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Articles on this Page
- 07/26/18--14:03: _The Internet’s Revo...
- 08/01/18--09:00: _Open Call: Rhizome ...
- 08/02/18--07:25: _Olfactory Suggestion
- 08/08/18--13:47: _Entering the Gray Zone
- 08/14/18--13:03: _‘An Oasis, a Utopia...
- 08/23/18--07:48: _The World Isn’t You...
- 08/27/18--09:49: _Building a Communit...
- 09/05/18--10:21: _Continental Drift: ...
- 09/11/18--10:43: _Rest in Peace, Ethi...
- 09/16/18--21:00: _Save the Date(s): R...
- 09/17/18--08:28: _Open Call: Past, pr...
- 09/24/18--11:53: _Rhizome Members Par...
- 10/04/18--08:24: _Announcing 2018 Mic...
- 10/12/18--08:17: _“The Art Happens He...
- 10/30/18--08:17: _Worse than Scabs: G...
- 11/01/18--07:01: _7x7 Beijing: Detail...
- 11/05/18--06:35: _The Body Was Under ...
- 11/06/18--05:48: _Vote Auction 3.0: D...
- 11/19/18--14:37: _A Rhizome Holiday S...
- 11/21/18--14:11: _Get Off the Interne...
- 07/26/18--14:03: The Internet’s Revolutions
- 08/01/18--09:00: Open Call: Rhizome Microgrants 2018
- 08/02/18--07:25: Olfactory Suggestion
- 08/08/18--13:47: Entering the Gray Zone
- 08/14/18--13:03: ‘An Oasis, a Utopia, and a Nightmare’
- 08/23/18--07:48: The World Isn’t Your Internet
- 08/27/18--09:49: Building a Community Archive of Police Violence
- 09/05/18--10:21: Continental Drift: Notes on “Asian” Art
- 09/11/18--10:43: Rest in Peace, Ethira: An Interview with Amalia Ulman
- 09/16/18--21:00: Save the Date(s): Rhizome's Fall Events
- 09/17/18--08:28: Open Call: Past, present and future in the net art archive
- 09/24/18--11:53: Rhizome Members Party & Benefit Art Sale!
- 10/04/18--08:24: Announcing 2018 Microgrant Awardees!
- 10/12/18--08:17: “The Art Happens Here” opens at the New Museum January 22
- 10/30/18--08:17: Worse than Scabs: Gamer Rage as Anti-Union Violence
- 11/01/18--07:01: 7x7 Beijing: Details Announced!
- 11/05/18--06:35: The Body Was Under Threat: UBERMORGEN on ‘Vote-Auction’
- 11/06/18--05:48: Vote Auction 3.0: Digital déja vu
- 11/19/18--14:37: A Rhizome Holiday Surprise, From our Network to Yours
This article accompanies the inclusion of Constant Dullaart’s The Revolving Internet in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
MC: How did you begin working with the internet?
CD: When I was at art school, around the early 2000s, I realized I could get all this reference material and all these kind of great, very well structured image resources online. I made videos with specific imagery that I found online, on these kind of specific websites and message board. But the whole structure of the art school was still very much related to the professional media, let's say, professional media as in having broadcast-ready video. And these kind of standards were ... I always felt like they were kind of inhibiting to me, and then I felt like the internet wasn't necessarily immediately a place for publication.
I remember I was really frustrated because I missed an episode of Cheers. I wanted to see it and I couldn't find anything related to the show. But I could find these really kind of niche kind of collections of images – a gold mine of really honest content that didn't go through the filter of professionalized media.
MC: How did you incorporate this material into your work?
CD: For example, I made this video that was just a collection of all these people videotaping their stuff that was being sold on a Dutch version of Ebay. And I really liked the fact that it was just functional and unpretentious and very direct. This is what really kind of pulled me in, because I felt like it was such a gold mine of honest material, unpretentious material, perhaps one would say amateur.
I didn't necessarily see it as the “revolution of publishing” til much later when I found out I could even participate in that, and then recontextualize this kind of amateurism I had found – which others were already actively reframing from a commercial perspective.
MC: How did you move from recontextualizing this amateur content, to focusing on the commercial reframing that was taking place with the rise of online platforms? Was The Revolving Internet your first work responding to the Google search interface?
CD: The first web site I did in this way was The Disagreeing Internet because I found out I could just put an entire iframe in a marquee, which I thought was really hilarious. The old marquee html tag that would just animate a piece of text or an image over a page–I could put an iframe in that, and move the entire thing. So that brought The Disagreeing Internet. And then somebody responded, by just changing that around and making The Agreeing Internet. And then I made The Doubting Internet.
Then there was a moment when I had just broken up with a girlfriend, and I was living in this kind of temporary, sublet apartment in Berlin, and I had time on my hands because I couldn't sleep because I was emotional, and I was trying to see if I could use code to spin the entire page around. In video art that was kind of the ultimate thing to do–to have like this 360-degree turn of the camera.
I felt like that would be this ultimate thing. I could make this vision of this new world turn again.
MC: So the choice of “revolving” was a formal decision.
CD: Yep. Yeah, I mean its super formal. I felt there was still room for kind of a formal exploration of these newer media and this newer kind of infrastructures in a way that was akin to earlier formal media studies. Even thinking about like Nam June Paik or other formal explorations of a new medium.
And I felt like that was happening at that time too. For example, I curated the show in Amsterdam called Contemporary Semantics Beta at Arti et Amicitiae. I invited Chris Coy and Marisa Olson, who sadly didn't end up participating in the show, and Pascual Sisto, Ola Vasiljeva – and many more lovely people. We openly had discussions about our interest in formal experiments.
MC: One thing that really stands out about the work, even years after first encountering it, is the experience of using this incredibly difficult interface.
CD: Yeah, it removes the ease. With this really small gesture, it subverts all these really highly developed user interface designs. Yeah, or trying to kind of like give a meta perspective on that infrastructure.
There was a Reddit comment on the work that completely describes how hypnotizing it was to surf Reddit through The Revolving Internet. This particular user said it felt like somebody was watching over their own shoulder and like they were caught in a movie staring into an abyss browsing Reddit. This kind of like, almost like metaphysical experience of becoming aware of the infrastructure of like how we look at information, that was what I tried to do.
MC: Your work since then has often been concerned with digital labor, and surfacing the conditions of digital labor – for example, your works based on the YouTube “loading” screens. Was that question of labor a part of this work?
CD: I do feel like I was making this YouTube stuff as a kind of monument for all these people that were providing content for this kind of ephemeral gratification. I don’t even know if the whole ad revenue thing had started yet, or if at that point it was just about likes and the direct feedback of comments and shares and this kind of social confirmation. I did feel like it was a kind of monument for these people that were providing content for this larger Moloch of the media.
This was on my mind with The Revolving Internet, but I was mostly looking formally at theinfrastructure that these companies were developing, and also highlighting where some of these infrastructures are just faulty. I really never liked the design of YouTube, I never really enjoyed how accessible it was and how it seemed like it was community-driven, but it wasn’t. Even the YouTube logo was a frustration, it was just very pixelated and very lo-fi. In this aggressively corporate platform, there was also this kind of clumsy, human approach.
MC: How did Google’s own evolution affect the project since its launch?
CD: I knew some people at like the Google Creative Labs at that time in New York and we had talked about the work and it was fun and dah dah dah, and then suddenly there was like this "Do a Barrel Roll" thing in 2011.
MC: What was that?
CD: If you typed “do a barrel roll,” the Google page would turn 360 degrees, just like it would do on The Revolving Internet, but then it would just stop. And it was so weird! And then two weeks after that, the iframe, the technique that I was using to embed the entire Google page, was technically disallowed. I guess it’s totally logical, it was just strange that these things coincided to be at the same time.
It was totally logical that it was discontinued, because it was strange that you could actually check your email through The Revolving Internet. There were definitely some security loopholes that I had been enjoying; I didn't ever make use of them, but I enjoyed the fact that it was such an easy hack.
After iframes were disallowed, I was thinking that maybe there was a possibility to have a custom Google search page on your page, but when somebody clicks the advertisements, part of the revenue would go to you. It was really problematic because Google kept changing their codes. We were like reverse engineering the whole infrastructure of their custom search engine to display it as if it was the normal Google search engine. And then after a while, they noticed that and they didn't want that to work. And
Then I found out that I could just run it through a proxy. Together with Jonas Lund, I built a simple dedicated proxy, so there's a private server that is basically just in between the user and the Google page, and it also makes sure that you basically never go to other pages.
I still think I have to write a proposal to Google to see how they would respond to a policy to make sure that works like these can remain in existence, because there were several works that disappeared when the Google iframe was discontinued. There were works by Jan Robert Leegte that were made as a comment to mine, but there were also a lot of works that were made with Google image search.
MC: I know this is an odd question to ask you, but how many visitors did you have at the site’s peak popularity?
CD: Yeah, I'm exactly the right person to ask that to. I think it was up to like one and a half million visits a year.
There was a nice time, a funny time, when the site was that popular that the domain name was worth exponentially more than the work was as an art work. The domain name was worth in itself about 40 to 50 thousand dollars. The work is in a collection now, let's say they got the domain with a good discount : )
The time has come again to submit a Microgrant proposal as part of our annual open call! For this year’s Microgrants, juries will select projects in three categories: net art, VR, and poetry.
Since 2014, the Rhizome Microgrant Program has awarded small grants for the creation of new artworks, online exhibitions, and other web-based projects. This program is run as an open call, and awards range from $500 - $1,500. Past funded projects have included a website critiquing a notorious internet misogynist, an excavation of the emails left behind by one of the largest corporate frauds in history, an exploitation videogame inspired by the Kardashians, and an analysis of the use of language in Egyptian social media during the 2011 revolution. This year, we invite proposals for online artworks and exhibitions in the following categories:
Projects that explore poetry and poetics in the context of the internet. Proposals can engage poetry from a range of approaches, including but not limited to: poetry itself, explorations of the poetics of computation and code, the history of poetry and the internet. Submissions will be evaluated by a jury comprised of Rhizome assistant curator Aria Dean, writer Brendan C. Byrne, and artist and writer manuel arturo abreu.
In-progress 360° mobile virtual reality artwork
Awardees would receive finishing funds to release ongoing work on the First Look: Artists' VR app for iOS and Android, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum on the eevo platform. Submissions will be evaluated by Rhizome executive director Zachary Kaplan and New Museum Associate Curator Helga Christoffersen.
The category where it all began! We’re looking to fund projects that engage the internet as medium in new ways through the production of online exhibitions or browser-based artworks. Submissions in the general net art category will be evaluated by a jury comprised of Rhizome preservation director Dragan Espenschied, curator and writer Celine Katzman, and Rhizome community manager Lauren Studebaker.
Responses will be sent out by early September. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, American Chai Trust, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Image: Screenshot of page by Jaakko Pallasvuo from Holly White, You Will Get the Map Later (2017 grantee, launching August 2018).
Image: Sean Raspet, Fruit Intersection Average: (Apple ( ) Pear), 2013 - 2014.
Listen to Alexander Iadarola discuss this article and the aesthetics of Juul with Rhizome artistic director Michael Conor on the Rhizome Raw podcast, available on iTunes.
Scent is confoundingly protean. With the exception of extreme instances—Proust with his fabled madeleine, the unexpected stench of burning plastic—its everyday effects are markedly dynamic, drifting: just outside the purview of cognitive recognition, much less considered analysis. G.W.F. Hegel suggested in his lectures from 1835–38 on aesthetics that the olfactory dimension functions as a constantly moving system: “As for smell, it cannot be an organ of artistic enjoyment … because things are only available to smell in so far as they are in process.” Scent is an avatar, too, for contemporary experiences of molecular unease, manifested in widespread anxiety about the body’s violability by dangerous microbiota.
Whole Foods and InfoWars sell endless tinctures catering to this fear, and while their example is easy to dismiss, the biochemical realm is indeed hotly contested by political actors in corporate and governmental spheres. Considering the the recent acquisition of Monsanto by the pharmaceutical and chemical multinational Beyer, as well as the history of population management, biometrics, and necropolitical control, theorist Margarida Mendes describes the ongoing process of “molecular colonialism,” where dominant power structures fine-tune their scope to target the gene and the molecule alongside the individual and the geographic. In the case of this remarkable corporate merger, “it discloses an interrelated ecosystem of products that both create and offer remedies for contamination under the arch of the same company: quality control and environmental fitness assessment of food production, prevention, and healing of diseases, and research into future therapeutics.”
In the exhibition text for his recent show at Bridget Donahue, Receptor-Binding Variations, Sean Raspet notes that the pharmaceutical industry, the medical industry, and the fragrance industry all have a common practice: the design of molecules or mixtures to target specific receptors and induce physiological responses. The exhibition features ten discrete scents designed by the artist, who has worked as a flavorist, wafting out from whirring little diffusers hung along the gallery walls like sculptures. Each has a unique fragrance profile, carefully crafted at the molecular level, but the most memorable smell in the room is their combined mixture. It smells like a gaggle of teens just finished hotboxing a bathroom with Juul smoke, blending sugary nicotine clouds with noxiously “fresh”-smelling sanitation sprays. The olfactory suggestion of bathroom odor eliminators brings with it a conditioned visceral memory of bathroom odors themselves; on some irreducible level, the exhibition evokes a high-tech lavatory.
Once scents begin moving through the air, they are bound to intermingle, and this is especially so in a smaller, almost completely enclosed space like a gallery. The sensation of taking in all these chemicals at once is immediately affecting. The brain feels clogged, or alternatively, like its cognitive faculties have been subtly stunned, temporarily replaced with an enticingly banal screensaver. The gallery visitor’s headspace is over-activated, and there isn’t much mental bandwidth left for thinking. The olfactory sense starts to feel stretched out, like it’s weight training, as all the different scents impinge upon one another and crowd the sensory space. The inside of the nose tingles, and the mind goes haywire a little bit.
Treading along the room’s perimeter, the viewer sticks their face at each work, inspecting, processing, and reflecting. Not all of the diffusers spew their scent at once—one is compelled to let their sense of hearing lead the way to active machines, and scurry over. This guiding sonic component is compounded with the slightly disorienting drone of a loud air filtration device, which is billed as an artwork entitled Negative Air (2018). In the back of the gallery, visitors can try out and purchase a series of consumer goods including lotion, shampoo, and detergent that Raspet also produced for the exhibition. Their scents were created with the help of genetically modified yeast.
Sean Raspet, Negative Air (2018), installation view at Bridget Donahue, NYC. Photo by Gregory Carideo.
The olfactory designs in the main room all smell at least a little familiar; some immediately reveal themselves as old friends, while others feel like more specialized ingredients only previously smelled as part of a greater mixture. OR: 2V2, 2V1 has the unmistakable scent of Taco Bell meat, and OR: 1A2 suggests cherry chapstick. Another scent formation is savory, like glue, while one in the corner most evokes body odor. The gallery text tells us that none of these smells are organic, and that many of them are still under patent; googling “scent piracy” does not yield many informative results.
According to Raspet, Receptor-Binding Variations was designed as a selection of synthetic “primary scents”—intended to be an olfactory version of sight’s primary colors—originally created by the flavor and fragrance industries. The fact, then, that the show’s most overwhelming odor is a generalized haze is interesting given the fact that each of its component scents was crafted with such specificity. They were all designed to activate—or, in Raspet’s words, “target”—individual human olfactory receptors (ORs), which are part of the olfactory epithelium inside the nasal cavity and additionally located throughout the body. Each OR is sensitive to a specific range of chemical stimuli, while individual odorant molecules can activate multiple ORs and individual ORs can be activated by multiple odorants.
In the midst of the ongoing Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, the word “targeting” carries extremely loaded connotations. Data scientists claim to have found effective ways to taxonomize consumers’ polyvalent desires so as to target them ever-more accurately. The former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, once famously said that he possessed “somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every adult in the US.” Here, as in the case of Mendes’ notion of molecular colonialism, the exact contours of the person as such are called into question—who or what is a fluid-yet-contained collection of five thousand data points, exactly? Anxiety regarding these contours’ permeability becomes a dominant affect. Raspet’s 2013 work Phantom Ringtone comes to mind: a fragrance that sets out to evoke a simulation of its eponymous sensory experience.
This notion of targeting is the connective tissue between Raspet's olfactory concerns and the processes understood as “molecular colonialism.” In present day iterations of population monitorization, bodies are no longer “finite unities,” but instead distributed networks of corporate agency. Mendes writes: “As patented GMO genes are absorbed into our bodies in a proprietary relationship of biological subjugation, the body itself becomes an expanded, multiple-infrastructure, where intervention can happen at many different scales. Moving bodies become fluid cartographies that cross different juridical regimes.” It should go without saying that the effects of molecular colonialism are not equally distributed. Working with a pointedly invisible medium, Receptor-Binding Variations offers spectators the occasion to measure the subtle influence of proprietary molecules on mood and thought patterns, prompting reflection on more severe biochemical processes by virtue of the scents’ relative harmlessness.
In Post-Fordist capitalism, as we know, consumers are increasingly drawn to the sphere of the so-called “immaterial”—thoughts, feelings, notifications—as opposed to concrete objects. Generally speaking, it is clear how our faculties of sight, hearing, taste, and touch are catered to, and monitored - and by which apps. For these, there are dedicated platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, Yelp, Tinder, the central hub of Google search, and so on. Smell is significantly harder to quantitatively pin down as a trackable sensation in the computational sphere than the other four senses—because smell is harder to study than vision, for example, there is much more available data what a given person likes to see.
Molecular colonialism, data mining, and the overall receptor-targeting industry all highlight the ways in which personhood contains multitudes of territories, actively contested and fought over outside the boundaries of traditional geopolitical notions of nation-state and individual sovereignty. It is helpful understand the self as containing a plethora of what Metahaven has called “withinscapes.” “Identity is no longer assigned to the whole person,” writes the collective. “Instead it addresses a potentially vast amount of layers—hence, consumer markets—within the person. It addresses the Napalm Death fan inside the investment banker alongside her penchant for art nouveau pottery … In the indefinite ‘withinscapes’ of the post-singular individual resides a folded mental topology; its inconsistencies are only reunited by the physical integrity of the body that brings them together.” For now, smell evades widespread quantification so as to produce gaps in the withinscape cartography, amplifying a certain shade of opacity—however minor—in the process. Indeed, it is still very possible to create new molecules in order to produce new odors; Raspet recently exhibited some of these, produced in collaboration with chemists at Hunter College, at The Artist’s Institute.
Sean Rapet and Christoph Salzmann, Water (Ice v Residue) (2017-2018). Installation view, the The Artist’s Institute.
Raspet argued in a 2016 essay for the necessity of an English language system specifically designed for describing the unique characteristics of smell. This system would be attuned to the abstract qualities of odor in itself, and decisively break from the Western legacy of discussing scent in mimetic terms by referencing fixed objects in the world (“this scent smells like a rose.”) Raspet raises an interesting point: of the five senses, it is remarkable that smell is the only one that does not have its own substantive, abstract sense-specific terminology. While fragrance experts will speak of a scent’s “low notes” and “high notes,” and a sommelier can skillfully describe a wine’s “body” based on a quick whiff, the language they use is still premised on an operation of simile; the olfactory dimension has no strict equivalent of a glissando, gradient, or rhyme.
It is not easy to explain the absence of a language system specifically dedicated to smell, but it can be traced back in part to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Western thinkers decided that sight was the most “civilized” sense and scent the least. Another likely contributing factor is the fact that scent is the least scientifically understood of the five senses: 1% of human genes code for olfaction, and it is not known why. It is possible to know in advance how a color or sound will be perceived by able-bodied people based on its underlying wavelength or frequency, but the same is not true of scent. Put simply, scientists do not know with certainty why things smell the way they do; scents waft across and between withinscapes.
The olfactory dimension’s figurative inconsistency is intensified by the classificatory problems it poses. A chemical structure’s scent cannot be deduced purely from a graphic delineation of its internal makeup: something must be smelled to actually be smelled. Furthermore, while humans have 400 olfactory receptors, it is not clear that all of them are necessarily functional. “For more than 85 percent of [ORs] we don't even know a single molecule that activates the receptor,” said Joel Mainland, an olfactory neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, in a phone interview. “Then, for the ones we do know the molecule activates, we have a handful of odors that activate it. We don't usually have more than 20 or 30 odors that activate a given receptor. Why is it that we can do everything in color vision with three receptors but we need 400 in olfaction? That still is very unclear.” To make matters even more complicated, the operations of the olfactory system exceed smell alone: they include pheromones and olfactory receptors in other parts of the body besides the nose.
