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Articles on this Page
- 01/11/18--11:05: _Andrew W. Mellon Fo...
- 01/12/18--11:46: _“What Up Internet”
- 01/18/18--10:21: _School is an Alien ...
- 01/19/18--08:32: _Coming to America
- 01/23/18--07:21: _PST: Sound, Video, ...
- 01/29/18--13:32: _The Download #7: In...
- 01/31/18--07:27: _The Life Aquatic
- 02/01/18--06:54: _Artist Profile: Tab...
- 02/06/18--08:57: _An Open Call for In...
- 02/08/18--09:48: _Artist Profile: Nic...
- 02/09/18--12:51: _A Goodbye and a Hel...
- 02/16/18--08:19: _YouTube, 2008: A Q&...
- 02/23/18--07:55: _Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: _On the “We” of Tran...
- 03/01/18--10:16: _The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: _“kick ascii acid”: ...
- 03/08/18--11:57: _Internet Yami-Ichi ...
- 03/23/18--09:00: _Naming is a Protoco...
- 03/29/18--09:23: _We Believe in (ArtB...
- 04/02/18--09:00: _Announcing Line-up,...
- 04/03/18--07:15: _Humans of Simulated...
- 04/05/18--08:00: _What Will I Be When...
- 04/11/18--07:39: _Black Pyrotechnics:...
- 04/15/18--21:00: _On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: _Draw me like one of...
- 04/19/18--11:08: _Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: _First Look: Whisper...
- 04/24/18--08:52: _'Reigns: Her Majest...
- 04/25/18--07:56: _Web Archives’ Photo...
- 04/30/18--05:38: _I Cook Every Chance...
- 05/01/18--07:47: _Artist Profile: Leo...
- 05/08/18--21:00: _Real Artists Ship: ...
- 05/09/18--11:07: _Notes on a Play for...
- 05/10/18--08:30: _A Social Network fo...
- 05/14/18--07:47: _Swipe Right if You ...
- 05/15/18--09:05: _To Lose the Scroll ...
- 05/16/18--11:23: _Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: _Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: _Artist Profile: Mer...
- 06/04/18--10:32: _American Hospitality
- 06/06/18--10:00: _Collect, Curate, an...
- 06/12/18--09:20: _Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: _Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: _The Paradox of Into...
- 07/10/18--10:46: _An Excess of Consci...
- 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...
- 01/12/18--11:46: “What Up Internet”
- 01/18/18--10:21: School is an Alien Culture
- 01/19/18--08:32: Coming to America
- 01/23/18--07:21: PST: Sound, Video, and Copy Art
- 01/31/18--07:27: The Life Aquatic
- 02/01/18--06:54: Artist Profile: Tabita Rezaire
- 02/06/18--08:57: An Open Call for Internet Objects
- 02/08/18--09:48: Artist Profile: Nick Zhu / bod [包家巷]
- Socioeconomic precarity is foundational to my existence
- Urban-creative labor thrives on the socioeconomic precarity of myself and those like me
- 02/09/18--12:51: A Goodbye and a Hello from Rhizome HQ
- 02/16/18--08:19: YouTube, 2008: A Q&A on the “Scandalishious” Restoration
- 02/23/18--07:55: Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: On the “We” of Transmediale
- 03/01/18--10:16: The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: “kick ascii acid”: A Q&A on the restoration of “VVEBCAM”
- 03/08/18--11:57: Internet Yami-Ichi at NADA Art Fair
- 03/23/18--09:00: Naming is a Protocol: An Interview with Kristin Lucas
- 03/29/18--09:23: We Believe in (ArtBase) Users
- 04/03/18--07:15: Humans of Simulated New York
- 04/05/18--08:00: What Will I Be When I Grow Up? A Production Company
- 04/11/18--07:39: Black Pyrotechnics: On the New in ‘New Black Portraitures’
- 04/15/18--21:00: On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes
- 04/19/18--11:08: Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: First Look: Whispering Pines 10
- 04/25/18--07:56: Web Archives’ Photoshop Moment
- 04/30/18--05:38: I Cook Every Chance in My Pot
- 05/01/18--07:47: Artist Profile: Leo Castaneda
- 05/08/18--21:00: Real Artists Ship: Recent Projects From Seven on Seven
- 05/09/18--11:07: Notes on a Play for Four Bots
- 05/10/18--08:30: A Social Network for One
- 05/14/18--07:47: Swipe Right if You Love ISPs
- 05/15/18--09:05: To Lose the Scroll is to Lose Your Soul: Presenting Blockedt!
- 05/16/18--11:23: Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: Artist Profile: Meriem Bennani
- 06/04/18--10:32: American Hospitality
- Curated lists can guide users to the most interesting pages in a collection, and with further description and per-page annotation, provide a path through what’s been collected. Especially when lists are displayed in the new sidebar (to the left of captured websites) they can make it much easier for users to browse a collection. As has been the case with collections, users can choose to keep their lists private or share them with the world.
- The main collection view has been redesigned to provide a cover page showcasing lists and descriptions as an easy entry point into collections.
- Webrecorder now features a newly designed table view with filtering options, making it quicker to find a specific URL (page) in your collection.
- Links into Webrecorder collections always contain a user-defined collection name instead of cryptic identifiers. Previously, this meant that if a collection was renamed, its URL would change and outside links would break. With this new release Webrecorder keeps track of renaming and forwards users to the correct new collection page.
- A new visual design with subtle contrasts ensures that the web materials in collections remain the focus of presentation.
- 06/12/18--09:20: Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: The Paradox of Intolerance
- 07/10/18--10:46: An Excess of Consciousness
- 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’
We’re thrilled to announce today that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Rhizome a $1 million grant to underwrite the next phase of development of Webrecorder, our platform to create and share fully interactive, high-fidelity archival copies of websites past and present. This largest gift in Rhizome’s history will support Webrecorder’s implementation in institutional contexts, while upgrading capture and usability for all users. We’re proud to offer this innovative, open-source service free-of-charge at https://webrecorder.io—take it out for a spin! (Or check out the code.)
You may have noticed that “Software” tab appear in our redesigned header. This is merely formalizing a program thread—software development—that is core to our multi-tiered support of born-digital art and culture, and embodied in Webrecorder. This is also a longtime commitment, dating back to the development of rhizome.org (then .com!) in 1996, the ArtBase in 1999, the various ArtBase interfaces thereafter, and various projects involving the Emulation as a Service framework, among other significant code-based endeavors.
This program is led by preservation director Dragan Espenschied and software director Ilya Kreymer, who conceived the Webrecorder initiative. Along with what’s next for this effort, we’re excited to welcome archivist and educator Anna Perricci as Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships, and a “Co-Principal Investigator” on the Mellon grant, along with Dragan and Ilya. Anna will be focused on growing Webrecorder's user base and helping it become recognized as an indispensable tool in web archiving practice broadly. She’ll join an already stellar WR team, with Mark Beasley, our multi-talented software engineer, and Pat Shiu, who is tasked with creating a voice, aesthetic, and identity for a product without much precedent. (We’re also hiring a new backend developer—applications due January 16!)
Rhizome uses Webrecorder to preserve and present born-digital art, including the works in Net Art Anthology, our online exhibition retelling the history of net art. Other active users include institutions such as the New Museum, the Frick Art Reference Library, Posters Network at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Newfields, the Stanford University Press, the City University of New York, and the National Film Board of Canada; the activist groups NetFreedomPioneers and Documenting the Now; and the artist studios of Cory Arcangel and Constant Dullaart.
We complement the Webrecorder initiative with research into the cultural impact of web archiving and preservation practices, research referred to at Rhizome as “Digital Social Memory.” With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Knight Foundation, we’ll host the Ethics & Archiving the Web conference at the New Museum in March 2018. EAW is being planned in collaboration with the Documenting the Now project at the University of California at Riverside Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
For now, we are extraordinarily grateful to the Mellon Foundation for their continued support of the Webrecorder initiative. And we’ll be sure to share what’s happening with this major undertaking as it develops.
“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. The notion that the web might offer a site of radical mutability for the formation of new identities, unhindered for the first time by the constraints of “meatspace” seems to have been primarily, although unevenly, dispelled by way of the quotidian creep of the private sector’s stranglehold on the public sphere. In contrast, the shift from an understanding of the web as predominantly characterized by “immateriality” to one that recognized its reliance on material infrastructures—undersea cables, electromechanical generators, low-wage content moderators—required an intervention on the level of discourse. Perhaps the question of online identity is felt more strongly. One thinks of the viral photo of Zuckerberg walking confidently through a packed press conference, as if it were his birthday, surrounded on all sides by an anonymous sea of eager attendees donning his company’s VR headsets; Zuck has the viscerally world-historical power to make his fantasies our reality.
The ubiquity of Web 2.0 has changed the way that we see ourselves, offering indispensable means for individuals to feel themselves out, learn about who they are or want to be, and find communities of like-minded users. And yet, the sense that the web demarcated a liberatory elsewhere pervaded by a democratic ethos has diminished greatly in recent years, precipitated by the re-recognition of the material grip of social forces that have long predated social media. A decent amount of net discourse was centered around this since-eroded premise, and as a result ended up engaging with what turned out to be oftentimes illusory notions of networked identity as malleable in a historically novel way. Despite the fact that it was made in what was for many a very futuristic-feeling moment, New York-via-Philadelphia artist Jayson’s Musson’s Art Thoughtz (2010-2012) project is remarkable for how much it sticks with the slow grind of history. The work is a vlog series that comedically explains contemporary art concepts ranging from beauty to “How to Make an Art” through the character of Hennessy Youngman, and its virality significantly helped put Musson on the map as a contemporary artist. It remains powerful due in equal measure to its hilarity, historicity, and almost uncanny prescience of certain tenets of contemporary meme humor.
Much net-engaged artwork—from Ryan Trecartin to DIS Magazine’s visual practice—has been heavily engaged with the new as a foremost point of departure, often for understandable reasons: new ways of seeing, new modes of governing, and new ways of relating to one another are all conditions that ask to be explored. Fetishization of “the future” as a reified concept has underpinned many of these investigations, and proved to be indispensable to their commercial potential in the contemporary art market. Interestingly, Musson’s Hennessy Youngman character invokes the future much less often than his peers. A memorable time that he does, though, is in the 2010 clip “How To Be A Successful Black Artist,” when he encourages fellow Black artists to use “brainy” terms like “post-Black” in order to secure legitimacy in the art world. “Honestly I don’t know what the fuck [post-Black] means,” he says, “‘cause it means ‘after black,’ and n*ggas is still n*ggas … Is it like, did someone from the future come back with that term and n*ggas is like, pink in the future?” In a moment of brilliant denouement, Musson cuts to David Hammons’s 1988 painting How Ya Like Me Now, featuring a white Jesse Jackson.
It is not an accident that Musson-via-Youngman’s commentary on one time-buzzword themes like “circulation,” “dissemination,” and “networks” doesn’t sound dated several years later, despite the fact that most commentators completely ignored it as such at the time. Throughout Art Thoughtz, Musson actively recognizes and comments on the vulnerabilities built into the circulation of his own Black image in an anti-Black art world—based upon a libidinal economy that takes pleasure in his suffering, following Frank Wilderson III1—and anticipates them, teases them, and deflects them. The series as a whole anticipates what Aria Dean would later theorize as the blackness of memes: “Memes move like blackness itself, and the meme’s tactical similarity to historical black cultural forms makes them — predictably — vulnerable to appropriation and capture. The meme is a form that allows for a sense of collective ownership among those who come into contact with it — black or nonblack.”2 Is it really possible to talk about circulation in the context of global capitalism without invoking the transatlantic slave trade, the history of colonialism? To the white viewer blackness is always already property, first and foremost; Musson reminds us that “circulation” has a history. For some, meatspace is not flexible, particularly when we consider this term’s resonance with Hortense Spillers’s concept of the flesh as the “degree-zero of social conceptualization,” where the distinction between “body” and “flesh” demarcates the difference between captive and liberated subject positions.3
In a particularly memorable passage of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen, the Jamaican-born American poet discusses Youngman’s discussion of the marketability of Black anger in Art Thoughtz alongside Serena Williams career-long battle against pervasive racism in tennis, a field that like fine art is notable for its overwhelming whiteness. Rankine writes that Musson’s work prompts the recognition that “no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” With this in mind, Youngman’s suggestion that artists embrace ambiguity in another, earlier video, entitled “How To Be A Successful Artist,” takes on new resonance. He makes the recommendation after advising that the artist 1) be white, or 2) be a white man, or 3) be a white woman. Perhaps his proposal, as the flip side of its parodic intent, suggests a certain a strategy of refusal—enacted via something like hypertextual, non-verbalized memetic dissemination—as much as it is wry parody of the seemingly limitless supply of rote gallery press texts quoting continental philosophers for no apparent reason. “The less mothafuckas’ is able to understand the artwork,” he says, “the more they can put into it.”
For all of Art Thoughtz’s incisive commentary, though, it is important to remember that the project is a fundamentally comedic series that initially took the form of a (staged) live stand-up set.4 Although Musson quickly abandoned the stand-up format, he retained the direct address to an audience and unpredictability typical of live comedy. It is nothing like a manifesto, and its ideological alignment is hard to pin down or tie to a certain political position in any conclusive, thorough sense. Unlike the strands of humorless, MFA-core artistic production that Youngman offhandedly skewers, the mode of address in these vlogs is captivating for its fundamentally unpredictable approach to performance and the consolidation of meaning. Comedy undergirds all of Musson’s work, from social media to the white cube, and he excels in bringing out the genre’s “epistemologically troubling” characteristics, in the words of Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai.5 Humor has a unique ability to render perceived distinctions and modes of typology fuzzy and unstable, ungrounding assumptions and subverting everyday behavioral codes. Art Thoughtz is so effective in part because Musson’s virtuosic control over this mode of playful cognitive incursion is simultaneously devastating and blasé, genuinely conveying the sense that he would make the videos when he felt bored. His video on institutional critique opens with the Diplomats’ NYC rap classic “I Really Mean It” and features the line, “Auschwitz was and still is the premiere institution of the 20th century, making the MoMA look like nothin’ more than an over-glorified collection of thrift store paintings.” What are we supposed to even do with this information?
Each successive era of popular online culture has had its quintessential meme style, and it is remarkable to consider how much Art Thoughtz presaged forms and styles of the mid-2010s. From the style of plain-spoken, at times risqué gallows humor he perfected to the ways in which the project was designed for widespread informal dissemination—sidestepping institutional gatekeeping in the process—the work is almost uncanny in its prescience of the current moment. Additionally, it engaged the affective dimension of what Hito Steyerl has called “poor images”6 while anticipating the contemporary omnipresence of what manuel arturo abreu has called Online Imagined Black English, or digital blackface.7 The degree to which this phenomenon is absolutely essential to the online economy of intertwined cultural capital and moral capital8—all across the political spectrum, notably—is perhaps best summed up by a post by meme maker Cory in the Abyss which declares, in a riff on high-budget Hollywood movie posters, “You wouldn’t last a week without digital blackface.” As abreu states in an interview with another meme producer, Gangster Popeye, “Lots of people think weird Facebook [and its associated meme culture] popped up out of nowhere, but in reality a lot of non-black meme production draws from black language, visual style, and meme content.”9 Musson doesn’t “predict” this contemporary confluence of forms so much as he seems to stumble upon it, which makes the historical linkage all the more striking. In another prescient move, Art Thoughtz manages to anticipate the popular pedagogical function of memes-as-poor images, where intellectual concepts designed to dismantle dominant power structures are deftly employed clearly and cuttingly, without the baggage of institutional ostentatiousness.
For many commentators, what Art Thoughtz had to say was illegible either because it was too much to bear or because they were limited by a preconceived idea of what they were watching. In two separate pieces of press published around Art Thoughtz’s initial release Musson/Youngman is compared to Ali G according to some kind of alchemical pretzel logic, while one particularly overt piece calls the character an “idiot” and a “moron,” citing his “over-the-top thug speak.” It is an understatement to say that Musson/Youngman’s analyses of mainstream contemporary art’s pre-packaged script for success wasn’t taken seriously by most commentators. A revealing aspect of this coverage is the slippage it figured between Youngman as an avatar of excessive blackness—both a voyeuristic object of desire and revulsion, love and hate—and Musson the person. In terms of Art Thoughtz’s palatability in terms of respectability and assimilability, the blackness portrayed in the videos seems to simultaneously be deemed too much and yet not enough; Tavia Nyong’o has written about the ways in which Dread Scott and Coco Fusco “employ masquerade to reveal potent anxieties about displays of excessive blackness, excesses that are almost always read through gendered expectations of appropriate behavior.”10 This recurring theme raises a question: would Musson have been able to circulate his work and get gallery representation in the New York art world if he didn’t take on the Youngman character?
By virtue of cunning in combination with being in the right place at the right time, he succeeded in hacking the cybernetic feedback loop of value accretion in the culture industry on the protocological level, subversively appropriating the then-emergent tactics of the “power user” while highlighting the inbuilt limitations of the system he gamed. As it gained traction online, the work demonstrated a keen understanding of the way viewership accumulates and multiplies itself on networked social media platforms according to what content is most likely to be shared. In other words, Musson anticipates and plays with the way his work will be aggregated—filtered for consumption through search algorithms and screen-based interfaces11—both in and outside of the art world, while highlighting the ways in which information capitalism’s mass systems of circulation are inherently anti-Black. “[Art Thoughtz uses] a different form of dissemination than we’re used to in the gallery system,” said the gallery owner of Salon 94 at the time of its presentation of his first New York solo show, “Halcyon Days,” in 2012. “He’s probably the first artist who has been able to bridge that online audience and the art audience as well, so that’s always been interesting to me, how to break through audiences and cross audiences.”
Musson’s hilariously sharp Art Thoughtz video about relational aesthetics is striking to consider in connection with the fact that in 2012 he was invited to do a project at relational aesthetics-affiliated artist Maurizio Cattelan and curator Massimiliano Gioni’s Family Business exhibition space in NYC. For “Itsa Small, Small World” he created a call for entries video as Hennessy Youngman, inviting anyone and everyone to drop off work to be included in the show during a three-day window, with no one turned away. The project sounds curiously like a riff on relational aesthetics themes in retrospect, as it brought together an assortment of people from all walks of life in a block party of sorts on the hallowed grounds of Chelsea, facilitating a highly unusual and defamiliarized mode of social relation in the process. Musson later wrote that the exhibition was partially “born out of a curiosity to see what the audience for my Hennessy Youngman videos looked like, to basically see what the internet could look like in physical manifestation.”12 Later, in 2015, he received a double platinum plaque for having his voice sampled on the drop of electronic producer Baauer’s “trap” single “Harlem Shake,” released on a sub-label of Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint in 2012. Although Musson was originally sampled on the song without his knowledge or permission—the recording came from his since-disbanded rap group Plastic Little’s 2001 song “Miller Time”—he described compensation negotiations with the label as friendly in an interview with the New York Times, conductedafter Baauer’s track topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.13 To many, the song and the viral dance video craze it spurred constituted a straightforward form of semiotic gentrification in its essential disavowal of the original Harlem shake dance created in 1980s New York City. Here, Youngman’s elucidation in “How To Be A Successful Black Artist” of the market logic of the “jazz principle”—whiteness’ insatiable desire for the exotic other—comes to mind.
It is worth situating Musson’s work in relation to the history of Black performance art engaged with themes of humor and stereotype. Relevant works include David Hammons’s 1981 performance Pissed Off, in which he photographed himself urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture named after the Transport Workers Union, only to be accosted by police moments later. Another is William Pope.L’s The Great White Way (2001-2009), which saw him crawl across 22 miles of Broadway in Manhattan in a Superman outfit, channeling unbearable trauma like an abject jester, while a third is Adrian Piper’s 1983 video Funk Lessons, where she teaches her non-Black audience about funk and how to dance to it. In contrast with these disparate works, which all stage iterations of encounter and symbolic exchange in various concrete ways, Art Thoughtz remains striking for how off-the-cuff it feels, as if it weren’t even invested in itself; improvised cunning, as opposed to extensive premeditation, comes to mind again as an apt descriptor. The project’s lack of self-seriousness also contrasts with much contemporary art dealing with “identity,” which often shares a grave, scholarly, and sincere vernacular with activism and academic thought. “Intellectualized or aestheticized trauma is displayed for institutional, artistic, or academic validation, but physical and emotional trauma goes untreated, because it falls outside the bounds of institutional relevance,” writes Hannah Black.14 While Musson’s underlying messages are indebted to a lineage rooted in high-stakes political resistance, the work comes across as a little bit more ambivalent. We can sense what he thinks and how he feels, for the most part, but he mostly seems to be moving in his own singular orbit, outside the bounds.
Considering Art Thoughtz in its original context, it is helpful to revisit Seth Price’s highly influential 2002 essay “Dispersion,” where the New York-based artist argues that artists should embrace mass media in order to pursue a “categorically ambiguous art, one in which the synthesis of multiple circuits of reading carries an emancipatory potential.”15 In her introduction to Rhizome’s group exhibition “New Black Portraitures,” Dean notes that the most abundant images of Black people are of “memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence.”16 We are left wondering if mass networks ever truly had anything like “emancipatory potential.” Might that just be hardcore romanticism? Cue Youngman’s video on the sublime, searching but unable to find it in the forest, shooting a gun into the sky. In a way the clip is shockingly beautiful in its low-res haze, a banal irruption of the real that requires no drastic mode of seeing.
1. Interview with Frank Wilderson III, “‘We’re trying to destroy the world’ — Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson”
2. Aria Dean,“Rich Meme, Poor Meme”
3. Hortense Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
5. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues”
6. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”
7. manuel arturo abreu, “Online Imagined Black English”
9. manuel arturo abreu, “Dead or alive: post-Zuxit meme art + the end of weird Facebook with Gangster Popeye”
10. Tavia Nyong’o, “Between the Body and the Flesh: Sex and Gender in Black Performance Art”
11. David Joselit, “On Aggregators”
12. Jayson Musson, “Itsa Small, Small World”
14. Hannah Black, “The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic”
15. Seth Price, “Dispersion”
16. Aria Dean, “An Introduction to New Black Portraitures”
Michael Connor: Can you tell me about what led up to Art Thoughtz? What were you doing before you came up with Hennessy Youngman?
Jayson Musson: I started graduate school in 2009. It was about eight to nine years in between undergrad and graduate school. I still made art in between those times, and I made music. Going back into the school setting was somewhat of a culture shock.
Philly, it’s kind of a debaucherous, free-form kind of world, and academic fine art is just the total opposite of that. For me, school was quite an alien culture.
MC: Before going back to school, were you involved in the Philly art scene, like Space 1026?
JM: Yeah. I had a studio at 1026 twice, in 2002 and then again in 2006. There are many, many artists in Philly. The art world in New York is vastly different than the art world in Philadelphia, because so much capital and media is centered in New York, and it doesn’t necessarily look outside of itself, except maybe if it’s looking at like Los Angeles, or Berlin or London. Philadelphia is very overlooked, and in some ways it’s good, some ways it’s bad.
It allows the city to develop its own innate cultural markers and values, and Philadelphia kind of resists being homogenized by trends in contemporary art.
I didn’t make art with the idea that it would A, be exhibited in large spaces, or B, make any money. I did text-based posters. I did a lot of cartoons, political satire. I definitely was more playful in my younger days, and I think that’s really important.
If I was in my late teens, early twenties, going to school in New York, and being in proximity to all these great institutions, it would have steered my art-making towards being enveloped in those institutions, where in Philly, I was just like, “That’s not an option ever at all. That’s like, something else, so I’m gonna fucking make these stupid cartoons, and do my like, vitriolic text-based posters. The Philadelphia Museum is not gonna show these, that’s not on the table. Museums, that’s just not for me.”
MC: Were you involved in an online art scene at this point?
JM: No. I think I had a website. I wasn’t aware that were people using [the internet] as a platform in and of itself, which is fucking rad, but I was a colloquial traditionalist with my brick-and-mortar drawings and writings.
MC: So how did Art Thoughtz begin?
JM: I think around my first semester [of grad school] I came up with the idea—in 2009—for the character, but I kind of sat on it. Essentially, I wanted to create a stand-up comedian who talked about fine art, but in a comedy setting. Hennessy Youngman was conceptualized as a comedian, like a lesser-known comedian from the Def Comedy Jam era of the early ’90s.
