a lot more women are doing these days. They are going into higher education. This is better than romanticizing a 16-year-old math genius. The field then opens it up for a lot of people who didn't think that they could do that kind of work.
NK:Which kind of futures do you envision? Are there small moments from the last year or recently even that have made you feel that things are improving?
KR:When things start to go wrong, like with Facebook, we are blaming tech culture and the technology itself. As tech moves into every domain, we'll be able to start looking at the people in power who are making decisions, and how those are having effect on people. This is not a state of affairs specific to tech, even if the decisions are being filtered down through to technology. We will see the effects of their values on things.
“Values” is the kind of word that I use most now. I'm not just looking at a tech company, because that doesn't really describe anything anymore; I'm trying to find out what's shaping the way that they're making. We’ll become more and more able to separate out values, the human role in the making of the tools.
NK:So technical brilliance or ideological purity: these are not enough. You need moral intelligence, you need emotional intelligence.
TC:Yes. I think in the last year or two, we've seen a lot of wake up calls around technology, when it's not designed or implemented well, and those are bad things that have happened to cause us to wake up. I do like that people are starting to have these conversations. There's this one ex-Googler who's written really well how chemists and physicists began to see how their work could be weaponized, made into chemical weapons or nuclear bombs. They had to grapple with ethics. Those practitioners and researchers started thinking about not just what is possible, but whether it should be possible.
Software and tech so far has not really had that same kind of ethical thinking embedded within it. That will become more of a trend in the future. Hopefully more quickly rather than less. On the diversity front, more people are brainstorming and experimenting and committing effort towards increasing inclusion. We still have a long way to go, but there's some positive change.
Above: detail from the cover of Allison Parrish, Articulations (Counterpath Press, 2018).
Like any other no-longer-nascent form hardening under academic and critical gazes, the exact inception point of digital poetry is contested. Florian Cramer postulates that the “oldest permutational text” is “Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.” R.M. Worth’s “Auto-Beatnik” in 1962 is also another oft-mentioned touchstone, as is Max Bense and Theo Lutz’s 1959 remix of bits of Kafka’s The Castle. (The term “digital poetry” is itself a contested term. In his 2007 survey Prehistoric Digital Poetry, C.T. Funkhouser cites 29 potential terms collated by Jorge Luiz Antonio.) Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s 1967 “A House of Dust” has proven, however, to be most integral to cultural memory.
“A House of Dust,” written on Fortran, is an early example of a “slotted work,” one which keeps the grammar of the stanzas intact. This form allowed the titular opening line to repeat occasionally (although not always: early iterations were published under different “A House of --” titles.)
A HOUSE OF WEEDS
AMONG SMALL HILLS
INHABITED BY VERY TALL PEOPLE
An “original” print-out of “A House of Dust” was on display at MoMA’s recent “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age 1959-1989,” and it was the focal point of a 2016 exhibition at The Center for the Humanities’ James Gallery. The various permutations of “A House of Dust” continue to be available on Twitter until such a time as the platform is banned for acceleration of memetic warfare.
So vital is Knowles and Tenney’s contribution that the phrase “Using Electricity” has become the title of a series of computer-generated books published by Counterpath Press. The third entry in “Using Electricity” is, somewhat surprisingly, Allison Parrish’s most recent poetry-programming project, Articulations (January 2018). Parrish’s previous output tended to be screen-only, with the notable exception of a dead-tree copy of her early, extremely successful Twitter bot @everyword (2007). Any potential audience alienation created by her presentation, or the very nature of procedurally-generated text, was typically addressed via user interface, as in 2014’s “A Travel Guide,” and/or by Parrish’s emphasis on reading her poems out loud. Parrish is an excellent public speaker, and reader, and the various processes she uses to create her texts, especially the poems, create highly rhythmic repetition which break down language to great, often comic, effect. For instance, about 31 minutes into this video, she reads Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” rewritten in the framework of synthesia-theory terms “kiki” and “bouba,” sound-shape connections which exist across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Despite or possibly because of its situation within a long history of experimental and generative poetry, Articulations throws the reader, again and again, onto the essential dilemma of the nature of authorship. The most immediate precursor of Parrish’s method is the minimalism of the mid-twentieth century. Knowles was both a student of John Cage, who created “indeterminate music” which could be “performed in substantially different ways,” and an early member of the “Neo-Dada” Fluxus movement. While Fluxus “events” appeared anarchic, they were, especially compared to contemporaneous “happenings,” deeply ordered, with “scores” and strict direction by the movement’s self-appointed founder George Maciunas. George Brecht’s early Fluxus piece “Three Lamp Events” (1961) bears a similarity to the minimalist poetry of Aram Saroyan:
Parrish’s work is deeply inflected by some of the concrete and minimalist poets of the ’60s and ’70s, including Saroyan and Ted Berrigan (whose Sonnets she mentions in the syllabus for her “Reading and Writing Electronic Text” class at NYU’S Interactive Telecommunications Program.)