Personal computing devices are highly effective at directly targeting the other senses, but smell generally does not receive the same treatment. “There is data on smell, but it’s not nearly as fine-grained as the other senses,” said Mainland. “It’s much harder to capture and turn into a number. It’s easy for me to buy a computer monitor that does extremely accurate visual stimulus, but there are very few off-the-shelf olfactometers that will deliver whatever odor stimulus you want reliably.” Mainland is nonetheless confident that olfaction will be effectively datamined before long. Researching this space, one learns about the Palo Alto-based Aromyx Corporation, which claims to have “built a solution for the digital capture of scent and taste – the EssenceChip™”; Aromyx’s early technology was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and their media relations representative did not return a request for comment.
The most compelling of the ten Receptor-Binding Variations elude conventional description along the lines Raspet describes in his essay. In any instance of smelling, the sensation of odor is never a singular, cohesive event—it is always in motion. Because there is no expansive, specialized language to describe the function of odor, the internal bodily effects of these ambiguously defined scents have an additional dimension of slipperiness. Once they are smelled, sensations come and go according to unpredictable morphological patterns, ungrounded by viscerally felt vagueness that operates beyond the reach of everyday cognitive processes; something similar happens with works involving scent by Anicka Yi, Amalia Ulman, Raja’a Khalid, and others. The knowability of scent is not only thrown into question, but also—when we consider the molecular realm traversing, modifying, and interfacing with the inside of the body—the knowability of the “self,” on however small a scale. This provides an occasion to consider the ways in which the constitution of a person is always already imbricated with other people, the physical environment, and other species.
If smell is compelling because of its position outside of foregrounded awareness, navigating and activating internal space according to procedures that defy easy explanation, then it’s of particular interest that Raspet figures Receptor-Binding Variations as a selection of highly-focused “primary scents.” While Mainland found this premise of Raspet’s dubious on a technical level—as one can imagine, these are not literally the primary scents, as those are not yet conclusively known—the notion of a basic synthetic olfactory typology is still a compelling concept. The move resonates with his insistence on the benefits of effective olfactory taxonomization, and faintly echoes the business plan of an odd, inescapable pop-cultural phenomenon whose scent this exhibition immediately recalls: the Juul vaporizer. For a long time, e-cigarette culture was defined by an emphasis on long tail marketing: endless flavor options, intensive vape modding culture (still popular in 2014, at the time of Rhizome’s “This is the ENDD: The E-Cigarette in Context” program), and an intensely niche status overall. It was only with the Juul that vaping truly went mainstream, and as of the time of posting, the company only sells eight flavors that form something of a “primary flavor” cross-section in their own field.
Part of the appeal of a synthetic primary scent model is its capacity to be re-engineered through an anti-naturalist paradigm. It is easy to speculate that the same thing holds true for Juul consumers. The campfire-tinged “Classic Tobacco” tastes nothing like its namesake, and more like disconcertingly refreshing poison mist—a car air freshener redesigned for the lungs. Likewise, “Fruit Medley” tastes like food coloring and “Mango” tastes like caprese salad, and teens love it. Contrary to standards of scientific rigor, the structure of feeling that animates Receptor-Binding Variations is intertwined with the fact that the exhibition does not present the definitive scent palate. Making their way through the gallery, the visitor gets the sense that there could be a couple more, or a couple less. There’s something strangely pleasant—albeit, nothing like relief—about knowing that whatever inductive process one uses to discern the defining parameters of either typology, the process of putting it into motion will inevitably be hazy, vaporous.
New Dark Age
304 pp. Verso, July 17, 2018. $26.95.
As I began James Bridle’s debut book New Dark Age, I took a pause and stared at a batch of headlines generated by the Google Now algorithm on my phone’s homepage. The headlines are rarely particularly useful, though I read them anyways, in spite of myself. As The Outlinereported last year, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has disclosed precious little about what’s required of publications in order for them to be featured in its Google News results. The company sources stories from tens of thousands of publications, big and small, showing little desire to remove untrustworthy or non-newsworthy results.
I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I hit this surreal headline from Fox News: “Google AI can predict when you’ll die with 95 percent accuracy, researchers say.” The piece described the report of a study in which the company’s researchers conducted an analysis of data from more than 216,000 adults in order to predict patients’ potential lifespans, chances of readmission, and likely discharge dates. Their results supposedly eclipsed existing predictive models by ten percent.
Such a strange story provoked any number of questions. What does Google get from examining patient data? How is the AI system analyzing what it’s given, and what are the consequences of its errors, at least in relation to those made by actual doctors? What would you do if Google’s computers told you your death was imminent? Even scarier – what would your doctor do, particularly in our inhumane, profit-above-everything healthcare system?
The article felt uncanny, a perfect synecdoche for the anxieties Bridle explores in New Dark Age. As an artist and author whose work explores the contested intersections of capitalism, surveillance, and computer intelligence, Bridle unravels these vexing issues across his new book. Even as he plunges deeper into the kinds of nightmarish scenarios exemplified by corporate-owned algorithmic death predictors, his mission is to stir people from a technological torpor and chart a radical reassessment of how these tools control our lives. While the book is often unsettling, and rightly so, Bridle's grim prophesies lack a clear diagnosis for forward action. It’s an outcome that's unsurprising given the enormity of what's being explored, but it still comes as a disappointment.
Bridle’s central argument is that “Computational thinking has triumphed because it has first seduced us with its power, then befuddled us with its complexity, and finally settled into our cortexes as self-evident” (44). It's an elegant description of a trend that’s increasingly apparent: We're trapped by the limited control we have over digital tools that govern our livelihoods, while those at the top flourish thanks to their mastery over the computational forces that regulate our social and political economy. Elites have a vested self-interest in keeping these tools opaque, and as they creep further into our lives, it’s both more urgent and seemingly less possible to confront their impact, even as it feels that they allow us to know more about everything around us. “Our vision is increasingly universal, but our agency is ever more reduced,” Bridle suggests (186).
But if the information floodgates curtail our ability to resist, Bridle still overdetermines that impact by erasing meaningful political possibilities capable of reining in networked tools run amok. In a chapter exploring stock market “flash crashes,” Bridle argues that “digitisation made the markets both more opaque to noninitiates, and radically visible to those in the know.” As Bridle describes it, we’re inevitably descending towards DeutscheBank trying to increase the speed of light to make trades faster, as Hito Steyerl suggests in Factory of the Sun.
Yet Bridle ignores the possibility of a financial transaction tax, a measure that would hobble the low-margin, high-frequency trades that skim value off of the market, pennies at a time. By refusing this practical solution, Bridle sinks into the kind of all-consuming dread he elsewhere rejects, minimizing collective agency and overplaying the strength of a network that’s still of our own hand, even as it gains its own strange liveliness.
If our machines are increasingly autonomous, how should humans respond in a way that maximizes our virtues while channeling what’s useful about tools that escape our understanding? In an intriguing but underdeveloped argument, Bridle calls on people to accept a level of “practical unknowing,” asking us to recognize the network as “the best representation of [the] reality we have built, precisely because it too is so difficult to think” (76). Elsewhere, Bridle describes a similar mindset, a space he calls the “gray zone,” which “allows us to make peace with the otherwise-irreconcilable, conflicting worldviews that prevent us from taking meaningful action in the present” (214). Both thoughts grasp at something valuable, a recognition of agency within a degraded climate of misinformation, overabundance, and distractedness. But they’re not fully articulated, even as they seemingly define the pursuit of political action within Bridle’s dystopic imagination.
These concepts are better articulated by media scholar Patrick Jagoda, who names “network ambivalence” as a practical route through our indeterminate world. Jagoda suggests a way of living within a network totality “without yielding to apathy, cynicism, disengagement, or hopelessness.” His proposed method entails “a deliberate intensity, patience, and willingness to forgo quick resolution or any finality at all.” Jagoda urges us to accept discomfort and contradiction, while instantiating change through critical reflection and creation that embraces a compromised environment as a reality that must be accepted before it can be transformed.
It's a stance that finds echoes throughout New Dark Age, especially when Bridle argues, “Technology is and can be a guide and helpmate in this thinking, providing we do not privilege its output.” Learning to appreciate the virtues of technologies at our disposal, without expecting too much of their capacities, or too little of our own, is a useful approach that straddles the twin perils of neo-Luddism or accelerationism.
Much of what's most successful in New Dark Age comes as Bridle tries to enact this thinking-through-technology, offering a network psychoanalysis that reflects back the all-too-human flaws we continue to suppress elsewhere. Technology enacts “a particular set of beliefs and desires: the congruent, often unconscious dispositions of its creators,” (142) burying a vast legacy of oppression beneath a smooth, high-resolution sheen. If we follow Bridle’s advice, treating technological outputs as a starting point without diminishing our capacity for conscious intervention, we can probe and prod the algorithms that think beyond our comprehension with a desire to learn what these unsettling artifacts say about our worldviews.
Bridle does this work beautifully in his artistic output. One such work is Render Search, in which the artist sought to find people that appeared in architectural rendering photographs, a space in between the digital and physical that instantiates development, growth, and displacement. Playfully adopting the missing person poster (“Have You Seen These People?”), the work pokes at a virtual world-in-actualization, subtly reminding us that those displaced by construction are made to disappear from their homes and communities, victims of an unrecognized pursuit of capital accumulation at all costs.
James Bridle, Render Search London (2017). Photo of billboards installed on Great Eastern Street, London. Courtesy of the artist.
If the New Dark Age is one of our own making, the product of unconscious and conscious desires, enacted in the networks we’ve brought to life, it’s too early to give into a hopelessness that sees no way out. Bridle has offered a grim prognosis, one that hits too close to home at many points in the text. He wants to offer hope, and a sense that if we attune ourselves to the strange frequencies of our computational world, we can once more find our bearings. But if Bridle wants readers to snap out of some computer-induced fever dream and awaken themselves to the undeniable need for immediate collective action, it seems like he might need to look in the mirror to convince himself such change is still possible before demanding the same of others.
Lead photo courtesy the author.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Paper Rad’s Paperrad.org (2001-2008) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Image: Ben Jones covered in zines, courtesy of Jacob Ciocci.
Lauren Studebaker: When Paper Rad came together you were in Boston, working on a project called Paper Radio. How did Paper Rad emerge from your other DIY projects, or the DIY scene that you were working in at the time?
Ben Jones: Paper Rad came from the community centered around a publication called Paper Radio. This was definitely before the word “zine” became a Portlandia sketch. Paper Radio was a project that came from being in art school and looking up to people like Raymond Pettibon, but also coming from what was then the Massachusetts underground punk rock and hardcore scene.
Jacob Ciocci: Jessica went to Wellesley College, in Boston. And I was at Oberlin College. We had heard about the Boston and Providence noise and comics scene.
Jessica Ciocci: Jacob and I were looking at zines a lot at that time, like homemade comics, and that was really inspiring to us. Jacob had always been more into comics than I was, but I would send him stuff from Boston that people had made that I would find since I was living in that area–looking for whatever was like a dollar or like clearly homemade and weird. There was a group of people at Mass Art, which is one of the art schools in Boston.
Jacob: After Oberlin, I moved in with Jessica, and we immediately tried to become friends with people that were already really active in that scene. It was then we met Joe Grillo, who was in Paper Rad at the beginning.
Through Joe we met Christopher Forgues, who works under the name CF. Christopher and Ben [Jones] had been doing a project in Boston called Paper Radio, which was a zine project. Free zines, usually probably stolen Xeroxes.
Paper Radio #7, 1999.
The zines that they were making already were really forward-thinking, in my opinion. They weren't typical diary-based zines about feelings, or vegan politics. They were really messy, they looked kind of just closer to avant garde collage, or literally some pages just looked like trash. I mean, they still kind of had a comic bend, but they were more experimental than your typical comics or zines.
Jessica: Ben was also making videos at the time and we were like, “Oh, my God. We have to see his videos. That's amazing.”
I think both of us were really into that multimedia possibility. Jacob had studied computer stuff college, and Ben was also working at some sort of computer job at the time. The internet was just, kind of, this goofy realm at the time, and we were like, “Well, oh, my God. We have to make a website and put this stuff online.” Because, you know, a lot of the other kids were doing something more handmade, not so technological.
Jacob and I saw Ben’s animations at some point, and we're big fans.
Jacob: We started hanging out with Joe and Christopher and Ben. And we started collaborating immediately, one of those types of friendships where it was work friendship. It wasn't just, let's hang out and drink beer. It was always, let's draw, or let's make a zine. A lot of that is Ben, too. Ben is very ambitious, and pretty much all of his friendships revolved around art projects.
Jessica: I didn't know anything about Flash, but eventually learned how to use it rudimentarily. We started making video mixtapes. The first Paper Rad video mix we made was in Boston and that was very homemade style, but it included animation and edited on a VCR VHS tape, like found video and weird home recordings.
Jacob: Everybody was in bands, too, but bands meant anything. Jessica and I had this band called Pracky Pranky, which was basically just us doing prank phone calls, and recording them. I think we performed one time. A band was a really loose term at the time.
Ben: In weird way, back then, a music show was, I think, as much about the visual nature of it, the flier, the experience, the whole experiential performative nature of it.
Jacob: There was this sort of lo-fi, 8-bit movement happening––what Cory Arcangel, Paul Davis, and 8-Bit Construction Set on Beige Records were doing–– and I think we were all really interested in what they were doing. Ben had already made a website for his own stuff. I forget what the URL was, but even that already had some things that would become known on Paper Rad, like using table art, which is basically HTML tables to make shapes or images out of just sort of blocky rectangles.
I was super into lo-fi web design, or what Cory [Arcangel] was calling “Dirtstyle.” Jessica also was into that. She took an HTML class like me in college, and the pages that we made were intentionally shitty looking. You know? They were meant to look like the vernacular web that we were excited about, not the sort of high-end design web, which is what artists were supposed to be doing at the time. Artists were supposed to be making these websites that looked really fancy, or, in some ways, showed expertise, or showed how you were separate or different from GeoCities.
I think, end of 2000, beginning of 2001, is when we started actually publishing the website. Ben had already been making his own Flash animations. There was already a lot of energy and steam underneath Paper Rad coming from Ben and other collaborators in Boston.
Jessica and I, we’re brother and sister. So, there was this kind of family dynamic that I think combined with Ben really created this sort of sense of an internal logic for all of the work, which was an informal, sort of outsider art family that had grown up on computers and cartoons, and were making all these things for each other, rather than for the rest of the world.
When the website was published, it felt like, oh, we're looking at this bizarre little community of people that have been kind of percolating and influencing each other.
Andrew Warren, who I mentioned earlier, was a collaborator on the website early on. And so was Joe Grillo, Laura Grant, and Billy Grant, who were also brother and sister. And they splintered off and formed Dearraindrop.
Ben: There was like 15 people that we knew. And I think all those people were like, “Oh fuck. This is genius. Can you show me how to do this?” Then I think that probably blew up in a way that I’ve never been a part of something that blew up so fast through the internet and through amazing places like Eyebeam or Rhizome or Oberlin and curators and New Museum and Lauren Cornell. I think Jacob and Jessica came from totally different, but a similar product of, at least DIY computing and certainly film making, in the sense of popular culture and media and music.
Lauren: A lot of the content produced by Paper Rad seems like a celebration of a youth culture––I would go as far as saying it’s a very specific young, positive psychedelic sort of tween culture from the 80s and 90s. What were the main influences visually, sonically? Where there other kind of collectives that were kind of inspiring your work?
Jessica: Maybe what was different for us was including more weird pop culture or the found stuff. And having a reaction to stuff that seemed, sort of culturally not cool. At the time, there was more of a leftover hipster thing from the late '90s, which was not embracing of cute stuff or '80s aesthetics.The bright colors were really gross to people, I think.
Jacob: In terms of influences, a huge one would have been Fort Thunder, which was a DIY space and collective from Providence. An online influence was JODI. I think all three of us had seen JODI in college. jodi.org was the site that seemed to be the most exciting to us because it had the same kind of confusion that we tried to embrace.
It wasn't, oh, this is an art project. It was, what the fuck is this? Is this a mistake? Is this broken? It existed outside of the sort of rigid context of art school, or the definition of art. And we weren't trying to do that, we didn't sit around and have conversations saying we want to try and do that, but that's what we naturally gravitated towards, that kind of space outside of art, but that was still was clearly artistic, or creative.
That idea of being outside of art was the other big influence. Jessica was really into finding and archiving little notes or pieces, ephemera from kids, or tweens, or teens. Anything that she could find that was handwriting, she was obsessed with, because handwriting sort of has this quality of revealing somebody's personality. It is creative. Handwriting is creative. But it's not high art, and so it's outside of that idea of fine art, even though it is art.
Jessica was making these zines that were filled with a combination of found handwriting, and her own. And you hit on it when you said tween culture. She was doing this handwriting that was based off of the handwriting she had when she was, whatever, nine, or ten, I don't know what age. But it was totally this stylized way of writing that, in zines and online, was really confusing to figure out if it was found, or if it was something that she did. It also made the website maybe feel like it was made by a 10-year old. A genius 10-year old. I remember thinking at the time that kid’s art was the last undiscovered genre of “outsider art.”
That was one of the most brilliant and fun things about our site, or Paper Rad period, was this confusion over what we made versus what we found. And in particular that it was about people that were outsiders, or we were trying to tap into this kind of more wild of version of creativity that exists outside of art school, exists outside of this idea of fine art, that can exist at a punk show, or but even more so exists just in people's lives.
Lauren: That to me seems very disparate from the existing Boston hardcore scene at the time.
Ben: Let's just even reduce it to color. Paper Radio was like brown and punk rock colors. Like rusty orange. And I think the first time I saw Jacob and Jessica, they were dressed in neon.
What Jacob and Jessica were doing, I think is, I don't think it was a reaction. Honestly, I think they were truly just tapping into who they were. You could say that we were reverting to literally how we dressed as children, but in a weird way. I think, seeing how things like Odd Future and Tyler, The Creator can completely change the visual language by the way they dress and the colors they embrace. It didn’t and doesn't seem contrived to me.
Growing up, part of my identity was rooted in neon colors and BMX, and even I consider video games and RGB. It's like, all these bright saturated colors. And I think if anything, when Jacob and Jessica came into this space, I realized all this punk rock bullshit was this artifice that I was co-opting to fit in based on an older generation’s expression, but it was kind of bullshit for me. So I saw it and I was like, “Oh fuck. This is real. I can speak to this.” But, I'm also not a dummy. I was like, “This is totally different and this will certainly …” and probably this is what prompted us to do a name change to Paper Rad, because it was something totally needed and different and would be disruptive.
Lauren: I think you can say also, let me know if you disagree, but looking at the work, there's definitely kind of this ethos of a new age positivity. Why? Was this an embrace or a criticism of this style?
Jacob:It was both. And also it was that me and Jessica's parents, kind of had a new age moment. Ben's mom, especially, had one. I think hers was a little more long-lasting than our parents'. But, I think in interviews in the past, I've said the three of us grew up in new age households, kind of surrounded by crystals, and these magazines that would be selling new age merchandise.
The magazine, for example, is a great sort of distillation of the approach we took to it, which was, on the one hand, the stuff is super fascinating and fun, but on the other hand, it's clearly consumerism. Cartoons and comics are consumerism. So, we embraced all of it with a sense of positivity, but I think we also knew that it was trash. I think part of why named our first major release DVD, Trash Talking.
Related to that was this idea of just being non-judgmental about the pros and cons of everything, but that includes spirituality in particular, and new age spirituality, and this sort of post-hippie embrace of Eastern gurus in the United States, and all of the merchandising that came out of that.
In addition, the positivity was a reaction against what was happening in the underground in the 90s. Indie rock, emo, these things were dark, and so serious. I remember being really inspired by Andrew W.K., who, when I first heard his music, and saw this persona that he'd created, I wished that I had come up with that idea. He sort of did a pop-metal positivity, and I think what I was trying to do was more of a young, new age boy who's into fantasy art positivity, like, you can use this crystal necklace as a way out of sadness or suffering.