The first video I filmed (in the bar I was working at, at the time) was modeled after a stand-up set. It’s called Hennessy Youngman! Live at the Laughway House! I enjoyed it, but when you kind of create this mock setting for a comedy club, it becomes more about how you fabricate the environment and simulate the stand-up set.
I did a second video, which was just a talking head video, which is me taking my same notes and doing it in monologue format to the webcam, and that felt better to me. The focus was on the words, the dialog, not on like, “is this a real comedy club?”
Initially it was wanting to discuss a quote/unquote refined fine arts culture, but in this garrulous kind of way. The kind of cultural opposition at play. This person who seemingly didn’t have, at first glance, the position to discuss these things with any authority.
MC: Did you actually perform the character in comedy clubs?
JM: No. I’ve never done a live comedy set in my entire life.
MC: Was it always the intention to put the videos on YouTube?
JM: Nah, not at all. I initially made them as video art. They were actually initially conceptualized to just be shown in a gallery setting or an exhibition setting, whatever that might be. Even though I was addressing the internet, saying “what’s up internet?”, that was just a part of the performance. It wasn’t until I showed them for review in grad school that I decided to put them online.
MC: Do you remember what was the impetus for doing that?
JM: It just seemed like a waste to keep the videos in the context of an exhibition. Exhibitions just don’t happen frequently, and I felt that it’d be interesting to give the videos a chance to live in a more dynamic context.
MC: When you began to upload them, can you talk about the initial reception? Who were the first people to find out about the videos, and when did you notice they were starting to become popular?
JM: Initially, the viewership was people and friends from Philadelphia, and those friends adjacent to them who might share friend networks and social media. The viewership was really, really small, actually, maybe a couple hundred views for each one of them.
Then I did the Post-Structuralism video at the end of 2009, maybe. That was somehow picked up by Art Fag City (now ArtFCity). But they shared that, and then that was shared more widely within the art world at large, the New York art world, I guess. Then that kind of began the mass sharing of those videos in the larger art world. [That video] was taken down from YouTube for the fucking scene from The Crying Game–which I originally pulled from YouTube. I think someone just reported it, because why not?
I kind of lived in a weird Philadelphia bubble, and I wasn’t an avid reader of those blogs. Honestly, when I started that project, I didn't think anyone would watch the Hennessy Youngman videos. I was looking at other video art pieces that had somehow ended up on YouTube, and the viewership numbers were pretty low.
I didn’t really expect people to watch them, but I did want the videos to have some kind of public life.
MC: Did you notice your online audience shift away from art at some point, or cross over to a wider public?
JM: I did notice. I don’t really know when, but the videos did end up receiving viewers outside of art, that I guess enjoyed them for the humor.
The opening of Itsa Small, Small World at Family Business in 2012
MC: You had an opportunity to meet your online public when you did the open call project in 2012. What did it feel like to meet those people that had connected with that character you created?
JM: Kind of insane, man. That project, Itsa Small, Small World, I knew that I was gonna be stopping the project, and so I guess for me, that project, the open exhibition was kind of like a goodbye and thank you in a way. I didn’t make an official farewell, but I wanted to do something that could have some kind of physical catalyst to bring people together. But, I also was just curious to see what, who, the online audience, what this audience kind of looked like, and what do they look like coalescing through a space.
It was an interesting experience, partly because I didn’t really know what it would be. The opening wasn’t anything that I expected. We were already jam-packed. People were still bringing work in. People were just dropping their work off after the exhibition opened. People turned the opening into their own performance space. People took it into their own arms, and I really, really enjoyed that, because I have this static idea of an exhibition. Then to have different people turn it into their own venue in their own ways, it was awesome to me. It absolutely defied the narrow scope of what I had initially intended it to be.
People just kept dropping their work off. It was like 550 official submissions in that tiny space.
MC: Oh, wow.
JM: Then we took the unclaimed works and just distributed them on the street after the show closed.
I didn’t really give it that much thought, that that would be an opportunity for people who haven’t really had a chance to exhibit, to show their work. I don’t know why. I think YouTube had rotted my mind into thinking that everyone has a chance to get their voice heard, put it online.
There are a lot of people in New York, or just in general within the art-making world, that really don’t ever receive any kind of platform or audience, or have a venue to share their work with anyone. For a lot of people, I think that exhibition was a minute chance for them to present their work to the world, present themselves to the world.
That was a really endearing experience, ultimately, and I re-evaluated my own luck in having a project that received any kind of attention at all.
Installation view, Itsa Small, Small World (2012). Courtesy of Jayson Musson.
The scene outside the Colombian embassy in Havana last Friday.
In December 2016 U.S. government workers in Cuba reported hearing strange sounds that made them sick. Employees of both the US and Canadian embassies in Havana described experiencing hearing loss, vision problems, and memory issues. In response, the State Department pulled most of its personnel from Cuba in September 2017 and indefinitely suspended the processing of all US visas.
In the past few months news has emerged that: the FBI has yet to uncover any evidence of “sonic attacks” despite four operational investigations; the Castros blame the anti-Castro mafia; and that whatever is happening may in fact be perpetrated by the Russians. While this international mystery unfolds one group suffers the most. Cubans attempting to legally travel to the United States—to see family, to study, to travel, or do business—must now fly to a third party country to appear in person at a US Embassy as part of their routine visa process.
My collaborator Nestor Siré, who I've been working with for nearly two years, and Yonlay Cabrera, who we invited to participate in our project !!!Sección ARTE [No.11+Rhizome] (2018), are scheduled to present along with myself and Lizabel Mónica at a New Museum event on February 1. Over the past several weeks we have spent countless hours and more than $2,000 from our Rhizome Commissions grant and the event budget attempting to navigate this process.
As a first step, Nestor and Yonlay planned a trip to Bogotá to apply for a visa at the US embassy there. Before traveling, they had to first submit visa application paperwork through a US website that is blocked on all Cuban internet connections and use an international credit card to pay for non-refundable processing fees. Upon receiving confirmation of their appointment, they got in line, along with thousands of other Cubans, at the Colombian embassy in Havana.
They were asked to present paperwork documenting access to the equivalent of seven years of salary in a savings account, which they were unable to do, and their application was denied.
In a last-ditch effort, Rhizome organized letters of invitation for Nestor and Yonlay from two cultural organizations in Bogotá, one of which miraculously arrived within two hours of a call put out on Twitter. But by that point, there were simply too many people in line at the Colombian embassy, and they were unable to get a visa in time to keep their US visa appointment in Bogotá.
Now Nestor and Yonlay are in Guyana, one of the few countries in the region that doesn’t require a visa for Cuban travelers. They will remain in Guyana for the next 15 days as their nonimmigrant visa application is processed at the US Embassy in Georgetown. If their visa is approved they will have spent three times longer in Guyana than they will in New York.
We’ll be sharing their process between now and the event via Nestor’s Instagram, and on Rhizome’s Twitter and Instagram. Nestor will post once a day with documentation of the experience and the steps that must be completed to obtain a US visa from Guyana. Please follow along, and join us for the presentation at the New Museum on February 1st.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, artists around the world began incorporating advancements in technology into their work with an eye at addressing widespread civil unrest and encroaching neoliberalism. Glaringly absent in institutional retrospectives of this era are the unique contributions of Latin American artists to these movements. Fortunately, the ambitious Southern California-wide exhibition series Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA introduces the work of these artists to the American public, many for the first time. And while the series covers everything from Pre-Columbian luxury objects to contemporary mural-making, it places particular emphasis on how Latin American artists active from the 1960s to the 1990s used digital media to deal with hostility towards women’s rights, military repression, increased marginalization, and environmental crises.
Within the series, the exhibition “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicana/o LA” at MOCA Pacific Design Center paid tribute to the work of US-born Pauline Oliveros, who fought for female inclusion in the world of sound art. Oliveros was a pioneer, pivotal not only for her work’s link between sound and the female body, but for the development of experimental music more broadly, helping to establish the Deep Listening Institute and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In 1964, she completed “Bye Bye Butterfly,” a contorted recording of Puccini’s opera, intended, as Oliveros claimed, to undermine the cultural and artistic forces that contribute to female oppression. During the 1970s, she founded the ♀ Ensemble, a non-hierarchical group of women seeking to harness the social power of sound. The group met at Oliveros’s home in Encinitas, where they practiced “Sonic Meditations,” a method of “tuning mind and body.” According to Oliveros herself, the group was “purposely all female in order to maintain a common, stable vibration within itself and to explore the potentials of concentrated female creative activity, something which has never been fully explored or realized.”
Detail of Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey, Juan Downey, 1971. Image courtesy of Pitzer College Galleries, Claremont CA.
The galleries at Pitzer College and LACE presented a monographic exhibition on Chilean-born Juan Downey, whose work was contemporary with some of the first artistic experiments with video feedback systems. The experimental project A Vegetal System of Communications for New York State (1972) reflects Downey’s interest in invisible communication networks and interactive art. The project proposed the use of electromagnetic energy between humans and philodendrons as a navigation tool across forests.Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey (1971)is another, which plays back live footage of bees at work atop a live bee colony within the gallery space.
Downey’s comprehensive career also covered extensive research on Latin America politics, Chile in particular. His later work turned to the intersection of ecological concerns and cultural imperialism. In The Laughing Alligator (1979), the artist captured moments among the Yanomami—a group indigenous to the Amazon, coveted by anthropologists for their cultural isolation—that effectively mocked the role of video documentary for anthropological studies. Downey’s practice is perhaps most remarkable for the way in which its confrontational subject matter is tempered by the encouragement of intimacy between the viewer and the work.
Around the same time in Brazil, a military dictatorship began censoring traditional art practices, pushing artists into uncharted media. “Xerografia: Copyart in Brazil, 1970-1990” at the University of San Diego explored twenty years of Xerox art in Brazil, a movement analogous to the copy art and electrographie movements in the US and France, respectively. Among the constellation of artists that began working with Xerox as a means of subverting the increasing bureaucratization of Brazil, Anna Belle Geiger stands out for her encapsulation of how US and European artists at the time overshadowed their Latin American counterparts. In Diário de um artista brasileiro (1975), Geiger inserted cut-out photos of herself and placed them alongside renowned figures like Duchamp and Lichtenstein, highlighting her double-marginalization as a female Brazilian artist. Geiger’s student Letícia Parente would take up similar practices in works such as Women (1976), in which she uses safety pins to pierce the surface of a photocopied magazine ad portraying a young woman's face in close up. Others like Léon Ferrari, Hudinilson Jr., and Paulo Bruscky toyed with the boundaries of the Xerox medium, challenging conceptions of art as a luxury object, while exploring its potential use as a medium for communication.
Letícia Parente, Women, 1976. Image courtesy of University of San Diego.
All of these artists enact, in their works, a resolute sense of playful instruction that both informs their audience about Latin American issues beyond the gallery space, and further reveals the liberating capacities of new media. What’s more, the PST exhibitions focus on the merits and contributions of these artists as global influencers in their own right. Rather than restrict the works to their relation with more well-known artists working within a similar network, the shows do justice to the regional and identity-based signatures of Latin American artists as they stand on the early landscape of digital art practices.
More PST shows are open throughout this month and well into the spring. These include: “UnDocumenta” at the Oceanside Museum, which explores the use of technology in the work of artists working along the California-Mexico border; “Hope” at ESMoA, which surveys the video work of living Cuban artists, and “Photography in Argentina, 1850–2010: Contradiction and Continuity” at the Getty which showcases the work of avant-garde Argentinian photographers.
Header image: Detail of Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey, Juan Downey, 1971. Image courtesy of Pitzer College Galleries, Claremont CA.
The Download is a series of Rhizome commissions curated by Paul Soulellis that considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as the space of exhibition. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11+Rhizome], by Julia Weist and Nestor Siré, explores the structures of Cuba’s El Paquete Semanal.
A presentation and discussion of this project will take place at the New Museum on Thursday, February 1 at 7pm. For tickets and info, see the New Museum event listing.
We are two artists, one living and working in Havana, Cuba, the other living and working in New York, USA, and we have been exploring Cuba’s El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package) together and separately for several years.
El Paquete Semanal is a one-terabyte media collection that is aggregated weekly in Cuba and circulated across the country via in-person file sharing. The package usually contains between 15,000 and 18,000 files, depending on the week and your distributor, and it covers a dizzying array of content including software, sports, soap operas, web shows, animation, manga, movies and TV, video games, music, magazines, and more. El Paquete is often described as a workaround to the widespread lack of internet in Cuba (the current internet penetration rate is about 30%) but it’s more accurate to look at the phenomenon in the context of the decades of physical media circulation that came before it. Beginning in the early 1970s—about ten years after the Cuban Revolution and the nationalization of all media broadcast and publication—an illicit economy for renting media outside of government control began to flourish in Cuba. Paperback novels such as Romances, Westerns and Spanish-language titles by authors like Corín Tellado were the first materials circulated underground by entrepreneurs after the Revolution. Acquiring books was a constant challenge and these illicit businesses found that working with equivalent entrepreneurs in other cities was the best way to acquire new inventory. A national black market network for the exchange, purchase and sale of novels was established. As the format of available materials began to evolve—first to magazines, then VHS and Betacam video cassettes and eventually to CDs, VCDs, and DVDs—this network for physical media sharing between cities was the crucial link in providing access to media outside of government control. El Paquete Semanal is an outgrowth of four decades of distribution logistics across Cuba.
In our projects we have explored El Paquete’s reach, structure, trends and ephemerality. Because of the lack of equipment and tech infrastructure in Cuba, digital storage is extremely limited and each week’s package overwrites the last. For a recent work entitled ARCA (2016–2017), presented in the exhibition 17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ at the Queens Museum in New York from 2017–2018, we created a one-year (52 terabyte) archive of El Paquete in collaboration with a group of its creators: the OMEGA matriz. Our archive is the only formal record of paquetes from August 2016 to August 2017.
Another ongoing project called !!!Sección A R T E (Art Section) is an alternative and independent artistic project that coexists within El Paquete. Created by Nestor in 2015, !!!Sección A R T E is a direct intervention focused on the visual arts, especially contemporary Cuban art, that is inserted each month into El Paquete. Cuban and international artists as well as writers, filmmakers, critics and others have contributed to the project over the last two years. !!!Sección A R T E’s structure replicates that of El Paquete; it includes a consistent directory of folders. It also follows the rules of El Paquete: it contains no pornography and no political issues, although it explores these limits.!!!Sección A R T E circulates news, exhibitions announcements, books, documentaries, open calls and artworks made especially for the C A R P E T A =galería= (F O L D E R =gallery=).
!!!Sección A R T E has many things in common with Rhizome’s The Download, first and foremost that it’s meant to be experienced offline as a digital package. Whereas for The Download this disconnection is a symbolic construction for curatorial and artistic purposes, for !!!Sección A R T E it’s a requirement borne from extensive restrictions on internet access. There are more subtle similarities as well, including an embrace of multi-window presentation and visible technical intention—everything from file naming to directory architecture. Unlike the broader Rhizome platform, !!!Sección A R T E exists within a digital environment but is circulated through physical contact. Material cannot rely on links or streaming and there is no access to previous months’ content. No tools exist for determining scope or audience numbers in quantitative terms. Audience interaction is difficult but !!!Sección A R T E does have an email account which can be contacted with request for topics and materials to be included in future editions.
This month we’ve developed a special !!!Sección A R T E that takes into account these intersections and deviations of El Paquete and The Download. This bilingual edition was produced as part of our ongoing collaboration and as with our other works merges the contexts of our artistic lives in New York and Havana. Julia gathered projects, publications, and announcements by international artists who are familiar to Rhizome regulars—Tyler Coburn, Caroline Woolard, and David Horvitz, to name a few. Nestor gathered material as usual for the section from the Cuban context and beyond, including a special work developed by the brilliant Yonlay Cabrera, whose project !Descargas de todo un poco (2014-2017) is included in the la C A R P E T A =galería= this month. In his project, Cabrera explores the strategies he’s developed since gaining limited access to the internet for the first time five years ago. He shares a largely complete chronological collection of the web material he’s chosen to download amidst constraints on connectivity as a “record of the evolution of my thinking and intellectual development seen through the information I have referenced.”
We hope you enjoy this material, wherever you are when you find it. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11+Rhizome], available at the bottom of this post, will also be available in the OMEGA Paquete Semanal on the week of January 29, 2018. It will be included in El Paquete for seven days, and then it will be overwritten again.
Nosotros somos dos artistas, uno viviendo y trabajando en La Habana, Cuba; el otro en Nueva York, EE.UU. Hemos investigado el Paquete Semanal juntos y por separado durante varios años.
El Paquete Semanal es una colección de medios de un terabyte que se acopian semanalmente en Cuba y se distribuyen en todo el país, mediante el intercambio de archivos mano a mano. Generalmente contiene entre 15,000 y 18,000 archivos, dependiendo de la semana y de su distribuidor, y cubre una amplia variedad de contenidos que incluyen softwares, deportes, telenovelas, web shows, animados, mangas, películas, programas televisivos, videojuegos, música, revistas y más.
A menudo se describe el Paquete como una solución ante la falta generalizada deInternet en Cuba (la tasa actual de su penetración es de alrededor del 30%), pero es más preciso observar el fenómeno dentro de un proceso histórico que comenzó varias décadas atrás. A principios de la década de los setenta del pasado siglo, unos diez años después de la Revolución Cubana y de la nacionalización de todos los medios de difusión masivos, comenzó a florecer en la Isla una economía ilícita sustentada en el alquiler de materiales de entretenimiento que escapó de las regulaciones del Estado. Mini novelas románticas o del oeste, de autores como Corín Tellado, fueron los primeros materiales que circularon clandestinamente por los empresarios. La adquisición de los libros era un desafío constante y estos negocios descubrieron que trabajar con empresarios equivalentes en otras ciudades era la mejor alternativa de obtener nuevos ejemplares. Este fue el inicio de una red nacional de mercado negro para el intercambio y compraventa de materiales de entretenimiento. A medida que el formato de los medios disponibles evolucionó: primero a revistas, luego a VHS y videocintas de Betacam y, finalmente, a CDs, VCDs y DVDs, esta red proporcionó el acceso a los medios de circulación que se encontraban al margen del control gubernamental. De esta suerte, el Paquete Semanal es resultado del paulatino desarrollo de dichas redes y del comercio ilícito, ya naturalizado, de materiales de entrenamiento durante más de cuatro décadas.
En nuestros proyectos hemos explorado el alcance, la estructura, las tendencias y lo efímero de este fenómeno. Debido a la falta de equipos e infraestructura tecnológica en Cuba, el almacenamiento digital es extremadamente limitado y el Paquete de cada semana sobrescribe el último. Para un trabajo reciente titulado ARCA (2016-2017), presentado en la exhibición 17. (SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ (2017-2018), en el Queens Museum de Nueva York, creamos un archivo de 52 terabytes de un año del Paquete en colaboración con uno de sus grupos gestores: la matriz OMEGA. Nuestro archivo es el único registro formal entre agosto de 2016 y agosto de 2017.
Otro trabajo en marcha relacionado con el Paquete Semanal es !!!Sección A R T E, un proyecto artístico independiente que existe dentro de él. Creado por Nestor Siré en 2015, !!!Sección A R T E es una intervención enfocada en las artes visuales, especialmente en el arte cubano contemporáneo, que se inserta cada mes en el Paquete. Artistas cubanos e internacionales, así como escritores, cineastas, críticos y otros han participado en el proyecto en los últimos dos años. Su estructura replica la del Paquete; ambas están basadas en un directorio de carpetas. También sigue sus reglas: no contiene pornografía ni temas políticos, aunque explora sus límites. Dentro de ella circulan noticias, promociones de exposiciones, libros, documentales, convocatorias y obras de arte realizadas especialmente para la C A R P E T A =galería=.
!!!Sección A R T E tiene puntos en común con The Download,de Rhizome. En primer lugar, ambos están destinados a ser experimentados fuera de línea, como un paquete de información digital. Sin embargo, la desconexión de The Download es intencional y se fundamenta en criterios curatoriales y artísticos, mientras que la de !!!Sección A R T E se deriva de condiciones específicas del contexto cubano. Entre ellas también se detectan similitudes más sutiles, como el uso de múltiples ventanas y la estética digital, que van desde la denominación de los archivos hasta la arquitectura de directorios. A diferencia de Rhizome, cuya plataforma es más abarcadora, !!!Sección A R T E solo existe dentro de un entorno digital, pero circula a través del contacto físico, mediante la copia de archivos mano a mano. No se puede activar enlaces o hipervínculos con otros contenidos y tampoco es posible acceder a informaciones de meses anteriores.A su vez, no cuenta con herramientas para determinar, en términos cuantitativos, su impacto y el número de personas al que llega. No obstante, la interacción con su audiencia no es completamente unilateral, pues tiene una dirección de correo electrónico a través de la cual su público solicita temas y materiales que son incluidos en futuras ediciones.
Este mes hemos desarrollado una sección especial que toma en consideración las semejanzas y disyunciones apuntadas. Esta edición bilingüe fue producida como parte de nuestra colaboración continua y, al igual que nuestras obras anteriores, fusiona los contextos de nuestras vidas artísticas: Nueva York y La Habana. Julia reunió proyectos, publicaciones y anuncios de artistas internacionales que son habituales de Rhizome: Tyler Coburn, Caroline Woolard y David Horvitz, por solo señalar algunos. Como siempre, Nestor acopió materiales de interés para creadores, diletantes, críticos y personas totalmente ajenas al mundo del arte e invitó al artista cubano Yonlay Cabrera a incluir su obra !Descargas de todo un poco(2014-2017) en laCARPETA = galería =. Cabrera evidencia la estrategia que ha implementado desde que tuvo acceso por primera vez a Internet, hace ya cinco años, y con la cual ha hecho frente a las limitaciones de la conectividad en Cuba. Comparte una recopilación cronológica casi completa del material web que decidió revisar y descargar, como un registro de la evolución de [su] pensamiento y desarrollo intelectual, visto a través de la información que [presenta].
Esperamos que disfrute de este material, esté donde esté cuando lo encuentre. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11 + Rhizome], disponible aquí, también lo estará en toda Cuba, en la semana de 29 de enero. Esta sección, como es habitual, circulará dentro del Paquete Semanal de OMEGA durante los próximos siete días, y luego se sobrescribirá nuevamente.
On May 15th through 18th of last year, the Seasteading Institute (SI), a nonprofit devoted to creating aquatic utopic micronations outside of any and all tax codes, held a conference in French Polynesia. Its purpose was to introduce seasteaders to the citizens of the country which would, potentially, soon be hosting the SI’s “Floating Island Project.” Also in attendance were filmmakers Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller, who were shooting what would become the short documentary “The Seasteaders,” which was released Sunday on DIS. Part of Hurwitz-Goodman and Keller’s agreement with the SI was that the institute would have access to all of their footage, with the ability to recontextualize. The Institute had its inception in the fevered libertarian dreams of Silicon Valley and was backed financially by the infamously litigious Peter Thiel; these are people who obviously know their way around a contract. Eight days before the film’s release date, the SI released its own short documentary, also entitled “The Seasteaders.” The SI’s trailer mimics DIS’s trailer to a startling degree.
Still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
Despite the similarities of the trailers and the use of the same footage as source material, the two films are radically different. The DIS cut focuses on formal and informal interviews, while the SI cut upfronts the conference itself. The DIS film opens with the SI gang, represented in this cut as mostly meme-worthy “old white dudes,” hanging out at a seaside resort, eating conference food, and getting bussed around as on any package tour. The attendees and official SI representatives stay on-brand, producing a mélange of corporate-speak and libertarian political ideology (both perhaps best represented in the phrase “special economic sea zone”). Taxation is treated with the obsessive hatred usually reserved for original sin. At one point, Joe Quirk, the SI’s president and head “seavangelist,” relaxes by a picturesque pond in a polo shirt, speaking about how people from “the developing world” are “excited” to work with the project. (Note: French Polynesia is listed as a high income nation by the World Bank.) While Quirk speaks, Hurwitz-Goodman and Keller show footage of a resort worker operating a leaf-blower. We are meant to assume she represents a general idea of a long-suffering labor force, whether in developing or developed nations, that the SI will soon be exploiting.