Jeffrey Perkins’ 2017 documentary George contains footage of several Fluxus events from the early ’60s. Knowles, alongside video-art pioneer Nam June Paik and others, performs similarly simple instructions before the repulsed fascination of onlookers. This is the human body as an input-output device, a flesh module waiting for its punch card. The glee that shines from the Fluxus actors’ faces as they perform the show belie the cheap Skynet-predicting doomsaying which could potentially haunt this realization, that we are so easily rendered mediums for computational-style expression. “We are the tools” can be liberatory, as easily as enforced humanist-art can be cloistering.
Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, George Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti, 1962. Via MoMA.
Following the Dada spirit, Fluxus sought to divorce human communication and action from sense and intention, a tradition that Parrish’s work moves one step further. In this, Parrish has a new kind of edge: the intelligences she deploys are even more unconcerned with “saying something” than any human agent could be. In the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson writes, “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” Parrish’s work interrupts this formulation. The masks are still there, but they speak, if not of their own accord, then at least not with our lips pressed against their fabric.
The poems which comprise Articulations were composed via “random walks” through, as Parrish writes in her Introduction, “over two million lines of poetry from Project Gutenberg.” Part 1, “Tongues,” is comprised of a single 72-page prose poem whose line vectors were determined by pronunciation, leading to such sections as:
Clatter, spatter, dash and patter, in tattered cloak of army pat-
tern, pit, pat, patter, clatter, in flat patterns scattered in flight.
Together with the archaic source-poems’ vocabulary, this crashing onward rhythm helps “Tongues” feel like an epic poem. Also aiding is the fact that “Tongues” is the result of a single walk through a vector space. The mostly-vanished oral-poet tradition, the kind TheIliad descended from, involved composing, live, a new iteration of the same tale each time. As Albert B. Lord puts it in The Singer of Tales (1960), “every performance is a separate song.” The iteration of “Tongues” into a static form mirrors the historical transcription of epic poems into print.
Unsurprisingly, given the means of its production, “Tongues” does not hold together as a single narrative. Occasional lines tell condensed, if obscure, stories:
In any name, n,n. ni/nu Then an end. N man, n tent, and many slain.
More rare are sections that hold together for more than just a few stanzas. The following is a selection from about an entire page of unbroken semi-sense:
...Behind the hill, behind the sky, behind
the hill, the house behind, -- behind the house the house behind
the tall hill; for all behind the houses lay by my house and thy
house hangs all the world’s fate, on thy house and my house lies
half the world’s hate.
In thy house or my house is half the world’s hoard; drive the
herd towards the household, homeward drive the household
cattle, catch the child up to her heart. His eldest brother, who had
heard he heard her breath, he saw her hand, seize her hat, and
snarl her glossy hair. He sang: As once her hand I had, as once
her hand held mine; in the world His hands had made and his
harvest in her hands.
This certainly doesn’t disqualify “Tongues” for inclusion in any kind of pantheon of narrative or epic poetry. The three-act structure has little to do with traditional epics, which were cobbled together from a plethora of sources generated by semi- or anonymous authors. The Iliad begins in media res and covers only a fairly short section of the Trojan War. Non-scholars encountering The Poetic Edda will be hard pressed to find anything resembling internal cohesion without footnotes and copious additional reading and referential texts.
The “vector representation” of Articulations’ second part, “Trees,” was built around “the structure of the line and its component parts of speech,” and the results bear a close resemblance to cut-up, though Parrish’s lines are not yanked intact from disparate sources. Take the second half of “9.”:
That wrapped her breathless clay.
All give him joyous greeting.
Sure these denote one universal joy!
Wring one repentant moan.
Thinking one serious thought.
Put up superior evidence.
Give up dead beat.”
As Alice Notley explains in her introduction to Berrigan’s Sonnets, in the early ’60s Berrigan began to use “Dadaist cut-up and Cageian chance methods, transforming not-so-good poems into an astonishing and original structure.” Necessarily, incomplete lines were (re)arranged to create new associations and rhythms. See Sonnet “XXX”:
Into the closed air of the slow
Now she guards her chalice in a temple of fear
Each tree stands alone in stillness
to gentle, pleasant strains
Dear Marge, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
Andy Butt was drunk in the Parthenon
There is, obviously, a significant difference in Berrigan and Parrish’s processes, but, in both cases, juxtaposition is all. Beyond technology used, the central difference seem to be that in the cut-up method, the poet remains composer and often partial-author. Even if the text is found or overheard material, the poet is still transcribing. In Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (1996), Charles Hartman defines composing as placing “together in a meaningful arrangement a number of independent elements.” In Parrish’s process, the poet is neither author nor composer: the poet is the author of the program which composes as well as the selector of the authorial corpus it scrapes for material.