And the peace symbols, yin yang symbols, all this stuff was sort of, on the one hand, really important magical messages, and on the other hand this kind of shit that you find at dollar stores and stuff that's, like, at beach ... We would go down to Myrtle Beach, I can tell you more about that later, but there was this store at Myrtle Beach called The Gay Dolphin, which was just basically a three-story, massive gift shop in Myrtle Beach. And it had so many dolphins, and so many peace symbols, and yin yang symbols, and it was an oasis, a utopia, and a nightmare at the same time. You know?
Jessica Ciocci: We're all from a generation of where our parents were hippies, so we were exposed to the new age, like the potentials of all of it. In the late '60s-early '70s, there was all this potential of peace and art being revolutionary. I don't know. I guess in the '70s, people were kind of disillusioned, and in the '80s, everyone forgot about it. I don't know what happened.
It just became like a materialistic realm, and maybe that's part of why we were drawn to the shallowness of some of that imagery, but we were also trying to reinvigorate some of it––put some heart back into some of the cheesy ideas of the new age or the hippy movement. Some of that is just genuinely appealing aesthetically, or also weirdly contrasting, like you were saying, to the more serious, or hardcore intellectual scene in Boston.
Lauren: Paper rad emerged during the “dark ages” of the social web––that period after the dot-com crash and before Web 2.0 platforms like Youtube and Facebook were founded in 2005–2006. How do you think the work reflects era of the internet? Do you think this web landscape influenced the work?
Ben: A way to investigate this is through personal computing. And I know it’s crazy, but until Apple and Atari came on the scene, people weren’t allowed to touch computers. So that generation that said, “No. Computers is this DIY thing that everyone should have in their house,” is a huge influential thing. And I think that’s what my dad was a part of and that was kind of what we were doing, not in a way to be disruptive or revolutionary, but we were the, not culmination, but we realized, with these computers, we can start to make our versions of television shows, the internet is just a point of distribution, like a zine.
You look at an invention like the steadicam or a handheld camera. And you see how different filmmakers use that. And you get things like Easy Rider which changes everything. Or you get Stanley Kubrick using his steadicam in The Shining. And that just reinvents how we experience film.
To us, I think we were just really good at using the tool of computer programming. And even at that time, HTML and registering a URL, those were pretty rare. So we had that skill set, where we could make websites. Which, now, we take for granted, but back then, that in itself was amazing. We could get, Jacob and I could just get any job we wanted, because we could lie and say we could build websites. So we used that, again to tap into this authentic expression, like any artist does, of exploring their childhood and their hopes and dreams and influences.
So I think what was more interesting about pre-YouTube, post dot com crash, was that we were using the tool, not to examine the tool itself. We were just using the tool to really world build, as much as filmmakers with a steadicam.
Jessica: I remember MySpace coming along and then being, like, “Oh, okay. What are we going to do now? We can't have a Paper Rad MySpace.” but I thought it was kind of cool because I could just have like a personal music account and still connect with other people, so it was kind of part of Paper Rad. Yeah, it definitely felt weird.
YouTube, when that came out, I remember being like, “Oh, this is going to change everything.” Just like free, really easy to find, weird videos, like now you don't have to go look for VHS tapes on the street, or in thrift stores. It sort of made us feel like it made some of the stuff we did easier or, like, unappreciated. I don't know how to put it. I think Jacob, kind of adapted to that well by using YouTube stuff early on in his videos that were still Paper Rad.
Jacob: Once YouTube happened, Paper Rad started to mean something really different. Because a lot of the DVDs, and the VHS tapes, and the video that we made, was based off of sort obscure found footage from children's entertainment, or bizarre tapes that you would find at a thrift store. And we would contextualize our own animations within that.
And then, once YouTube happened, it became really easy for everybody to watch those sort of weird things. So, what we were doing pre-YouTube was distributing as well as packaging our own work within these DVD or VHS compilations that we would make. And that was because it didn't exist online at all. And we didn't even publish those DVDs, or VHS tapes online, because there was no streaming. There wasn't really the infrastructure for it.
I think our site seemed like a beacon for weird or strange graphics and animation. It was also pre-Tumblr, so this idea of collecting or archiving bizarre images from the past, from particularly the 80s and early 90s, was not something that a lot of other people were doing online. I'm sure there were nerdy sites for people collecting comics, or comic books advertisements, or weird images. But they didn't have the sort of confusing interface that we had. Our interface was intentionally really hard to navigate, as well as, I guess… the easiest way to put it is just that it was confusing, or junky.
The stuff that we were finding, scanning, and uploading was all within that maze-like context, rather than an easily organized archive. There’s this whole generation of art students that were in art school in the early 2000s, that always come up to me and tell me that they would look at Paper Rad every day. And I think it's because there were very few other people that were delivering this style of content which is now all over social media.
But we were one of the few people to do it for a browser, at the time. Other “net-art” sites had this kind of serious air to them, and I think Paper Rad was basically just a mysterious sort of, “fuck you” to all of that. This was also pre-Adult Swim, but if you were into skater stuff, or punk stuff, or psychedelic art and also happened to like computers…. and I think a lot of kids that were into drugs–you would probably look at Paper Rad late at night.
Lauren: Despite the DIY energy of Paper Rad, you’ve most definitely become a part of the contemporary art canon––the first time I came in contact with your work, or even Cory Arcangel’s work for that matter, was seeing Super Mario Movie in an intro to media arts class in college. You all also had group and solo exhibitions at New York galleries like Foxy Production at the time. As a DIY collective focusing on “low-brow”content, how did things change when you started to be accepted, or brought into the contemporary art world?
Jacob: Well, the main thing I want to say is that the scene was so strong, the community was so strong at the time, that we were really buffered from taking the art world too seriously. Which actually had its benefits and its curses. But what I mean by that is that, we took it with a grain of salt. So when we would do a show, it would be kind of, like, okay, here's this weird thing I'm going to do, it's important, but it's not as important as my friends, and the community that we had in Providence, or Pittsburgh, or Western Mass or Baltimore.
So, it allowed us to kind of just do what we were already doing and not really worry about making money. But there was a downside to that. We didn't realize in a way how, well, I'll just speak for myself, and say, I didn't realize how special it was that we were getting invited to do this stuff. And when I say special, of course, at the time I would have said, it's not that special, it's not as special as Fort Thunder, that's for sure.
And that's true. It's still not as special to me as Fort Thunder was. But there's something to be said for art history, and, in particular, this dialogue that's been going on for a hundred, two hundred years. There's a lot of gatekeepers; there's a lot of people that don't want to have weird stuff like this in that dialogue, and we did have that opportunity. I think when you're younger, you don't really think about the long-term as much, and so I was like, it doesn't matter. Art history doesn't matter. What matters is me and my friends.
And now, friends are moving on, everything's changing, and art history sort of matters again to me. Art, for the first time.
I think we didn't really change what we were doing that much. Ben kind of realized that we needed to, or that we should figure out some strategies for making things make more sense in the gallery. And we figured that out sometimes better than others. But it really was a weird sort of family getting plopped into a gallery, or an art space for two weeks, or a month, and having to figure out what we were going to do, and arguing about it, and then just making a mess, and hoping that it would sort itself out. That's how it felt.
And it usually worked pretty well, for the kids especially. The shows would be big hits for young kids, and not as big hits for collectors. Some of the things really worked well for collectors, I think. Or for the press. But other things were really, like, oh shit, this is a cool art show for young 20-year-olds. This is rare. This isn't something that usually gets to happen, that a kind of art that speaks to 20-year-olds is allowed to be at a museum, or at ... a big space. Deitch had been doing that for years but they had yet to figure out that computers were about to become a big part of what being cool and young was about .
In terms of that, the show we did with Cory Arcangel at Deitch was a big hit, because it was easy to digest. It was just one piece, the Mario movie. And it was able to kind of both work within the art world context, and our context. Cory's context as well. I was in grad school. I loved art, you know? Art history, even then. Paper Rad had already started, and I was like, uh, I'm going to go to grad school, and I moved to Pittsburgh.
So, I clearly already had staked my claim as, this is going to be my life, this whole idea of fine art, however flawed it is. By the time my show at Foxy happened, that was my thesis show from my grad program. It's so funny, because at the time I thought I'd figured it all out, how I was going to handle that context. And now I look back on that show and I just think how naïve I was, and how little I'd figured out.
I think Jessica's show at Foxy was actually the best of the three. Maybe because it was the last, but also because her work worked the best in that space at that time. It just seemed like the most mature, or whatever, of all three of the shows that we did. I think there's some really good pieces from the solo show that all three of Paper Rad did together. Our first Foxy show, there's this piece called the video comic which I think is really good. I think Ben probably came up with that idea, but we all three kind of made comics for video monitors, moving Flash comics, and all three of them are really good, I think. That piece, it needs to be shown again.
Paper Rad at Foxy Production, 2004.
There's really big hits that I think will resonate within art history, that have just been totally lost, because people are just like, oh yeah, Paper Rad, they were that youth art thing that faded away. But, I think, as a collective, we did a lot of things that will continue to resonate, and make sense within art history.
Jessica: It was all a wild experiment. I definitely felt like to get into the fine art world maybe wasn't necessarily ever a goal. I guess it did feel like a conflict in a way, or like having your feet in two different worlds. Something like that. I think it did––I'm not going to lie––definitely produce a lot of inner conflict or turmoil and a weird questioning of what are we doing?
But, it was fun. I was really happy to do those shows, like the solo show at Foxy [Production]. Maybe that's something I find particularly unique was that we were doing gallery shows and stepping into that world a little bit, but also still, to warehouse spaces and playing some weird show and handing out $5.00 merchandise.
I never really wanted to be exclusively involved in galleries. I think a lot of it evolved from connections with friends, but now that I think of it, it's probably very specifically from Jacob knowing Cory from college. I know that Cory organized some show at Foxy Production when they were still in Brooklyn and we were invited to be a part of that. That's how it came to be. Around the same time, Foxy asked us to do a show as Paper Rad. It was then like, “well, how do we market this?” Since we were a collective, it's difficult. People didn’t want to buy something like that. It's too confusing.
They suggested doing solo shows, trying to have each of us have a show to see if it could be sellable that way. I mean, I sold a few things. I actually think my show did better than Jacob or Ben's. That's a little point of pride for me, I guess.
Ben: So, the fact that we were incorporated into the art world in any given way, that was on the art world's terms. I think they very quickly saw that we didn't really serve them––look, it could have gone either way. No, I don't think it could have gone either way. I think I was never interested in hacking that system. And the fact that we were both in the same gallery in 2000 whatever, was kind of the genius of that gallery owner and less about our response to the art world or the art world itself.
Lauren: Was archiving a concern while Paper Rad was going on?
Lauren: Do you think a lot of things were lost?
Jacob: Fuck yeah! It's tragic. A lot of it is digital; a lot of incredible files are sitting on computers that have been thrown away, or decayed. I think the zines have been documented okay. There's a lot of actual painting and drawing that's been lost.
It's like an old relationship. Do you really want to go through all of your old love letters, and scan them, and organize them, after you've been heartbroken over that relationship? You don't, you know?
People ask, “Why didn't these artists archive their stuff better?” It's because it’s painful. And that's even true if you're just an individual artist, because there are all of these projects that are unfinished, or half-documented; they have an emotional weight to them that is hard to face.
Lauren: Do you see remnants from your time in Paper Rad enter into the work you’re making now?
Jacob: Totally, yeah. I went to grad school, but my real grad program was Paper Rad. I feel like it was a school that I went to and I learned all of these techniques and methods through Ben and Jessica that I now use every day when I make art. They're kind of like my teachers. Ben and Jessica were my main two professors, and then Joe Grillo was a professor, and then people at Fort Thunder, and Cory, and David Wightman, others were professors, too.
This whole idea of that family, that community, I sadly don't really feel any of that anymore, but I'm still using all of that methodology within what I do now. It almost seems like this post-apocalyptic landscape. So, if that was a more utopian era, this is a dystopian era, but I'm still doing that same practice, in a weird way.
I think the thing that carries over the most, the reason I'm still doing that, is because with Paper Rad, and Fort Thunder, and other things of around that time, there was just this ethos of, you can't rely on anyone to do anything for you, and you have to make it happen all by yourself, no matter what. And that still feels true to me. I love deadlines, external deadlines really help me a lot. But, at the end of the day, I have to want to do things because I want to do them for myself, rather than as a product for someone else, or something.
The art world is so ephemeral, and it can come and go with its amount of support for you, or its amount of care for what you do. And that's true for the commercial world, too. The only thing that you can really count on is yourself, and your own productivity.
And so, Jessica's doing that. She's totally independent. I think that sense of, you make art because that's what you do, regardless of who's looking at it, who's watching it, is key. And it also relates to what we're inspired by, like I was saying, outsider artists, or people that are totally creative outside of the regime of art. That's what they do. They're just making things because they have to.
Ben:. Great art in the Hollywood sphere and in the art world, is just work that’s really true to itself. Even if you're Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling, you just need to tell your story. What happened to you today, how did that make you feel? So in that sense you need to go back to your parents and your experience and your own voice and who you are, to that point. That was a large part of Paper Rad, who we were and why it was that optimism and that non-cynical approach to the content and the color.
And I don't think I'm trying to leverage those superficial qualities in Hollywood, but I think I am trying to tap into characters and stories that are true to myself and that do reflect that tone.
Jessica: I think like the energy is continuing in the stuff I make now and of course, that is very DIY because I'm not in the art world where I have resources necessarily at the moment. I don't have a studio with assistants. What I'm doing now is very DIY. It’s just on my own, you know? The other aspects of Paper Rad are very important to me too, like homemade art, and making within whatever means you have.
There's something about that I believe in. The things that I'm inspired by, outside of my work and in the world share that. Like going to see new weird bands in the noise scene, or experimental music. That's still going on, and that's probably where I find the more collective aspect of whatever was inspiring Paper Rad in the beginning. So it's still there. It's maybe not as formalized or official.
Maybe that's why Paper Rad was such a strange thing. It was like, “Hey, here are all these things that are, kind of, in the air, but we're going to call it an organization, or a group, and present it to you in a funny way. Sort of, like, a colorful, goofy, loud, and (hopefully) fun way.”
This article accompanies the inclusion of Devin Kenny’s Untitled/Clefa (2013) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology
Aria Dean: Can you start from the beginning and describe the project Untitled/Clefa? What year was it?
Devin Kenny: 2013. I was working on that piece while I was in Mexico City. I was doing a program there called SOMA, and I was thinking a lot about the death of Malcolm Latif Shabazz, and the George Zimmerman trial, which was happening at the time, and also just having different experiences within Mexico City.
I should say that the name of the piece is a reference to this drug called clefa. It’s a painkiller, but also you don’t feel hunger and a variety of other pesky things about being a person. I was also responding to this, I guess, visual cultural trend that I was seeing on Tumblr called “Trayvoning.” It was maybe a twist on planking, except done by cruel assholes.
People would imitate the way that they imagined Trayvon Martin looking after being struck by George Zimmerman, and oftentimes they would also be wearing a hooded sweatshirt and they would have a package of Skittles in their hands as well. There was already this talk going around like, “What if planking is actually a reference to the way Africans made slaves were stored in the Middle Passage?” So I was already in a weird zone about planking itself. Then when I saw these images of “Trayvoning,” which was so much more directly anti-black and callous, I was like, “Wow, this is really intense.”
What you can’t tell from the documentation that I have is that it was a performance which started by me collapsing onto the floor. I had these two items in my hands, a big Arizona iced tea and a package of Skittles while wearing a sweatshirt, and I was frozen, not totally flat against the ground– I froze myself in a particular position. I fell, but I didn’t fall into a relaxed state, in other words. I was tense. My muscles were tensed for the duration of the performance, a centimeter or so above the floor for about 12 minutes, which corresponded with the duration of “Versace” by Migos feat. Drake. That song played three times.
Devin Kenny, Untitled/clefa, 2013
I chose that particular song because there was a section of Drake’s verse which I thought eerily echoed some of the attitudes that were held by Zimmerman. There’s a line where he’s like, “This is a gated community, please get the fuck off the property.” When I heard that, I was like, “Wow.” Firstly, it’s interesting because that is something that someone in a gated community or a neighborhood watchman might say to a person. Secondly, it’s so far from earlier subject positions in hip-hop historically, that it stuck out to me.
There had always been these kinds of self-aggrandizing moments or moments where you’re talking about great shows of wealth and things like that that you ostensibly don’t actually have, but in the current era it’s a bit different. I think some of that difference is exemplified in that line.
Anyway, so yeah, I created this performance where I wanted to take an image-creating practice which was circulating online, and a) slow it down, and b) charge it differently by having it happen in real time.
AD: Did you perform it just the one time?
DK: Yes. I only performed it the one time. Weirdly, during that same evening, I had done this other piece where I was serving these water cocktails to people called How to Become Invisible. So I went from behind the table to in front of it.
AD: Do you have any new feelings about the work, looking back on it from 2018, in terms of both the politics of circulating images of black death, and in terms of memes and viral phenomena at large?
DK: When I think about it now, I also think about the fate of Zimmerman, who basically was able to get away with this really egregious act, but who also used some of the strategies that people used for viral media to not only gather support but also to survive financially.
He was selling these weird paintings on eBay and putting out all these different statements etc.—controversial figures using the publicity machine that is facilitated through social media as a way to make their livelihood.
That’s all in addition to the fact that these kinds of, I guess what I would call a-legal killings haven’t stopped since that time. It wasn’t like, “Whoa, this is something we really need to address and change.” The same thing has been occurring hundreds and hundreds of times since then.
AD: Something that I think about a lot is the re-performance of those incidents. I think that in 2013 or so people were like, “We have to share these videos because we’ve got to get the word out there that this is happening.”
Then there was a shift, and now we’re pretty squarely located in this widespread mentality of, “No, actually, don’t circulate that.” “It’s re-traumatizing.” There is some recognition of those images as fetishistic, with people comparing them to lynching postcards, for example.
DK: Oh, the postcards, yeah. It’s strange, because it’s related to that, but also the emotional timbre is different, because ostensibly people are sharing the videos because they’re like, “Oh, this is terrible,” versus the postcards being like, “Well, we sure showed them.” You know what I’m saying?
DK: Back in the day, people were a lot more jovial about ...
AD: Killing black people.
AD: I remember reading this thing about how during the Civil War, and in the Antebellum period, white abolitionists would do these plays in town squares where an all-white cast would act out the horrors of slavery as an appeal to the white public to get on board with the abolitionist cause.
I always thought this was an interesting correlate to the emotional timbre of sharing police brutality videos. Like, “I’m sharing this because I care and this is terrible.” Of course, it is different in that it’s not replacing a black body with a white body and making it symbolic. It’s just the actual thing now.
DK: Before we go on: there’s one other thing that’s a super crucial part of the piece that I didn’t address.
The performance was done in Mexico City, and I wasn’t seeing articles about the George Zimmerman trial in Mexican newspapers. It wasn’t a big news story there.
But there was an experience I had while riding on a train to an art opening during rush hour where there was this kid who was just collapsed onto the ground on the floor of the train. I was like, “Okay, this kid doesn’t seem to be moving.” We went one stop. Then another stop passed, and then tons of people started getting on the train as they were leaving work, and I was like, “Yo, am I going to need to pick up this kid and take him off the train to try to find help, try to find a doctor or a police officer or something?” I was about to do that, and before I got a chance, these two businessmen almost stepped on him, and then one of them nudged the kid with his wingtip, and then the kid got up. He was totally still for five minutes. You couldn’t see his chest rising and lowering like he was breathing. He was either breathing very little or he wasn’t at all. I was like, “Is this kid just dead or something? What the hell?"
I asked my friend, who had been living in Mexico City for a few years. I was like, “What’s up with this kid? What the hell was that?” She was like, “Oh, he was probably using this drug. A lot of poor kids use this drug.” They huff this particular drug, (she didn’t mention the name) and you can pass out like that.
Yeah, so when doing the performance, I was like, “Non-American people are not going to get that it’s a reference to Trayvon Martin, but they might see it as a reference to people just being strung out on particular drugs or other kinds of prostrate or vulnerable persons on the street, which is a more common occurrence.” Undoubtedly, everyone has had some kind of experience seeing something like that.
One could ask “why are you talking about these American issues in Mexico City? The world isn’t your internet, Devin.” In making this I was like, “Okay, if they don’t get it from this angle, maybe they’ll get it from another angle.”