Still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
The seasteading ideology really starts to get feral during an extended interview with Caleb Sturges, of the SI’s Economic Impact Team. He declares democracy ineffective and speaks of his interest in transhumanism and the neoreactionary movement (NRx), a radical right-wing separatist-monarchist crusade. (Patri Friedman, co-founder of the SI, has shown his familiarity with the work of NRx essayist and cheerleader Nick Land, and Thiel has ties to NRx frontman Mencius Moldbug.) Sturges suggests that his own personal plot of sea-land (“Caleb’s World”) will be an oligarchy with limited voting rights. None of the attendees at any point speak about their love of the ocean, or even water.
The SI’s cut of the footage emphasizes French Polynesian attendance and enthusiasm, as well as female attendees. (At one point during the DIS film, Randy Hencken, the SI’s managing director, attempts to convince his [female] partner that seasteaders are not primarily male. This leads to the unfortunate phrase “she-steaders.”) Despite a lingering air of dread throughout, cast by repeated mentions of Tahiti’s vulnerability to climate change, this film is ultimately inoffensive, blanked-out corporate propaganda. Certainly no one suggests ending democracy or destroying the nation-state with a new political technology. Sturges is seen once, briefly, and utters not a word.
Hurwitz-Goodman wrote to me. He said that he was fascinated by the SI’s cut of the footage, calling it an “exercise in editing and representation,” and a nod towards the inherent subjectivity of any documentary. However, the filmmakers and DIS are extremely concerned by the SI’s move to hijack the film’s SEO, down to imitating its trailer and duplicating its title. While reactionary groups routinely decry the destruction of freedom of speech by progressives, they will often seek to suppress any critical perspective rather than engage with it. The official position of the SI may be post-political, a vision of a “Cambrian explosion” of new forms of government through implementation of its proposals, but its tactics demonstrate that its ideology is a weird admixture of various libertarian sub-styles, anarcho-libertarian, dark transhumanist, bland corporatist, Moldbug’ian, and that it is committed to covering the darkness of this ideology through corporate branding-speak.
The SI has not yet responded to inquiries for comment. Friedman claimed he has not yet had time to watch the DIS film.
Header image: still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Eleanor Ford: You opened your first solo exhibition, Exotic Trade,at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg in May of 2017, and it seems, from afar, that it is a major expansion of your artistic and healing cosmology. This is my first exposure, through your work, to the idea of the “cosmos database”; an enormous idea that positions digital interfaces for ancestral and spiritual information. Can you talk about how you approach redefining and reimagining familiar terms and ideas (like downloading, optic cables, computing, etc) within the cosmos of decolonial technologies you present in your work? What kind of histories and spiritual practices do you draw from?
Tabita Rezaire: The cosmos is the ordered universe, as in, a whole and organized system, and it may contain many universes—previous, future, and parallel. Anyhow I believe the cosmos to be an immense storage of information. A mega hard drive of all that has been, is, and will ever be. All events, intentions, thoughts, feelings, sounds, words are stored in the cosmos’ database. It is a field of encoded energy we constantly upload to, some call it universal consciousness, Akashic records, Karma, collective unconscious, or astral light. It is basically a metaphysical archive on the scale of the universe that we can access and from which we can retrieve information. Direct downloads from the cosmos database were very common in some time-space, now it’s kind of niche as most of us are not tuned into the astral plane. Spiritual channeling, telepathy, visions and even intuition make use of that cosmic repository. Tapping into this is like connecting to the divine internet.
A lot of my work has focused on the internet as a colonized space and neocolonial technology, which had me yearning for other ways to connect. At the same time I found myself in spiritual communities in which I discovered spiritual technologies. My spiritual practice revealed decolonial technologies as a set of networked practices that were essentially ICTs—Information and Communication Technologies.
The definition of technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purpose. Here the tension lies within “scientific knowledge,” as the hierarchy between systems of knowledge inherited from the colonial era only considers Western rationalist/logic/“proven” knowledge as scientific. When you detach from these racist biases and allow other cultures of science to exist then the meaning of technology expands.
So ICTs are scientific knowledge applied for the purpose of information and communication. Outside of coloniality, then ancestor communication, as in receiving information from an ancestor, is a technology, a network for data transmission. Very much like the internet but instead of using optic fiber cables, it runs through energetic routes. Same goes for the use of teacher plants—like ubulawu or ayahuasca—which grant visions and messages when ingested, as well as yogic sciences, which allows you to open other information centers in your body so as to receive and share information as energy. These practices demand guidance, training or initiation as all traditions developed their own spiritual technologies, but there are so many interfaces available to connect and receive from the spiritual world: water, dreams, womb, and intuition...we just need to learn how to listen.
Tabita Rezaire, installation shot from Deep Down Tidal, 2017
I draw from very diverse sources and transmissions. My research and influences span worldwide and extraterrestrial histories, mythologies, cosmologies, lineages, and sciences. The channeling is theoretical, intuitive, or experiential; it can be individual or collective and guided by a spiritual teacher/healer or ancestors. It involves the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies separately or together; some information translates into knowledge, others into wisdom. Here are some practices I resonated with in my life (but surely many lives before): dance, water, Judaism, daydreaming, drug culture, classical philosophy, psychoanalysis, European/eastern mysticism, oracles, Kemetic Yoga & Ancient Egyptian cosmology, Kundalini Yoga & Vedic sciences, Sufism, African and diasporic spiritual systems, South African traditional healing, Ifa, Amazonian teachings, herbalism, Tantra, Buddhism, conspiracy theory, alien/spirit channeling, New Age, animal life, astrology, numerology, physics, wombwork, dreams, sound, nature… They all inform each other and reflect my eclectic path, but the nature of my engagement with different teachings differs greatly, some I only read about, others I practice daily.
The traditions that lead my soul-heart now are my yogic practices of Kemetic and Kundalini Yoga and ancestor work through a Sangoma (South African traditional healer). Both are essential to my understandings of energy and spirit. My Kundalini teacher and Sangoma are my spiritual mothers; their teachings have been transformational forces of alignment in my life. I’m so grateful to you. Thank you.
Our soul bodies contain the whole universe, the whole of space-time. We are literally made of space-time. When we truly access ourselves, we access that cosmos database.
Tabita Rezaire, Premium Connect, 2017
EF: You’ve made numerous works that explore and celebrate Black femme technologies—Matrix and Sugar Walls Teardomboth honor the forgotten histories of Black womxn whose lives and wombs contributed to gynecology and the bio-medical economy, while SENEB’s collaborative offering Hoetep Blessings (including your video of the same name, as well as works by Elizabeth Mputu and Fannie Sosa) preaches empowerment of Black femmeness to liberatory and healing ends. Your solo show was also oriented in the shape of a womb, which is such a beautiful detail.
In the contemporary era in which digital/technological colonialism converges with the continuing legacy of colonial history, how do you see the digital and spiritual spaces coming together in the process of healing, honoring and empowering the technologies of the cunt, the womb, and the natural energies of all Black femmeness? Does one serve the other?
TR: I believe spiritual spaces can be found anywhere and in anything, all spaces (thoughts and actions) are spiritual in potential, as spirit can be infused into everything. Only our intention and attention can turn a space-time into a work of spirit. You can be dancing in a ceremony or in the club, if you are consciously moving energy through your body-temple as a praise of the divine; you are in an act of spiritual communion. Same goes for cooking, walking, talking… it doesn’t matter what and where you do but how you do it.
I understand spirituality as the path that brings us to our soul and from there to source. There are an infinite numbers of paths, more than there are people. So I don’t see an inherent opposition between the digital and the spiritual. If your use of the digital assists you in meeting your soul, to become and realize the spirit that you are, then the digital can be a powerful spiritual tool. Any interface is fertile for spirit cause spirit is everywhere, just waiting to be revealed to itself.
The path of the womb has been and still is fundamental in my political and spiritual growth. The womb is a safe guarding treasures; it is our site of creation and with it comes immense power and responsibility. People with wombs hold the blueprint of creation, as they have the potential to birth life. They are in direct conversation with the cosmic womb that birthed our multiverse. Like an umbilical cord tying us back to source. Yet wherever you fall on the gender spectrum this area is your potent creative center, an energetic womb that can birth, if not a human life but spiritual manifestation like ideas, dreams, visions...its knowing and ways are so abundant.
This access point has been shattered by thousands of year of patriarchy and religious interpretations that shame the feminine, condemn sexual pleasure, and disgrace menstruations and birth. Everything relating to the womb and cunt has been vilified, and we unfortunately have all internalized this. Our wombs are traumatized and that blocks the flow of creation. Broken wombs birth broken beings/dreams. The collective state of our sites of creation reflects the collective state of the world. I’m certain that to serve our world we need to serve our wombs.
Creating a relationship with my womb, to its rhythms and flows taught me so much. It is a gateway to the divine within yourself, the teachings of the womb are lessons of spiritual embodiment. This connection allowed me to access repressed wounding—both my own and ancestral ones I was carrying—and attend to them.
This is what the works you mentioned are about, searching through womb lineages of hurt to start a healing process. Online, in VR, in our minds, 3D world, and other dimensions but always guided by the spiritual.
Tabita Rezaire, still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2016
EF: While The House of SENEB emerged in 2016 as the central channel of your digital healing practice, you were already exploring the concepts of “decolonial self-care” and spiritual healing in your video Peaceful Warrior(2015)—a tutorial-esque guide for transitioning from being an “angry warrior” to being a “peaceful warrior.” The soundscape of Peaceful Warrior acts like a narrator of the spiritual transformation happening on screen—developing from meditative strides into discordant howls as you transform yourself through kemetic yoga, decolonial diet, and yonic twerking. The House of SENEB embraces sound and vibration as a major healing force. As you’ve spoken about previously, “SENEB comes from the ancient Kemetic word/symbol meaning health, but it also means sound or rather ‘to be sound’ or ‘to have soundness.’ The power of sound to heal is deep.”What is your relationship to sound as an artist who works with video, a spiritual practitioner? Do you make the music in your work?
TR: We are sound. We are sonic being. The world is sound. It’s also a very powerful technology. My relation to it keeps expanding and deepening as I explore diverse access points to it, from music, physics, spirituality, or mathematics all give different insights into the mysteries of sound. I’m so blessed to count as soul-friends very gifted musicians, so all music in my videos are the healing frequencies of beloved ones, Hlasko, FAKA, and CHI. I’m so grateful that their sounds bless my works. I’m in the process of slowly getting in that world but I’m still working on clearing my throat chakra. The voice is a healing instrument but it sometimes needs healing itself. I’m excited about what sounds and rhythms will come out through me.
In physics, sound is vibration that alters the pressure of air (or other medium sound goes through) propagating energy. Basically sound is vehicle for energy. We can use sound waves to carry the energy of our intentions. That is base of sound healing.
That’s why sound is so powerful. All spiritual traditions use sound in some form or another, chanting, praying, singing, mantra repetition, playing instruments to honor and communicate with the divine. These are methods of tuning ourselves to the whole, to the rhythm of the cosmos. The universe has a sound current, the primeval sounds of creation, which are still resonating.
Everything has its own vibrational frequency, also feelings and thoughts. Each frequency has a specific effect that can establish or disturb harmonic balance in a system. Sound shapes your state of consciousness. “Modern” science has now caught up and is calling this brain entrainment, where brain waves are able to synchronize to external sound wave. That’s why sound can be so healing if precise frequencies are used but also deadly. Sonic warfare is being used by many governments as a weapon.
The science of cymatic also shows a relationship between sound and the formation of geometric shapes in matter, with specific frequencies corresponding to specific forms. So sacred geometry in nature is the results of vibrational frequencies. Ancient Egyptians referred to geometry as “frozen music.”
I love the idea that sound shapes our world, that manifested creation is a result of the sound of creation itself. Actually many cosmological beginnings attributes the birth of the world to sound or a word. The words we use are actually so important; when we speak we spread (outward and inward) the frequency of that word on matter around us as energy propagate. The power of the word is so real.
The applications of sound healing are infinite. I play the gong and it has transformed my life. It feeds my soul. I trained this year in gong therapy and the science is so profound. The healing of the gong is powerful. It’s a soul alignment technology.
EF: I first saw your video essay Afro Cyber Resistance (2014) as a part of a class taught by manuel arturo abreu. In it you outline the colonialist patterns of information flow thatrecreate a Western hegemony online, and how South African internet artists are resisting the structures of a digital north/south divide. These ideas also hold space in your most recent work Deep Down Tidalthrough the language of “electronic colonialism,” which links the informatic and material forms of the internet to histories of Black death. Without asking you to reiterate the subjects of Afro Cyber Resistance (which everyone should go watch), as a Black femme artist and spiritual healer, how does your engagement with digital materialities and information economies shift in response to these colonialist realities?
Tabita Rezaire, Deep Down Tidal, 2017
TR: Already back in 1995 Ziauddin Sardar wrote: “The west urgently needs new spaces to conquer...and where they don’t actually exist, they must be created. Enter, cyberspace.” Electronic colonialism is that shift of former colonized countries into electronic colonies, of colonial subjects into global Westernized subjects and cyber slave. Electronic colonialism is so insidious, and because we are gladly hooked to our devices it’s even more dangerous. Even when we know how awful it is we still love it. It has been designed this way to build this attachment closer to addiction than love. How to put criticism into practice? How to take responsibility and implement a response? I’m still figuring it out, I guess the work I do is some kind of response.
While researching for the video Deep Down Tidalabout transoceanic communication networks, I found out that our fiber optic cables are laid out onto former colonial shipping routes as most still follow the path of 19th-century copper telegraph cables. The internet is literally built on racist social engineering. I was petrified by this symbolism, yet this work brought a deep sense of calm, as water spirits also inhabit our deep seas. I was studying fractal at that time and suddenly my outlook shifted as I thought of fractal resilience. A fractal can be defined as infinity in a finite space, for some fractal arrangements it can also be multiple infinities in one finite space. If you transpose that mathematical definition to political struggles of emancipation, you have the finite space of our oppressive racist-rapey-colonialist-capitalist-industrial-legal complex, yet within it lies the potential for infinity. Infinity of experiences, of worlds, of ways of being and living no matter how small, or suffocating the finite structure is.
EF: The act of “disseminating light through screen based interfaces and energy streams” holds a central place in your praxis of digital healing activism. What is the importance of light to you, as a new media artist, a tech-politics researcher and a practitioner of spiritual/digital healing?
TR: Disseminating light is a call/practice/service of love, defiance and trust. To embody love as opposed to seeking something/someone to hold the loving. In defiance of all that which keeps spreading the hurts. In trust of better days and ways—where trust is no longer hope.
That deep knowing is light.
Light is energy. Light is a path. Yet it means very different things in different traditions of physics, religions, metaphysics, and mysticisms. In all those fields the meanings and disputes over meanings attributed to light are fascinating to me. I recently set up a brief school about “time” in Austria and we studied quantum physics, and went into past life regression, it revealed some of light’s complexities to me.
Why light is so central is that it defines one’s comprehension of the world (both in the world of physics and spirituality). Our 3D world is what it is for us humans because of how we interpret the light (electromagnetic radiations-EMR) that is reflected back from our surroundings. The thing is that out of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, we are only able to “see” a tiny fraction. That’s why we see/experience the world differently from other species as they might be sensitive to different EMR, infrared or ultraviolet for example.
The fascinating thing for me is the relational position of light and darkness. What we call darkness is only the absence of visible light for human. As we only see a limited part of the light spectrum, what we experience as darkness might be reflecting bright light/EM at a frequency we can’t perceive.
Darkness can be full of light.
That in the world of spirit means everything for me. The relationship between darkness and light in Western culture is very much one of opposition, light being associated with positive elements: life, goodness, heaven, while darkness carries negative attributes: death, danger, evil. This narrative is also carried as a common trope within racial hierarchies. Darkness also comes to mean the unknown and as the West is so uncomfortable with not knowing, that it vilifies everything outside of its premises of understanding. There is no space for coexisting worlds.
The unknown is the path of the mystic.
I believe healing starts with being in conversation with darkness, as in what is not exposed, outside of our knowing. Facing our fears, going where it hurts, revealing the wounds. Then slowly scarring, not physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Healing is birthing a different state of being and birthing is always painful. This is also true of spiritual growth.
Some spiritual traditions speak of this transformation as a transition from darkness to light. I do associate spiritual light with a certain consciousness, with the illumination of our inner spirit. We are light beings and when we decide to walk the path of our soul, our light shines, but darkness is within light. Like my soul-friend Bogosi likes to say, we are light workers. In Kemetic cosmology, and many others, light was born out of the primeval darkness, the creative force of the universe being darkness. In astrophysics, stars turn into black holes and according to the big bounce theory, the cosmos is potentially a cyclical pattern of alternating big bang and big crunch (mega black holes that suck up the whole contracting universe). So universes are just being born, dissolved, and reborn.
I deeply resonate with a complementary approach, where light and darkness are two expressions of one entity. Like beloved in an embrace birthing one another like day and night, sunrise after sunset, big crunch after big bang, without one being more noble than the other, both as important, necessary and powerful in their own ways.
Tabita Rezaire, still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2016
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I joined a photo club in 2009, and started to take analogue photos and developing them in the club’s darkroom. I left for London as an aspiring fashion designer and unexpectedly went into art. During all my studies I was very into analogue technology, only shooting in film with super 8 cameras. I was attached to the film as material and the process of developing. I remember a friend once told me: “The role of the artist is to comment on their time,” that struck me and I realized my use of film was a nostalgic fetish. I was writing my thesis on the politics of ecstasy and cruelty in film performance, only once I finished my MA, I really started a practice. I went in with the digital and got caught in the politics of digital technologies.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied economics for my BA, at University Dauphine in Paris, and did my last year at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Then I did an art foundation year at Central saint Martins in London and followed there with a research Master in Artist Moving Image.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I currently work full time as an artist.
Since my teens I’ve worked as vegetable merchant on markets, retail assistant, math and physics tutor, babysitter, call center agent, French tutor, hostess, dissertations editor, club door girl, waitress.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Header image: still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2017
Since its founding in 2012 by IDPW and Exonemo, Internet Yami-Ichi has generated fervent crowds to sample cottage-made, tangible WWW goods and services in cities across the world: Basel, Berlin, New York City, Sapporo, Tokyo, and beyond.
Writing for Rhizome in 2015, Lucas Pinheiro called the platform “a gripping example of recent artistic experimentations with the materiality of the web.” The following year, a Rhizome Commission supported an edition of the event at the Knockdown Center in Queens.
Net art objects and ephemera have a long history: Mouchette advertised her first public appearance via flyers on Amsterdam streets in 1996 and Rhizome founder Mark Tribe curated an exhibition of net art ephemera at Moving Image Gallery in 2002. Printed or zazzled, watermarked or hand-stitched, this edition of Internet Yami-Ichi is for net art that continues in this vein, circulating through physical networks of exchange.
Today, we’re pleased to announce that Rhizome will host a micro-edition of Internet Yami-Ichi at NADA New York 2018, at Skylight Clarkson Square, from March 8–11. Our market will stock myriad internet-related objects at accessible prices, all available in limited quantities first-come, first serve, with proceeds directed back to the creators.
As we develop our inventory, we’re putting out an open call for product. If you have something to sell, please propose inclusion via this simple form. (See form for fine print.) Submit by February 14.
We look forward to learning about your wares.
Fabien Mousse, Real Internet Art (2013)
Photo by Matt Dell
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
bod [包家巷] - 'Emergence [紧急情况]' (2018) Courtesy of ZOOM LENS
Lauren Studebaker: You work in a variety of mediums, most recently releasing a digital EP, Soliloquy of the Distant Home, under the pseudonym bod [包家巷]. Could you begin by introducing the multiple manifestations of your work, and why lately you’ve felt drawn to producing sound?
Nick Zhu: I moved to Los Angeles and I didn’t have the ability to really make anything while I also tried not to die from poverty. I was kind of making images, I just couldn’t really do very much at all in terms of making.
I think I went back to music because it’s always been in my life. My mom noticed I could play, and then made me play piano (stereotypically) when I was four. I took lessons from a family friend. I got a scholarship into a choir. I played jazz in middle and high school. In college I made music that I don’t want anyone to hear, except for the one track on my SoundCloud.
It only took over as a dominant practice when I came to LA.
Now that I think about it, making anything kind of sucks. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it, I don’t know. At least with music I get to perform, which feels good. Making never feels good. Sometimes problem solving is fun, but it’s not definitively “fun” to make art or music. It’s work.
So I guess it’s a “at least I get this one small thing” type decision. Story of my life, hahahahaha.
LS: Your music, especially your newest EP, is haunting, heavy, and uniquely expansive in source material. Your compositions are based on samples “of construction machinery, horror movies, Chinese dramas, choir music, abuse/violence, DJ spinbacks, and, of course, piano music”—why these specific sounds?
NZ: Oooooh, shit.
Construction machinery: I was working at MOCA as AV/Exhibitions Tech at the time, and even when I became director of photography there, I was still around a ton of construction. Lifts going beep beep and saws cutting shit and hammers; it was really like this kind of fetish/torture that people went through for the sake of art and helping rich people launder their money, and it was a part of my life, and it was interesting, in, like, a car crash kind of way.
Horror movies: I loooove horror movie sound design. Not necessarily from “good” movies, or even “good” “bad” movies. I’m just going into YouTube and looking at the trailers and jump scares and stuff. There’s so much good craft spent on just spooking someone, and much of it is so beautiful, all the gorgeous, wet, disgusting sounds. Also, I like watching them. “Like,” as in a “I’m bored and stoned” kind of like.
Chinese dramas: My mom’s Chinese, and literally all she watched (and probably still watches) is Chinese TV, with favoritism towards war dramas demonizing Japanese people, or regular ol’ families falling apart type shit. Stuff she relates to. And I was there...or, I guess I would pass through the room as quickly as possible after getting home. But all the sounds stuck.
Choir music: The choir I was in is run by this very disciplined Catholic guy, who is all about good craft and God. This shit fucked me up the most. Singing Baroque music acapella in a centuries-old mission is fucked up. Singing in a Czech cathedral is fucked up. It’s stronger than any drug I’ve ever taken. I’ve never felt tears come so easily. This is when I started to believe in God.
Abuse/violence: I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really embedded in the cycles of trauma and abuse. Fucked up shit has happened to me, and I’ve done fucked up shit. I think it’s important to know this about myself, or as my therapist says, to be aware of the desolation that I carry inside me.
DJ spinbacks: I didn’t even know what a DJ does until I moved to LA. Then I moved here and my paragon of healing, change, and growth, Matt Dell (M.D. James), took me to all these warehouse parties, introduced me to the music that gave rise to what I make and listen to. I heard a lot of spinbacks in this initial time period, and they sounded great.
Piano music: I play piano. I make all my music with just a MIDI keyboard and mic. I will never disguise this fact. In my opinion, piano (or I guess harpsichord) was the first DAW.
Also at the end of the day I have a relationship to sound that, even if it is a fad to have, is my personal experience of it and nobody else’s. It’s my little world where C major is rounded and warm colored, where Chino Amobi’s music looks like steel wool burning on a clean sheet of glass, or malibu’s music looks like milk spilling over a pale wooden table in morning light. First rule is that it both sounds and looks pretty.
LS: Would you say that your synaesthetic relationship to the sound you produce is represented in the visual work you make?
NZ: At least on my Instagram there have been multiple instances in which music I was listening to became similar to stuff I posted, but I’ve never sat down, made a track, and then made a visual thing to go with it. It’s also unidirectional, and unfortunately I don’t get to hear sights. The most useful relationship I have between sound and sight is that I can use the materials perceived for perfect pitch, but there’s still around a 20-hertz error margin.
Cover for Soliloquy of the Distant Home [远家独白], released December 2017
LS: I was first introduced to your work via the early 2010s “weird Facebook” groups we were a part of—how do you feel like the online social element of digitally-produced artwork has informed your work over time? Do you feel like these sorts of online communities are helpful or harmful in the dissemination and historicization of your work?
NZ: Omg so much time we’ve “known” each other, hahahahahahaha. Facebook was where I really felt safe and able to actually talk to people. I felt like I could say exactly what I was feeling at that moment, and not be afraid of whether or not it was contextualized by the prison of my body. I fell in love over Facebook. I fell into vile, dark pits on Facebook. I lose and make new friends regularly.