Parrish would disagree with this authorial division of labor. In an interview with Motherboard, she stated, “It’s just my poetry that I wrote in the same way that Jackson Pollock doesn’t attribute his work to Jackson Pollock and Paintbrush.” This reframes our conception of the author based on functionality, and begs the question: when does an algorithm get co-author credit? When it generates the process, or amends it significantly? When it is used by the author but not written by her? When it has self-spawned out of a neural network bath?
There is an inherent humanist pushback to computer-generated work presented as Serious Literature (as opposed to the experimentation with algorithmic limitations), since, despite the Death of the Author, the End of the Novel, the Barbarity of the Continuation of Poetry, and so on, the artist is still seen as one of the few roles which remains immune to automation. “The human” and its various subcategories (artisanal! hygge!) are primarily subsets of a marketing campaign designed to distract from the ongoing computational reorganization of society along the lines of logistics. Does the inhuman feel inhumane, or have we reworked our concept of the latter to reflect the context of the former?
Dehumanization has its place within various algorithmically-generated micro-genres, though it currently reigns supreme in Unconditional Accelerationist circles, which restarts where neo-reactionary thought stalled out in the wake of the 2016 election not ushering in Immediate Genocide and. or, Nuclear Self-Deletion. (Unsurprisingly, u/acc takes aesthetic cues from the Decadents, Modernists, and, um, Cyberpunks.) As the varied horrors of Nick Land’s career have shown, we don’t need algorithms to create the inhuman.
Compared to the usual precooked media diet of the Overdeveloped World, many computationally produced texts do read as inhuman. “Tongues,” after all, has a rigorous internal cohesion, but one so obscure as to be alienating. The reader knows, due to Parrish’s introduction and reputation, that the poem’s source code exists, but outside of repetition and alphabetization, the true order of the text is even more hidden from the reader than in the Great Modernist Metanarrative Texts.
Modernism is another influence on, and prefigurement of, computationally-generated text. Parrish prefaces her Introduction with a Gertrude Stein quote, and Funkhouser observes that modernists and digital poets alike use “the atomization and hybridization of texts to both subvert and reflect” their contemporary “social and artistic fragmentation.” (Or, as Virginia Woolf put it, “all human relations have shifted.") Comparisons between Parrish’s work and modernism will be as a fruitful, or as frustrating, as the narrowness of your definition of modernism. The non-movement was catholic enough to include Ezra Pound’s diktat that poetry be the undogmatic “result of long contemplation,” as well as Stein’s conception of “an excess of consciousness.” It contains both the proto-minimalism of Imagism and the Total Vision of Joyce.
Articulations depends on by the “textual pilfering” which Raphael Rubinstein declares is integral to any definition of modernism. Pound creatively mistranslated huge swaths of Chinese poetry. James Joyce’s nonsense-pinnacle Finnegan’s Wake sucked in a wide variety of cultural detritus, including newspaper headlines, the then-canon, and toilet gags, then spat out Serious Literature, though it was not widely regarded as such at the time. Articulations switches out Joyce’s input, harvesting Gutenberg’s poetic corpus. Some of the better lines of “Tongues” feel extremely Joycean: “A nightingale for its delight while in age sedate I clear sib, related.” “In rank licentious idleness beleaguer yet sadness rise in me like the flood, of course, I just fell asleep where I sat, such eyes.” Thomas Jackson Rice argues that when Ulysses is read, “the individual reader’s response alters the behavior of the ‘system,’ the book, with each ‘iteration.’” Such a feedback-loop seems to prefigure a potential next phase for Parrish, a combination of her longer texts and her textual interfaces (such as “Gutenberg Poetry Autocomplete”).
Arguing about exactly when textual pilfering has gone too far remains a Very Serious Side Project of the contemporary art world. “Postmodernism” is, if anything, an even more nebulous and contentious term than its predecessor, but suffice to say that contemporary poetry’s most virulent strains remain highly conceptual (please see: Flarf).
It is an obnoxiously obvious nostrum that the avant-garde’s name prefigures its eventual recuperation, but it is easier to see this in its history than its future. In a generation or two, if we all manage to survive the ongoing heat death of the political, Parrish’s works will most likely be recorded in the post-canon canon as formal experimentation, rather than acknowledged for the at-times-hilarious, often deeply strange reading experience they offer: one is constantly worrying at her word orderings, wondering from which processing system them came. An annotated edition would, by isolating Articulations’ various inputs, reconstrain them back into their original contexts and, by defeating their new purposes, defeat Parrish’s purpose, just as surely as any scholarly explication of Finnegan’s Wake does Joyce’s.