AD: So much work that tries to comment on blackness, anti-blackness, police brutality, et cetera, is modeled as critique, including Untitled/Clefa. But rather than making a piece that says, “Hey, this is bad, don’t do this,” you’ve chosen to embody the object of critique. Revisiting the work this time, it reminded me of this photo series called Heroic Symbols that documented a performance series (Occupations) by Anselm Kiefer. It appeared in this magazine, Interfunktionen, that came out in the ‘60s. Kiefer did these performances where he took photos of himself doing a Nazi salute in various locations as a critique of the lack of visual acknowledgment of Germany’s recent Nazi history in the decades following de-nazification. It was sort of this fuck you/criticism of German artists’ rush toward abstraction after the war as well as the somewhat unquestioned presence of former Nazis in regular society. Basically, Kiefer–along with students, leftist groups, and like, the Frankfurt School–were pissed at how the country was not-quite-dealing-with its own terrible stuff.
DK: That’s super hardcore.
AD: Yeah, it was really hardcore, and people were really mad and pulled their contributions from the magazine and stuff. I’m not saying that the “Trayvoning” thing is the same, but it got me thinking about works that aim to critique a social or political phenomenon through an embodiment of the thing. I think in your case, I think it’s quite successful. To me, it’s maybe more powerful than, say, writing a think-piece about how it’s bad to kill black people.
Do you have any thoughts on that sort of embodiment of the object of critique as a tactic?
DK: Yeah. I need to learn a little bit more about that piece that you’re referring to.
AD: I’ll look it up and send it to you, yeah.
DK: Yeah, that’d be rad. The first thing that comes to mind with it is that I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to show any direct, pro-Nazi gestures, flags, garments, things like that, in Germany, (not in Namibia though!) so to take on that kind of personal risk while also being ostensibly a beneficiary of that history or those politics.
So taking on that kind of personal risk while also ostensibly being the face of that kind of violence, too, is a weird twist. Whereas, I guess, in my case it was primarily white-passing or white-appearing subjects “Trayvoning.”
Untitled/Clefa is a performance that’s responding to a piece of static media, and then it’s returned back to static media in the documentation. I didn’t have video documentation of it, and I decided that having this photograph would be a more potent way of trying to inform people about the piece than had I just had a video recording, which I think actually would be a little bit grotesque, the more I think about it.
Anyway, reflection as critique thing is something that I have been thinking about and working through for a little while now. I’m interested in this notion of implicated critique, where the critic tries to understand their place within the thing that is being looked at or analyzed rather than seeing themselves as being an entirely separate, objective entity.
AD: Yeah, I’m interested in that sort of thing as well. Maybe there’s some way in which also contemporary media culture rewards positioning yourself–as a critic–outside of the thing and being like, “I’m an ethical and good person, and these things are bad,” versus really acknowledging your own situatedness within a system or something.
It’s also interesting that you mention that these people doing this Trayvoning thing were white. Re-inserting a black body into the image or event that it retraces is an intriguing concept. It’s sort of testing what it looks like or the meaning that it carries when it’s returned to that original configuration or something.
DK: Yeah. It also makes me think about choreography. 10 different people can do the same choreography, but they have different bodies, and presences, so it may feel different.
AD: Another thing that the work brings up is the “semiotics of the hoodie.” The hoodie became such an emblem of the Trayvon Martin murder, and has taken on an over-determined position in relationship to blackness. Okay, sure, semiotically, hoodies have taken on some relationship, obviously, to black culture or something like that, but I think that they became, in the years following Trayvon Martin, this weird thing where hoodies and blackness and anti-blackness got really, really sutured together in this very strange way.
DK: Rocky wore a hoodie. I feel like it started to become iconic from there–like from boxing culture. Then someone like LL Cool J, brought it into hip-hop, because he had that song “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and he’s wearing a hoodie throughout the video.
Then it goes into the hoodie being worn to obscure your face, like if you’re going to rob someone. I think that’s brought up in Wu-Tang videos. But at the same time, it’s also just straight-up a garment that keeps your head warm. It’s weird that wearing athletic apparel becomes a signifier of potential criminality if you’re black or brown, you know? It’s like, “Oh, you’re not really training."
AD: Yeah. “Where’s your gear?"
DK: “Why do you need to run so fast, huh?"
AD: Yeah, it’s also funny thinking about post-American Apparel. I associate hoodies with the American Apparel hipster moment too.
DK: Oh, yeah. People wearing hoodies is just a college thing, too. You wear a hoodie and some shorts and some flip-flops or something.
AD: Yeah, or Silicon Valley Mark Zuckerberg vibes.
DK: Yeah, so it’s like the garment itself means so many things, but obviously it, like many objects, means something different when accompanied by a black body.
AD: Yeah, it’s a really great example or great object lesson for how blackness sticks to things or things can stick to blackness or something and create another semiotic charge.
DK: I wonder what the hoodie meant when David Hammons used it for that sculpture. It’s hard for me to imagine what that particular thing meant then and how that piece felt then, you know?
In the Hood, David Hammons, 1993
AD: Yeah, that’s true. That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s such a great piece, and I think it was 1993 that he made that.
DK: Okay, so I guess that’s hip-hop, it’s in the hip-hop era, I mean. Maybe I think that because he had the Jesse Jackson “how ya like me now?” piece, which I associate with Kool Moe Dee, so it doesn’t seem farfetched.
AD: LA riots, just post-riots moment.
AD: Even the superficial language thing of the ‘hood, neighborhood the ‘hood, the hoodie, this weird ...superficial link.
DK: Totally. Shoutout to Hoodie Allen haha.
AD: Yeah. Oh my god, Hoodie Allen.
DK: Lucky, lucky boy...
Below is a transcription from the National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web––organized by Rhizome (in collaboration with the University of California at Riverside Library, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the Documenting the Now project)––which took place in March of this year. See full information and the video archive for the event here. This conversation between Jarrett Drake, advisory archivist of A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, and a doctoral student at Harvard University's department of anthropology; and Stacie Williams, the team leader of digital learning and scholarship at Case Western Reserve University Library, focuses on the People's Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland's conception and development, lessons learned from the process, and its potential as a post-custodial model for other grassroots organizations protesting various forms of state violence.
Stacie Williams: I'm Stacie Williams, and I manage the digital scholarship program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jarrett Drake: I'm Jarrett Drake. I am now a doctoral student in Social Anthropology, and befallen archivist, but this is like the fourth or fifth time I've seen a bunch of archivists since I quit, so maybe I really didn't quit after all.
SW: Every time you try to leave….
JD: ...something keeps pulling me back.
SW: What do you remember about how you got involved with the People's Archive, and what was the situation, or conversation, that drew you in?
JD: I think that in the immediate event, obviously was in May 2015 when Michael Brelo, who was a Cleveland Police Officer, fired--I've actually forgotten the number of shots it was that he fired––
SW: 137, I think.
JD:––bullets into the car that had Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell in it. That incident, I believe, happened in 2012. His acquittal on all charges in May 2015 was the breaking moment for me, and this followed so many other non-indictments. Obviously, less than a year before then, Michael Brown had been killed. So, you just keep getting image after image, story after story, of law enforcement killing black folks, and walking away, getting paid leave, getting literally “away with murder” to quote Shonda Rhimes' television show.
That was it for me. I was in New York when I saw the news of it on Twitter. We didn't even know it was going to be a project at that point. It was just people being mad on the internet together, and honestly, the ability to find other people to be mad with, and move that anger into action was what drew me into it.
After that, all of these events cascaded. It all started on Twitter. So, Stacie responded to this tweet asking if archivists who were going to Cleveland for the annual meeting wanted to do something, and Stacie was one of the first people to say, "I'm in."
So, my question to you is, did you think that we'd wind up collaborating to create this, and what were some of your minimal hopes or expectations when you replied that you're in?
SW: I think, I would say that for me, it was very much the same. People were mad on the internet together, and it felt especially acute for me because almost every day, there was this period of time where, there was autoplay, dead black person after dead black person. I had compared it to essentially having snuff films in your live stream, which I refused to watch. To this day, I have watched none of those videos. I really could not because maybe three weeks after my first son was born, Michael Brown was killed.
My feelings in that moment were of frustration, and of anger, and feeling not just that I wanted to do something, but that I wanted to do something for my son, and all of the other sons, and all of the other mothers. That feels important and meaningful. I don't even think that I knew that it would become this. I hoped that whatever we were able to do would provide the ability for other people to speak their truth and be heard in a way that we were not being heard through the justice system.
So, then I'd ask, how did you feel during this act of memory creation? When we were out on the streets doing oral histories with Cleveland residents, and then, on the back end, helping transcribe, or helping set up the frame work for us to have the website, and working with the developers, and talking to Amazon, and just all of those things?
JD: This might sound a little dramatic, but honestly, as soon as I started to really get involved, especially as we got close to the launch day, we did all this stuff over Google Docs and conference calls. It didn't yet feel real. It seemed like we were just trying to gather ourselves enough just to get there.
I went to Walmart. I hate to say that I went to Walmart. Trash, right? Dammit. I was broke. So, I went to Walmart to get some cheap digital recorders, and I think it was the Saturday before. I was like, dang. I think we're about to do something that's gonna transform us individually and hopefully, transform other groups of people collectively.
When we started putting the website together, the first draft was not what we wanted it to be, and we deleted it. Through that whole process, I just felt that chains were falling off of me. I felt like chains were falling off of the way I thought about problems. I knew probably then, I was gonna quit my job. When we were out there in the streets, and it was hotter than a mug, I remember cramping up and I was just like, this is it. This is not the climate-controlled reading room, or the stacks, or the staff meeting. This was the reason I had decided to be an archivist in the first place. It was completely seismic, and I don't even think I've had the time to honestly reflect on how much those kinds of moments really impacted me.
The next question I have for you that builds off of that is, what's one part of this project, or one story that will stick with you the most and be impossible, for better or worse, for you to erase from your memory?
SW: I think, there was a point after the archive had gone live, and it had been up for several months at that point. We were having a conference call with the other advisory board archivist, and I had just given birth to another child, and we're waiting to close on our house in Cleveland. I would have never thought that less than a year later, that I would be a citizen of Cleveland, and therefore, feeling like I had an even larger stake in these stories and how they were being told.
During that conference call, we were staying at my in-laws house, and I was trying to nurse, and trying to find privacy, and one of the kids was fussing, another one was hungry. But I felt like it was really, really important to still be on that call, and still have a voice, and still continue to see things through as well as we could for the activists involved.
But literally, sitting in my hands was this other really, really large responsibility, and someone to whom I also owed a great deal of my time and energy. Here are these two very important things, and they aren't separate. They're a part of what this life looks like, and there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other people doing that same thing: trying to really integrate the activism that they do with their real lives, and taking care of people.
JD: Can I ask a follow up to that? Which is that, we spent a lot of time organizing this project, on our own time, and own dimes, and also on some of our employers time, and our employers’ dime. It wasn't always readily apparent to those people in our lives, whether they are family members, or partners, or co-workers what the hell we were doing, and why we were doing it. How did you explain to those people who all need and depend on us in different ways what you were doing and why it was taking up so much time? Were you able to explain it easily? Did it come with difficulty?
SW: That's a really great question. I think, because we started while I still lived in Kentucky, and I didn't have family in Kentucky outside of my immediate family that I built with my husband and my children, I really was just explaining it to him. And he's a journalist, so I think he understood pretty well what the stakes were and why it was important.
I didn't feel like there was an issue there in trying to explain that I wanted to be involved in this. I think, really though, I was a lot harder on myself in those moments where it felt like, wow, this is a lot to balance, and maybe I'm doing a really, really bad job.
There were conference calls that we took where I had to mute myself half the time because someone was screaming in the background, or someone always wants to say hi, and it's like, no, this isn't your call. So, yeah. Feeling it, explaining it, and making it okay for myself. That's also something I got from a lot of other people who are engaged in organizing work, is that you tend to really be the hardest on yourself, in terms of trying to juggle those things. You might have people in your life who are extraordinarily understanding of the work that you're doing, and they're super supportive, and it's you sometimes. Looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what's enough. How did you explain this work to your partners, your friends, your family?
JD: Honestly, I didn't really explain it that well, because I didn't know what we were doing. In retrospect, it seems clearer now than it did going into it. May 2015, I couldn't have told you what September 2015 was going to look like. I couldn't have told you that that fall, I was going to be spending a lot of time learning from a lot of people about how to pull apart the PHP website. Thank you, Ruth [Tillman], filling in for that. The generous amount of time she gave.
These are the things that I just couldn't see, so my partner definitely asked me a couple of times, "You got another call to get on? You got another email to send?" One time in particular, I was visiting her, because we've been more or less long distance for a while, and Trella called me. Trella Gardener is one of the folks in Cleveland who got involved with our project very early on. Very lively, lovely, beautiful black woman. One of the ways you're gonna understand Trella: her Twitter handle is @1noseygrandma. That's her Twitter handle, so she's that nosey grandma.
I love her, but she called me one time, and I had to pick up the phone. I was with my partner, and she could hear Trella's voice and intonation, and she started busting up. She's like, "Oh. That's what you been doing this whole time?" She understood so much just by seeing, well in this case, hearing the voice of someone who has been involved in this.
In terms of explaining, I don't know if I necessarily did that very well either. I think for the longest time, I was trying to act like I wasn't doing it. I had a shared office at the time, so I'd be on these phone calls, or doing a whole bunch of emails, trying to act like I wasn't [working on this project]... After a while, I just started being upfront about what I was doing, and what mattered to me.
I started putting up post-it notes on the outside of my door, which faced the reading room. Post-it notes that were memorializing and marking that black women and girls were being killed by the state, and by intimate partner violence. I was tired of acting like I wasn't aware that black people were being slaughtered by police and by other black people on a regular basis. I put these post-it notes on my door, and one day the University Archivist walks in, probably to ask me about picking up the digital records at the Dean's office, and he was like, "What are those post-it notes on your door?" I was like, "Oh. Those are black women and girls who've been killed by police and through domestic violence and they've been mostly erased from the mainstream media."
He just wanted to get the latest update from BitCurator. He wasn't ready for all that. I think those are two moments that allowed me to be a fuller version of myself, and not try to segregate professional archivist, like Jarrett from Uncle Pookie. These are the same people. I can't act like the work that we're doing at this institution is irrelevant from that.
SW: I didn't necessarily feel that I had to hide it from work. And not only that, but one of the presidents of the Oral History Association, Doug Boyd, worked right down the hall at that time, and was very helpful in helping me work through considering an ethical framework for a consent form that allowed us to provide as much safety as we possibly could for the people who were participating. And he helped envision different ways in which the people could document and be on the record, but with a degree of anonymity, either with that recording, or with the metadata. You could have a back end of things, but the front end would allow them to remain anonymous.
Let's talk about the process of documenting what we did, because this was the other part of it. We had written an article for the special issue of Journal of Critical Archival Studies. This article detailed this process of documenting the project, and not just the manner in which we documented what we had done, but [how we] documented other people's memories during the project, and also our process of remembering the collective racial history and collective memories of terror in the research that we had to do for this project. How was that for you?
JD: That was one of the harder things about this that I don't think I was really prepared to handle. Because in my job, when I was a Digital Archivist at Princeton, more than anything, my main responsibility as a digital archivist was to document what I did. I actually can't even remember what I used to do on a day to day basis. I know a big part of what I did was create manuals and workflow documents. I became really good at that.
When we were doing this in Cleveland, I wasn't thinking that we were going to eventually need to explicate our process, and that took way more time, the initial setup of everything. I would say the nuts and bolts of everything was in place by September-ish. There were other things that needed to happen, but a lot of that initial labor was from May 2015-September 2015, and once that ended, I thought, “okay, now we can move on with our lives?” I don't know what I thought was going to happen, but what actually happened was we spent a lot of time writing this article, doing research about it, trying to be reflexive about our own process, and not romanticize. Not give in to meta narratives, because we got a couple questions about things we would've done differently.
I don't think many people are able to go about that process in a way that creates genuine guidance, or just transparency for other people. We took a lot of time with that article because we wanted to do it right. We wanted to have our story, collectively, on the record, on our own terms, about creating an archive for people to be on the record, on their own terms. It seemed pretty meta, but it was so critical, and I'm glad we did it. I don't know if you had similar or different thoughts about that process.
SW: One of the hardest things that I had had to do was finishing that article on deadline. I can remember that point at which we had missed deadlines. We missed deadlines on deadlines for that article. Shout out to Rickey and TK for being so patient. But I can remember in that process, calling and being like, are we still going to be able to do this? We had this Google Doc that was a couple paragraphs and the Trello boards, and we phone in.
This was the act of remembering while there was also still so much stuff happening in the present. I'd start out the morning fully intending to write some things, and then there'd be another autoplay black death video making the rounds, and that would shut down my entire day. Or I'd try to save what little I had left at night for my family.
I remember calling like, how can we do this? Are we gonna be able to finish this? And then having it turn into this really collective, caring example of how to really finish a project. We called each other once a week for an hour, and we would sit on the phone, and literally type out the paragraphs sentence by sentence. This sentence goes here. What do you think about this sentence? I've added this chapter. So really, just taking hands and saying we're gonna do this. We're going to get it done, and do it together. I think that really exemplified the whole process as this really massive effort on behalf of so many people, and perhaps we were fortunate in that we were offered platforms to be able to talk about it with other people But the act of getting there and having to discuss that with people all the time in that way was super challenging. With that, is there anything that you might've wanted to do differently?
JD: Yes. Lots of things. I'll just say one that seems basic, but I think it illustrates so many larger points. We go out to Cleveland to create this collection of oral histories, right in the streets. We were at a recreation center; we were at a public library; we were outside a women's shelter; we were outside a home. We were in the mist of Cleveland. One of the things I wish we had done was provided food to people who were in those spaces. That may seem basic for people in this room who have food security, but for people who have food insecurity, I think it would've added much more ... met a basic need.
Some of our recording stations did have bottles of water, and there were some people who literally just wanted something to drink... it was hot as hell! Like, can I get something to drink and leave? I wish that we would've put more of an emphasis on meeting basic needs, and that could've happened differently. Partly, we had no money. Eventually we did a CrowdRise campaign that some people in this room, and people watching on the live stream contributed to, but that was just to keep the lights on. That wasn't to put food on the table. We could have thought about snacks, or just something to help sustain people. If they didn't want to give us a story, maybe they just wanted to get something to eat, and chop it up otherwise.
I think that often times, as documentarians, we can go in and think about what we need, what our agenda is. We could have more actively centered the needs of the people who were going to be in the space, whether they wanted to talk to us or not.What do those people legitimately need? Food insecurity is such a big problem in so many parts of this world, and certain parts of Cleveland especially, so that's one thing that I think I would do differently. What about you?
SW: Now that I know Cleveland a bit better, and if we had had more people, maybe we would have been able to mobilize and get out to the suburbs. So, so many black people from the city have migrated to the inner ring and outer ring suburbs. Those stories are every bit as potentially terrifying as what has happened in the city, or things that we had heard about in the city.
Just a few months after moving to Cleveland, my husband, who's in a fraternity, had gone to visit frat brothers, most of whom live in these suburbs of these other cities that are not Cleveland. He'd been out late which wasn't anything in and of itself, but as he was leaving he called me and was like, there's a cop behind me. I guess, because they were so deep in the suburbs, it was super, super conspicuous that all of these black people were living this house at two or three in the morning.
At that point, I had gone to sleep because it was so late. I was very tired. I put the phone on my desk, so I did not hear it ringing, and he had been calling me. This was so, so soon after Tamir Rice and the Brelo acquittal. I woke up in the morning after seeing the missed calls and the news I was just terrified, cause I didn't even know where some of those suburbs were.
I think had we had even more people, or more engagement, or a chance to do it again, I would absolutely have said, "Yo. Let's make sure we have somebody in Garfield Heights. Let's make sure we're talking to people in Solon. Let's make sure that we're talking to people who live in Akron, even, or Canton." Just because the scope of it is so vast.
That was the bulk of the questions we had for each other, so we'd love to open it up if anyone in the audience has questions.
Image Credit: Caroline Sinders. To watch the full video of this conversation, visit the Rhizome Vimeo.
Audience: Hi. Thanks very much for all this work, and all the love you put in this. I was wondering if there was anything you could share, either anecdotally or statistically about the folks who are using this archive, and how it's empowering communities, how it's being used by researchers, and how you feel about all that use?