This is where I wanna state that this shit is the reason I believe the idea of medium to be outdated, as well as the ideas of space, sociality, and performance.
These communities taught me how to see the world, and changed who I was, in a way that isn’t archived institutionally, and isn’t really thought of personally. Some artists treat the internet as a little shop of horrors in which they can find intriguing things. I try to have respect for what saved my life.
The way I see it, every single mishap or failure that I’ve encountered in this augmented world is a direct reflection of how overconfident previous generations of human beings were to create histories, produce movements, construct realities really. Nothing is accurate. Everything has more backstories than anyone else can comprehend. All ideas have already been had, been done, but some people got lucky and got to take credit at the right time and place.
Talent, beauty, innovation, these are just social interpretations of labor, and what’s shitty to me is that this kind of labor isn’t deemed necessary or important enough to pay everyone who does it.
I made some really nice friends though, and they paid for all my shit and taught me how to feel like I was loved. I learned a lot about myself and others.
Actually yeah, shoutout to the “weird Facebook” community for literally crowdfunding my artistic career and introducing me to Tea Strazicic (flufflord), who is amazing.
Shoutout to the “experimental” Soundcloud community for showing me that there was more to music than what I learned from western music theory.
And—duh, for real—shoutout to the whole slew of people who have helped me to even exist.
I owe everything to them, and nothing to institutions of art and learning. Except like $26,000 of debt. By the way, shoutout to Reed College for giving me a “full ride” that contained a lend portion, which doubled in proportion every year. Nice move.
N. Zhu: Press Intent, Released August 2017
LS: You mention here—and I’ve seen you mention before—these investigations and critiques of urban-creative labor and precarity, as well as the influence of Orientalism on the reception of these efforts. Could you expand on these topics and explain how they inform your working process, or your understanding of the current landscape of contemporary digital art?
NZ: I can talk about this all day because I have this narrative of struggle and it’s somehow even more self-centered than my current method of answering your questions, hahahahahahaha, ugh.
Instead, I’ll do the first two like this:
And then the fun one:
The persistent existence of Orientalism has made it impossible for me look at a lot of this labor with a friendly face. It is predicated on an invisibility of the ignorance that it creates in its subjects, clouding the eyes of each artist, curator, creative director, musician, forcing them to only see criticism of Orientalism as an isolated population of semantic hairsplitting. Orientalism has no bearing on the hearts of its givers.
Orientalism offers a vision of how different I am, will always be. It has no respite in the loving arms of a family that I rarely talk to or a historical home that I am completely unfamiliar with. I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t get to lay into a nest of authenticity with a strong sense of family or home and it starts to feel like the Orientalist view is all I have, to feel and to offer.
I used to be (still am) bitter about seeing the triggering artifacts around, the decontextualized usage of prayer candles in a music video released on a respected experimental music label, the constant depiction of Asian urban environments as technological utopia/dystopia in digital/post-internet art, etc. Now I realize it’s equally stupid to ask a child not to be selfish, or a grown child to be considerate. I don’t call out artists anymore. I just talk a lot of shit to my friends, hahaha
On the other hand, shoutout to all the Asians who are using socially conscious political rhetoric to justify their continued appropriation of other cultures in order to give themselves substance. Seeing rich first-gen Asians performing what is essentially a costume of an underground club DJ or a rapper makes me feel a little cringey. Watching rhetoric evolve around them on topics of racial representation for doing such things is nauseating. Why would Asian representation in practices and communities formed under the glorification of our identity in order to subjugate other minorities be necessary? I know there’s always room for good intent, but I also know that politics is an effective branding tool.
Also, my criticism is a very American, consumer-perspective one. I don’t know what else exists but maybe I’ll have a more nuanced understanding later in my life.
Image #3 from N. Zhu for FELT ZINE, released March 2017
LS: Have you found that working outside of a traditional gallery model of reception, financing, and community provides more freedom for artists working with mostly digital means, or do you think it’s inhibitory to your practice?
NZ: If I work within the model, then I have to stand around people who think they’re doing something good for society in a corrupt and abusive system.
If I really cared about being around art and supporting art, then I’ll help my friends. I’ll help my friends help their friends. I’ll help my friends throw shows to donate money to whatever it is that will help other people I think would be good friends. I can already satisfy my development of a better life and practice by not being in the model. Also, I don’t feel like it’s necessary have to market this aspect of my life to others in order to attain social capital out of my own political positions. I try to have all of my “good ethics/morals” ideals maintain themselves at the level of friendship, not large abstract models like “identity” or intricate, delicate systems like “community.” Also, fuck everyone who thinks that they’re a good person. Sorry.
I’m not going to go into any art situation that is about making someone else money, unless that person
1. Actually needs this money
2. Is someone I know and like, or,
3. Will give me a fat cut
My therapist’s position is that everyone has to work in one way or another, to be more empathetic towards people in general. Mine would be “Yeah, but working continuously without support is also continuously harmful to the body and mind, and people really don’t respect the resulting accumulation of trauma. They won’t understand that I was willing to be a bad person in order to survive. They don’t care that I am working to change that now.”
So I’m really thankful to have so many friends in my life. I’m really thankful for the ones that stay with me, believe in me, and smile as they watch me heal. Everyone I hurt, I’m sorry. Everyone who left, I’m not mad; I’m just sorry I couldn’t do it for you.
LS: In your text written for FELT zine, you describe Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism as “an incomplete project that doesn’t have a practical application,” and then go on to use the term, Sinofuturism, to describe your own work. Could you explain your conception of the term and how it applies to your practice?
NZ: Just so everyone knows, I’m not as shady as I used to be! Especially now that I realize how much it can hurt people. Like, there’s artists I want to fight, but I’m not going to talk about that online anymore.
I can criticize someone’s work and still want to be their friend, but for the most part, I’m trying to lay off of talking shit before I actually really know someone. It’s really hard though. I love talking shit.
Even if that video has a number of insightful perspectives, it’s actually a prescriptive breach into old ideas, presented as unexplored ideas, which is like, just another blip in the entirety of the history of innovation: speculation and confirmation bias-based justification.
I know it’s like, *really postmodern* of me to say nothing can begin or end, that all things create relative positions, that there is no absolute truth, that knowledge is isolated from everything but social construction, blah blah blah. But there isn’t an elimination of Orientalism, just a dilution of it into something more intellectually and politically palpable. This isn’t Lawrence Lek’s fault. The symbiotic gap between comprehensive effectiveness and dilution of discourse is an eternal problem in political, social, and technological criticism.
Also, why does every single technological work end up feeling fascist? Why is it that if you spend enough time giving technology the respect of medium-specific forms, it starts to act like a shitty dictator of ideas instead of people? We can do better than cold, heartless words on the topic at hand. We can do better than simply depicting the dystopic.
I’m over theory, and I’m over art that does not acknowledge its own hypocrisy. Actually, yeah, I want to say it: I’m a hypocrite, ask me anything.
The most useful thing I’ve ever had in my life is emotional intelligence and only recently have I learned how to use that in a way that doesn’t harm other people. Why should my art be held to any other standard? Why should anyone’s?
There is no physical manifestation of “accepting responsibility,” which makes things like social practice seem really stupid and bleak. There are only perceived theoretical entities that serve solely to furnish the phenomena of the world and its inhabitants. There is no defined line between “work” and “play,” “guilt” and “innocence,” “Orientalism” and “Objectivity.” Semantic ambiguities crush people in the forever present, the ineffable gap between all human beings, whose only window to each other is a complexifying system of tools that we are intent on giving more power. I’ve failed, and everyone has failed me.
That being said, any uncertainty used as a theoretical concept is the post-structural regurgitation of the inherent inability of Western philosophy and logic to confront and resolve the possibility of a universal solipsism….so maybe I should get my marbles straight, and commit to one of the many sides that exist in a world under its own siege.
Just turned 24
Los Angeles but not for long ;) Berlin ppl hmu
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I started making digital photographs to document a graffiti practice and take pictures of my friends because I wanted to be Nan Goldin as a teenager, and then moved to video shortly thereafter. Other digital mediums came into my life via Akihiko Miyoshi in college, but I learned 3D modeling and sound design on my own.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Reed (don’t judge me pls). I wanted to fulfill my destiny and be a doctor so I went in for biology, but then I spent two weeks on 2C-I and realized that I wanted to study art instead.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I worked at a salad bar when I first moved here. I was at MOCA for the last year (which was simultaneously a joke and torturous) while freelancing for anything I can do, which is really anything. I worked AV at the Hammer. I made album art. I begged for money from my rich friends. I still freelance so, help me.
Right now, I’m trying to keep my job as a graphic designer and sound designer at Headspace, which is great, because I love startup culture and all the free food and stuff, but as I have been trying to say, everything is at least a little fucked up.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots, please!)
That’s flufflord’s Gosha scarf, not mine.
If you’ve had any dealings with Rhizome over the past two and a half years, chances are you’ve interacted with our editorial manager, Kaela Noel. As Rhizomers are wont to do, she held a dizzying portfolio of responsibilities, from conscientious editor to catering-disaster-troubleshooter, and she handled it all with warmth and kindness. Today is Kaela’s last day with the organization, and she will be greatly missed, but we all wish her the very best in her new life as a freelance editor and parent to a tiny human.
Meanwhile, Lauren Studebaker joins the organization this week in the role of community manager, a slightly revised version of Kaela’s position with a renewed emphasis on Rhizome’s publics. Lauren, who comes to us from Arcangel Studio and worked part time at Rhizome to help cover Kaela's maternity leave, joins just in time for a busy conference season as we look ahead to our micro-Internet Yami-Ichi, Ethics & Archiving the Web, and the tenth edition of Seven on Seven. Join us in welcoming Lauren!
Yesterday, we shared the newest addition to our ongoing online exhibition Net Art Anthology: Ann Hirsch’s Scandalishious (2008-2009), a seminal work developed for the video-sharing platform YouTube.com. Contemporaneous aesthetics and interaction were key to the work, and thus restoring YouTube's older look and feel would be key to our restoration. The task of recreating late-aughts YT was put to Rhizome’s software curator, Lyndsey Jane Moulds.
As someone who lived through the 00s, and enjoyed YouTube when it acted like it did for Scandalishious, I adored the end result, and was curious how Lyndsey got there. So, I asked her on Slack.
ZK: Pardon me, Lyndsey. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about your restoration of Scandalishious, for which you’ve done an excellent job. First, how did you approach this recreation of an older YT?
LJM: Keeping the visual styling and presentation of the page intact felt really important. The videos are obviously at the center of the work, but there’s a lot of personality in that channel page, too. It's really easy to forget what YouTube looked like ten years ago, since social networks have slowly removed the ability to personalize pages in the last decade — Facebook widgets, Twitter backgrounds, all of that has disappeared. And this work really does operate within YouTube as a social network rather than just a place to publish videos, so we wanted to preserve as much of that for Ann as possible.
ZK: I mourn the loss of page personality. (Or rather, personality overall, everywhere on the web...) What was the most difficult aspect of the restoration on a technical level?
ZK: I have to say that I was truly thrilled to be able to show someone Ann’s work on my iPhone yesterday. At times, Rhizome can be... how shall I say this... mobile agnostic. So, kudos. Anyhow, what's your favorite aspect of the old YT look and feel?
LJM: I really appreciate the way users employed color on their channel pages. Scandalishious has that bright teal and green scheme. But even, for example, Barack Obama’s YouTube page from around that time used these rich blues and reds. I have a pretty large monitor in the office, and it feels so strange to maximize these archived sites on a really big screen. I didn’t own a screen anywhere near this large in 2008, so it's a really different experience to revisit these archives. Seeing a page that actually utilizes the kind of decorative CSS that was popular in the late 2000s at such a big scale really drives home how different social media looked.
ZK: It’s ironic how the web has been drained of color, as “retina” devices proliferate. I miss the old logo, which had a text tagline that exhorted folks like Ann’s Caroline to get into the mix. To close, is there an early (pre-2009?) YouTube video you really like? If not I’ll just share a Tech Deck video I like...
LJM: I need a second to see if there’s even one still online… [A few minutes elapse.] I’m looking through my old favorites and I feel like almost everything pre-2009 has been taken down, which I guess just emphasizes the importance of archiving. Chloe saying “bye” at the Copley Place Mall definitely holds up, though.
ZK: Lol. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s a Tech Deck video I like. Thanks, Lyndsey!
JACK FM is a radio station that broadcasts, according to on air quote, “from a dumpy little building in beautiful downtown Culver City.” It plays from a large but oddly limited database of songs, probably using an algorithm. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 by artist Guthrie Lonergan archives the station’s playlists from 2008 by scraping song identifications from a widget posted on the station’s website, which he thought of doing while driving around a lot listening to the station. Driving and listening to the radio are intertwined in Los Angeles, even as FM radio has lost its footing to streaming services and bluetooth, all of which allow the user to customize their in-car listening experience. For the experience of DJ curated music, there is internet radio and satellite. Commercial FM radio meanwhile soldiers on with its formula of regular ad breaks and DJs with personalities but no power over what gets played.
According to Wikipedia, the JACK FM format started in Vancouver, inspired by a Winnipeg station called BOB FM. The format caught on in Canada, spawning a JOE FM and DAVE FM, and was eventually licensed as an American format in 2004. The JACK format purports that one DJ, the fictional Jack, is playing whatever he wants. Whatever he wants to play happens to be the same rigid formula of songs as a commercial classic rock radio station might play, mixed with novelty songs, eighties hits, and a smattering of adult contemporary.
The JACK format emerge at the same time as the introduction of the iPod and iTunes, where randomized segues broke with traditional listening styles. Like the iTunes randomizer, JACK abolishes the idea of traditional DJ segues based on seamless flow. JACK transitions are abrupt, incongruous, and nonsensical. Despite the claim of unlimited freedom to play anything, there are strict limits in place. The musical database JACK draws from is adult contemporary rock, and like any non freeform radio station in the era where megacorporation Clearchannel (now called I Heart Radio) owns most major FM stations, it bludgeons you over and over with the same songs, flattened and compressed to drain them of character, positing that nostalgia is all that matters and repetition is comfort. JACK preys on nostalgia not for the original records themselves, but for these compressed and flattened radio versions. It means to evoke nostalgia for listening to the radio, for driving, for the repetitiveness and flatness of a long commute like the fictional Jack might have to the dumpy office building in Culver City–if such a place even exists, since Jack doesn’t.
Aside from the image of Jack as the last DJ, a voice actor-soundtracked robot broadcasting from a cubicle in Culver City JACK FM has always conjured up the phantom of Wolfman Jack, the seminal freeform rock n roll DJ who broadcast in the early sixties from a super-powerful FM signal in Mexico that was able to be picked up all over North America. Wolfman Jack’s voice, a sort of chicken-fried rumble, was known to all, but he maintained a public anonymity until later in his career (he appears in 1973’s American Graffiti as himself).
The original radio DJ, like the original internet user, is the introvert turned extrovert encouraged by the promise of anonymity. There was a time when radio existed without television, and a radio personality did not have to be concerned with a visual image, just a voice. And likewise, there was a time when the internet user was not expected to attach their username to a selfie, when internet personhood was defined by its personlessness. Lonergan’s work speaks to the deep feeling of longing that characterizes questing through the vastness of the internet.
Lonergan’s art is often situated from the point of view of a mythical ideal internet user. He collects data and archives pages and media from sites like Google Maps and JACK FM, finding the algorithmic averages of all content as a form of meditative measuring practice. Like Wolfman Jack and JACK FM, Lonergan’s work has an instantly recognizable, faceless voice.
Even within spaces as vast as music, the internet, and Los Angeles, there are patterns. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 dares the reader to try to make sense of that pattern, just as JACK FM dares the listener to understand the meaning of its algorithm. After playing only Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again” for the months of January through September, why did JACK suddenly also start playing “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” starting in October? Was a human somewhere behind some of these decisions? Or was it just another machine, a robotic jukebox arm randomly selecting another single from a digitized copy of Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits?
If JACK has a format, it is “Greatest Hits,” but within that there are a lot of inexplicable creative decisions. There is almost no rap, but Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” make the cut. JACK’s favorite band is probably U2, who are afforded a luxurious spread of thirteen of their biggest hits in the rotation, about half of which come from The Joshua Tree. Whereas regular radio stations present the illusion that the DJ is picking the records, JACK cuts out the middleman and says hey, here is what a corporate robot thinks you, the algorithmic average bro, wants to hear, presented with the voice of a snarky voice actor as JACK. JACK FM knows it is akin to wallpaper music, and that that is it’s comfort. Do you want to hear Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” every day around the same time? Everyone does, really.
To take something at “face value” seems to suggest a lack of deeper analysis, that there is a second, more worthy or more truthful value simmering just beneath the surface. “Face value,” the theme of the 2018 edition of transmediale, the sprawling Berlin-based art and digital media festival, proposed a “coming together” of a new “we”–a network of artists, theorists, cultural workers and others in equally precarious careers–to unpack the value systems written into the code of “our” globalized, neoliberal landscape. As our lives and bodies continue to be made into images and simulations–reflected in a number of artworks depicting alternate, constructed realities–transmediale proposed that this new reality might be one “we” can claim. The presumption that there might be a universal set of cultural values shared by a liberal, enlightened, “woke” elite was often problematic, rubbing up against works that critiqued the same capitalist values inevitably shared by the festival (where a bottle of water cost €2.50). For artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Yuri Pattison, and Eric Baudelaire, included in the main exhibition and screening programme, this default “we” was often hostile, violent, highly structuralized and institutionalized. Is it time we stop taking “we” at face value?
Presented in the main exhibition, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s collaborative film series Finding Fanon (2015–2017) uses the sublime landscapes of Grand Theft Auto 5 as a setting for the artists’ avatars to roam, while elements of Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial theory are narrated along the way. Fanon’s studies of the psychological effects of colonialism argued that the colonized’s sense of self is always defined in relation to the colonial master–while the colonizer self-defines through wielding authority and assumed superiority. Achiampong and Blandy’s avatars are not one-to-one representations of the artists. In a talk during the festival, Achiampong noted that, for black male avatars, there were only five hairstyles to choose from, whereas Blandy seemed to embody the “default” character in society–white and male–and so their self-simulations are fictionalized, delineated by structurally racist code. The limitless virtual worlds that gaming claims to open up fail to allocate space within them for certain kinds of players, programmed and modeled in a way that mimics Fanon’s theory and negates thousands of other “we’s” as other.
Similarly, Eric Baudelaire’s film Also Known As Jihadi (2017), which had its German premiere during the festival, reveals the implicit hostility of an institutionalized technological terrain. Building on the landscape theory first developed in Masao Adachi’s 1969 Japanese film AKA Serial Killer, Baudelaire’s protagonist, a young French-Algerian man, Aziz, has his narrative played out through long shots of landscapes–both of physical locations and of the legal data that continuously mapped Aziz’s movements to and from Syria. Aziz’s story is only moved along by images of court documents, police reports and transcribed phone calls, leaving holes open to interpret the limited parameters of his character’s identity that are drawn by the state and portrayed in the film. Can Aziz exist as a subject amidst this abstracted version of himself, and when this self has been othered and made precarious by a bureaucratic set of values? The film felt urgent in Berlin as the de facto capital of Europe, where, beyond the festival walls, all kinds of textual narratives – authored by governments – are being assigned to people who don’t fit into someone’s “we.”
Still image from Eric Baudelaire, Also Known As Jihadi (2017).
While Baudelaire’s film emphasizes national borders, Yuri Pattison’s citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2017) depicts the world in miniature. Tiny model versions of famous monuments are shown above a continually rolling newsreel, combining real stories in real time with alternative ones. The shrunken landmarks are a clear metaphor for a diminishing collective identity–a reduction of any sort of “we” in a globalized, networked world. For Pattison, this small-scale world is marked by paranoia and manipulation, where the monuments’ symbolic resonance gestures towards some kind of shared, universal truth. Ultimately, the ticker tape’s constant supply of information seems to signal certain impending doom, the impossibility of nationalism’s presumption of a common identity.
Yuri Pattison, citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2018). Photo: Luca Girardini, transmediale.
For transmediale, the explicit issue was recent political shifts towards the right, what this means for how we express ourselves through culture and communicate through technology, and how we can fight back. Yet who this “we” is and who it avows to represent was little addressed and largely overlooked. The possibility of reclaiming our self-images from their capitalist and systemic circulation as data is a powerful one. But is transmediale, as a neoliberally-implicated institution, the best place to address these questions? Looking beyond the face value communal advantage of coming together, the consequence is that someone is always excluded. Transmediale’s artworks proposed that the very idea of a “we” is problematic, questioning who traditionally gets to speak for “everyone.” If such a collective voice does exist, we need to ensure that it does not get co-opted or institutionalized, and that we don’t draw borders around it.
Top: Still from Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Finding Fanon, 2015-2017.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. The vintage punctuation of “net.art” here reflects the preferences of the author. For more about spelling and punctuation, see Rhizome’s style guide. – Ed.
How did one know that Petra Cortright was a “net.artist”? It was because YouTube was expelling her.
This particular Cortright video, VVEBCAM, looks inoffensive on the face of it. The face is Petra Cortright’s, and she’s examining the screen with much the same bemused expression as the online viewer.
There’s something vaguely wrong with that, though... Because a “cam girl” of the period had an interactive etiquette. A YouTube cam girl should be vamping it up in an anxious quest for some public compliments in her comments, and maybe angling for some Amazon gifts from her “wish list.”
Yet Cortright is merely gazing absently at her own hardware, while glittery, digital tack and kitsch cascades down the screen that separates us.
The mischief took places behind the scenes, when the video was uploaded. It was in the tags that video creators crammed into YouTube, so as to optimize some Google search engine action.
Cortright simply gathered up a great stinking flower bouquet of YouTube’s most offensive keywords, and silently jammed them all into her video’s annotation. This trollish prank dragged in porn fans, mostly. It was also the kind of détournement that the net.art crowd has always adored.
If you’re practicing net.art, its a tad difficult to promote to your creative activities in Artforum and Frieze. So it’s been a common practice to gently hack and maybe fracture a few terms-of-service rules, or perhaps provoke a loud threatened lawsuit from somebody newsworthy, so as to get a proper toe-hold in the public eye. That's how the working net.artist breaks the placid surface tension of public indifference. Net.art is not merely art on the internet. It’s art that bends the net out of shape.
Cortright was one of the first young YouTube performance artists to scare up trouble by pranking the rules of vernacular video. It wasn’t severe trouble–her video was merely banned–but VVEBCAM won her some surprised acclaim from the cognoscenti.
Then her video work was able to assert itself on its own merits, which are many. These merits have to do with use of digital tools, pushed to Jackson Pollock levels of action.
Petra Cortright is a rare digital artist who works from the shoulder. She’s spontaneous, un-calculated, real-time, and performative. In VVEBCAM she is flinging those graphic elements into the YouTube frame for the joy of watching ‘em splatter. Those appropriated sitars, dancing pizzas, puppies and kitties–they’re “sick.”
They’re not decorations or augmentations; they don’t make her look any cuter. That cuteness enhancement had to wait a decade, until Snapchat grabbed some venture money and could stick bunny ears onto the user base, using face recognition with AR techniques.
Cortright, by contrast, is making net.art on a desktop machine. She has what millions of other consumers have, a webcam, a back bedroom, and a laptop with heaps of cheap or free video-manipulating hardware. She wants to use them to her own purposes, but why should her personal computer activities conform to anybody else’s public standard? What are they going to do about that–throw her off YouTube?
Well, they did, but that was fun. VVEBCAM is “fun-driven” digital art. When the dancing pizzas, or the lightning bolts arrive on her screen, she simply wants to know what they’ll do. That’s why she has that solemn, contemplative look on her face as the augments careen around. She’s not pleasing us. She’s unashamedly more interested in this digital process than we are.
It’s a process like Matisse–a favorite Cortright artist–doing his studio cut-outs with his scissors. He’s got his sheafs of colored gouache papers, he’s got a big wall to mount them on, he’s got heaps of snipped-out vibrant shapes all around his chair. Matisse doesn’t number all the shapes and arrange them in formal algorithms like some software engineer; no, Matisse has a practical infinity of image generation, a vast mine of scissored ephemera. He pins them up in clusters to see what works.
Cortright is gesturing, she is doing cut-and-paste assemblage in real time with found digital content. To be “sick” is to expose the goofiness, the flaws, the corniness, of a planetary-scale post-internet social media system.
Sure, it’s YouTube, so it thinks it’s everybody’s daddy, but that only matters if she can be bothered to care. She doesn’t care. To be “sick” is to be bright, young and outside the bounds of YouTube’s assumptions. It’s performance art that is digital and entirely about being digital, yet its intuitive and authentic. It can’t even bother to be self-consciously “surreal” or “absurd.” No, it’s simply unheard-of, full of otherness, new, pretty, and free.
VVEBCAM is no longer new, and Petra Cortright did rather well after this notorious video; she grew up, she got married, she got a California house and a studio and some art gallery support. She hangs out with the daughter of a Beatle, she does lots of handsome prints and paintings, and has become a stellar representative of the “post-internet.” However, in this video she is new and feral, unexpected, unclassified. Just, very out-there.
It’s been a while since I first witnessed this work of art, but it comforts me now to know that I will always like it.
Yesterday's Net Art Anthology entry brought another YouTube classic, Petra Cortright's VVEBCAM (2007). And as with Ann Hirsch's Scandalishious, I was blown away by the restoration of late-aughts YT. This capture differed, however, in some key ways. In particular, it’s more “slice-of-life,” less a comprehensive archive of a durational YT experience, as with Ann's work. So, I reached out to Dragan Espenschied, who oversaw this restoration, to ask a few questions.
ZK: Pardon me, Dragan. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about the VVEBCAM restoration. First, how did you approach this complex task?
DE: The essential part was to treat it not as a video, but as a performance on YouTube, at least to provide a glimpse into that context.
ZK: So you had to compose that glimpse, right? Selecting key comments, responses, recommendations that captured the moment?
DE: The YouTube page you see in the reconstruction was re-assembled from parts found in public web archives. Luckily enough, there was enough material around to show a pretty exciting state of the work. As in, how anarchic corners of YouTube used to be, and how the artist knew how to interact with it.
ZK: One thing to note is that this isn't Rhizome’s first archival copy of VVEBCAM. Ben Fino-Radin, then Rhizome’s digital conservator, acted quickly to restore access to the video after YouTube originally took it down. This resulted in a reconstruction of the video as it appeared when embedded on Cortright’s website, but it did not include the YouTube performance aspect. So how did we get from that archival copy to this new, higher-fidelity restoration?
DE: In 2011, Rhizome only had access to a copy of the video file originally uploaded by the artist. (That same one is still embedded on the new page.) Replicating YouTube wasn't really an option. Today, we can capture the YouTube part using Webrecorder and its archival extraction feature from resources held by the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress. Back when the video was online, web archiving wasn't really up to the task of storing embedded videos. We were lucky to find archival captures of the YouTube page that included images, formatting, and text, but no video. After extracting these static elements, I then inserted the video from our archive.
ZK: So basically we had to build the preservation tools ourselves. To be fair, Petra’s work is good reason to undertake a multi-year, resource-intensive development project!
DE: Well, there were 2,000 other good reasons in Rhizome’s archive as well. But the preservation tools we make are really helping to reduce the amount of work that has to go into a project like this. I’m not ashamed to say the process didn't take longer than 4.5 hours—including manually fixing many parts that had to be changed for the presentation.
ZK: Wow. Okay, speaking of time, I know you need to go. But do you have a good contemporaneous YouTube video to share? If not, I can just outro with The Crazy Frog.
DE: This one comes to mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjeMDvCdrtc. It was around before YouTube though, as a WMV file that traveled from site to site.
ZK: Nice. Thanks, Dragan! And fwiw, here’s The Crazy Frog.
Today, a special art fair edition of the Internet Yami-Ichi opens at NADA New York, which runs through Sunday at Skylight Clarkson Square.
Founded by art collectives exonemo and IDPW in 2012, the Internet Yami-Ichi is a marketplace for creators who translate aspects of internet culture into tangible consumer goods and services: books, zines, posters, clothing, objects, and more. While the Internet Yami-Ichi is usually vast in size, Rhizome’s edition–like the "Micro" event held in New Orleans–brings together a curated selection of 50 products on display in a small booth.
Stop by our booth (1.07) to browse work, or make a purchase work––at the lowest prices an art fair has possibly ever seen.
Sessa Englund, @sessasessasessa
A performance/product where the artist sells off her Instagram photos. Each photo is used as the basis for a unique keyring; when someone buys one, Englund deletes the corresponding original Instagram post.
Exonemo, Skin Tone Dice
“Useful for giving equality to your film casting.”
Carla Gannis, One and Three Cats
Travis Hallenbeck, possiblebitmaps.com carpenter pencils
Gaby Iglesias, computer virus sticker pack
Rollin Leonard, Mug Mugs
Patrick Meagher, Art web pillows
MTAA, Physical Bookmarks For Vintage Net Art Created Before Facebook (BF 2004)
Machine routed vinyl mounted on 6""x 9""x1"" wood painting panels, 2015, Six works (Vuk Ćosić, MTAA, Annie Abrahams, Yael Kanarek, Tinjail, G.H. Hovagimyan)
Nonfood x Rhizome, nonbar with artwork by Lucy Chinen
Nukeme, Broken PayPal
Pat Shiu, Instant Obsolescence Photo Booth
The Photo Booth will be available during fair hours on Saturday, March 8.
Emma Rae, Burned CD of 1 looped recording of the sound of someone building (typing) a website.
Mark Ramos, Plant USBs with software
USB plant-drive constructed out of clear acrylic, vinyl plants, and recycled discarded flash drives. Contains a program I wrote with Processing that launches an applet of two interactive, virtual plants. The "health" and growth of the virtual plants are determined by the user's Wifi signal strength. People can also delete the program and just use the plant-drive as an 8GB Flash Drive.
Marco Rosella, Gif keychan USB
Contents: 100 original GIFs
Marco Rosella, Gif floppy disks
Contents: 1 original GIF
Nestor Siré, Cuban internet access cards
"Today, Cuba’s internet penetration rate is about 30%. ETECZA is the only company that provides services connection to users Cuban through public areas with WiFi access. The process of Web browsing becomes a collective experience and recharge cards NAUTA are the key access. For about 5 months create a collection of cards access Nauta found and other consumed by me. All have different interventions as notes, damage the use of people that used for as long connection, etc ... This item becomes memory a while digital in the physical space in the Cuba context."
Susse Sønderby, Open Source Straitjacket for Alexa
VNS Matrix, A Cyber Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (Net Art Anthology poster designed by Lukas Eigler-Harding)
Tax Gull aka Shingo Ohno, stone age mouse pointer
Made with 100% pure obsidian from Saga prefecture Japan, the place is the most popular obsidian locality in Old Stone Age.
Daniel Temkin, Internet Directory
Unique print on canvas
Single prints from a 37,000+ page loose-leaf book containing all 115 million .COM domains in alphabetical order, along with their IP addresses.
Yifan Hu, Virus Labs
"A collection of 6 computer virus that has caused nearly $100 Billion damage and 50 million computers affected globally, in zipped files on micro SD cards and stored in e̶s̶c̶a̶p̶e̶ proof glass test tubes."
Arcangel Surfware, The Source Digest
Christopher Clary, "sorry to dump this on you like this.zip"
1,860 prints collated chronologically across 10 legal binders installed on music stands
Codette 1. Contains works by Caspar Heinemann, E. Jane, Penny Goring, Carla Gannis, Aeon Fux, Aurelia Guo, Emilie Gervais, Peter Burr, Brenna Murphy, Cristine Brache, Harry Burke, Edward Marshall Shenk, and more.
Codette 2. Contains a 7-page interview with Olia Lialina and works and hyperlinks by Buffy Cain, Larissa Pham, Sofya Glebovna, Anna Zett, Emily Brown, Bogna M. Konior, and more.
Pete Deevakul, Wiki-header sketchbook.
A guided sketchbook with wikipedia headers as drawing prompts
Pete Deevakul, Silk Road Image Scrape
Comprehensive pulp reference. Every image that appeared on Agora Marketplace on January 1st, 2014. Agora was a darknet market that rose to prominence following the demise of Silk Road 2.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
Will Luckman, Hackdown
Will Luckman, Surveillance Capitalism, A Reader
Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia
Rafael Rozendaal, Abstract Browsing
Jonathan Zong, Everyone Should
CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES
Arcangel Surfware, Fidget spinner
Beautiful Company for Rhizome, Technology is Incredible! tote
Cody Brown, A really nice hat for team internet
Fuzzy Wobble, eBling, aka, rare internet jewels
Miguel Gaydosh, New Age Baby tee
Glitchaus, Malwear Scarf
Knit scarf with computer virus embedded as motif
Glitchaus, Glitch Sweater
Faith Holland, Necklaces made of wire with non-heteronormative connections
Gaby Iglesias, Virus Pins
Martine Neddam/Mouchette.org, Je Suis Mouchette pin
Nukeme, Glitch hoodies
Kevin Weisner, Lonɘly Hat
For further NADA information including public programming, hours, and ticketing, visit their website.
Aria Dean: What led you to pursue your refresh?
Kristin Lucas: There were many factors. In my previous works, I was sorting through how network technologies were changing the way we live, interact, and see ourselves, and their effects on our bodies and thinking.
In my daily life, I became obsessed with the refresh function of my browser, how it could be used to clear a visual snag on a webpage, or receive an update. I routinely hit refresh in anticipation of improved performance of the same content. I imagined embodying a refresh and what that would feel like, how it could be an effective way to clear up snags in my life, recalibrate, improve my performance, and escape past events that I continued to relive. In my fantasy of a bodily refresh, everything in my visual field, all the information would drop away momentarily before reloading with the exact same information with the potential for a new perspective to emerge, a new outlook onto the exact same information. This change would be refreshing, freeing.
My work is circuitous. A short story I read a couple years back had stuck with me. “Pierre Menard: Author of the Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges is a story that teases apart notions of authorship. The protagonist rewrites—word for word—chapters of another author’s book and claims authorship because through the process of copying, he lives each of word as if it were his own.
In my backyard, I was casting fake rocks from molds of fake rocks.
There was a pattern in my work of asserting the personal within institutional and technological frameworks that were not necessarily designed to respond to this kind of expression. I had performed characters and fictional scenarios that navigated identity and gender constraints imposed through these frameworks. I once turned an interaction with an automated teller machine into an online therapy session. To evolve my work, I looked for ways to engage with systems more directly.
Naming comes with power. Naming is transformative. Naming is a ritual. Naming is a protocol. A name gets to core issues of identity. In the first hours of life, a baby is entered into public record: given a name, a location and time of birth, a family history, and a gender.
According to the law, there is truth in a name. Another way of looking at it, a name is made up, invented my parents or a guardian who performs the role of naming the baby for the law. It is a legal fiction. And this legal fiction is identity-forming. Law requires that identity be stable and have permanence. I may feel ownership over my name but to change my name on public record, I need the permission of a judge.Self-experience tells me the opposite, that identity is unstable, temporal, and iterable. To exercise agency over my identity, I appropriated the name change procedure into a life experiment.
AD: Can you describe the process you went through in order to refresh?
KL: A year of thinking, a day of filling out forms for a name change petition, one-hour spent processing paperwork and paying three-hundred twenty dollars in court fees, sixty-four days awaiting the hearing date, two days spent with friends backing up my life, fifteen minutes jotting down my thoughts before the hearing, five minutes sprinting between buildings after realizing I was at the wrong courthouse, two weeks in limbo awaiting a second hearing to learn the judge’s decision. I wore the same outfit to both hearings.
AD: How do you view the relationship between the original courtroom performance and its re-performance through various readings of the transcript?
KL: I am a trained artist but I chose not to perform as an artist in the courtroom. I preferred the freedom that came with not naming what I was doing. Art was a frame of reference but it was not my only frame of reference, and it was a frame that would introduce distance. I entered the courtroom as a citizen undergoing a life experiment. I activated a plan and worked it out on my feet, unrehearsed. I tasked the judge with solving my existential crisis through the procedure of a name change. Over two weeks, and two hearing dates, we collaborated on changes that could have an effect on us, and the legal system.
The name change process is public so it seemed fitting to share the courtroom ephemera publicly. Refresh is the presentation of these documents and Refresh Cold Reads is an iterative performance that consists of unrehearsed readings of the transcripts by volunteers and guest readers. These readings have taken place in classrooms, on stages, and in galleries; in person, through public address systems, video conference, and over the phone. Each performance refreshes the document. The physical acts of reading aloud and active listening, by participants and audience members, were intended to reanimate the courtroom experience and summon the palpable tension I experienced in the public hearings.
AD: You've said in the past that for the Refresh Cold Reads you assign roles based on the participants' "personal backgrounds." Can you explain what drives those choices? What do you look for in a reader?
KL: Guest readers were invited to perform the roles of ‘Kristin’ and ‘Judge’ based on their personal stories, cultural roles or ‘web-like’ connections. I reached out through social network for suggested readers, and the curators I worked with did the same.
Initially, a guest reader for ‘Kristin’ often had their own name story, had lived more than one life, or had experience working with copies, drafts or versions. A guest reader for ‘Judge’ often held a position of power in which they could influence change. My criteria for casting readers broadened over time, depending on the context of its programming. I got to know the readers beforehand so that I could deliver an introduction before the readings. Our conversations revealed deeper, uncanny, and sometimes humorous connections between readers and the transcripts, and the between the readers who were paired together. Our stories became more interested woven together.
2010 Refresh Cold Read, Netherlands Media Art Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
AD: Have the different formats for the transcript cold reads - in-person, with phone-in actors, via skype - expanded and shifted its meaning for you over the years? What have these different formats offered?
KL: Over time, I saw the technology as a pivotal performer in the experience of the restaging of my refresh. That said, I didn’t exercise too heavy of a hand over this. These choices were made in collaboration with the organizers, the technological means available at the venue, and the practicalities of distance. The interplay between stories, technologies, and the venues history were punctuated by the method of technological delivery.
Microphones formalize and give a ceremonial feel to the readings.
A cell phone created a disembodied voice that enhanced a layered story about presence and absence in a particular historical context.
Video conference technology situated my refresh in the familiar space of the internet, and introduced artefacts and noise. An outcome was that you had to be an even more engaged performer and listener. The combinations of public address systems and the mics produced an echo. This was particularly uncanny in how it interacted with the personal story of Echo Morgan who was performing the role of ‘Kristin.’
Over the last few decades, cultural and media studies have helped deconstruct the artificial barriers between design and use. Users* and technologies are now widely understood not as separate entities, but as continuously co-constructed in the processes of design, development and user interaction .
As part of the ongoing development of its digital preservation program, Rhizome is re-considering the the relationship between users and our archive of net art—the ArtBase, established in 1999. While often described as an archive or a collection dedicated to preservation , the Artbase was notable for its collaborative curatorial model, which focused on community-building and interaction among users .
This early model continued to inform the presentation of artworks throughout various iterations of the archival interface design. More recently, however, the current interface has struggled to accommodate meaningful access to the ArtBase for users whose goals and needs remain largely unstudied. A better understanding of the archive’s users would allow not only to improve interactions for existing use cases, but also to further develop how artworks could be presented and contextualised within an interface that expands upon existing interaction design paradigms in digital archives.
To that end, a number of qualitative user research sessions are planned over the next months as part of an ongoing joint research project between Rhizome and London South Bank University. A first step in that process is a short online survey which can be accessed through the ArtBase homepage. Five respondents, selected at random, will receive a free “bad logo” T-shirt; include your email address in your response to be entered into the drawing.
If you are interested in participating in a longer more in-depth research session, please provide your contact information in the survey, so that we can contact you with further details. The longer sessions involve a short practical task and an interview with further questions; the first ten US-based participants will receive a free T-shirt. These can be conducted in-person or online, depending on the user’s location. The primary research questions that the study aims to answer are: What groups of users interact with the online archive? What are their needs and goals? How do users perceive an artworks’ context? How can the users’ understanding of context be expanded through presentation strategies in the interface of the archive?
The lead researcher on this project is Lozana Rossenova, a designer and PhD candidate at London South Bank University. Feel free to contact Lozana at email@example.com with any questions or concerns regarding user studies in the archive.
*Note: The rationale for choosing the term “users” here follows the line of thought expressed by artist Olia Lialina in her 2012 essay Turing Complete User.
 Source: Oudshoorn, N. and Pinch, T. (2003) How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
 Source: Corcoran, H. and Graham, B. (2014) Self-collection, Self-exhibitions? Rhizome and the New Museum, in Graham, B. (ed.) New Collecting: Exhibiting and Audiences after New Media Art. Farnham, Surrey, England; Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate. pp. 97–110.
 Source: Blome, G. and Wijers, G. (2010) Visibility, Distribution and Memory through Networks and Collaboration, in Dekker, A. (ed.) Archive2020: Sustainable Archiving of Born-Digital Cultural Content. Amsterdam: Virtueel Platform. pp. 50–60.
Image: Claude Closky, Do You Want Love or Lust? (1997).
We're pleased to announce the 10th edition of the celebrated art-tech platform Seven on Seven, to be held May 19 at the New Museum. This flagship Rhizome event brings together leaders in art and technology for an extended creative collaboration, giving them a simple challenge: "make something." On Saturday, May 19, pairs will reveal their projects at the day-long conference event.
Tickets are on-sale today, here. A limited number of subsidized artist and student tickets are also available by lottery—if you qualify, please request one here. To explore past Seven on Seven programs, visit: rhizome.org/sevenonseven.
The 10th edition of Seven on Seven takes place in a moment of broad public disillusionment with digital platforms and their impact on interpersonal communication and media culture. Against this backdrop, the collaborators rethink ways of communicating and organizing through technology, looking to evolving disciplines such as machine intelligence and blockchain governance while revisiting fundamental principles of digital culture.
Seven on Seven 2018 will feature:
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc.
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
Over the next few weeks we will reveal more about this special 10th edition—including details of a forthcoming publication produced with our long-time friends at Wieden+Kennedy New York, edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome Special Projects Editor, and designed by W+K's Global Creative Director Richard Turley; a special after-party event; and much more.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Spring Place is Seven on Seven's after-party partner.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
The role of simulation in planning is nothing new—it’s how Google Maps anticipates there’ll be traffic on a daily commute, and how the Obama Campaign in 2012 forecasted an electoral edge over Mitt Romney. It’s also used by stock traders to gauge investment patterns and by private and public defense organizations both to regulate border control and evaluate the effectiveness of different military strategies. In projecting existing data onto constructed scenarios, simulations are able to portray imaginable futures. These futures, however, bank on the predictability of human behavior—that people will operate the same way they have in the past, and that their tendencies can be reduced to discrete, codeable particulars.
But the technology underlying these models could also be used to simulate previously unimaginable futures. The data inputted could be altered to rig the simulation, allowing us to formulate responses to questions like:
What if a city’s economic policies were entirely at the hands of its workers?
What if a city’s residents didn’t have to work?
What if they all had access to affordable healthcare?
How would their lives change? What would they be freed to do?
In their digital thought-experiment Humans of Simulated New York, developed during a month-long residency at DBRS Labs, artist Fei Liu and writer and developer Francis Tseng offer a platform to discuss such hypotheticals, while laying bare the paradoxes at work behind large-scale planning and policy-making. First, the simulation assigns users a random identity, whose characteristics are culled from a database containing decades’ worth of actual New York City census data. Users must then propose and vote in favor of legislation that would benefit their new avatar. The success of the user is contingent on her investment in the character she’s given, however different from her that he may be.
Unlike the more familiar urban simulation SimCity, in which infrastructure development takes precedence over the interplay of demographics, HoSNY dives straight into the invisible structure of the city’s political economy, placing it in an intimate relationship with the player-as-subject. The idea, according to the minds behind the project, is to address Fredric Jameson’s call in Postmodernism for a “situational representation” of the relationship between the individual subject and the “unrepresentable totality” of the society in which she takes part. It is best thought of as a fortified version of information visualization that immerses people in an experience of data, instead of merely presenting that data.
Perhaps the most crucial point the project raises is that bias and exclusion are inextricable bounds, aspects that define the construction of a city, no matter how “ideal” the city’s design may seem. The definition of a perfect society is always limited by the vision of its creators, from the pre-internet digital utopias of media theorists like Douglas Rushkoff to the post-technological societies of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series. Further, utopias have been defined by the shortcoming of exclusion since their inception. Think of how Thomas More’s relies on physical boundaries as a means of exclusion, and how Plato’s utopia relies on a bias toward different crafts.
By rendering this problem transparent, HoSNY may be an effective way of shattering the narrow frameworks of today’s most idealistic thinkers—the engineers and founders of Silicon Valley. If, as the simulation suggests, these tech-devotees—typically white, wealthy, anglophone, cis- males—could step into the mindset of a demographic they may claim to understand by the contours of their quantifiable aspects rather than their lived experiences, they just might have a better sense of how their plans for society actually affect people unlike themselves. What they’re likely to realize, as HoSNY points out, is that even their own philanthropic visions of utopia are stunted by their capitalist context and, more to the point, insurmountable alterity.
HoSNY has important predecessors in other highly instructive simulations, likeDwarf Fortressand Parable of the Polygons, themselves exercises on exclusion in virtual societies. HoSNY also has a non-virtual historical predecessor: Salvador Allende’s Project Cybersyn, which was a network of computers operating from 1971 to 1973. The computers were set up to predict what might happen if Chile’s workforce had decision-making power over its industries. The project gestured at the possibility of simulation to posit an unprecedented economic reality, although its short life-span questions the actual capacity of cybernetic systems to sustain one.
HoSNY also provides an alternative to classic economic models by taking into account irrational human behavior, building on the work of recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. By demonstrating that the far-off consequences to adjustments in the city’s management are unpredictable, the simulation points to the absurdity of relegating its operations to AI algorithms. But this is precisely what today’s “Smart Cities,” which embed digital technology across city functions to manage complex systems like traffic and resource consumption, are ignoring. As computer science professor Dan Rockmorepoints out, “thoughtful technology deployment” is increasingly devalued in a world where immediate profit takes precedence over the considerations of long-term repercussions. Such factors perhaps account for why we are only now dealing with the unwitting discrimination wrought by image-recognition software, or with the sociopolitical mess of Uber, even as it carries on with its plans for self-driving cars.
Problems like these might be avoided by getting young developers to read works of speculative fiction. Stories like Dave Eggers’ The Circle might, for one, help us foresee the dark consequences of pervasive surveillance technology in ways that data alone cannot. Rockmore notes that H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free helped Churchill anticipate the threat of atomic warfare. Similarly, tools like HoSNY might serve as a powerful strategic weapon to combat and question technological tunnel vision, since it uses the very vocabulary that resonates with contemporary developers.
But HoSNY itself, as a data-driven project, shouldn’t replace the frameworks that keep a city functioning. While it may have considerable real-world applicability, it is meant to raise questions, not provide catch-all solutions. But blind faith in algorithms is catching on: Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei has called for a universal city software, or “city OS” that sounds eerily like a real-world version of SimCity. And recently, the New Orleans Police Department secretly enlisted data-mining firm Palantir to implement a predictive policing program, whose dubious methods in inculpating criminals is already being challenged in court.
What’s more, basing policies on speculative fiction isn’t going to guarantee a more cautionary approach to dealing with societal complexities. The same Wellsian fantasy that fostered Churchill’s pacifism also justified his suprematist Malthusian policies towards India which led to the Bengal famine of 1943 that took the lives of over two million people. Even if imagination and technology are invaluable tools for envisioning a better future, they still need to be accompanied by a hefty dose of grounded, humanist discretion through democratic decision-making.
HoSNY may prove most productive for its potential as concept rather than as commodity, although simulations prove to be highly lucrative. In 2016, the Danish police reportedly paid Palantir up to $40 million to use their software to identify terrorists. Many virtual stock trading platforms, used to practice trading and investing, are paywalled (though trading simulations do not yet come close to real trading scenarios, in which success is determined over years, not months, and there’s real money on the line). Even if its machine learning algorithm may make anticipating the future a little easier, HoSNY still originates in part from the constructs of human hands, failing in action, but succeeding as art–a domain in which, according to Dena Yago, “practices that cannot function within generic constraints run up against the walls and expose fissures in the structures they are working in.”