JD: One usage of it, actually has been as an educational resource in different LIS programs that have asked different groupings of us to speak to their classroom. So talking to librarians and archivist-in-training about this has been something that all of us have shared in doing. People have, in those grad classes, been looking at this in advance.
One time, it was really awkward. A historian was teaching the class, and wanted to point her students towards the website, and all of the files were offline. She sent me a message, and she was like, "Where's y'all’s archive?" I was panicking. But it was just a small glitch...
In terms of other types of usage, we have a Google Analytics running on the site. I will confess, I have not looked at them, so I don't know where our hits are coming from, or how long people are staying there. I work in a brick and mortar institution, and we would think of usage as people that walk in through the front doors, and check out something, or request something to be viewed in the reading room. But if we think of it more in terms of the people who would get something from this being created, I would say that one usage, that I do hope is a usage, is that a lot of people got something from this at the moment of creation. If we think of usage and access in those broader terms, who's getting something from this, and what are they getting?
I definitely heard stories and saw, as other people were interviewing folks, that people were getting something out of that act of just telling their stories. You took part in even more of those events after you moved there, especially with going to the youth jail.
Going to the jail, we had done a training exercise of it at the juvenile detention center. The young men in there, once they started seeing how it worked, and interviewing each other, they were so open and so wanting to share. It seemed to be so very meaningful for them. I think the uses could be really vast, but we're not necessarily counting that in the same way that we typically would in an academic institution.
Audience: I want to ask a little bit about something that we've touched on a lot here, which is the surveillance state. There was a really great remark that someone made in one of the panels this morning about when you're archiving the stories of people who are marginalized or who are potentially victims of state violence. There's a line between wanting to protect their privacy, wanting to make sure that the presence of their stories on the internet isn't potentially re-victimizing them and being paternalistic. How do you respect their agency in possibly wanting their story to be out there? How do you think about your archive in those terms?
SW: Well, one of the reasons we were so specific about how we tried to set up that consent form was that it wasn't just that we were setting it up in ways that we felt like would protect people, we also considered our communication with participants as a critical piece of what we were doing. It wasn't just here's the form and sign. It was, okay, we have this form so we can tell you what some of these things mean on the form, and that for every possible category that you could check, here are potential repercussions of that. Some could be good and some could be bad, but we wanted people to feel informed, and that it wasn't just that we were giving them a thing to sign. I think, we tried to avoid feeling or acting very paternalistically in that way, by just simply making sure that people were informed about what the forms actually meant.
Audience: I was really deeply moved, Jarrett, by what you said about not being able to be yourself and be an archivist at the same time. This concerns me deeply as an educator, and I'm wondering if either of you could comment a little bit on what can we do to make established institutions much more hospitable to people like yourself, who are motivated by wanting to change the world? You said, once I did this project, I knew this was why I wanted to be an archivist, but I can't be an archivist doing this project. I have a great deal of empathy for that. I'd love to hear your insight on what we could do about that.
JD: I think way more institutions need to be explicitly anti-racist, black feminist institutions, which is hard, because lots of institutions are either explicitly or implicitly fine enabling and supporting white supremacy and massaging a war on a daily basis. I think that we need to have more of those conversations in archival meetings, and listservs, and all of those spaces where professionalism gets codified. Lots of talks about diversity that happen within libraries and archives end up being this very liberalist conversation. We are actually in need of social, political transformation.
I don't know how anyone could be, especially under this U.S. President, convinced that we are in need of just a little tweak. We have some structural problems and institutions are either going to be a part of that social transformation process, or they'll become agents of fascist propaganda, which honestly, the American Library Association is deeply... that kind of stuff, that's why I left. I think we have to have more of those explicit actions by institutions or organizations and they have to be willing to risk something.
Truth is, most of these institutions, especially the ones that have predominantly white people, they can withstand those risks. If a white person gets killed by the state or by a citizen, usually, there's consequences. When black people put ourselves out there professionally, we aren't really as protected. I need more of those institutions to take more of those institutional risks.
SW: I would definitely say that within those institutions, there have to be more people of color brought to the decision making tables. Diversity gets thrown around. We have all the fellowships and the things. Both of us are spectrum scholars, for instance.
What happens is we are largely placed in institutions where we have very little administrative power. It's not that everybody ends up going on to become a supervisor or something. That's not even necessarily everybody's desire in life. But to the extent that our input is sought, and engaged seriously, and that we have the opportunity to really make real decisions, or be brought to the table to make real decisions in an institution...that's the only way you really see change. They’re not necessarily set up in a way that your average processing archivist gets to come in and make those types of changes. Sometimes, even make those types of suggestions. Making room for a lot more people to have a seat at that table.
JD: End it with a Solange reference. Damn. This is great.
SW: Not totally by accident.
Many definitions of continents rely on the distribution of tectonic plates. Geographers agree that there are no more than 8 continents and no fewer than 4.
Patty Chang, Shangri-La, 2005, 40 minutes , single channel video installation.
1: Where Asia Ends
You, reader, may be good at tests: where is the capital of Asia? Shangri-La is one answer—the setting of a mediocre novel/disastrous film, a chain of luxury resorts, an opportunistically-renamed Tibetan district of Yunnan, and a video artwork by the great Patty Chang. Like Shangri-La, Asia is less a real place than an idea of escape. Though political theorist Wang Hui is wrong to excuse Han colonialism in Tibet, he is right to insist “imagining Asia is a political project.”  Asia is always a matter of imagining, and as art workers, that makes it our business. The concept of Asia is too vague to use and too big to fail.
2: From One Asian To Another
The difference between “Asian” and “Asia,” between the biopolitical concept of race and the geopolitical concept of place, is a difference we have to carry. After all, most people—recalling that most people in the world are Asian—don’t discover that they are until they leave.
You can only be Asian outside of Asia. I write in America, where the bait-and-switch of race for place is accomplished every day by the sovereignly boring question, “Where are you from?” This question requires a tree version of human history where each person’s meaning depends on their origin. Bad geology naturalizes the concept of Asia—a quasi-continent nonsensically divided from Europe at its widest point—and bad biology naturalizes the political concept of Asian—a group that’s some 70% of the world population. The imagination of that which is Asian—in the double sense I described—relies on the scientific armature of natural selection or continental shift. However, this is a bad-faith reliance, since both geological and biological time are too slow to affect the rhythm of the histories to which we are bound.
Such histories are, instead, matters of the politics of culture. As the New York-based collective Eastern Standard Time puts it in a recent curatorial statement: “While overly expansive, orientalist definitions make it impossible to ascribe cultural, political, or geographical unity to Asia, EST is interested in its potential as a call to organize across a spectrum of experience.” To put it in historical context, for historian Prasenjit Duara, it begins primarily as an early 20th century cultural project, driven by elite intellectuals like Tenshin Okakura, Rabindranath Tagore, and Zhang Taiyan . Culture is already political, but just wait until imperial states get involved: first Japanese militarism’s appropriation of anticolonial discourse (the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere), then American neoimperialism’s backyarding of the Pacific and containment of the USSR (Asia-Pacific), and even the left-leaning Non Aligned Movement’s attempt to build a non-Soviet socialist bloc (Afro-Asia), to name a few. In each of these contexts, the idea of the continent of Asia is mobilized to coordinate national ideas and serve state interests; so when Chen Kuan-hsing proposes “Asia as method,” we need to ask, which Asia?
Try this find-and-replace for size. For Asian as identifier, use “yellow,” as Yellow Jackets Collective does. For Asian as geotag, substitute “Eastern.” These old-fashioned words are problematic, but the problematics they addressed got grandfathered in—a proper noun doesn't fix improper behavior. Yellower than what? White supremacy. East of where? Western hegemony. To work a phrase of Yoko Tawada’s, Asia ends where Europe begins.
3: Asian Futurism is a Bad Idea
Sinofuturism Bingo, by Gabriele de Seta, circulated on Facebook in 2017.
Ironically, I’m late to the debate on Asian Futurism.  To recap recent discussions on Asian Futurism, Dawn Chan’s ambivalent formulation on Asian Futurism in a 2016 issue of Artforum called attention to the use of techno-orientalist tropes in contemporary art. For Chan, the association of futuristic imagery with Asian racialization exiled Asian Americans from the real present into a hypothetical future. In e-flux journal in 2017, Xin Wang responded to Chan’s question “is it possible to be othered across time?” by resisting the “implication that otherness necessarily operates from a place of deficiency.” Instead, otherness is radically heterogeneous, and perhaps not assimilable to a pre-existing hierarchy. Wang evinces a mistrust of identity-political projects that determine an artwork’s content based on the subject position of the artist.
Art-world internationalism thrusts subjects with different IDs and itineraries into the same suspended space; in this encounter, the uses of Asia are contradictory and overlapping. While it’s not fair to read authors as representatives, the forms of identity politics of these two authors seem to me to respond to different kinds of overdetermination, different ways that cultural different gets called on in the process of political subjection. I’ll be more direct. Whereas the Asian-American is overdetermined in biopolitical terms as a racial minority, the Chinese subject is overdetermined in geopolitical terms as a non-Westerner. This fragile distinction doesn’t account for the experiences of repatriates, migrants, or minorities, but it does bring into view the contrast between the diasporic desire for naturalization—the security of rights guaranteed by belonging (Chan)—and the cosmopolitan drive towards mobility—the freedom not to be from any one place (Wang).
As Chan notes, Asian Futurism is inspired by Afrofuturism. But temporal speculation works in an opposite way here. Whereas the latter resists a racist primitivism, the former accedes to the futurity of the yellow peril. After all, every cyberpunk plot, ever, goes like this: the future will be Asian, even though the heroes won’t be. As far as I can tell, the attempts to articulate Asian Futurism disaggregate into yellow futurism and Eastern futurism. Can they exceed the racial myths of model minority, on the one hand, and national projects of great-power status, on the other? Perhaps this either-or is too nicely drawn, but it seems to me that this split—a split that a term like diaspora can’t do justice to—is exactly the reason this question seemed important and interesting for a moment that isn’t quite over.
4: Self-Orientalism and Other Orientalisms
Fatima Al-Qadiri, Asiatisch, EP, 2016
Asian Futurism is inseparable from the divisions that cultural appropriation arouses along diasporic lines (think Ghost in the Shell or #kimonowednesdays). At stake is the relationship between representation and power—in other words, Orientalism.
Said’s critique of Orientalismleaves us with a Kantian formula: you can never really know Asia, but at least you can know that you can’t know it.In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant squared the circle of idealism (which held that we could know reality as it really was) and empiricism (which held that we could only know what we experienced) by reasoning that though we couldn’t know the thing-in-itself, we could know our inability to know it. Similarly, if the critique of orientalism shows that our knowledge of the orient is in fact a product of the desire to dominate the subject of orientalism, then how do we account for the really existing Orient outside of our ideological drives? One way of short-circuiting this question is through self-Orientalism, and to equate the knowing subject and the known object are the same body. An infinite loop might crash the OS (Orientalism by Said). 
For example, Kuwaiti producer Fatima Al-Qadiri’s debut album Asiatisch pastiches the phonics of an imagined China, including vocal tracks in invented Mandarin. It dramatizes the difference between East and West Asia and stretches the “self” in self-Orientalizing to breaking point. By aestheticizing non-understanding, and even aestheticizing the awareness that one doesn’t understand, Asiatisch deepens the Kantian impasse.
In Larissa Pham’s erotic novel Fantasian, an East Asian woman at an elite college meets and starts an affair with her exact doppelganger, whose partner also has an identical twin—this begins a ménage-à-3-or-4 that ends in a mass suicide leaving behind only one. This love triangle and semiotic square literalizes and eroticizes “all Asians look the same,” while also allegorizing the homogenizing process of sexual objectification. Since difference is an epistemological problem, Pham’s kink is to simply destroy it.
“Asian” is a fetish category. Asiatisch invents an imaginary Asian language, and Fantasian an imaginary Asian body. They also imagine the disappearance of these other Asians, through distortion of immolation. If the labyrinthine logic of Orientalism creates insuperable distance between self and other, self-Orientalism should short-circuit this logic by collapsing self and other. Instead, it either preserves an absolute other (Al-Qadiri) or obliterates it (Pham). We never get to a relationship among ourselves, among each other.
5: Asian Solidarity Is a Good Idea
BUFU and Yellow Jackets Collective, Process/Mourn/Activate, a post-election gathering at the Brooklyn Museum, November 2016.
I’m suggesting that most Asian art today—which is not to say art by Asians, or art in Asia, but rather art that prioritizes the concept of Asia—is bad art with bad politics. I think that the conditions for abstracting a concept of Asia from the concrete experiences of Asians today are absent. At best, contemporary art that identifies as Asian is just a start.
Asian as an identity marker is “racial, racialized, but lacking the certainty of racial formations,” as Colleen Lye says, and as a political area, “an imperial region that exists uncomfortably with national subregions,” as Prasenjit Duara says. This looseness of an already-split concept means it’s lousy for analysis, but great for activism. (Incidentally and inversely, it also facilitates the cultural-capital opportunism of white creeps and rich East Asians.)
And because there is no shared Asian experience, even as a negatively felt one of oppression, such politics must assume intersection and coalition. Intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw theorizes it, centers multiply marginalized experiences and recognizes them as irreducible to their constitutive oppressions. For example, I suspect that Asian women share much more in experience than Asians “in general,” as the title of the now defunct project Sad Asian Girls (later Sad Asian Femmes) suggests, eulogized here.
Coalition must happen without analogy. Lye writes of how Asian racialization has an “analogical dependency” on the relationship between white supremacy and antiblackness. Frank Wilderson, in a different context, insists on the importance of refusing analogy (“my struggle is just like your struggle”) as the basis for the solidarity that it’s supposed to produce. For both writers, analogy erases the specificity of racialization. BUFU, a living archive of Afro-Asian solidarity, are modelling methods of documenting and experiencing the a complicated and interconnected history without equating black and yellow experiences.
If there’s a place for Asian art as I described it, it must be collective in process, focused on action, and oriented to the margins. Don’t settle for a futurism when we could have the future.
 Wang, Hui. The politics of imagining Asia. Harvard University Press, 2011.
 Tenshin Okakura, who wrote a book on tea, and begins Ideals of the East with “Asia is one.” And here's Rabindranath Tagore: "the central ideas of the messages of the great minds of Asia all through the ages was to make our world a little more beautiful.” And then, closer to home, are American art entrepreneurs like Ernest Fenollosa, who helped establish “Asian art as a legitimate and viable domain of high art, fit for museums and the art market.” (Why is it that the Asia Society is in New York?) Duara’s discussion is found in "Asia redux: Conceptualizing a region for our times," The Journal of Asian Studies 69.4 (2010): 963-983.
 The interest in futurisms is part of a decade-plus speculative flare-up. In the cyberpunk tradition, we also see silkpunk and oilpunk, for example—-the use of materials as synecdoches for regions is an indirect comment on racialized commodity capitalism. There are also finer-grained variants of ethnic futurisms we can look at: Gulf Futurism has already been thoroughly deconstructed by Mostafa Heddaya, whose dogmatic insistence on returning the analysis to power is always welcome. Sinofuturism, as Lawrence Lek proposes it, is another example that is hard to disentangle from state power and diasporic nostalgia.
 Because of its personal importance to my thinking on the subject, I should also mention another strategy for the escape from Orientalism: Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, whichis best read as an attempt to crack Said using Deleuze and Guattari. This book bury the problem of representation of cultural difference within geovitalism; in other words, what matters isn’t so much what people see, so much as what things want.
This article could not have happened without conversations with—among others—Hera Chan, Celine Katzman, Devin Kenny, Nora Khan, Son Kit, and Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman. Misinterpretations and misjudgments remain the author’s own.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Amalia Ulman's Ethira(2013) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Image: Amalia Ulman, Ethira website, 2013
Michael Connor: How did you come to this idea of making an app as part of your artistic practice?
Amalia Ulman: I didn’t think about the app on those terms, I simply wanted the app to exist so I, and those with similar needs, could use it. It was 2013, and even though the term selfie hadn’t been adopted by the mainstream and there weren’t a thousand think pieces about social media yet, art under capitalism rewarded those who could become entities with recognizable aesthetics, classifiable patterns of behaviour, who could brand themselves in a fashion easy to pin down, with a solid identity. Those who could be both influencers and artists.
In the midst of it all, I just wanted to not be. I wanted to challenge those expectations, to fluctuate between identities, step away from labels set on stone. Metamorphosis became apparent in Excellences & Perfections and then Privilege. Disappearance on the other hand, took place in Ethira.
Twitter seemed the go-to app for those with mental health issues, especially depression, as a form of release. The problem with that though, is that Twitter functions on the same accumulative way as other social media platforms, your problems become inseparable from your handle and your issues the only reason for your followers to like your tweets. It is a vicious circle where any impulse toward well-being suddenly turns counterproductive.
I wasn’t happy with that structure of archived confessions, I always thought that as long posts were archived, quantified and graded through likes and retweets, words would calcify and turn heavy. I wanted these thoughts to be released into the internet, yes, but I also wanted them to disappear and never come back -instead of being transformed into cultural capital.
Ethira had no archive. Your post would erase itself and the platform wouldn't keep track of anything. It was like screaming into a void, and having that feeling of relief afterwards.
MC: So you could post a message, and it would be anonymous, and disappear after a certain time?
AU: It would disappear before your eyes, like water evaporating on a hot stone.
MC: Would anyone else see it?
AU: Yes, anyone. In the main page, you could see what people were posting. They appeared in the same order they were typed. Ideally a mess of different alphabets and languages from all over the world would show up. Then, if you wanted to reduce the scope of what you were looking at, you could turn the map on and see what's been posted near you.
MC: The location part of it was added in the second version, which was released a bit later?
AU: Yes, and you could decide if you wanted your location to show up underneath your message or not. But I really liked the idea that there was a chance of actually meeting somebody through the app, like in an old message board.
I know it sounds nostalgic but I really miss that kind of anonymity online. I also find communication more attractive when the channels for doing so are challenging... I find TMI boring.
MC: When you exhibited the work in 2013, at Arcadia Missa, the press release announces that there were contributions from a number of different artists and writers. What form did those take?
AU: The app had just been released, so I wanted to showcase it by using examples. I invited those whose twitter I enjoyed, like Gerardo Contreras from Preteen Gallery or artists with a writing practice.
We actually had to do two presentations, one in 2013 and one in 2014. It was in 2014 that I managed to get more funding to finally get a better graphic design (by Krzysztof Pyda), a new website and to re-develop the app to get rid of bugs. From the very beginning I envisioned the app to be done professionally and in a detached manner, but the process ended up being dirtier, more DIY due to the lack of institutional support. That’s why It took so long to make and took so many attempts to finally do it.
MC: And how did you get it built without that support?
AU: Well, Arcadia Missa helped me the most during the first attempt. But it mostly happened through favors from people we knew who were developers.
But I truly resent how long the process was, I actually started working on it in 2012. I was always sad that it couldn’t be released before, when nothing like it existed. It was frustrating to lose momentum.
If I had had the additional funding it would have been coded correctly from the get go, with more international support, people downloading the app in larger numbers…
MC: Did the people who helped you expect that it would be commercially successful?
AU: The app was anti-capitalist in its core, so it was never meant to be commercially successful. There would never be any revenue from advertisement or from data licensing, as nothing was measured.
It is hard selling an idea when its main characteristic is its immateriality.
I always expected the app to be boosted by initial funding (from a museum for example) and then die.
MC: Can you talk about who began to use and what it was like when it started to circulate in the world? Was it mainly through the gallery exhibition or what kind of life did it have as an app?
AU: It had more life when we received the help of the Moving Museum and galleries from different countries, which did their own presentations and invited locals. But it never left the realm of the art world. The app looked forward to be used by sad teenagers but I don’t know if it ever happened. But maybe it did while I wasn’t watching. Who knows, that was the beauty of the app.
I had very romantic ideas for the app, a vision that I shared with other introverts. But it could have had many other uses, of course. Once a professional scammer told me the app was exciting because it couldn’t “tapped” and could be use to arrange meetings in undisclosed locations.
What I had in mind for depressed adolescents might have become a platform for terrorists.
MC: You said that people were using it for mental health reasons.
AU: A close friend of mine told me “I wish Ethira had happened, if she had been able to use it, it would have helped her” referring to a friend who had taken her life.
Regular social media exerts a lot of pressure and takes a toll on mental health. Not only because one is always being held accountable for every word, but also because awaiting the feedback of likes and retweets generates anxiety. If your tweets disappeared though, you’d have no reactions to wait for.