HoSNY ultimately speaks for the potential of creative imaginaries as instructive tools. It is only within the infinite bounds of speculative provocation that the issues which projects like HoSNY discuss are even able to be brought to light, and evaluated in all their complexity. Taking them out of this discursive context and transferring them directly into non-virtual terrain poses the threat of negating the very point they’re trying to make – that computer-run systems should be used to illuminate weaknesses and flaws in society’s scaffolding, but not necessarily to fix them.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Ryan Trecartin's I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Released at a time when social media platforms were still in their youth, Ryan Trecartin’s I-BE AREA (2007) feels comfortably contemporary today, more than ten years later. With its exuberant adolescence and multiple, chaotic narratives of ontology, the film was a harbinger of a future that has now come to pass.
The film addresses questions of the post-human, queer subcultures, race, the post-gender body, reproduction, family structures, and interpersonal relationships–some of the many facets of the multiplicity of self inherent to the social web. Actors rapidly cycle through names, genders, and appearances. Multiplicity and hybridity is expressed at all levels of the film's construction: dialogue, costume, make-up, and collaboratively constructed environments and props, and then again through Trecartin’s interventions in post-production.
Trecartin’s signature editing style is perhaps the most essential to the construction of the work: Trecartin himself has stated that “everything is performed for the edit––performed to become live through mediation. Editing is itself a part of articulating the character, and so I see it as a performative gesture.” The edits, comprising rapid jump cuts, manipulation of playback speed, and adjustment of vocal pitch, allow characters to perform in disjoined spaces and fractured time, stitching together sentences that are delivered in multiple locations into a continuous monologue. The addition of visual effects is also pertinent to narration and plot development: references to the screen, the browser window, and the avatar become transitions between scenes that often involve travel through a screen or an interface to arrive at an alternate location.
The film’s intentional confusion between life on-screen and off extends to its surroundings. The physical environments that accompany Trecartin’s video in the gallery space, as well as the work’s alternative presentation as a series of parts uploaded via YouTube and viewable on one’s personal browser, implicate the viewer as an active participant in the scene.
I-BE AREA is built upon the creation, dissolution, and collision of personal spaces, called “areas” throughout the film. Digital elements are wholly recognized as extensions of the self, as well as the ability within the network to form “multiple selves.” This ability is most fully realized by the character of Oliver, who later becomes Amerisha (played by Trecartin) after a clone named I-BE2 adopts their personality and renames themself. In I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008), the exchange is contained in a YouTube upload titled I BE AREA (I-BE2 becomes Oliver becomes Amerisha).Original Oliver expresses their digital/personal ennui by way of a video-player popup that sets-up their individual “area”:
“Hi, my name is Oliver. I'm 5'11” and I look like this. I’m just sick of it though. Oliver, what are you sick of? I'm talking about my lifestyle vibe. My horoscope, my attitude, my email address, my fucking mother everyone. The books that I don't read, the boys that I never dated and the girls that give me high five. My CD's on freakin' repeat basically. I know. Rewind. I could leave any day and just go. But don’t hear me wrong. I love my Total Ohio awesome. My liberal laid back lesbian moms. And my incredibly sexy , gay girl siblings.
But fuck it. I just found myself and it doesn't look like anything. Not Oliver, not Ohio and not gay. It looks like this kind of. Sorry. I need a fucking poser to be me so I can compassionately ditch this shit with love and care while knowing that some well bred loser bachelor motherfucker is happy butt-fucking my old lifestyle. My one-way plane ticket to Brazil costs 995 international dollars. My address should appear now, send me a one-way money order and you get this box. Inside is my cell phone, outfit, all my passwords slash keys, plus a live subscription, hard copy PDF file of all the people I know in my life, how we relate and why I do the things I do.”
Oliver’s monologue consists of references to her technological extensions(cell phone, passwords, “PDF file of all the people [she knows] in [her] life”) as the necessary tools to usurp her being. The body is no longer useful as the physical vessel of the self; in its place, digital material may be transferred from host to host, and manipulated at will. Once I-BE2 becomes Oliver (and almost immediately, Amerisha), they begin making plans for their new life. Amerisha mentions that the old Oliver is now in the trash with Amerisha’s original avatar (the origin of I-BE2, who was deleted in an earlier scene), and looks into her future, stating, “What will I be when I grow up? A production company.”
In seeing a future self as an engine for media output, Amerisha’s statement feels especially prophetic of a future of cultural production through social media. The idealization of the production-company-as-self (it appears two more times in the film’s transcript) is one of the most solid reaches into the near future that Trecartin presents in I-BE AREA. An increasing necessity for immaterial labor in a mediated stage of neoliberalism presents the need for an updated Foucauldian “entrepreneur-as-self.” The massive viewership and subsequent monetization of platforms such as YouTube has given rise to an unprecedented new generation of independent content producers, or “influencers,” often using editing techniques akin to Trecartin’s in an attention-grabbing, formulaic way (watching footage of YouTube giant-––and as many would argue, villain––Jake Paul destroy a room in his production company’s mansion resembles an explicitly masculinized version of I-BE AREA’s’s chaoticwoodshop scene). In the case of both YouTube and other platforms, the focus for users has moved from interaction to a consistent output of content-as-identity through easily accessible channels provided by media companies–in exchange for the promise of a trickle of income which may be shut off at any time.
In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2014, Trecartin compared the fast-paced, “panicked” way his films are shot with the way that “people use technologies before they understand the implications of them, or before they even learn what, like, the actual function of a particular app is supposed to be.” Watching Oliver surrender their identity and abandon her selfhood through the hand-out of her personal data in 2018 bears a striking resemblance to the current mediastorm surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica––which, come to think of it, sounds like a potential name for one of Trecartin’s characters.
This is not to say that Trecartin’s imagining of the future is a sinister one; the visions of technology in I-BE AREA are particularly euphoric when performed by the actors and environments, and through Trecartin’s edits. Trecartin often points out the collaborative element of his work, and the modifications actors make to his scripts (which come before anything else), a process that, nods to the potential for different cultures to emerge online through translation and transmission of digital tidbits, creating cyclical and deeply coded languages. The interplay between these participant-led interventions and Trecartin’s pre-established structure of multilinear narratives (or of the internet itself) gives the film a collective voice (and memory), which prefigures the to dynamics that have since shaped multiplicitous selfhood online.
This article accompanies the online exhibition First Look: New Black Portraitures, presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
The powerful work in “First Look: New Black Portraitures” forces a confrontation, and beckons the question, what exactly is new about new black portraitures? Perhaps the “new” is the event of disruption that occurs whenever blackness enters the scene, the way blackness interrupts and corrupts technologies of the visual, data and archives: in this case, portraiture. Perhaps the “new” is the phenomenal way in which these prolific, brilliant artists explore how blackness destabilizes technologies that seek to render it legible, especially through the figuration of the face. Perhaps the new here might be thought of in terms the explosive force of these artists’ works: black (pyro)technics.
Each of these artists reconfigures the problematic of the portrait anew, and in remarkable ways. Each troubles what exactly portraiture is said to be, undermining its historical protocols and artistic conventions – they offer a new political vernacular of the portrait itself. Portraiture has been a flashpoint of racial antagonism and, in the words of Lorna Simpson, “guarded conditions.” The pseudo-event of “emancipation”—what Saidiya Hartman calls the “non-event of emancipation”—means that the afterlife of slavery is always already embedded in every media interface—video, television, film, and now online and on social media—and forever liable to be transposed onto it. In the digital afterlife of slavery, the image is further operationalized as a site of biopolitical surveillance and racialized capture. The virality and circulation of black suffering and death online, on “social” media, discloses the recursive, never-ending loop of anti-black violence, the bound(ed) infinity of its circulation.
Each of the artists in “New Black Portraitures” confronts the face and faciality as a site of anti-black surveillance, and also offers new methods and forms of portraiture in resistance. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari, in a critique of Levinasian ethics of faciality, argue that the face is racism’s portrait. Contrary to Levinas, whiteness is an originary facial recognition technology. For these artists portraiture is sabotaged and re-assembled via blackness. “New Black Portraitures” takes us into what Deleuze and Guattari call “the black hole of subjectivity.”
Sondra Perry, It's In the Game '17, 2017, still from video
Sondra Perry’s film, It’s In the Game ‘17, opens with Marvin Gaye’s and Diana Ross’s “You Are Everything,” mixing in the lyrics, “As she turned the corner/I called out your name/I felt so ashamed/When it wasn’t you, wasn't you […] You are everything, and everything is you.” Perry ruminates on blackness, the vast distance between iconography and historical record and the visual archive of the figures in blue, sculptures that are universally heralded signifiers of history, colonial treasures, and the personal archive of the family photo, and the portrait. We can read the film as Perry thinking through the disjuncture created by the archive of anti-blackness and the anti-blackness of the archive. That disjuncture between when one’s image (sculptural) is treated as singular achievement, and when one’s history and image is subjected to historical erasure. Perry shows how blackness warps the racial geometrics of facial recognition. Facial recognition technology functions as a truth procedure, seeking to render and establish the fact of blackness.
Here, Perry’s work overlaps with Rindon Johnson’s Away With You, which also speaks to how blackness exceeds computational capture through dis-individuation (un-trackable, according to the individuation of facial recognition). Both Johnson and Perry illustrate that the politics of Black Portraiture figure black social life and politics beyond faciality as the hegemonic site of representation as it is a troubling category for blackness and one that blackness troubles given the relationship, as the artists all know and explicitly or implicitly reference, between faciality and surveillance and policing. Johnson indexes the global surveillance of blackness, for instance, in the augmented reality feature where you can rotate the screen, taking on a panopticon view.
Rindon Johnson, Away With You, 2016, still from VR video
Juliana Huxtable’s portraits play on the interplay between absence and presence. What is absented from Huxtable’s portraiture is the very historical signature of the portrait itself: the face. In Huxtable’s portrait series, the body without a face performs as a surrogate that dramatizes commodification. The body is stamped with imagery of jeans, popularized slogans; it is imprinted by tattoos, and is marked by grammar of racial capital and slavery. It is branded as an aesthetic object.
Pastiche Lumumba’s Community Standard: A Poortrait across Platforms is brilliant for its parody. Poortrait indexes black queer/trans lumpen-proletarian realness that defies both Instagram’s politics of respectability and any claims of “respectability” jurisdiction over black visuality and visibility. Lulu: My Body is further critical speculation. There is no mention of the heteronormative grammar of gender, only a black queer/femme grammar and a figuration of Lulu. Lulu scandalizes and rejects any claims to uphold Instagram’s “community standards” through beautiful adornment (a grill, cleats morphed into high heels, for instance) and salaciousness. Lulu begins in the inhabitation of what Pastiche Lumumba elsewhere terms “low culture.” Lumumba’s work is both a powerful critique of the portrait as the visual technology of the bourgeoisie and a demonstration of the aesthetic power of the unrespectable, the non-sovereign, the rabble.
manuel arturo abreu’s Ambient Portraits relinquish the ocular for the auditory, creating a soundscape that pierces, an acoustic ecological field of frequencies and vibrations that dilate and stretch sound, that harmonize and then collapse into a single point. The first portrait, hamishi, feels like a sonic disturbance. In opting out of the visual, abreu brings sound online as animating force. The significance of this is again, a new technology of portraiture—an ambient portrait is no less of a portrait than any other. This gesture forces us to reconsider the methodology of the portrait itself. abreu’s ambience also moves to a different register in that it creates an atmosphere through sound. This moves us towards a different conception and experience of portraiture and actually forces a reconsideration of what constitutes portraiture in the first place. Further, it shows how the notion of the portrait might be expanded. Instead of the face as the symbol of liberal self-possessive individualism, we have the signature of a sound. abreu’s ambient portraits speak to animacies beyond the category of personhood and the subject, and beyond personhood and beyond subject/object distinction (since ambience isn’t personified, is neither subject nor object, and yet, it has a presence). The sound portraits imprint upon the listener, and leave them with the recognition of a new form of portraiture.
N-Prolenta’s film Ally Theater juxtaposes the solidity of architecture—the steel and concrete linearity, the volume and imposing size of pristine architectural design, and the skeletal becoming of buildings under construction—with the plasticity and liquidity of form. That liquidity manifests as a cursive line, “fantasy is a place where it rains,” and a watery black figure in the foreground in juxtaposition with the buildings in the background. We can make out a face, but there’s a dissonance within the semblance of the portrait given the distortion of the figure. Gradually even the semblance disappears, fades to black with grid lines. The garment the figure is wearing becomes the entire representation, then even that liquifies and is transported away. We are left with another spatial distortion, almost a haunting, the two buildings mirror each other. The interstitial space where they join becomes ghost-like, a face under construction.
N-Prolenta, Ally Theater, 2017
Hamishi Farah reimagines the conventions of portraiture by blending them together with new visual capabilities. Their painted portrait of Mike Meyers is animate, with uncanny features, as though inhabited by a ghost or inflated like a balloon. The portrait feels eerily alive in its animacy; the convex nature of the face with its moving eyes disturbs. The piece is the nexus where forms of the traditional painted portrait (pre-camera), CGI, and facial technology converge and distort. The image is taken from Myer’s reaction to Kanye West’s impromptu denunciation of Bush’s anti-black economy of empathy and antipathy—“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”—during the racial capitalist disaster of Katrina. This piece raises questions of form, both in its dis- and re-configuration of the portrait. It begs the question of what the relationship both is and might be between verisimilitude and portraiture, and signals how new visual technologies constantly transform this relationship.
All the artists in NBP reinvent visual technologies to both trouble the violence of visibility and the face as a site of surveillance. They also move beyond the face, either choosing to distort it through technology, elide it, or reject it completely in favor of other forms of representation. Not post-racial but rather, post-facial.
Image: Miao Ying, LAN Love Poem—FLOWERS ALL FALLEN, BIRDS FAR GONE (Still), 2015. GIF animation.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
I landed in China almost five years ago, beginning a trip to Myanmar by bus and train that has not yet ended. I wanted to better understand how media, especially art, changes within different cultural, legal, and economic locales. I was just beginning to feel the dimensions of my lived experience in the US, the windows through which I saw the world, and wanted to push myself beyond.
Early on, I interviewed artist Miao Ying in a hip cafe in Beijing. Despite having no Google maps to help me find my way, and difficulties adjusting to censorship via VPNs for my Gmail, waiting for Miao I found myself closer to home than I expected. I ordered an Americano in English, and looking around, found half of the customers were on Facebook (over a VPN, of course). Down the street was a bustling McDonald’s. That feeling, of being at home, was a profound misreading of the place, and Miao quickly showed me just how far away I was from an internet and media ecology I understood.
Miao’s artworks, featuring remixes and collisions between various local internet cultures, were the most bizarre yet nuanced representations of the kind of cultural exchanges going on in China that I had yet seen. US media discourse presents China’s internet as a black box, filled with single-party promoted content and hounded by censorship and surveillance. I was led to believe that in China, there is no freedom, no opportunity for expression or cultural exchange. This was the West’s own propaganda, more subtle for sure, but there.
Miao’s animated in-browser collages of net screengrabs acknowledge these negative attributes, while also revealing insanely vibrant and weird net cultures thriving in spite of the limitations. Chinese netizens were picking from many influences locally, as well as around the world, and then remixing and transforming content. They created sophisticated and constantly mutating vernacular languages, at times in spite of censors, at times designed to escape the notice of censors. Google was simultaneously there, and wasn’t; privacy software allowed access, but the difficulty allowed for Chinese equivalents, most notably Baidu, to emerge and thrive. The tension produced a lot creativity.
Now, I live in Cambodia. Google hasn’t really fully arrived here. My street is not imaged on Google Street View (GSV). As I wrote for Rhizome in 2015, here, “a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet,” and almost exclusively through a phone. In Cambodia, poverty engenders lack of access to education and the requisite language needed to engage with technology. Of the small percentage of people online, they are predominately male, educated, relatively wealthy, and urban.
Growing up how I did, in a middle-class, white home on a pre-GSV grid, privileges of my offline world carried over as my life became more networked. I could connect and engage with people and ideas over great distances, while never experiencing censorship or harassment. Accordingly, it was easy to consider these corporate platforms as liberatory tools for exchange and self-expression. While Miao’s artwork showed the fallacy of an universal internet culture by highlighting the creativity on various Chinese platforms, Miao also helped me to reflect more critically on the parameters of my own networked life.
Miao’s work allows for a more nuanced view, one which creates space for agency. While networked power is undeniably undemocratically wielded in China and Cambodia, it too is increasingly centralized amongst a handful of private platforms in the USA. Companies such as Google possess an ever more powerful stake in how we see and relate to the world, yet meaningful access to their inner workings, their own black boxes, remains nearly impossible. At their most perilous, a corporation—like a government—that controls the means for relating to or seeing the earth risks reorganizing the planet to fit its business model. What artists can help us see inside our own centralizing internet? Who will show us Google?
What we see when we look at Google is a methodically manicured image. It is only advertising; noise hiding much deeper machinations. To begin with the basics and look beyond the sleek design and the various end-user interfaces Google provides, let’s reflect first on the hardware supporting our browser experiences. To do so, I turn to writer and artist Ingrid Burrington. Burrington investigates the politics embedded in networks, especially through their infrastructures, the hidden interfaces not for intended for us—the end-users—at all. Any ability I could claim to seeing Google, comes in part from thinking with Burrington’s writing.
In Burrington’sseries of essays for The Atlantic, she seeks to counter what she refers to as the “pernicious metaphor of The Cloud.” What Burrington unearths are a much more lively, and untidy images. Through Burrington’s research trips, she begins to reveal for us some of the actual wires, data centers, and people constituting and maintaining a network. The hardware and people she finds therein are antithetical to the advertising we are sold; they are messy, fragile, and they are human. Their intricacies are often hidden within giant private data centers, or buried under public streets, only suggested at through obscure symbols spray painted on the sidewalks above.
We are encouraged by companies like Google to put as much of ourselves onto the network, to rely upon it completely. To entrust these platforms with precious family photographs, intimate correspondence, and our businesses, to name a few, requires a great deal of trust on the part of us, the end users. The more we come to rely on these services, and the infrastructure supporting them, the more trusting we must be.
To garner this level of confidence, the platform must present itself as seamless, the storage impermeable, and the connection flawless. This ephemeral, sleek, universal network is not at all what she uncovers. As Burrington writes, the “rhetorical promise of The Cloud is as fragile as the strands of fiber-optic cable upon which its physical infrastructure rests.” It doesn’t inspire a lot of trust, but this is how it all actually works.
But I didn’t know all that when I moved from my home state of Indiana to New York City in 2010. The myth and magic platforms peddled still felt largely real to me then. However, one of the first, personally monumental exhibitions I saw there was New Museum’s “Free,” curated by Lauren Cornell. “Free”featured work that deeply challenged not only my understanding of art, but also my assumptions around the kind of media ecology in which we were all swimming.
Wandering “Free,” I kept returning to works from Jon Rafman’s series Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008 - ongoing). Rafman screen-grabbed, enlarged, printed, and framed an assembly of unrelated moments from GSV. Men in tracksuits flip off the camera; possibly sex workers stand along the road. A curious bright glitch stains an otherwise remote wooded road. I was previously aware of the project, but only via its blog. Physically manifested in the museum, the photographs gained a presence hard for most photographs, random or curated, to earn bumping around online. They demanded deeper reflection.
As writer Joanne McNeil noted in her catalog essay, the images possessed a disconcerting grainy quality, giving them a worn-out look that was discordant to the fairly contemporary tools (automated facial blurring) and prodigious scale of the project. While in-browser GSV’s images are utilitarian and impressively thorough, presented as finite art objects the tiny imperfections in the shots come to the fore.
These blemishes reminds us of Clement Valla’s essay and artwork, “Universal Texture,” which specifically seek out the imperfections in Google’s algorithms. Universal Texture is the algorithmic system that the company uses to create some of the most comprehensive—and certainly most used—maps of the Earth. Valla calls into question Google’s “God’s eye view” by slowly picking at the edges, searching for seams and cracks. While Burrington was busy digging for pipes and humming data centers, Valla begins at the opposite side by reverse engineering what Google shows us, in order to reveal the embedded politics steering our gaze.
Image via Clement Valla, 2012.
Valla scours the Universal Texture, collecting what he calls “edge conditions”: instances that at first glance appear to be glitches, but in fact reveal glimpses into the inner workings of the map itself. Collapsed bridges or skyscrapers stitched together into near-cubist sculptures are the still-visible clues into how the algorithm attempts to stitch together a singular, universal view from millions of disparate photographs taken on different days, at various perspectives, altitudes, and with disparate technologies. These are the limitations of this still-human product.
In Rafman’s work however, the algorithm’s constraints are secondary to the unprecedented gaze GSV allows. For Rafman, GSV’s incursion into public space was a violent rupture in privacy. The blown-up shots simultaneously humanize and objectify the subjects, existing somewhere between fiction and a documentary. We pass and look at much as we drive and public space always contains passing glances, but in the moments Rafman has chosen, people are frozen in time, and a passing glance becomes a corporatized gawking.
“The detached gaze of the automated camera,” Rafman writes, “can lead to a sense that we are observed simultaneously by everyone and by no one.” Erasing these pedestrians’ identities through facial blurring, which Google does for legal reasons, is little absolution for the invasion. Whether we, the viewers of GSV, know who they are or not, whether we know exactly when these shots were taken, these people are captured, flattened, decontextualized, and made vulnerable in the unflattering utilitarian light of Google. Their image is not their own.
Jon Rafman, Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 2008–.
But Google is not a cohesive whole, either. GSV’s scale resists comprehension, but Rafman’s highly curated selection makes it possible. Google’s data—and therefore profits—come from a variety of quotidian sources, such as geodata from your phone or cookies from a search, the cameras on a GSV car, and frequently, an unseen woman, sitting for a long shift, scanning thousands of books, as is the subject of artist Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps, (2012 - ongoing).
In ScanOps, Wilson collated small mistakes from Google Books scans such as the fingers of the scanners, or a page, only half-way turned and distorted. By collecting errors made by Google’s employees, Wilson highlights not the algorithms, but the labor, and most importantly, the employees behind the scanning. So as Rafman calls attention to and humanizes those captured by GSV, so does Wilson for some of the most marginalized employees within the Googleplex.
Looking through Wilson’s selection, we find odd glitches and lovely color schemes such as a white page, and pink rubber thimble worn a brown-skinned hand, accidentally captured. Slowly, the number of digits of people of color in ScanOps becomes unignorable. When Wilson—noticing a racialized difference in labor—attempted to interview and film these workers, he was promptly fired from his contract at Google. His footage was ordered to be destroyed. The resulting artwork, Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), details the story.
Andrew Norman Wilson, An Exact Narrative of Many Surprizing Matters of Fact Uncontestably Wrought By an Evil Spirit or Spirits, In the House of Master Jan Smagge - 8, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminium composite material.
Wilson highlights the distinct classes of workers within Google, and the proportions of privilege and respect they are allowed. While Silicon Valley promises high wages and respectable jobs, data entry remains nearly invisible, and decidedly so. Asking how the service is made, how it works, who profits from it and who doesn’t, stands to tarnish the company’s image. Luckily for Wilson, he was already planning on quitting for graduate school. I wonder whether any of the scanners would be so lucky.
These curated windows into Google begin to reveal the dimensions and power of its gaze. We see bystanders within their own personal stories, staring at the nine camera clad car, and we stare back at them. We are given access to data, but we cannot forget the people who made it possible. We may use this exceptionally large map, but here we are reminded of edge conditions left by imperfect technology and the programmers still troubleshooting. In the process we begin to feel hints of the dimensions of Google. It is a subtle, and pervasive presence, its mode of looking and collecting everything, embedded into our daily lives. But, what can we do?
There is a slow-creep to surveillance, always searching for increasingly granular data. Obfuscated collection and labor hinders awareness and agency, not to mention protest. As Rafmanreflects, while there is a “‘report a concern’ on the bottom of every single image, how can I demonstrate my concern for humanity within Google’s street photography?” The space in which to have this discussion, the edges with which to see, for room to reflect, are barely visible now, and constantly shrinking.
In seeking to organize all the world’s information, Google has the potential to reorganize much of the planet to fit in with its bottom line. Searching behind the interfaces we so often take for granted in-browser, these artists reveal complex undercurrents, bubbling just beneath their smooth surfaces. They provide tangible artifacts and frameworks with which to see and debate Google’s own black boxes. They offer their concern.
Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes. As one of many amorphous masses of flesh, all rolls and folds like a browner Rubens. Drooping and melting, spilling over, exceeding myself. A face that’s a sallow study in crisscrossing stretchmarks, accented with the bruisy purples of undereye circles. A body that’s dubiously beige, like when women’s magazines hit you with the Fair and Lovely filter. Ugly bags of mostly water. Supine or just slouching; it’s hard to tell.
It’s rare that I have such a visceral reaction to a set of nudes, a category of image which usually evokes a celebratory if not—excuse me for this—empowering response. The images, a set of AI-generated nude portraits from Stanford researcher Robbie Barrat, are undoubtedly as gorgeous as they are unsettling. “Usually the machine just paints people as blobs of flesh with tendrils and limbs randomly growing out—I think it’s really surreal. I wonder if that’s how machines see us,” he wrote in a tweet that went viral last week, adding that the machine always paints faces in the same way “with this weird yellow/purple texture.” He has no idea why, but he likes it. Personally, I find it terribly violent, in a boot stamping on a face forever kind of way.
Robbie Barrat, AI Generated Nude Portrait #1 (2018). via SuperRare.co.
Of course, it’s not a machine in the traditional sense, but an algorithm. And it isn’t painting per se, at least not in the way one might imagine an algorithm spitting commands to a mechanical arm wielding a brush, in the proto-Zamboni Formalist vein of Matthew Stein’s 1998 web robot Puma Paint. Rather, it generates images through call-and-response machine learning; it is a class of AI algorithms known as a Generative Adversarial Network, or GAN. (Call me the GAN girl, maybe.) Think of it as a dialectical faceoff—a classification struggle, if I may—between two neural networks that have been fed the same dataset of images.
The first network is the generator which, perhaps unsurprisingly, generates images based on that dataset. The second is the discriminator, which evaluates that generated image against the dataset before assigning it a probability as to whether it is real or fake. Based on this feedback, the generator network tries to improve the image before trying its luck again, and again and again: it learns. As the algorithm gets trained, it produces better and better fakes, some of which appear photorealistic in their sophistication. (Efforts to apply GANs to natural—that is, human as opposed to computer—language generation have thus far been far less successful than their image counterparts). It’s not dissimilar to certain models of art pedagogy. Is a GAN something like an MFA for algorithms? And if so, what might outsider AI art look like?
Back on Twitter, responses have been largely admiring, and mostly ellide the unbearable whiteness of Barrat’s dataset (because, art history) and by extension, portraits. “Ooooo like sweet mounds of dough,” comments one user. Francis Bacon comes up several times, and one user points to the similarities with William Untermohlen’s moving series of self-portraits chronicling his progressive degeneration into dementia. One image in particular has a familiar looking yellow coif; Trump jokes abound, as do references to various sci-fi dystopias, and Terry Bisson’s thinking, conscious, loving, dreaming meat. So many people use the language of dreaming, in fact, that I wonder whether Philip K. Dick or Google’s DeepDream Generator is responsible. The jury is very much out on whether machines can think for themselves (never mind the imminent Singularity) but everyone seems happy, at least in this thread, to agree that they can dream.
Most interesting is a comment from the Barrat comparing AI-generated art to Sol Lewitt’s’s rule-based art, which in turn begs the question of who exactly is the artist here. In response to someone asking why he didn’t try tinting his images in post-production, Barrat replied that he did not want to modify by hand what the AI outputs, and that doing so would run counter to the intention of the work. Still, he added “I am working on augmenting the trained network by overfitting on a small dataset of non-white nudes to try and get a more even distribution over skin tone, though.” Putting aside the trying “in the future we’ll all be brownish and what do you mean representation is not the same thing as reparations” feel-goodism, it’s worth wondering what else this will change beyond color. Depending on whose depictions his dataset draws from (one only hopes it won’t be Gauguin and/or his compatriots who turned their gazes to the Middle East), it is like that the poses will change. Perhaps they will read as more servile or more sexualised or even as less passive; perhaps these new images will even affect the pinkish-beige average so that all the AI’s nudes will rearrange their limbs.
My one takeaway from several seasons of America’s Next Top Model was the different poses required for men’s and women’s magazines and I like to imagine a spectral, algorithmic Tyra Banks analogue, screaming poses and art directing from within. And I wonder too, what the algorithm wants, freed from the cis-hetness of art history. Does the generator network just really want to please the discriminator and is its ideal body one that is likeliest to be considered a match? Left to its own devices, would it arrive unsupervised at an androgynous, agendered mean? Regardless, the boundaries are clear: Barrat is only willing to alter the instructions and not the output, what the machine has created within those systemic constraints. If generative art can be understood as a ceding of control to external, logic-based systems—and what is more logical, in its own way, than the natural world?—who is giving up control here? Is the algorithm simply implementing Barrat’s concept? Are its ideas its own?
And—isn’t it funny to emphasize a kind of authentic, purely AI-generated facsimile (or at least its attempt), at a time when we’re so consumed by fakes? GANs haven’t been around that long. They emerged in mid-2014, predating this administration’s fake news bot-or-not maelstrom by a couple of years, but it’s still tempting to posit some kind of causality. Isn’t it kind of wild how entire swathes of the internet have swarmed together to function as a collective fact-checking discriminator networks? And a new front in this conflict has recently opened up around the phenomenon of deepfakes, or AI-generated porn based on the likenesses of real celebrities or people, which extends face swapping to its logical, Rule 34-ed conclusion although it has more recently been widely banned.
From its earliest days, the tech industry has framed computing in terms of passing, of hiding its artifice, its non-human fakeness. One might consider GANs as akin to a neverending Turing test, except that here, a computer is both examiner and examinee. Meanwhile, with the advent of phenomena like botnets, the Turing test as we know it has been inverted, and it’s up to us to prove that we are not fake, that we match the database of blobs of flesh categorized as human. Now it’s people who are asked to decipher CAPTCHAs—to perform free labor for Google’s algorithms—and to check a little box that says I am not a robot. You know how people like to say “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords”? Turns out we’re already working for them.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Lola Martinez: Blind Spot is one of your earlier works about internet culture in China. Could you explain what it is?
Miao Ying: For the Blind Spot, I inputted every word, from A to Z, in the standard Chinese dictionary into google.cn, which is Google China. Over the course of three months, I spent ten hours a day searching a whole vocabulary of about 65,000 words to see which ones would be censored. When I came across a censored word I would erase if from the dictionary, only leaving its definition visible. So when reading the book, you cannot see the actual blacklisted term, but you can infer which one it is from the meaning. In my search, I came across 2,000 censored words.
What's interesting to me is that there are words that we know would definitely be censored, like something related to politics, but there are many that are blocked yet there’s no clear logic as to why. For instance, there is a term for a sticky rice dessert (Ba Bao Fan), which has nothing to do with the political at all, and was censored. During my search, it felt intriguing to know what was censored by the Chinese government because they never tell you where the boundary lies. Instead, the Chinese internet operates in a gray area. I had to test or search in order to know exactly which word fell into the category of censorship.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: What led you to take on such an extensive search?
MY: When I was a student, I read an article about censorship on google.cn, which stated that no one would have the time nor means to find out what was the criteria for the list of censored words—that it would be an impossible task to uncover what was on the list, and why.
Initially, my curiosity was a driving force which motivated me throughout this project. As this was the first piece that I made about censorship and the internet, this project was about finding out what exactly was restricted in order to make others aware. People in China don’t realize what censorship is—to them it’s just a note on the bottom of the page.
LM: How are you able to tell if your search is blocked?
MY: Originally in China, when you first searched for sensitive terms or subjects on google.cn, your internet service would be blocked for 10 minutes. Later (Google left China in 2010), instead of blocking your service, a sentence on the bottom of the webpage appears stating “according to the local laws, some of the results are not showing.” This phrase let you know if what you are searching is considered censored on google.cn.
LM: I’m curious about the history of internet usage and censorship in China and how it has emerged and developed. What is the context from which the book emerged from? What is it like today?
MY: Over time the internet environment in China has changed. 2007 saw the beginning of social media. At the time it wasn’t popular yet, but most Western platforms were made accessible in China. There was Facebook, Google, and Twitter so many people start using them. By 2010 though, most of these platforms were blocked and became inaccessible.
I think this is when the idea of censorship started to burst. My theory is that before 2010 censorship was one-sided agent coming from only the government, but because of the race of social media, censorship becomes two-sided and the idea of self-censorship emerges. Now that everyone has a smartphone and access to social media, the government implemented heavy censors across all social media platforms.
Then there’s the Great Firewall, which as an organization is really a mystery. No one knows where it is or who works for it, but as a whole, the Great Firewall controls and limits every people’s internet life.
I believe soon there will be a new method of censorship. By 2020, they will be implementing a Social credit system (Citizen Scores) which monitors what you do online. The behavior of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity) in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not. Who are you friends with, what did you say online, will impact your credit and can cause consequence such as slower internet speed.
So although all my work is not only about the Chinese internet, it’s still a main part of it, and I let it consume my work because there is such unique and rich material out there when talking about this subject. With all of these social media platforms developing really fast, and new apps coming out, everybody is using it on the streets. Even old people—they’re scanning barcodes.
LM: Have these shifts in internet usage or accessibility affected your views on censorship? And thinking of these modes of surveillance, did you experience any pressure or tension while conducting your search? Did you feel like you were being monitored while making the work?
MY: These turning points caused my work shifted, as now I am more interested in ideas of self-censorship and how that eliminates or triggers people’s creativity. When you are controlled by this large force for such a long time, you start to develop a bond with those who hold this power. When I made the work, it came with the idea that I could make people more aware, thus causing a change within the system. Over time though, I think I was the one who was changed. My thinking shifted to understand that this overpowering environment is shaping everyone who is using it. My personal relationship to censorship as an artist became more like a sick relationship, almost like a bad boyfriend, a Stockholm Syndrome.
During the time I made the work, they discontinued blocking internet service for short periods of time, but because I was searching so heavily for words that were sensitive, they actually blocked my service for 20 minutes. I was worried when that happened, but no came knocking on my door, so I guess it was some type of warning. I remember the first time when my service was blocked it felt very offensive. That’s why I wanted to make a physical object because It’s not completely offline, but it’s online within limits.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: Have you seen examples of users trying to combat these methods of censorship or access? Or are they generally more complacent to these boundaries?
MY: I don’t think people are bothered by it much. The thing about censorship is that it’s so powerful, that trying to go against creates a great inconvenience. People are definitely aware, but they are complacent because they are so used to it. Most will make fun or mock the situation, but will not do anything about. In the end, you are just like “I’m dominated by it, fine, there’s nothing one can do.”
LM: It’s interesting how you mention that people are very complacent or inactive when it comes to dealing with the constraints of censorship. You on the other hand, went ahead and took on this really intense process, not to circumvent censorship, but to investigate it in a way.
MY: When viewing the work, people aren’t aware of which words. The 2,000 words are never revealed to anyone because it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t censored. The list changes all the time and from the months I spend conducting this project, from the first to the last day, I’m sure the list has been changed or edited. It wasn’t a list to find out why this word is censored, because there is no logic in it.
So unfortunately you cannot really sync the list, but while I was physically searching, those moments were more about pushing myself and the limits of a human being being pushed to those of almost a machine. I started to create bugs—I kept thinking, “Did I check this? Did I miss one word?” At the end of everyday I would go back and forth double checking my results and I felt like a PC that needed to be restarted. This performance of spending time going through each search is a metaphor for the dictionary in and of itself. I think the art is uncomfortable because when you read the book, you don’t see the meaning and all the labor behind it. It’s addressing how censorship is—not why it should or should not be there, but stating that it is there.
LM: It’s interesting to hear of all these different layers of the work emerging—from the dictionary as an object and as a performative gesture. You brought up a tension between man and machine which subtly goes into ideas of labor, as you make a process which can be automated into an intensely tedious gesture. Have you ever considered re-performing this work?
MY: I have thought about it, but since Google left China and only operates in Hong Kong it is no longer the same thing now. Since cannot access Google from Mainland China because it is blocked, the only alternative is Baidu.
It’s not even about censorship at this point. There was a college student, who had a disease so he went to research on Baidu, but he ended up dying. He searched for nearby hospitals, and decides to go to the one ranked first. The issue is that Baidu does not differentiate between what is an advertisement and what is the real result. There is no way for you to tell which is which. They end up putting advertisements first, and it is a huge problem because for many because Baidu is the only search engine they have. For the younger generation who has not experienced Google, they might think that Google copied Baidu, instead of the other way around. Their generation grew up with pure state-run social platforms, so it is their only reality.
Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10, 2018 (still). Digital video and web series in progress. Courtesy the artists.
A collaboration between artist Shana Moulton and composer Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10 (2018) is a continuation of Moulton’s celebrated video series by the same name, and features a performance by the artist as her alter ego, Cynthia. The website offers a new format for Moulton’s premise: an episodic internet soap opera, with original music and libretto by Hallett.
The mountainous California landscape around Whispering Pines, the trailer park near Yosemite where Moulton was raised, serves as a backdrop to her cult video art series, its format inspired by Twin Peaks and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In nine episodes dating back to 2002, Moulton appears as Cynthia—hypochondriacal, agoraphobic, and prone to surreal fantasies. Cynthia’s attempts to escape pain yield only fad cures; her quest for enlightenment leads to new-age kitsch.
Whispering Pines 10 sees Cynthia act out her desire to become an environmental activist, despite not being able to leave the house. Her efforts at self-care lead to anxious hallucinations. The attainment of comfort becomes an insurmountable challenge, heightened to mythic proportions and mediated by faulty technology. Just as peace is attained, disaster hits. The voice of a political activist calls out “What is your tree?” from a public service ad, and the question echoes in Cynthia’s mind, setting her on a quest to find a raison d’être. Decor and objects in her home offer solutions, serving as portals into her imagination; the artist has rendered these in blown-out pastel hues with lo-fi digital effects. Spirit guides sing to her in ecstasy as Cynthia discovers how to stage a sacrifice to the earth, with a ritual that connects political action to performance art.
Moulton’s performance is accompanied by an original musical score and libretto from composer Nick Hallett, who appears in the videos along with vocalists Daisy Press and Katie Eastburn. The web series is adapted from Moulton and Hallett’s electronic opera, which was developed at the New Museum in 2011 (in a process documented by Art21) and went on to tour art museums and performance festivals across the US. The duo received a Creative Capital grant to reshape Whispering Pines 10 for the internet.
Beginning on April 23, 2018, Cynthia’s odyssey will be unveiled over seven unique musical videos, which accumulate into a web series. Visitors may subscribe for updates on when new videos launch. At the completion of the seven-part serial, additional features will emerge—including audio remixes, critical responses, and musical downloads. The web site of Whispering Pines 10 is conceived here as the stage for a new kind of internet soap opera.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Shana Moulton is an artist, born and based in California, who works in video, performance, and installation. Moulton has had solo exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2016); Kunsthaus Glarus, Switzerland (2016); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2015); and Fondazione Morra Greco, Naples, Italy (2013); and a retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, FL, in 2016. She has performed and screened videos at the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Performa, the Kitchen, and Art in General in New York, as well as the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Portland Institute of Contemporary Art; Cricoteka, Krakow; and elsewhere. Moulton’s artistic process and the development of Whispering Pines 10 was profiled by Art21’s New York Close Up series. Her videos (including Whispering Pines 1 through 9) are distributed by EAI.
Nick Hallett is a Brooklyn-based composer, vocalist, and cultural producer working between the worlds of sound, art, and performance. “He draws on a wide range of seemingly contrasting musical genres—from indie rock to early Romantic to electronica to opera—to create arrangements that deploy the voice as an instrument” (Art21). His music has been presented in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Ecstatic Music Festival, Hayden Planetarium, the Public Theater, Town Hall, Performa, the Kitchen, Roulette, and National Sawdust, among many others. Hallett recently completed work on a trilogy of dance-theater scores for choreographer-director Bill T. Jones’s Analogy cycle, which he has been touring with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the past three years. He received a 2017 New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” award for his music in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found, a reconstruction of work by choreographer John Bernd (1953–88). Hallett is the music director of the Joshua Light Show and codirects the Darmstadt new music series.
Whispering Pines 10 is a Creative Capital Project.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
For the past two weeks I’ve been ruling centuries of kingdoms in Reigns: Her Majesty, reincarnated as queen in perpetuum. The iOS game succeeds its king-centric predecessor, Reigns, in which the player makes choices to advance the narrative by swiping left or right on cards, as in Tinder.
Technology and culture journalist and author Leigh Alexanderis the narrative designer for Reigns: Her Majesty. Alexander’s renowned career in games criticism makes her a fitting candidate to describe female perseverance within an oppressive framework. The former Editor-at-Large for Gamasutra and former Editor-In-Chief for Offworld (a gaming site with a focus on diversity and inclusiveness within the gaming community) was among several high-profile women targeted and harassed in connection with #GamerGate. Since that she has been exploring tech mysticism, and producing an ASMR video series devoted to vintage computer games, interests that are both highlighted in the narrative design of Reigns: Her Majesty.
Reigns: Her Majesty is not simply a version of the original game with an almighty female head of state, but is instead a complex examination of the contradictory obligations and impossible choices for a woman in (proximity to) power. In Reigns,the player directly controls the throne and its succession as king, but Reigns: Her Majesty complicates that straightforward idea of power by introducing and focusing on two other practices that have historically empowered women: witchcraft and the pursuit of self-knowledge.
Despite the romantic medieval setting, recurring themes of magic, and speedy reincarnation without much negative consequence, playing Reigns: Her Majesty is both a fantastic exercise in pragmatism, and a lesson in the slow and demanding work of women’s progress over time.
The gameplay is similar to the original: the queen is presented with a series of unpredictable requests and remarks from people around her, including the King, members of the royal court, the ever-infuriating Cardinal, and her subjects. She must respond with diplomacy to maintain balance between the kingdom’s factions (the church, the people, the army, and the treasury), or perish. A player advances through the game by unlocking new sets of cards, reaching personal milestones, and both acquiring and upgrading magical objects.
Unlike traditional roleplay games in which a player invents a character, then acts according to their given traits to advance the narrative, ruling consistently in Reigns: Her Majesty will lead to a quick and untimely death. Ways to die include beheading by guillotine, being trampled to death by your loving subjects, rotting away in a locked tower, and, my most recurrent fatal end, being burned at the stake for heresy by the Cardinal. To survive, to avoid deposition, the queen is often forced to compromise her ideals in order to appease the kingdom’s various complex political coalitions. No matter what political ideology or code of ethics the queen subscribes to, blind adherence will cause her to be promptly de-throned. To those not privy to the motivations behind these strategic decisions, the behavior of the queen may seem volatile or erratic, stereotypical of an “irrational woman.” Alexander subverts this misogynist inclination by converting it into a strength. Being strategic and cunning are traits typically reserved for male characters in games, but in Reigns 2, success as a queen is directly related to developing those complex character traits.
Another frustratingly realistic feature of Reigns: Her Majesty is the contingent advancement through the game, a movement that is repeatedly hindered by factors seemingly outside of the player’s control: the astrological sign your reign begins on, for example, or interpersonal politics between eccentric members of your court. The All-Mother, the pagan goddess who controls the magic forces driving the game, will occasionally drop hints about disrupting the system’s mysterious mechanics, but these divine clues are subtle and, in my experience, often indecipherable. However, players who pay enough careful and consistent attention to these hints will eventually unlock crucial items, like the magic mirror and destiny altering clock. These empower the queen by alleviating some of the environmental contexts that impede the progress of a reign: the magic mirror can offset imbalance between the four political factions and the destiny altering clock allows the queen to switch astrological signs without being reborn. With enough introspection a player can learn the effects of ruling during certain astrological signs and can engineer further progress in a single reign by strategically switching and opening up different webs of possibilities.
The queen must become a master of pragmatic choices. At times ways to advance are unavailable to your player, due to the particular political contexts of their rule. Other times, the progressive or kind action seems (or is) futile. And you are frequently forced to act obediently or outright lie in order to persist. It is possible to live through several generations of your dynasty, swiping through similar interactions with people in power, only to meet the same gruesome end as your predecessors, having effected little change. However, the world may surprise you with a kind gesture every now and then. The small accomplishments accumulate, motivating a player to rule again and again in the face of such evident inertia. The ability to reincarnate through multiple generations and experience many different political eras firsthand allows the player to accumulate knowledge directly, in effect, gaining through experience what is usually passed down indirectly, as wisdom from women who came before.
This nuanced depiction of female power extends beyond the design of the overarching political system to the personhood of individual queens. The hilarious and delightful writing kept me engaged and continuously swiping onward. As in life, the player is capable of a range of emotional responses to instances of microaggressions and outright sexism that resonate deeply with contemporary realities despite taking place in a medieval context. The church complains about your plunging necklines, the king wields power irresponsibly due to his prototypical male ego, and a mysterious sect of snake-men harass your subjects and insist on holding free speech rallies. Alexander perfectly portrays these situations with short, quippy dialog that reads like a snarky feminist Twitter feed.
Reigns: Her Majesty critically examines female empowerment beyond sarcastically ridiculing men. There are moments in which it mocks consumer feminism and recognizes that not all means to female empowerment are good or to be deployed. Periodically, an owl will comment on your in-game progress with absurd announcements, satirizing metrics-driven narratives: “Your decisions so far have illuminated a profile of you as THIRSTY, twit-twoo! Yes, that is your prime trait!” and “Twoo-whoo! That answer has lowered your Successful Intersectional Feminism Index below the 32-point threshold!”
This criticality is also evident in the player’s engagement with a neoliberal magic mirror that encourages narcissism and selfishness masked as self-care. Affirming (swiping right on) the magic mirror’s problematic ideologies alleviates any imbalance between political factions. The narcissism helps the queen persevere, which is a nod to the mandatory philosophical concessions women make when surviving and ascending to power within an inherently flawed and inequitable system.
[Spoiler Warning:] The dark humor, marked with a twinge of optimism, that runs through the narrative in Reigns: Her Majesty demonstrates the relatability of the complex struggle of womanhood over time. The frequent futility of a single reign in concert with slow but measurable progress over centuries imbues the player with a sense of increasing duty to, and respect for, queens maneuvering in complicated political contexts before our time. I haven’t yet achieved one of the three possible endings, but in order to achieve the only true end, you have to kill the king.
Meme credit: Michael Nelson.
“Web archives are going to be weaponized to alter existing trustworthy information and to inject fake, untrustworthy information into the context.”
This was computer scientist Michael Nelson at the recent National Forum on Ethics & Archiving the Web, organized by Rhizome and Documenting the Now, and hosted at the New Museum. His words rang true; throughout the conference, panelists had spoken of archiving in high-stakes, adversarial environments where the content of web archives has serious effects on people’s lives, making them a ripe target for manipulation.
Indeed, only a few minutes previously, Ada Lerner had finished summarizing their paper (co-authored with Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner) describing sucessful strategies for manipulating content held in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and thereby manipulating the historical record. (Lerner had shared their paper with the IA, and the organization acted quickly to address all of the potential compromises addressed therein.)
Video from Ethics & Archiving the Web. Lerner’s presentation starts at 1:14; Nelson’s at 1:43:
The concerns that Nelson, Lerner, and others raised would seem to lend credence, then, Joy Reid’s recent claim that she may have been the victim of a Wayback Machine hacker. But in two blog posts yesterday, the Internet Archive and Nelson have cast serious doubt on that idea.
To back up for a moment: last December, Twitter user @Jamie_Maz, unearthed a series of homophobic posts from Reid’s old blog. Subsequently, she apologized; the apology was largely well-received by liberal media outlets. Last week, though, @Jamie_Maz unearthed further posts from Reid’s blog using the Wayback Machine. These were far worse, and Reid denied responsibility, claiming that she was the victim of a malicious hacker, and that she had requested that the posts in question be removed from the Wayback Machine and Google.