MC: So, what brought about the demise of Ethira?
AU: In between the two releases of Ethira, I got into an accident that turned my life upside down. I had to learn to walk again while attending to all the obligations that had been set before the crash. Talks for 89+, solo shows at galleries etc. It was a very hard time. I had no home before, as I was young and always traveling between shows in different countries, so later, disabled, I had to crash at someone else’s home, becoming a bleeding burden in Los Angeles.
Due to my lack of power, new disability and the painkillers I had to take, I politely stayed quiet and silently worked on Excellences & Perfections and Ethira 2.0.
It was during this time, at one dinner meeting I attended with my then-housemates, I had to listen to one of them presenting his app to a rich collector, an app which sounded ridiculously similar to Ethira.
Whenever I brought it up, it was said to me that I was crazy, egocentric. It had nothing to do with me, that it was completely different. That I was delusional.Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I couldn’t fight back. On oxycodone and in excruciating pain, I wasn’t sure of myself anymore. Also, he had managed to get funding from a millionaire at DLD, get covered by Wired magazine…
So basically when version 2.0 of Ethira came out, I had already given up, but I wanted to give it a decent demise, with a nice looking design and more recognition.
MC: How long were you working on it?
AU: Since 2012 till the end of 2014.
MC: So this person that took the app was taking your idea–which was meant to be unmarketable and non-profitable–and trying to do it as a business, right?
AU: Yes, that’s the only thing that helped me keep a sense of humor… I knew he would fail. It was the stupidest idea to try to make the app profitable. Also, by the time he stole it, platforms like Whisper already existed.
It was only a few months ago that one of the developers reached out to me to apologise. He told me that at some point my housemate/“ceo” had confessed he had taken the idea from me. The developer was really sorry, and said he had tried to take the app from him to give it to me, but that unfortunately the “ceo” had gotten sued by his own investor and it was all very tricky…
But by the time I got this message I didn’t really care anymore… although it was hard coming to terms with the fact that everyone knew and I had been gaslighted.
MC: The developer knew that it was taken directly from your project?
AU: Yes, but he only knew at the very end. He barely knew me when he originally worked on the app. Maybe it would had been different now, if I had been stronger I could have done my research, talked to the developers, etc. But at the time I was too weak.
MC: Having been through this experience, what do you think about the idea of artist-made platforms or tools for communication? Does it still seem like an urgent area of practice? You mentioned that there are other things that have filled that gap, but looking back, do you see possibilities in the tradition of what you were doing, or does that appear to be closed off now?
AU: I don’t see urgency in something that’s inherent to human nature like communication, but I’m particularly interested in language because I’m bad at it (I have difficulties, especially when it comes to verbalise my thoughts through speech) and because I speak two tongues English and Spanish, which makes my brain juggle between imaginary dictionaries all the time.
I’ve always paid attention to how people communicate due to my lack of skills but recently I’ve become fascinated by linguistics because I started learning languages with different alphabets–so far, Mandarin and Russian. I like how different accents, sounds and grammar help to understand different nations and their philosophy, also how different languages can alter facial features through the use or misuse of certain muscles.
There are so many words and expressions that cannot be translated to English and vice versa… I really like that. I think misunderstandings are inevitable and valuable. Everyone is obsessed with the bridging of cultures and understanding (which generally means westernizing everything) but I personally think that respecting misunderstandings is better.
All of this is reflected in my practice. I'm not particularly interested in apps or the mix between art and technology. Sometimes my works requires new media but some other times a piece of wire or a live pigeon, like Bob. Whatever makes sense to me, I use. For example now I'm working on a feature film and a book.
MC: Going back to artists working in technology, you had an extremely negative experience - possibly even a cautionary tale - as an artist trying to engage with technology.
AU: It depends. If you are an educated blue-eyed white guy from Somerset England, you will probably do fine with the discourse utilized in those circles. If you are from an oppressed minority it might be hard to keep a smileand engage with the people who inflict direct harm on your families and communities.
In my particular case, it’d be hard to attend a forum where a panel discussion might include someone from Bayer while I know Monsanto’s fumigations of transgenic soya in rural northern Argentina are making some of my relatives go blind, the rest of the population die from cancer at alarming rates, and babies be born with lethal deformities.
Many artists talk the talk required by that system, are comfortable when in the midst of that kind of power–because they crave it or because they already have it and feel completely at ease with it.
That being said, not all technology, science, and medicine belong in this bubble, but I fear it is harder to keep your research afloat when you are trying to fight a monster with global dimensions and you are constantly being pushed down.
My life has been affected negatively by those using the authority of legal, corporate speech, and medical jargon. So how could I possibly believe in it? How could I possibly reinforce the immunity and power of these entities?
MC: When you said you had an issue with the discourse of technology, I thought you meant almost like an aesthetic disagreement, but your issue is really about the way the language is an instrument of power.
AU: I find it to be a very uniform language which happens to be also a very western and gendered one. I find it problematic that for one to be taken seriously one has to surrender to it.
MC: Have you ever made work about this kind of language?
AU:Yes, I mostly like twisting it, like in The Future Ahead - Improvements for the further masculinization of prepubescent boys. I’m extremely familiar with medical jargon because I don’t fully trust the doctors I can afford in the USA, especially when it comes to prescription drugs. So I read a lot of medical papers and spend hours looking at forums where people talk about their symptoms and compare results. This is especially important for conditions that are taken lightly by the medical establishment.
MC: And in spite of all of this, you managed to give the app a decent demise.. You can’t use it in any way, right?
AU: Yeah, Ethira is dead. Rest in Peace Ethira. She was written in water over hot stone and disappeared.
This fall at the New Museum, Rhizome presents three public events highlighting new art and addressing urgent topics in contemporary digital culture. Tickets are available through the links below (and Rhizome members can get a discount by messaging email@example.com) — please join one or all!
DIS: A Good Crisis
Thursday, October 4th, 7pm
Rhizome and the New Museum present a preview of DIS's new series of political advertisements that considers the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. "DIS: A Good Crisis" will be on view in October 2018 as part of the online exhibition series First Look: New Art Online.
(Image above: DIS, A Good Crisis, 2018. Digital image. Courtesy the artists.)
True Lies, Deep Fakes: Platforms, Knowledge, and Alternative Communities
Saturday, November 3rd, 3pm
In a time when the search for truth online seems futile, this conversation brings together a group of artists, writers, and practitioners who explore platforms, the social dynamics they engender, and alternative models for community building and artistic production.
(Image above: Josh Kline, Crying Games, 2015 (still). HD video, sound, color. Courtesy the artist.)
Comp USA Live: Season 2 Premiere
Thursday, December 6th, 7pm
The "original live desktop theater internet television show" comes to the New Museum for a one-night engagement. This event is presented alongside an online exhibition of Comp USA Live as part of the series First Look.
(Image above: Brad Birkenstock hosts Comp USA Live: Pop Spectacular, 2018 (still). Courtesy the artists.)
New Museum and Rhizome public programs are made possible, in part, through the support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Image: Background detail from Raiders of the Lost ArtBase blog, http://archive.rhizome.org/exhibition/raiders/.
Building on the survey with ArtBase archive users we conducted earlier this year, we are organizing a follow-up hands-on workshop session for Rhizome community members based in/around NYC. This practical research session, led by our PhD researcher Lozana Rossenova, continues the commitment of our digital preservation program to consider the needs and requirements of our users and to factor them into the on-going process of re-developing our archive of net art.
This 3-hour workshop session will feature presentations on the current state of the archive, as well as demos of work-in-progress new interface prototypes. Through practical exercises, participants will be encouraged to think together through issues around the context, description and presentation of artworks in the archive. Participants will be able to learn more about how Rhizome is exploring the potential of linked data to support digital preservation for complex digital artworks, and will be able to test some of the archival interface tools we’re currently developing.
GIF by Ben Fino-Radin, source: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/sep/20/artbase-update/
The workshop will take place on Monday, Sept. 24th from 10am-1pm. Breakfast and tea/coffee will be provided. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer compensation for travel expenses.
This workshop is aimed at anyone familiar with Rhizome’s archive and preservation programme, but anyone interested in digital art preservation in general, particularly artists, preservation professionals, or students are all welcome to attend. Places are limited, so if you’d like to attend please fill in this short form and we’ll get back to you to confirm your attendance.
This workshop is part of an ongoing joint research project between Rhizome and London South Bank University. Feel free to contact Lozana at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or concerns regarding user studies in the archive.
at Foxy Production
2 E Broadway #200, New York, NY 10038
On Tuesday, October 23, join Rhizome at Foxy Production to celebrate and support the 2018-2019 program of commissions, exhibitions, and preservation activities. Beyond drinks and a good time, this party will feature a set of works for sale in benefit of Rhizome's program and the launch of a new Crepe de Chine edition by Bogosi Sekhukuni, selected by assistant curator Aria Dean.
Purchase tickets for the benefit on Eventbrite. All tickets include admission to the event, Rhizome membership, and a copy of “What's to be Done?”, a magazine produced by Rhizome (edited by Nora Khan) and Wieden + Kennedy as part of our Seven on Seven 10th edition program.
At long last! The time has come to announce the recipients of this year’s Microgrants. Just as we did in 2017, we invited applicants to submit proposals in three different categories. This year’s categories were Net Art, Virtual Reality, and Poetry. Three separate juries led by Rhizome staff members deliberated painstakingly for weeks and their selections are as follows. Congratulations to all the awardees and our gratitude to everyone in the Rhizome community for their great care in putting together proposals this year.
Jury: Rhizome Community Manager Lauren Studebaker, Rhizome Preservation Director Dragan Espenschied, writer and curator Celine Katzman, and Rhizome Software Curator Lyndsey Moulds.
“Black Room is a browser-based, narrative game about an insomniac falling asleep on their computer, on the internet. It’s meant to played late at night. Progression through the game happens by resizing the browser it’s played in—which transforms the browser into a controller. Only through making the browser very small or oddly elongated can hidden secrets and doors to other rooms be found. The url is a string of 28+ random letters, an unmemorable URL. This requires it to be passed from person to person, copied and pasted directly, like an intimate secret, a response to SEO, ‘whisper networks,’ looking for safe places under the web’s public eye and the experience of being a woman online. It’s a feminist dungeon crawler that features a cast of vintage video game sprites, ripped directly from their arcade/console cards, and seeks to bring them together to form new, resilient narratives, as an antithesis to the hyper-sexualization/glorified sexual violence originally imposed on them.”
“I’m applying for a grant in support of my ongoing website, dioramas.space, about seeing and being seen by the non-human world and connecting my emotional landscape to the exigencies of climate disaster. I made this platform to facilitate quick generation of pages (dioramas) and am continually developing it.
The impetus is threefold:
- Post-Newhive I wanted to secure a net art venue;
- I visited Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and, bothered by its geological machismo, I became interested in the feminist practice of maintenance. I want my work to embody the act of tending;
- A diorama contextualizes the browser as a container to depict the observed world. I like aesthetic containment. Natural history museums, though problematic, inspire me. A GIF recapitulates the cycles of the Earth and its ecosystems. It’s degraded but flexible. It implies a timeline with infinite ends. (An earlier iteration of my dioramas is here.)”
“Into is an experimental browser game in which the player engages with the code itself via the developer tools. Meant to reward inspection (literally), Into starts small and grows from fantasy text RPG to postmodern interactive artwork. The game references top-down RPG & interactive fiction predecessors like Zelda, Candybox, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy within a sparse minimal aesthetic.
In my past work with web-based ARGs I was thrilled to realize that players were immediately viewing the source code in their exploration. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the idea of using intentionally viewable code as a medium for artworks. My Web Poems series has explored this on a small scale. With Into I want to go further by integrating interactivity and narrative.
The element inspector is a ubiquitous tool for so many, yet is rarely seen a creative platform. I think this work will be exciting for the coding community to engage with and I am excited to continue to develop it.”
Studio Visit 360
“Studio Visit 360 is a site specific mixed reality installation that premiered at Meredith Rosen Gallery in NY on April 2018. In this new body of work, the gallery space is reimagined as the artist’s own virtual studio. He embodies an Ork avatar, who uses digital tools to create 3D forms, a process that is recorded through DIY Motion Capture. The Rhizome microgrant would be used as a good excuse to document the virtual scene and present it to a broader audience through the First Look app as a standalone piece.”
Tough Guy Mountain
“Guided Meditation is narrative about contemporary labour, disguised as a VR mindfulness application… The game is an ongoing project of the collective practice of Tough Guy Mountain, post-secondary instructors teaching from the intersections of art, labour, and emerging technologies, developing games as immersive critical commentary.”
Jury: Rhizome Assistant Curator Aria Dean, artist and writer manuel arturo abreu, writer Brendan C. Byrne
(Display Distribute) Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky
“Shanzhai Lyric is an ongoing inquiry into global logistics and linguistics taking inspiration from the experimental english of shanzhai T-shirts to pursue a larger aesthetic strategy of apparent nonsense as a way to disrupt the relentless forces of commodification and make space for hybrid, liminal and illegible futures.”
Barrett White & Miriam Karraker, editors
“Since 2014, Tagvverk has sought to publish innovative poetry, art, and other textual/digital experiments. We are seeking financial support to launch a new website, and transfer our archive of almost 100 posts from an incredibly limiting and user-unfriendly Wordpress site. We would ideally work with an independent web designer who can incorporate their creative vision in the new site. Additional funds would help continue the Torf microgrant project, which was paid for out of pocket by the editors in its previous incarnation. With this monetary assistance, we will continue to invest in important contemporary poetic voices, including forthcoming works from Valerie Hsiung, a conversation between Saretta Morgan and Benjamin Krusling, and a new series of curated editions involving interactive content.”
So You Want to Make a Secret War
Bryan Thao Worra
“I wish to create an interdisciplinary, interactive pop-up poetry exhibit probing the poorly understood Laotian Secret War (1954-1975) incorporating original experimental art by elder traditional masters, archival photographs, and modified Southeast Asian shadow puppetry with my verse to expand how we express our journey 45 years later. Laos is still 30% contaminated by Vietnam War bombs and fewer than 15% of Lao refugees in the US graduate college. Many cope with multigenerational PTSD and poverty. Held in a community & handicapped-accessible space in MN (3rd largest Lao refugee population in the US) this breaks new ground bringing our stories back to ourselves over 3 days so my audience can at last take their own pace and time to engage with their memories of the conflict and its aftermath. As a low-income poet with disabilities, this is vital to me that they can read, hear, feel, or watch the poems in a variety of ways, even across language barriers to explore our diaspora.”
We’re excited to announce that “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics,” an exhibition based on our Net Art Anthology program, will open in the New Museum’s Lobby Gallery in January before touring internationally. Since 2016, the Anthology has been an ongoing research initiative and online exhibition restoring, contextualizing, and presenting one hundred works that sketch a possible canon for net art.
On view at the New Museum from January 22 through May 26, 2019, “The Art Happens Here” will reflect on the process of narrating archives and histories of online artistic practice. Drawing its name from Simple Net Art Diagram by MTAA (M. River and T. Whid), the exhibition features sixteen works from throughout net art history, showcasing a wide range of forms—websites, software, sculpture, graphics, books, and merchandise—while offering a space for considering the internet as social process, material infrastructure, and lived experience. The exhibition will be accompanied by a major catalogue featuring critical and historical essays by artists, curators, and theorists alongside hundreds of archival images from the history of net art.
This exhibition is curated by Michael Connor, Artistic Director, Rhizome, with Aria Dean, Assistant Curator. We'll be announcing further details in the coming months. Stay tuned!
Major support for “The Art Happens Here” is provided by the Carl & Marilyn Thoma Art Foundation.
Special thanks to the Producers Council of the New Museum.
Want to support this exhibition and other Rhizome projects? Attend our members party and art sale, happening October 23 at Foxy Production. Tickets are $30 and up; buy yours before they sell out!
In late September, The Verge reported that development studio Telltale Games laid off nearly 400 employees, leaving only a small group of 25 to finish pending projects. The workers were given little notice of this decision, and those who were fired were not granted severance. That same month, CBC reported that Capcom Vancouver, the developer responsible for the Dead Rising games, finally closed its doors, leaving 158 people without jobs. This latter closure wasn’t too much of a surprise—Gamesindustry.biz reported layoffs totalling 30% of the staff last February—as the developer restructured to focus more on its studio headquarters in Japan.
In the videogame industry, this is hardly remarkable: studio closures and downsizing are extremely common, so much so that they have historically not garnered an overwhelming amount of attention. The industry is full of other examples: Microsoft cut 1,400 jobs in 2009, including significant cuts to its games division; Irrational Games, the makers of the BioShock series, closed its doors in 2014; 2017 saw its share of layoffs and shutterings at EA, and mobile studios Storm8, Goodgame Studios, and Popcap. Montreal-based mobile studio Hibernum reportedly laid off the majority of its staff. That same year Kotaku reported that Activision had mass layoffs despite reporting a “better-than-expected and record fourth-quarter.”
Those who work in the games industry have known for years that mass layoffs not just frequent but cyclical. A 2012 Wired piece by Andrew Groen titled “‘Routine’ Game Industry Layoffs Kill Creativity,” laments that “business as usual” layoffs result in broken bonds between creative team members—writers, level designers—who spend months or years together working on a game, only to be separated when the studio no longer has any work for them, and has made no plans to retain their talent. Jessica Price, a writer and producer, recently warned former Telltale employees looking for a new job that many new listings are being placed by companies that have themselves recently gone through a cycle of layoffs. In a Twitter thread, Price details the reasons layoffs, concluding that“[...] More often, it’s mismanagement. And it’s seeing game industry talent as disposable.”
Price, who was recently fired from ArenaNet after a dispute with fans over dialogue boiled over into a harassment campaign that successfully pressured the company into cutting her loose, knows all too well that game companies are extraordinarily unlikely to stand behind their employees under even the slightest strain. She explains in the thread that most of these disposable jobs go to young workers who can be paid less, and that there is little chance that most companies will be held accountable for their malpractice.
This is all true to various degrees, but we can dig a little bit deeper here. The games industry uses an arsenal of tactics to suppress and exploit its workers, above and beyond general mismanagement. These tactics include industry blacklisting, outsourcing, precarious contracts, wage theft, and various internal forms of abuse and harassment, especially to more vulnerable employees (women, LGBTQIA+ people, non-white workers). That word, “mismanagement,” might be used to let the industry off the hook, but if anything its commonality should be even more of an indictment. It’s a result of, as Price points out, not valuing workers in the first place, and like mass layoffs or unpaid overtime, is typically deployed and then discussed with a sort of casual callousness. These practices and attitudes that are so prevalent at the managerial level happen to fit hand in glove with the infamously poisonous behaviour of many gamers, who as a group have earned a reputation for their harassment of critics, dissident employees and anyone else they can target for blame for real or imagined slights. Harmful company practices, from crunch to mass layoffs, are so common as to be considered routine in the industry, whereas the incandescent rage that became so apparent during the height of Gamergate, is treated more like an embarrassing indiscretion of consumers that isn’t sanctioned by respectable corporate figures in the industry. But that’s a lie that has only become more obvious over time, especially as workers and marginalized people in the subculture have made their voices louder. Angry gamers can easily be understood as a pool of reactionary scabs that serve as a resource for videogame companies that prefer it when its workforce is afraid, quiet, and deprived of the leverage it needs.
The successive occurrences of Gamergate, the 2016-17 SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike, and the burgeoning Game Workers Unite movement have forced suppressed, but widespread labor issues into the mainstream. This is a reflection of the larger leftward political response to resurgent fascism and failing neoliberalism has also brought with it a renewed interest in unions, which have generally been depleted of their power over the last 30 years. This interest is now finding voice in an industry that grew up firmly within the confines of neoliberalism and echoes that ideology.
What’s become clear from these events is that while reactionary voices are persistent, they don’t speak for many or even most actual game workers or even consumers. Telltale received a tremendous amount of backlash for its decisions, and the overwhelming response to the class-action lawsuit being brought against the company by a former employee seems to be in favor of the workers. That said, reactionary and anti-worker attitudes are still persistent and trickle down from the managerial class in the industry, pervading everything. As pro-union sentiment grows, these attitudes are likely to become more aggressive and their relationship to persistently bad working conditions more obvious.
The SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike—the longest in the union’s history, lasting 340 days—began in October 2016 and lasted until September of 2017, and culminated in a deal between the union and 11 videogame companies through Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm representing them. The union demanded, among other things, better safety standards for voice strain and risks associated with stunt coordination (for motion capture), an improved structure for bonus payments, transparency and employment mobility. The 11 companies in question, including Activision, WB Games,Insomniac, Take 2 Interactive, Electronic Arts and Disney Character Voices, for their part, claimed that the union was being “undemocratic” in its move to strike, and uncompromising despite fair counter-offers made during the last 18-month negotiating phase put forward by the companies. After mass strikes and walkouts, including a rally at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles that drew a crowd of 500 strikers, the companies invited the union back to the negotiating table, and they eventually reached a deal that some workers felt was compromised. This was particularly the case regarding the hotly-debated new “bonus structure” the companies introduced to address concerns about unfair compensation for voice actors, and especially for those who worked on games that generated profits vastly out of proportion with what they were getting paid.
Part of the reason for consternation over the mixed results of the negotiation can be linked to statements made by the companies, their legal representation and their online defenders that sought to conflate the “bonus structure” with the concept of “residuals”. The two concepts are similar, with the slight distinction that a bonus refers to a gratuity on top of the actor’s regular fee that scales up per sessions worked, while “residuals” would refer to a secondary fee paid, in this case, per units sold. These words got tossed around as did the term “royalties,” but the nuances between them are less important than the purpose of using them to compromise the union in the eyes of gamers, and especially other game workers. These comments seemed designed to paint voice actors as greedy, and seemed to work to some extent. The issue divided not just gamers and game workers, but game workers amongst themselves.
Most notably, public statements made by the companies through their lawyer, Scott Witlin, successfully drove a wedge between organized and unorganized workers. As SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive Committee Keythe Farley told me in January of last year, while the strike was ongoing, the union had actually demanded a proposal for secondary compensation on games selling over 2 million copies, rather than on sessions worked. The companies were the ones who counter-offered with the bonus-per-session structure, as Farley explained, “doesn't pay anything to an actor on the first session that they work.” Nonetheless, the companies essentially accused the union of greed and arrogance, and many gamers and game workers expressed resentment that voice actors were demanding additional, unearned benefits that they could not share in.
While these voices were far more prolific at the time, and included plenty of programmers and designers alongside overzealous fans, a few records of this narrative still exist: this Reddit thread, for example, contains a spirited discussion on the topic. While many users side with the voice actors, the thread also features such commentary as, “Voice actors deserve better safety standards, but they don't deserve residuals. It's not like regular programmers get royalties either, and they'd be just as laughed at for demanding them.” and “Just because they add something doesn't make them special snowflakes deserving royalties.”
A regular refrain among the anti-union set is that the industry is fundamentally fair, as long as one keeps their nose to the grindstone. These ideas are certainly more popular among those who continue to benefit from things as they are: consumers, but also plenty of industry insiders and even (generally more socioeconomically privileged) workers who see themselves as future bosses. The implication here is that unions are undesirable because they reward the undeserving, and videogames are a “meritocracy” that recognizes individual talent.
Speaking to me over Skype, writer and independent developer Liz Ryerson recounted a conversation with an acquaintance in the game industry, someone who “has pretty progressive politics,” expressing frustration with the voice actors: “[they were] basically just like, ‘Fuck the voice actors. they get paid way more than us. I don't give a shit about them. They're entitled.’” Ryerson continued, “Maybe it's because the voice actors are coming from Hollywood, where there's unions. People who work in the game industry expect these things to not be unionized and expect to waive a lot of their rights, so they view a lot of these voice actors as entitled instead of recognizing a mutual territory...a lot of people in the games industry just don't have the vocabulary for it.”
The fact that workers themselves may fall for some of the more pernicious propaganda may seem like a separate issue from gamer rage, but they’re deeply linked, not least because many gamers will not only gladly police workers on behalf of their bosses, but aspire themselves to work in the industry. Though it pains me to revisit the topic, this sort of policing is reflected in the Gamergate saga, a very stupid and seemingly pointless tantrum thrown by gaming’s conventional audience against everyone they perceived to be “outsiders” from the culture: women, non-white people, LGBTQIA+ people, and anybody who supported their inclusion. These conflicts ranged from the benign to downright dangerous, such as groups of self-identified “Gamergaters” attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to get their opponents fired for dubious reasons, stalking, violent threats to their opponents and their families, and SWATting (falsely reporting their opponent to the police in an attempt to get them killed).
The conflict began with a baseless attack on developer Zoe Quinn started by a jilted ex and centered on a claim that she had traded sex for positive reviews of a free-to-play game. This was a ridiculous lie, one of many that circulated during a campaign putatively about “ethics in games journalism,” but it exploded like a pustule over the face of the industry and was never really washed away.
Alison Rapp, a former mid-level marketing employee for Nintendo, was fired from the company shortly after becoming the target of a Gamergate smear campaign. The story, covered extensively by journalist Patrick Klepek, involves a controversy in which Rapp was blamed for changes made during the localization process of Japanese games, despite the fact that Rapp worked in public relations, not localization, for the development division of Nintendo called Treehouse. When Rapp became the target of their ire for changes Treehouse localizers made to games Fire Emblem Fate and Xenoblade Chronicles X, she became the central figure in a niche dispute over translation accuracy that had already been going on for years.
Detractors accused Rapp of being a pedophile and an advocate for child porn on the basis of a college paper entitled “Speech We Hate: An Argument for the Cessation of International Pressure on Japan to Strengthen Its Anti-Child Pornography Laws,” in which she argues that Japan ought to have the autonomy to legislate free speech with regard to the fictionalized sexualization of children, in accordance with its own cultural standards and without pressure from large imperial powers like the United States. (It’s worth mentioning that while some of this may be unsavory and worthy of scrutiny, Rapp at no point advocates for the sexual exploitation of children, referring to it it as a “social ill” in the paper.) When that wasn’t enough to get her fired, her detractors attacked her for provocative modeling photos and began circulating rumors that she was a sex worker, insisting this made her unfit for her job.
During the spring of 2016 when this all went down, Nintendo said nothing—that is, until The Daily Stormer weighed in, blaming Rapp and her apparent misdeeds on“the impact of Jews and feminism on our society.” Commenting on this article, Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer, the neo-nazi black hat hacker who went to federal prison in 2013 for his apparent involvement in an AT&T data breach—and who also helped bully designer Kathy Sierra out of a job over a decade ago—called for people to leave phone and email complaints to Nintendo executives en masse in the hopes of getting Rapp fired. Ultimately, all of these strikes against Rapp converged, and she was ultimately fired from Nintendo while she and her new husband were honeymooning in Japan. (Her husband, who worked as a barista at Nintendo’s coffee shop, later quit following an overwhelming amount of abuse and hectoring he received from angry gamers. Neither received severance.)
Nintendo’s official explanation for the firing was summed up as “conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture,” but Rapp told me that nothing her detractors dredged up had been hidden from the public or presented a problem before the Gamergate campaign. Nintendo denied that harassment had anything to do with the decision and claimed Rapp had been “moonlighting” at an unnamed second job, which was against policy. While Rapp received support, although it fractured and wavered over time, this took place entirely in a disembodied sphere of public opinion with no actual direct, organized power. While Gamergaters sometimes referred to their opponents as “Anti-Gamergate”—some of whom adopted the moniker in an attempt to brand themselves as a sort of official resistance—there was never really an ideologically-committed, organized countermovement. Most Gamergate detractors still engaged with it on its terms as a kind of “consumer revolt,” rather than an attack on workers, and so there was never any throughline that connected what was going on with broader labor struggles either in the media or in the general discussion.
There was no institutional apparatus to take a second look at Nintendo’s reason for Rapp’s firing, and no realistic way for Rapp to individually sue the company for wrongful termination. Rapp describes the termination as just the “nail in the coffin” following a series of “major problems” that had been ongoing before she became the subject of a coordinated harassment campaign. She explained to me that in nearly three years working at Nintendo, she had gone to HR “several times” over what she perceived as an unfair enforcement of company policy. In one instance, she complained that men in Treehouse were allowed to have personal Twitch streams but she was not; she was also told not to tweet about rape culture because “then it would become a news story, that someone from Nintendo was talking about rape culture.” She also says that “several male colleagues” from Nintendo of America had made inappropriate sexual comments towards her, which she claims began barely a month into her tenure there.
By December 2015, following, as Rapp claims, a largely positive fall performance review, she had become a target for harassment. The rumor that she had been a sex worker began to circulate. Around this time, she claims that the company had begun to harass her internally: “HR sat me down and railed on me about the weirdest stuff—the fact that I'd gone to the in-office holiday party instead of working straight through it, the fact that I'd texted a coworker (a coworker we were supposed to text if we were worried about a deadline... A management-mandated practice).” HR later revoked her spokesperson privileges, and accused her of “inciting her own harassment.”
“The reality is, really suspicious stuff had been happening for a long time, and the sex worker stuff was just a convenient way for Nintendo to get rid of someone who had become a PR liability to them without raising too many legal red flags,” Rapp tells me, expressing her belief that the company used her character assassination as a way to dispose of an employee who had become a liability on legitimate-seeming grounds while her public credibility was compromised. The company, she claims, had ulterior motives for wanting to get rid of her, and the campaign against her gave them an easy out.
After putting out an open call on social media, I spoke to many workers in the games industry, from all sorts of backgrounds and specializations—from quality control to sound design to programming—who expressed fear they would suffer the same fate if they spoke out. Some spoke to me in person, others over Skype, and many over e-mail exchange. Many of the respondents who reported feeling vulnerable in this way were women, many of whom also reported instances of inappropriate behaviour, including touching, from their male colleagues and superiors followed by very little sympathy from HR. One anonymous respondent who reported her harassment at the hands of a fellow employee told me, “This is basically how HR at my former employer worked. If the image of the company was in any way harmed, their mission was to turn the blame on the victim as to keep denying that anything was wrong with the company.”
Most of the workers who reached out to me were from North America and Europe, and while labor laws and enforcement vary from nation to nation, there were certain obvious consistencies. I spoke to nearly 20 workers who all expressed a desire for a union but did not feel secure creating one, felt alienated from their peers, and antagonized and suppressed by their bosses. Many expressed difficulty envisioning the shape a labor union for games might take, or who it might include (or exclude). They all described tactics that their bosses deliberately use to coerce behaviour—such as agreeing to unpaid overtime, or staying quiet about abusive superiors—but also subtle social pressures to express enthusiasm, passion, and a self-destructive drive to work.
I don’t mean to suggest that game companies and gamers knowingly conspired to silence and bully workers, but there is evidence that, as long as gamers direct their grievances at individual workers, videogame companies understand that they can use that dynamic to shield themselves from community criticism while using it as leverage in internal conflicts with employees. This has, for a long time, represented a win-win for companies, ensuring not just the PR victory with their fans, but also deeply suppressed and compliant workforce, and an opaque shroud over the industry’s internal workings. That shroud, however, seems to be starting to clear.
These fears that workers have are founded, but a critical mass of solidarity may be forming to overcome individual anxieties. A majority of workers actually do long for unionization—56% according to widely-cited 2014 IGDA survey—but fear sabotage and reprisal from their bosses, fans, and even peers. Most who spoke to me asked for anonymity, and many described an undercurrent of intense paranoia that contributed to a desire to stay quiet, keep to the grind, and be grateful for their continued employment. (I refer to these sources with an anonymized first name to protect their privacy.)
“There’s still a fear of being replaced,” Gwen, a former Ubisoft Montreal employee told me after we had moved away from our original meeting location, where too many recognizable faces were enjoying their lunch break. She confirmed a general desire for some form of unionization, but feared that a union representative would find little success at Ubisoft. A lot of the struggle, Gwen said, could be chalked up to ignorance or fear, but she also described a work culture that rewarded people who offered themselves up willingly for additional work. She mentioned management pressures to overperform were part of the issue, but that many people also viewed themselves as future bosses. Why handicap their own future prospects by advocating for their peers now?
A developer working in systems design, told me: “These libertarian tech companies haven’t ever had to deal with any labor they couldn’t bully around. They prey on the young and idealistic; give them mediocre pay while asking for a ridiculous amount of work hours and providing completely unhealthy fast food to do it. [...] Once the project is done, terminate anyone to maximize profits. It’s depressing because we’ve kind of just accepted that this is how it is and how it has to be. Many people leave this industry because they want to have stable personal lives; and making video games, even thirty-forty years later, does not cater to it.”
Many respondents described a “revolving door” churning out a young, inexperienced workforce, under pressure to perform with time and resource constraints generally caused by poor management, lack of benefits, poor pay, and a culture demanding their fealty to the brand. The abuses that take place within slick studios stocked with free kombucha and beanbags are by now well-documented—Ian Williams’s essay “You Can Sleep Here All Night”: Video Games and Labor is one example—but an important aspect is how these practices are reinforced ideologically.
“Passion is always a big part of it all,” an anonymous respondent who used to work at EA DICE wrote to me in an email. “Hell, DICE even has it in their bloody core values: Quality, Innovation, Passion (which was a bit ironic at the time BF4 shipped broken). Passion means you’re so lucky to be there, you’re so lucky to be working on this, don’t ruin it by complaining. Passion means you’re so lucky, then why are you up at 3AM crying and feeling dead inside every day?”
The question of “passion” and toleration of abuses is by no means a settled issue. As recently as October 14th, Variety reported that workers at Rockstar Games involved with the upcoming Red Dead Redemption sequel were working “100-hour weeks,” following provocative statements made by company co-founder Dan Houser who later clarified that only he and a handful of people actually did this. A statement Rockstar sent to Kotaku and which has been attributed to Houser, claims that nobody at the company is ever “forced to work hard,” and that rather, some senior employees will do this entirely by choice, “purely because they’re passionate about a project.”
The latter argument—that crunch is a sign of passion and commitment—is the more pervasive one, having been embraced by nerds who not only play games but make them for years (Erin Hoffman detailed the effects of this practice on her husband in 2004 on Livejournal, in her infamous “EA Spouse” post). This idea of “passion” fuels the idea that workers should feel grateful to be able to work in the industry regardless of the conditions, and that this state of affairs constitutes a meritocracy where the best developers always rise to the top, rather than burn out and leave development altogether. Any complaint can then be handwaved as laziness, greed or ingratitude on the part of a “bad apple” employee, usually some disposable woman. As Steven T. Wright points out in his piece, “Despite Resistance, Crunch Continues to Define the Video Game Industry,” the crunch-as-commitment narrative gained traction exactly because the industry has always been extremely volatile, and employment extremely precarious.
Poor working conditions—especially crunch and mass layoffs—are treated as measures of a worker’s passion, but the irony is that none of this “grinding” or “passion” is necessarily resulting in better-crafted or more creative games. Poor project management practices and lack of team-building may result in broken or lackluster products, but more vulnerable workers who are easier to isolate are the ones who end up bearing the brunt of pissed-off gamers.
These attitudes and practices pervade the industry, from major studios to mid-level indies to freelance contractors. Despite the rosy arthouse reputations many mid-level studios enjoy, many of their workers are contending with the “small business tyrants” of the industry, where they may or may not have the luxury of an HR department to ignore them.
Anne, a contractor, spoke to me about her 5-month stint for a well-known Montreal-based indie games company. She told me that she experienced routine mismanagement and internal reprisal for speaking up about misbehaviour and unfair practices she experienced in the workplace. “My time there was really fraught, and looking back on it now it just feels like some surreal, bizarre kind of nightmare,” she told me over coffee.
She told me that this company, despite projecting an outward image of dedication to social justice, touting its diverse staff and games focused on social and moral issues, such as bullying, suffered from a multitude of poor internal practices. Anne, who worked as a community manager, described being expected to pull 16-hour days in her first week and was told to “get over it” when she refused. She described male colleagues finding excuses to give her unwanted massages or make lascivious remarks to her on the job, only to have her bosses ask her to sympathize with her harassers. She explained that she got on the bad side of influential figures in the company for refusing to do extra work, for calling out racism and sexism in the workplace and in the company’s products, and for sticking up for another employee who was being made to man two virtual reality booths at an industry conference by themselves. The experience left her feeling bitter about the industry and disillusioned with soi-disant “progressive” rockstar indie brands. While theoretically in favor of unions, she fears that many people are still willing to go along with the status quo out of fear, or exhaustion, or basic alienation from the condition of other workers and the companies they work for.
As Carolyn Jong, a Montreal-based researcher and organizer with the grassroots union advocacy group Game Workers Unite told me, the fact that there’s no real labor organization in games means that things are generally framed in terms of the consumers’ interests and demands, rather than in terms of the workers’ needs. Even those who seek a more progressive vision of games generally engage with that vision on very superficial, neoliberal terms. This usually finds expression in companies pandering to reactionary elements of their fanbase, but pandering to progressives without a class consciousness is just as easy for game companies as it is for Whole Foods. This is how a company with such shoddy internal practices can maintain a squeaky-clean public image while totally evading scrutiny.
“It is very obvious, the way that a lot of the harassment in games happens is connected to this consumer-producer divide; people defining themselves in terms of consumerism and what they purchase, and that being the only legitimate source of power that they can imagine,” Jong said.“I think Gamergate served the industry, obviously—the industry being the bosses, the multinationals—because it scared their employees, it got rid of a lot of their critics. It basically served this pacification purpose. I think that polarization is very real, and I think it's a result of the mushy status quo being unsustainable. You cannot just keep reproducing what exists because it's breaking down all around us.”
The International Games Developers Association, or IGDA, is emblematic of the kind of “mushy status quo” that Jong describes. The association is a non-profit primarily known as an advocacy group that produces a lot of labor surveys and headhunts on behalf of companies. It is not, as former IGDA board member Darius Kazemi made clear to me over Skype, functionally capable of acting as a union. This is because the organization is classified as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt professional association, rather than as a 501(c)5, which renders it unable to do things like collectively bargain for employees. The IGDA board of directors is composed largely of individuals with management or executive profiles, leans heavily white, cis and male, and maintains relationships with a procession of corporate sponsors. Kazemi, a programmer and founding member of tech co-op Feel Train, who officially left IGDA in 2013, told me that while the IGDA maintains an outward impression of being pro-worker, the organization’s main concern is “its own continued existence,” and the maintenance of a balance of power that benefits it.
The new advocacy group Game Workers Unite, on the other hand, may be a viable engine for worker interests that the IGDA is structurally incapable of being. The international group, which has chapters in cities across the globe, has been busy this past year fanning the flames of union sentiment in the games industry. Last spring, in fact, the two groups faced off head to head at the gaming world’s biggest annual conference, the Game Developers Conference (or GDC).
On March 21st, 2018, IGDA ran a roundtable entitled “Pros, Cons and Consequences of Unionization.” The discussion was hosted by IGDA president Jen Maclean, former CEO of the now-defunct 38 Studios. As reporter Ian Williams described it, Maclean’s amicable and even-keeled tone quickly degenerated into thinly-veiled hostility as game workers who filled the room loudly pushed back on anti-union rhetoric. As Williams points out in his article “After Destroying Lives For Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization,” when Maclean posed theoretical questions like “How do you see unions helping protect marginalized people?,” she encountered an audience willing to answer them with force and moral clarity. Williams writes,
“The question had already been answered prior, when the speaker brought up equal pay, and further answered when they mentioned their grad student union helping trans bathroom rights at their university, but MacLean’s question wasn’t looking for an answer. It was a wedge, designed to create an imaginary rift between the class concerns typically associated with union questions and the cultural questions of identity. As the evening wore on, her interruptions became more frequent, the politeness more forced. The audience began to become more restive, as well. It was tense because it mattered.”
The anti-union tone of the roundtable wasn’t lost on many pro-union voices within the industry, who organized in secret channels weeks in advance to distribute pro-union material at the conference and push back on Maclean’s anti-union disposition, filling the room with pro-union talk in a way that Maclean and the IGDA clearly didn’t expect. Like the eleven videogame companies named in the SAG-AFTRA strike, like Nintendo in the case of Alison Rapp, Maclean began her gambit with every reason to believe that the those in the crowd who could not be pacified with bromides could be intimidated by fear-mongering. Instead, the workers talked, sometimes shouted back. The pro-consumer, anti-union tenor that still pervades much of gamer culture hasn’t proven as stable as people like Maclean or even most workers once thought. That is an extraordinary change.
Still, much work remains to be done. One anonymous Game Workers Unite organizer told me that they felt optimistic, and most of the people they encountered at GDC expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of a union. But they admit that an attitude still persists whereby “people in games are groomed to see themselves as future management rather than workers, and thus see poor working conditions as ‘paying one's dues’ before ‘working their way to the top.’”
In a sense, the naked exposure of angry gamer backlash against workers is a good thing. It reveals that workers are now more united than previously thought, and that companies and the ornery nerds who love them are beginning to loosen their stranglehold. The backlash has always been there—it was the very same backlash that pushed legendary developer Kathy Sierra out of the industry in 2004, and then descended on Mass Effect writer Jessica Hepler in 2012. It is the same force that was deployed against Jessica Price, Zoe Quinn, Alison Rapp, and countless others who became a liability to the industry.
Now, workers themselves are beginning to form an opposing force that will hopefully expand, encompassing not just artists and programmers but exploited industry workers of the Global South, including rare earth mineral miners, factory workers and “e-waste” workers. Nerd rage has been a powerful tool for the industry to use against its workers, and until recently it has been allowed to rampage unopposed. Game culture stands as a perfect, miniature example of the ways in which neoliberal economics beget reactionary shock troops to defend its institutions whenever it falls into crisis, and so it’s no surprise that such a volatile industry has harbored such a volatile community. Hopefully, though, international solidarity and the energy for change will prove to be the antidote.
Together with the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), we're delighted to announce Seven on Seven Beijing, the first China-based edition of the celebrated platform that pairs visionaries from the fields of art and technology, inviting them to create new projects through short-term, one-on-one collaborations.
On November 20, 2018, this daylong event will be the culmination of the weeklong Education, Arts, Science, and Technology festival (EAST), directed by Professor Qiu Zhijie, dean of the School of Experimental Arts at CAFA. Seven on Seven Beijing debuts a new format, which reteams exceptional past participants to further develop their projects and presents an additional pairs selected from an open call by Rhizome Executive Director Zachary Kaplan and Baoyang Chen, Faculty of CAFA.
All projects will premiere with public presentations at Riverside Museum, dedicated partner and distinguished sponsor of EAST and Seven on Seven Beijing. Tickets for Seven on Seven Beijing are free and will be available starting November 12. Please check back for those and other details.
The pairs revisiting their past collaborations are as follows:
Artist and Nonfood Cofounder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
The new pairs were selected in relation to innovative research taking place among Beijing-based technology firms and will focus on four fields of inquiry: artificial intelligence, blockchain, liquid metal technology, and augmented reality. The following four pairs have been chosen by Kaplan and Chen:
Liquid Metal: CAFA EAST Group & Liu Jing, Professor and Lead Scientist, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University
Blockchain: Gao Peng, Director, Today Art Museum & Jia Yinghao, CEO, Hashworld
AR: Artist Ye Zhicong & Zhang Zhen, CEO, Ice Stream
Of this collaboration with CAFA, Rhizome Executive Director Zachary Kaplan said: "We are thrilled to have found a visionary partner in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, which has worked with us to adapt Seven on Seven for Beijing, bringing established collaborations to China and uncovering the future of art and tech through local research."
Qiu Zhijie, speaking on behalf of CAFA, added: "With Rhizome and the New Museum, we want to build on Seven on Seven's past successes and create an entirely new mode of art-tech production that brings local art and tech communities to a more global context. I sincerely invite friends and colleagues to join us for Seven on Seven Beijing, this year's EAST conference, and beyond."
ABOUT THE CENTRAL ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS
The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the only art academy of higher learning directly under the Ministry of Education, was founded in 1918 in Beijing. An academy where culture, history, and art flourish, CAFA enjoys the best art resources in the world. CAFA is a leading institution for modern art education in China and has nurtured many preeminent artists in the past hundred years. CAFA comprises eight discipline-based schools with over one thousand faculty, nearly five thousand undergraduates and postgraduates, and three hundred international students. The campus occupies 330,000 square meters for teaching and research.
The long-term objective of Education, Arts, Science, and Technology (EAST) is to create a global alliance of art and technology institutions, research centers, and other educational entities to spread and exchange new ideas, thereby making room for new theoretical frames, mindsets, systems, and ideas to take shape. Such a union would also facilitate the use of new technologies, materials, and mediums; the acquisition and promotion of new working patterns; and active cooperation among art theorists, artists, art institutions, and innovative enterprises. EAST hopes that this worldwide convergence of creativity and responsibility will accelerate the transfer of knowledge and thus benefit the lives of individuals across the world.
ABOUT RIVERSIDE MUSEUM
Riverside Art Museum is a private art museum founded by the Riverside Group. It aims at international cultural exchanges. With its global vision, the museum collects, preserves, and interprets contemporary Eastern and Western Art, focuses on building long term partnership with universities and research institutions. Riverside is dedicated partner and distinguish sponsor of EAST and Seven on Seven Beijing.
Launched during the 2000 US Presidential election, Vote-Auction claimed to connect people who wished to sell their vote with potential buyers.
Michael Connor: How did the project begin?
UBERMORGEN: James Baumgartner invented the whole thing. He was from RPI, and he had this idea to do this Vote-Auction thing as a political statement. He did that and ran into serious troubles immediately with the New York City Election Committee. Soon after, the FBI was poking around. One of The Yes Men was teaching up at RPI. They got together and came to the understanding that this was not a project that could be done from the US. And then we took it over.
There was a Wired article, and from this moment on it was a complete danger in America. So, basically, we firewalled them off. And UBERMORGEN had a different strategy: we are experimental; we're not political artists. We don't have any message. We don't care. We were just interested in experimental approaches and pushing the project to the absolute limit and over the edge. So that's what we did.
We started to do a new version of the website with an algorithm that would, every time someone would interact and offer a vote, interact with all the other votes and organically grow the whole system. We started to get traction. And, after a short while, we got so many threats. FBI, NSA, CIA, Austrian Secret Service, German Secret Service. Everybody was basically coming after us. Thirteen states were sending us injunctions. We had to legally protect ourselves. We stayed in Europe for ten years because of this project, never went to the US.
Our domains got killed, but we were flexible. We used a network of people. We worked with press releases, so every time something happened we sent out a press release which generated hundreds of articles or news features in media. Interestingly, it was all mass media—newspapers, video, TV. It was basically the last manifestation of this old mass media system that was still very much in place and had no idea what was going on.
MC: So on the new version of the site, you would sign up to sell your vote, but there was no money exchanged?
UM: No, that would have been highly illegal. Already in certain states, the solicitation of buying and selling a vote is an illegal act. In California, it's a felony. It was very important for us that we protect the stupid people who just had no idea how the internet works.
We could not even register any kind of data because the moment we would have done that we would have incriminated not only ourselves, which was okay— we would have incriminated the audience.
The problem legally was that it posed a threat to the integrity of the American electoral system. That's why they spent, we think, about five million dollars in thirteen states and federally to investigate the case. The spooks—the fucking CIA, NSA, FBI, Janet Reno were investigating the case.
They had to take it seriously. It could have been a problem. And afterwards, in Florida, it became obvious that there were problems, big problems, in the voting system. But technically it was nothing. It was just a shitty website.
We didn't show our identity, we didn't do it in a style that we liked, and we didn't do it as a political message. That was all off the table. We never talked about it as an artistic project. We had aliases, and we represented ourselves as Eastern European businesspeople the whole way through.
The art world had no idea that we were behind it. They had no fucking idea. Only after November 7th we would go and show the thing like the 700 kilograms of legal documents, the videos, et cetera, in museums and galleries around the world.
MC: So how do you position the work as within your artistic practice?
UM: We come from a background of Viennese Actionism, like with the body and shitting on each other and ejaculating on each other and hurting each other or yourself as an act of art in the 1960s. We did something very similar in the '90s and 2000, but we put it in a digital space. It felt very physical, and the body was under threat.
It wasn’t digital, it wasn’t abstract; it was as real as if you were threatened on the street by someone with a knife. James Baumgartner had FBI agents sitting in front of his apartment. That's how we learned that the ideological separation of digital and analog space is a fucking lie. It's a Silicon Valley lie, it's a philosophical lie, it's a business and marketing lie. There is no difference.
The long, dark days of early November are here and another American election is upon us. This one, unique as a hotly contested midterm followed around the world. At stake, a Republican agenda fueling the global march towards fascism versus some kind of checks and balances in one of the world's great democracies. Winter is coming!
Trolls, hackers, spyware, internet, wikis, electronic voting, once the coded terminology of a long forgotten digerati, have become common currency on the speculative market of popular public opinion generators. Social media, mobile devices and ubiquitous mainstream media coverage fuel conspiracies and economies now feed a public hungry for constant communication. Just days before citizens were to go to the polls, there were accusations of cybercrime. Americans are more networked than ever. A pity one cannot say the same for informed or empathetic. Today, different kinds of bubbles need bursting.
Rewind back to 2000, when the bubble was the boom-and-bust internet economy, and a couple of European techno-capitalists were out to commodify another hotly contested US election—between Al Gore and GW Bush. UBERMORGEN (lizvlx and Hans Bernhard), fronting as shady East European dot.com entrepreneurs, riffed off of James Baumgartner’s legally challenged website, voteauction.com, by buying it. Suddenly an international start-up was outsourcing Americans’ sacred claim on democracy: the vote. It not only played into, but off of the deeply held fears and values of the population. Their votes could be auctioned off to the highest bidder—or they could cash in on not voting.
In reality, voteauction.com was a highly sophisticated conceptual performance-cum-media hoax-cum-experiment that was acted out on the international stage of the internet, mass media and the American judicial system. The news was real but the auction was a fake—it was a news fake.
Eighteen years ago, the internet was a different thing, in the process of casting off its utopic metallic cast of ’90s cyberspace and entering the popular imaginaries of people around the world (if not their homes). Dial-up modems were still a thing, website design was a viable career, the cool kids were surfing, Europeans were sniping at WIRED, and the whole world had just survived the impending doom of Y2K—the Millennium Bug—when the 20th century computer codes would reset the date to ’00. There wasn't any social media, not a Friendster in sight. East Europe was another dangerous, exciting place (almost a real life second life in the American mind), where money could be made, wars could break out, and anything was possible. The masses mostly experienced this virtually, through the firmly established screen of the 24-hour cable news cycle. Like today, there was a deeply entrenched fear of election rigging, albeit for very different reasons. For the mainstream populations in Western Democracies, and especially in the US, the internet was a fantastical space and networked computers held a sexy, promising, and slightly dangerous allure. An oft-cited new wild west, similar to Eastern Europe, distant places where dreams could be realized—both offered gold, freedom, unlimited space, porn, perverts, and outlaws. Y2K and its attendant fear-mongering had given people some idea of just how networked and omnipresent computers were in the world. Al Gore’s electronic superhighway was also a potential space for a different kind of gerrymandering and vote rigging. Cable news was rife with speculation about how the internet could be used to rig the vote and how computers could be infiltrated by those with bad intentions.
Meanwhile in Europe, the not-so-glittery digerati were busy in smoke-filled independent media labs (later to be anointed hackerspaces) where net.artists, actionists, media activists, and hackers were wildly tapping into a network full of unrealized potential. UBERMORGEN were working on the fringes of an emergent Netzkultur built around conferences like MetaForum, The Next Five Minutes, and Ars Electronica, and practiced in the real and virtual spaces of backspace, bootlab, C3, nettime, the internet, and across East and West Europe. It was a rich context for Viennese Actionism, Situationism, Deleuzian/Guattarian ideas, pirate radio, zines, and net.art to proliferate, and for experimenting and testing the boundaries of what a networked world could be. This zeitgeist also informed how UBERMORGEN could perform virtual election fraud in the real space of media and the abstract space of international law.
Vote-Auction was not only in time, but of its time. And like all great works of art, it can be read through a contemporary lens (or on a screen) as less of a historical artifact and more of an avant garde indicator of the things to come. With a typical low tech dot.com aesthetic and the slogan “Bringing Capitalism and Democracy Closer Together,” it was performed in the public space of mainstream radio, internet, print media, television and evan a half-hour feature on CNN. In a rare moment for performance, it caught the attention of a global audience of over 500 million people and quite a few legal authorities. Vote-Auction was never explained or presented as an art project because UBERMORGEN refused for it to be tamed into some wacky European art action. Like the best net.art, it worked outside the space of art, exploiting the media, not to act as a mere descriptive or symbolic gesture, but to actually operate as a participant in that moment.
Similar to the work of JODI, Vote-Auction played on anxieties about the instability of the interconnectedness of the world and all the dangerous elements that might lurk in the dark corners of the internet. It went further by looking at the the financialization of elections and the operational logic of neo-liberal capital. Weirdly, the website had a built in educational feature, with links to actual credible sources on the candidates, campaign finance and an early user generated content function. Combined, all this exposed the faultlines of the unregulated space of the internet, as injunction after injunction sought to have the site taken offline, the deeply embedded weaknesses of American political campaigns, and what a market-driven democracy might look like.
Nikita Khrushchev once noted, “So in the end your country is ruled by one judge, one American, not even elected.” In 2000, this was proven true when the election ended with a decision by the Supreme Court. In 2018, this particular election begins with a decision about the Supreme Court. It's not that history repeats itself, just that the past is always reminding us of what is going to happen after tomorrow.
It’s almost Thanksgiving which means the holiday season is almost over, by the Contemporary American Consumer Calendar.
To celebrate the season, we’ve partnered with South African artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni––past winner of Prix Net Art prize and friend of the pod org––to produce a very special holiday gift for our extended Rhizome family & friends. Commissioned by assistant curator Aria Dean, Sekhukhuni has designed a limited edition crepe de chine silk scarf, featuring the artist’s unique take on a classic chain-link pattern.
Sekhukhuni is one of sixteen artists included in “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics”, opening at the New Museum on January 29, 2019. The exhibition features a selection of works from “Net Art Anthology,” Rhizome’s major online exhibition that tells the history of net art through the archiving, preservation, and presentation of 100 works.
The scarves are an artist edition of 100 and all proceeds will go to supporting Rhizome’s artistic program.
You can order one online now ( $100 = free shipping and a Rhizome membership!) or get yours in the New Museum store beginning on November 28. You can also purchase one at an upcoming Rhizome event, such as Rhizome Presents: CompUSA Live Season Two Premiere On December 6.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
This article accompanies the inclusion of Zach Blas's Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism) (2015) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Zach Blas’s six-minute video Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism) (2015) falls midway between a YouTube tutorial and what became a key trope of artists’ moving image circa 2015: a screen-capture video in which an off-camera user navigates a range of content in real time across various programme windows. The long title belies a remarkable economy of means. Compared with the audio-visual pyrotechnics of, say, Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) or Yazan Khalili’s more modest exploration of facial recognition technologies in Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind (2016), Blas’s tools are far more rudimentary: four PDFs, a TextEdit file and a single song played from iTunes. That a generalised, hyperbolic fascination with surfaces, corporate aesthetics and information networks characteristic of so-called ‘postinternet art’ is substituted for such simple instruments seems to be precisely the point.
Like a YouTube tutorial, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 demonstrates how to perform a task with limited means. In this case, Blas offers up an example of how to mobilise against the internet using the pre-installed software on a MacBook. This is done by copying and pasting together a “contra-internet manifesto” from PDFs freely available online. Through this strategy, which updates William Burroughs’s cut-up technique via the writing and “tactical media” art of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), the work demonstrates the value and urgency of plagiarism with intent. As CAE write in their seminal text “Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production”(1994), referenced in Blas’s title: “At present, new conditions have emerged that once again make plagiarism an acceptable, even crucial strategy for textual production. This is the age of the recombinant: recombinant bodies, recombinant gender, recombinant texts, recombinant culture.” Two decades later, it is a comparable faith in the radical potential of recombination that Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 seeks to demonstrate. It asks: how can existing tools and knowledge be recombined in order to begin to resist the creeping totalitarianism of the internet, or otherwise imagine alternatives to the network form?
still from Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism), 2015
Right from the start, the unassuming backdrop of the computer desktop hints at the staging of the work: the only icon is a folder named “contra-internet”, and the background image is all-white apart from the word “internet”, which is struck through in small, black, sans serif font at the centre. A few seconds in, the mouse opens iTunes and plays the first track from the pre-prepared ‘contra-internet’ playlist: Le Tigre’s “Get Off the Internet” from 2001, an upbeat call for activists to close their web browsers, sign out of their computers and return to real life protest. As the upbeat drums and synth start to build momentum, iTunes is minimised and TextEdit opened. Four PDFs are then launched from a subfolder.
The first of these texts is philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s Manifiesto contrasexual (2000), from which the title of the first chapter — “¿Qué es la contrasexualidad?”— is copied and pasted into TextEdit. This is followed by a sadly still prescient quote from political theorist Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (1998): “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” The third and most heavily mined of the four texts is The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996) by economic geographer(s) J. K. Gibson-Graham, from which seven quotes are lifted and slightly reordered. While this is being scrolled through, Le Tigre reach the chorus, in which they emphatically and repeatedly wail, “get off the internet!”
still from Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism), 2015
Drawing this sequence of copy and paste to a close, a final quotation is taken from Our World is Our Weapon (2000) by the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. It reads: “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The evocative tone underlines the revolutionary spirit in which these words were first put on paper, and in which they are being re-mobilised here, out of context and for a different purpose. This displacement may seem naïve, amounting merely to an invocation of imagination and dreams as possible forms of resistance to the crushing hegemony of the internet. Yet in a political climate where these capacities are increasingly under threat from liberal apathy, this demand for radical utopianism also seems refreshing, hopeful and necessary.
Back in TextEdit, all these snippets of text are reformatted to Times font, size 18. Then Blas embarks on a lightning-quick process of find and replace: “contrasexualidad’ for “contrainternet’”; “capital,” “capitalism’” and “capitalist” for “internet”; “anti” and “non-” for “contra-”; “economy” and “economic’” for “network”; and so on. Stitching together a clear rallying cry from such eclectic statements, he demonstrates what contra-internet militancy as recombination might look like in practice. Following these preparations, the Le Tigre track is turned down, having been subtly edited into a Muzak-like instrumental from this point on. The whole text is then read aloud by a generic, garbled, American-accented, female-pitched computer voice for the remainder of the video. The delivery and intonation are clumsy but comprehensible, flattening the fervour that originally clung to these words and steamrolling their emphasis. As the video ends, the TextEdit file is saved as “‘utopian_plagiarism” within a subfolder of the “contra-internet” folder, and the video ends as Quicktime Player’s screen recording function is stopped.
Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 is the first of a series of three works, all short, screen-capture videos set to music that use different tactics to abandon or subvert the internet. The second work in the series, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #2: Social Media Exodus (Call and Response) (2015), shows Blas using Adobe Photoshop to erase images of his own, staged social media posts, Google searches and text messages. Done to the tune of The Cars’ 1981 hit “Since You’re Gone”, these images mostly contain declarations that express resistance to the internet as a legal clusterfuck. They both forcefully demand new rights – “I declare myself an anti-web and worker of the anti-web” – and reclaim the rights that we regularly forgo by signing up to the end-user license agreements that often police access to these platforms.
The third and final work in the series, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #3: Modeling Paranodal Space (2016), is also the most abstract. It shows the modelling, rendering and eventual fracturing of animated, silver segments of “paranodal space” (the spaces that exist in-between the various nodes of a network) in the 3D animation software Maya. The simulation is based on a low-res image of a distributed network downloaded from Google Images at the start of the video. And it takes place to the tune of Joe Meek’s spacey “I Hear a New World” from the 1991 reissue of his 1960 album of the same name, giving the work a psychedelic quality. Just like the other two videos in the series then, this work proposes a speculative site, if not a means, of resistance to the internet as the dominant network form. For this purpose, music turns out to be just as important a tool as literary, visual and technical scripts: Meek’s longing for alien life elsewhere in the universe becomes a pining for different ways of living and interacting in the here and now.
To keep with Blas’s recombinatory aesthetics, perhaps the best user manual for Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 would be one lifted from José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (2009). At the end of the book, Muñoz suggests that his writing on queer utopia“can ultimately be read as an invitation, a performative provocation. Manifesto-like and ardent, it is a call to think about our lives and times differently.” In the same spirit, Blas’s work pitches plagiarism and recombination as necessary forms of collective political action today. It encourages us to begin to imagine, desire and strive for alternative networks that can sustain alternative futures, harnessing the utopianism that is written into the manifesto as a literary form and updating it for the digital age.