Yesterday, the Internet Archive revealed that Reid’s lawyers had contacted them back in December, at the time of the original apology. Their response was unequivocal:
When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions. At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.
We let Reid’s lawyers know that the information provided was not sufficient for us to verify claims of manipulation. Consequently, and due to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives.
Reid and her lawyers apparently found a workaround, though; they added a robots.txt exclusion to the site, a short text file hosted on a given website which includes instructions to web crawlers, such as those used by Google and the Internet Archive to automatically capture content from the web. The handling of robots.txt exclusions has been another hot topic in web archiving, but the IA’s current policy is to stop replaying captures from the Wayback Machine if the live site disallows crawling. It’s one of the few ways in which websites can opt out of being archived.
This has meant that, for the general public, @Jamie_Maz’s recent claims had been unverifiable. But, as Michael Nelson pointed out in another post yesterday, there is more than one web archive. He was able to source a number of the homophobic posts unearthed last week in the web archives of the Library of Congress, which does not follow the robots.txt removal policy:
In summary, of the many examples that @Jamie_Maz provides, I can find five copies in the Library of Congress's web archive. These crawls were probably performed on behalf of the Library of Congress by the Internet Archive (for election-based coverage); even though there are many different (and independent) web archives now, in 2006 the Internet Archive was pretty much the only game in town. Even though these mementos are not independent observations, there is no plausible scenario for these copies to have been hacked in multiple web archives or at the original blog 10+ years ago.
In short, as Nelson argues: this is why we need multiple web archives.
This post originally indicated that web captures are removed from the Wayback Machine if there is a robots.txt exclusion on the live version of a given site. It has been updated to reflect the Internet Archive’s policy to stop replaying such captures on the Wayback Machine, not to delete them.
In the iconoclastic riots of Reformation Europe, where the voiceover of Versions (2010) begins, images were degraded, smashed into cobblestones, discarded in pigsties and charnel houses, or made into something new. Some would be salvaged and eventually found their way into the hands of museums, where, centuries later, Oliver Laric would make 3d scans of their forms and reproduce them in different materials, in polished epoxies and polyamides, or render them as animations. In 1608, a statue of the Virgin Mary was taken down from the façade of Basel’s town hall and reimagined as an allegory of Justice simply by replacing the baby Jesus with a set of scales, and here she has been repurposed once more as a rendered scene in Laric’s film and an allegory of repetition, rising before us out of his glistening black digital gloop. “A sculpture,” his narrator explains, quoting Boris Groys, “cannot merely be copied but always only staged or performed.” Every representation is a flow.
Oliver Laric, Maria Justitia, 2010, rendered image of 3-D model, dimensions variable.
The library of Aby Warburg, a wealthy Hanseatic banker’s son with a singular vision of the history of art, was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933, four years after his death, because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. While studying Italian Renaissance art in Florence, Warburg had become convinced that many of these supposedly revolutionary artworks had their roots in astrology, magical beliefs and esoteric ancient religions and, as such, were just another passage of the neverending waltz of symbolic images and icons across time. He believed that their poses were parts of a visual language that has been passed down through the ages, and that the power of these poses only increases with each staging. Laric’s narrator advances a similar claim when she observes that, quoting Anthony Hughes, “Multiplication of an icon, far from diluting its cultic power, rather increases its fame.” Conversely, when an image is debased, when it’s spat on, pissed on and shat on like the Catholic statues in the streets of Basel where we started, its powers are curtailed; this is why so many of us hope to see the president being pissed on in a suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, and why his “Piss Tape” has achieved the necromantic status of a kind of 21st-Century relic, and the latest in a long history of degradations going back to red-figure paintings of Danaë and the Golden Shower decorating Ancient Athenian pottery.
Aby Warburg also came to believe that his philosophy of images could only properly be expressed through an installation of images, and so he began to construct his Mnemosyne Atlas (Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory) by pinning constellations of interrelated poses and expressions onto large black linen boards. The boards have since been lost but the Atlas survives in photographs, in yet more reproductions, which now decorate the stairwell of the Warburg Library, and I’m reminded of these every time I see a post comparing modern celebrities to old masterpieces, and also by Versions, which feels like a new kind of Mnemosyne Atlas, one able to trace how not only poses but also movements and dances recur over and over again.
When I first watched Versions at Frieze, in 2010, at what was a very optimistic, euphoric moment for most net artists, it already carried an air of exhaustion around itself. In this telling, the digital age wasn’t going to hyper-accelerate us into another dimension but rather help us to connect everything together and realize that it’s all the same; it was going be a plateau where suddenly we can rise above the landscape, above the Disney rainforests and rolling meadows, and observe the whole world repeating under us, and see the waves on which we’ve been riding for tens of thousands of years, since we first started painting on the walls of the caves of Sulawesi.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more,’” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882). “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” There’s something obsessive inside of us: a tightening loop, a romantic pursuit of the infinite. In the pessimistic reading, we may be doomed to repeat our mistakes and to make the same things over and over again. But perhaps, through these endless recurrences, our understanding can become greater, and our versions more transcendent, as images not only gain power but also slowly reveal their essences.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Levels and Bosses, Preliminary Trailer 01, 2017-18. Video of virtual environment; music by Molly Joyce.
Emer Grant: There are several different formats to your practice, realized across the Levels and Bosses project; at what level do we enter into your work? Does it start from the screen, or the gallery, or from the pages on the graphic novel? What do you see as the relationship between the paintings, the drawings, and the virtual reality game? Is it about being in real-time, or about realism? I’m also thinking about the boss and level metaphor. Do concepts of ranks and levels serve as references to traditional hierarchies across industrialization?
Leo Castaneda: The graphic novel is a good place to start. It is a good segue into painting and what I’m doing now, which is translating the graphic novel into a fully realized videogame. It started with a challenge from a college friend of mine, Victor Ochoa, who established a comic book anthology back in 2011; he knew my work and suggested I created a comic book out of the “Level One” paintings. The Levels and Bosses series started in 2009 as an attempt to create a mythology out of randomness by adopting the structure of videogaming. There was something about the imagery in the newer games that was unnerving, and this sentiment moved into the aesthetics of my work. In games, each level has a “boss” that would be an antagonist or gatekeeper at the end of the level to allow you to progress to the next level. It’s a matter of progressing through killing or destroying the gatekeeper. Importing this structure would allow me to have the image freedom of working between abstraction and representation, and also have fun creating characters and worlds.
The Level One painting was created through thinking of interactions with the environment in early games. Traditionally, player characters explored levels. The programmer would decide if a pixel was interactive or not; liquids, gases, and solids were interchangeable depending on what they chose as the principle (or what gaming programs call “collision”). I chose to paint an epic version of this using a muted color palette, one stemming from and related to explosive sci-fi Hollywood blockbusters. The graphic novel took ten paintings that I had done exploring the “Level One” I’d created, and its subdivisions (Level 1-1, 1-2, etc.), a reference to how levels are divided in games. In creating the graphic novel, I got to imagine space between the level paintings. It was like creating a map out of destinations. Through structuring the visuals, I could in turn initiate a story.
Level One, Graphic Novel, 2011, page 6.
I tried to consolidate the narrative in creating the First Boss, a cube abstract figure. A sentient black hole – from which the entirety of “Level One” emerges – was rendered by a happy accident of a damaged monoprinting plate. When I was trying to create the protagonist, I wanted there to be less of the traditional narrative binary between protagonist and boss. I decided to call this protagonist “The Other”; the letter “O” relates to the number 0 (zero), a precursor to the 1 of the boss.
The work’s range and ambition has taken on different characteristics throughout its evolution. I eventually realized that the culmination of the work should be an actual videogame. A videogame that innately deconstructs and expands what a videogame is and can be. The process within my painting has become more of a feedback loop: the paintings are created out of images of virtual spaces, and get re-inserted into the virtual. Some paintings work as textures that inform the virtual environment, and other become translations of it.
Item 93201 with Image of Boss, 2014. Virtual reality sculpture/machine: Computer, VR headset, fiberglass, wood, plastic, fabric. Painting: Acrylic Canvas, Wood, faux leather, projector handles. Sculpture: 10ftx5ftx5ft. Painting: 7x11x2ft.
Item Showroom, 2016-17. Virtual Reality environment and video.
EG: Could you talk a bit more about the relationship of frame and “otherness”; I’m interested in how you might clarify what sociological perspective you are referring to. Are you referring specifically to racial, class, and gendered connotations of “the Other” with the black box? Whose other? Also, do you problematize narrative here in the context of “otherness,” in which master narratives and “otherness” offer a dialectical positionality?
LC: The game addresses controlling a thing, a something, that is explicitly not your own body. Videogames are often segmented into first- and third-person perspectives. The frame here is the point of view; a central idea of the game is a possibility of switching, meaning, the potential shift in the relationship between protagonist and antagonist. The player character at the beginning is a humanoid figure, seen in third person view, a genderless, posthuman, ethnically ambiguous cyborg who explores ambiguous landscapes and encounters various “bosses” that challenge perceptions about boundaries and roles in games. In most videogames, you generally work through a linear progression, starting at point zero and chronologically moving through the game by winning, traversing entities, killing them, taking their essence, for the sake of climbing. There is no specific awareness and it's also very binary, very antagonistic. I wanted to challenge that.
Levels and Bosses: Level One interior, “in-game” still, 2017-18.
EG: How do you address the contrast between pleasure and leisure and rules as architecture in drafting videogames as a critical medium?
LC: I'm aware that whatever is pleasurable to me is also a construct of societal conditions. Going back and analyzing my choices involves breaking down decisions into distinctions, which is intrinsic to my methodology. What basically happens in the graphic novel, is that from the point of creation (represented by an explosion), there is the gravitational, coordinated, and choreographed journey between the self and other that flips between boss and protagonist. The perspective feels like it is always pending, in hold, about to change.
EG: The explosive scene reminds me of themutation scene in Akira; the character Tetsuo loses control of his powers and transforms into a giant human amoeba that consumes everything it touches. You are spared no mercy in terms of visual affect and effect. From that point on, it is relentless. I see the reference to anime as a stylistic choice in your work. Anime references can be problematic because of their heteronormative undertones; they are frequently criticized for darker fetishistic tendencies. If you are in fact referring to fantasy animation as a stylistic choice, what kind of value do you extract from it?
LC: Plenty of anime is an inspiration for the work. I think of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even Dragon Ball Z, using these titles as a jumping off point for the development of a more critical framework. Take the cycles of power in Dragon Ball Z. In my mind, they resemble how I see capitalism functioning at the moment, in which one character’s power level endlessly increases, and likewise, the strength of the enemies increases, both to a point so exponential that their purpose ceases to matter.
As a piece bridging gaming and art, it was important to me to focus or to create the aesthetic of spectacle that draws gamers in. Audiences are already more familiar with games industries, or the movie industry as cultural gateways. I'm happy for people to enter into my work through spectacle and while they're there, differentiate between the imagined and traditional roles of bosses and environments, and in this tension, find ways of creating meaning.
For instance, in my game, I started to play with the idea of an exponential and unbalanced power dynamic between characters, such that each violence and defeat are choices made by both parties. Throughout Levels and Bosses, the Other’s engagement with each boss reimagines relationships of contact between players and antagonists.
In this space, I wanted to allow for a moment of vulnerability, in which the boss would just be still. It would be a matter of continually striking until the protagonist realized that a different approach was needed, one that involved contact. There is a sense of being reprimanded. So, at one stage, a character makes the realization and is teleported, but their insight still would lead to some sort of damage. These wounds accumulate from traveling through the game. The game has a specific fictionalization of violence in this metaphorical wounding. Contact really comes in the moment when you're given the choice to hit or touch the boss; contact is the in-between. Rather than defeating someone to attain victory, the goal is more progression through contact. We expand through these choices to hit or to touch, and progress through each choice made.
EG: Is this work intended for one person to experience at a time? Or is there a community that can emerge, a utopian gesture from audiences participating in the piece, and if so, how to you express this as a strategy in art? There are many possible stages of the piece in an exhibition, but could you talk about the ideal stagings, which create the community you suggest the work imagines?
LC: Exhibitioning involves multiple angles. If I'm thinking about an imaginary audience I guess it would be people who can relate to my understanding of videogames as possessing multiple layers of meaning. The primary platform for this work is Steam, where a lot of videogames get hosted. With at least 125 million users on the site, you can find artistic or independent videogames are either free, or distributing between 1000 and 1 million copies globally for $5 -$10. Gamers come in a whole range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds. It is interesting; most of the people who make videogames are white males but many of the people who play videogames come from all different types of ethnic groups.
EG: I wonder if that dynamic – white men making games for non-white players, if we simplify it – is possibly an iteration of colonialism, but in new form? Ethics and representation come into play in creating narrative, especially when interactivity is a dominant axis. How you see your works as providing an alternative to the industry standard?
LC: Yes, this is an iteration of colonization. I think about this often. The gaming industry is ripe with decision makers in positions of power who ultimately get to decide the validity of narratives and which stories matter. In addition to the ways in which this affects representation, there’s the example of the recent purchase of the StarWars IP: Disney has disowned whole subsections of previously made stories, such as the animated Clone Wars, as out of canon. Fan-created content isn’t even taken into consideration; the company has hard copyright hounds that stifle community participation. People love to draw fanart and fantasize about their interpretation of gaming and movie characters, and for my game I am thinking about the possibility of future user-generated content for players to be able to add their own levels to this game, even with financial retribution. The game establishes a master narrative out of randomness, frames it as rather arbitrary, and then makes it flexible for communal re-interpretation and change, an oscillating flip and reversal of the colonization of the narrative.
Item with oVerhead Reality, 2016. Virtual reality sculpture/accessory: headset, fabric, controllers; interior virtual environment made through videogame software. 10x10x48 inches. Human interacting - Variable. Painting: Item Showroom Screenshot #143
Poster for Entering Virtual Reality Machine, 2013.
EG: How do you see artistic production changing, in terms of collaboration, collective labor, given the increasing complexity of gaming, its companies, artists, designers, programmers? What can artists learn from proximity to these large, complex groups of technologically skilled professionals?
LC: Currently I'm thinking about all of this in terms of authorship because I struggle with how I use my name in this context. In the videogame industry, there is a team and a company that is behind a project. I wouldn’t want this to be known as Leo’s game; for the range of the piece, it makes sense to release it under a company alias.
I struggle because I’ve gone through all the traditional art world steps: art school, an MFA, teaching, to build my practice as an individual working artist. I have to jump through certain loopholes to just have the game present on the Steam platform. Then I think about collaboration, and how a programmer would want to work with a company. I think about working as or through a different entity, not as one that will just serve my “fame”, or notoriety, as an artist.
The other side of this is my identity as a Latin American artist and the voice in the work that is created culturally. My background and upbringing appears in my choices. I consider the reception of a company in the art world, versus the reception of an individual. It’s interesting now, as across the art world we are seeing the system of credit emerging, in which everyone’s work or labor is somehow acknowledged as part of the creative process. And I wonder if operating as a company open this system up beyond mere gestures. For now I’ve played it safe as an individual in the studio.
EG: You’re creating an environment where people engage through initiating endless possibilities. This is a philosophical manifestation of the virtual, through the virtual. It’s a way to stage possibility, even, and offer a model that can be replicated. And you also refer to painting as a thinking process which translates as a strategy across industries. It seems these methods – creating an environment in which possibility multiplies and the audience has agency, or using painting to work across audiences – is a type of a speculative proposition, for renewed participation.
LC: In the gaming and movie industries, painting and drawing are used to create “concept art” as the visual plan towards the creation of worlds and characters. This is usually a team effort towards finding a coherent narrative, and as mentioned before doesn’t leave room for audience input. In my work I try to use the strategies of “concept art” to arrange randomness and thus allow multiple viewpoints to merge through sequencing and proximity. If the possibility of audience participation can add to those narrative nodes of randomness, I hope the work in the end is an empowering or hopeful proposition.
Location: Miami, FL
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Actively, 2013, and indirectly 2009 through the concepts; back to middle school through interests.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Cooper Union for BFA and Hunter College for MFA, both for Studio Art.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Art practice plus teaching 3D animation and drawing at Florida International University this year as a visiting instructor.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Seven on Seven pairs seven artists with seven technologists, asking them to create something new: a prototype, an artwork, an app, or whatever they imagine.
Over nine editions, Seven on Seven has served as a testing ground for leading figures from both fields to try out new ways of working, and of working together. Their collaborations address major contemporary issues, but do so in ways that are free from the usual pressures of success in software development, entrepreneurship, or artistic practice. This allows Seven on Seven projects to take unusual forms; they are cultural hybrids which may not fit easily into an art exhibition or the app store.
This online exhibition brings together recent software-based works that were produced as part of Rhizome’s annual conference Seven on Seven, from a play for bots to an anonymous social network in the style of artist Bunny Rogers.
Tickets are available now for the tenth edition of Seven on Seven on May 19.
Claire L. Evans and Tracy Chou: SVS
Chou and Evans’s play for four bots is set in a workplace where AI entities labor alongside humans. It randomizes the names, genders, and nationalities of its main characters, as well as their voices, which were performed via text-to-speech software. The action is always the same each time the play is run, allowing users to experience it in multiple ways and, serving as a kind of bias test. Originally written as a Python script, the play will be available online to coincide with this exhibition.
Bunny Rogers and Nozlee Samadzadeh: Collectable.art
Collectable.art is “a social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.” This anonymous publishing platform, available as an iOS app, allows users to create their own web pages based on Rogers’s websites, which feature hand-coded HTML pages dedicated to topics such as lamb-shaped graves and awareness ribbons.
Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka: Big Glitter
Three works by Lialina and Tyka mine the social network Blingee, which allows users to create collages from GIF animations and stamps. Lialina has researched the platform for a number of years, drawn in particular to the digital folklore practice of one especially talented user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova (IVK). In *Once again to IVK*, a script follows the usage of animations through compositions made by IVK and others. In *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling*, users are asked to answer captcha-style quizzes in which half of the compositions were created by bots. And for *Treasure Trove* (all 2017), hundreds of individual animations were “liberated” from the locked-down Blingee platform and collaged into a composition that’s surely one of the world’s most beautiful web pages.
DIS and Rachel Haot: Polimbo
“How can we convert Tinder users into active voters?” asks the team behind Polimbo. Developed with designer Pat Shiu and researcher Ethan Chiel, the app allows users to swipe right or left on a series of speculative scenarios tied to real-world public policy, ultimately “matching” them with like-minded politicians and offering a visceral glimpse into possible outcomes of seemingly abstract issues.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti: Blockedt
Blockedt is a social network available on iOS and Android (pending app store approval) that boasts no other visible users, no visible content, and an invasive end user license agreement. Founded by Musson’s billionaire CEO alter ego “Guy White,” Blockedt’s only function is to allow users to scroll endlessly on an empty screen.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, GIPHY, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
Additional support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Seven on Seven's 10th Edition After Party will be cohosted by Rhizome and Impossible Foods at Spring Place.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
Additional support is provided by Kickstarter and Phillips.
My recent work focuses on identifying and highlighting contributions from women in technology history, making sure these people are remembered before the paint dries, essentially, so that women and girls can understand themselves as central, rather than incidental, to the development of the most important forces of our age.
What I admire about Tracy Chou is that she does that in the present—her GitHub repository is a living history of women in tech, for example, and she highlights women while there’s still an opportunity for the tech establishment to react to our presence in the present without the filter of nostalgia, or the loss of context that the passing of time creates, and to make actionable changes in the here and now.
When we first talked about what we would do for Seven on Seven in 2016, I had the impression that between us, we spanned past and present. It quickly became apparent that we wanted to tackle the future. We talked about the ways gender plays out in technology—not just in the workplace, but in the tools that emerge from working environments that are still so predominantly male. One touchstone for us both was gender in AI, and the predominance of female gendering and voicing in artificially intelligent agents like Cortana, Siri, and Amazon Alexa, as well as in GPS navigation, public-address, and customer-service bots. We talked about how a generation of children, growing up with these tools, were becoming accustomed to barking commands to pliant, subservient lady machines. Weird.
SVS, the product of our collaboration, is both a play and a kind of bias test. It’s “written for four bots,” but the names, genders, nationalities, and voices of those bots are randomized. This shifting “casting” helps to tease out the audience’s own biases about what the implicit dynamics are between the characters. The action is always the same, but it feels different every time. The play is short enough that one might play through it more than once, to see what changes. It unfolds in a Silicon Valley work environment, so the changing dynamics on display are additionally imbued with issues of power, authority, and workplace diversity.
Complicating matters, three characters in SVS are written as human, while the fourth is an AI. When the AI is cast as a female, some might interpret that character with a sexualized quality, and its relationship with its keeper as something like the relationship between Theodore and Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her. When it’s cast as male, it can feel more like like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An audience less steeped in such heteronormative narratives might read it entirely differently. And so forth. The assumptions we make reveal a great deal about how we expect gender to be performed by machines, and are often influenced by films and by the very tools in our pockets. In reality, it’s all assumptions, cultural biases, and projection. The bot is just a bot, and it’s running through the story as written.
A corny little detail: the play is a workplace drama, and although “SVS” is ostensibly an acronym for “Sentient Voice Systems,” the Valley company where the story unfolds, it’s also an allusion to Karel Capek’s RUR, the Czech play from which we get the word “robot.” RUR takes place in a factory—Rossum’s Universal Robots—and its action unfolds along a similar arc, over which the illusion of human mastery over machines is slowly revealed to be impractical, if not immoral. SVS is made up of letters adjacent to RUR, just as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HALis one alphabetical step away from IBM. An IBM 704 was programmed to sing “Daisy Bell” in 1961, seven years before HAL did the same in the film. Truth is stranger than fiction, although it’s never truly unentangled with it.
Tracy’s program is so beautiful, and full of these thoughtful details, like how she handled pauses and beats in the dialogue to make it flow more naturally. Once we had a working program, it was fun to manipulate the text to see how we could force human-like cues into the voices using low-tech tricks, like punctuation. I found that placing periods in between words made the bots enunciate more clearly, which we ended up using for emphasis in a few places. Making such concessions to the bots was an unintended consequence of building this infinite-variation play. I imagine playwrights do this for actors too—writing with performance in mind. It was one my favorite surprises of this collaboration.
Finally, I can’t remember if this was a reference for me while we were working on SVS, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about the play in relation to Brenda Laurel’s wonderful book Computers as Theater, which argues for a dramatics of interface design. Every software session is like a play, with a beginning, middle, and end. Just as a play exists as both a script and a performance, software has both a static existence as code and a fluid expression in every user session. The more deftly programmers and interface designers can conceal the rigging—the beams and rafters and the stagecraft of it all—the more transformative the experience is for the audience, or the user. That’s just to say that there’s an elemental similarity between plays and programs, and there’s something very right-feeling, to me, about a software experience that’s never the same twice, where the user fills in so much of the associative and emotional context from personal experience and subjective bias. It’s just what we do. Hopefully SVS makes that clear.
SVS was adapted for the web by Rhizome developer Mark Beasley with software curator Lydnsey Moulds. The original code can be found on Tracy Chou’s Github repository.
It wasn’t long into my collaboration with Bunny Rogers for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference in 2017 when we realized our similarities might outnumber our perceived differences. In our early, wide-ranging conversations, we discovered a shared interest in online anonymity, early internet communities, personal data archives, and certain books we’d both read as kids, to name a few topics.
But the differences remain: I’m an engineer at Vox Media, where I write code for the internal software that writers and editors use to write and publish articles. My job involves balancing the needs of the company at large along with individual workflows, making decisions bolstered by user testing and data. I’m also a seamstress, which I use to experiment with process, automation, and efficiency as much as to make clothing.
Bunny is a multimedia artist and poet whose most recent solo exhibit is up at the Whitney Museum. Her work explores her past and present using a variety of media, from stained glass panels to video art. On her extensive website, she also maintains a variety of hand-coded, single-topic sub-sites: an archive of awareness ribbons; poetry about a Neopets character; a database of lamb headstones, traditionally used for the graves of children.
A social network for one
The first sketches of what would become the Collectable.art app
I suggested that we create a tool to allow Bunny (or anyone else) to create, maintain, and display these single-topic sites. The idea appealed to Bunny, who had spoken before about the idea of creating work with a single person in mind. It would be both a far cry from the decision-making consensus of my day job and an automated step beyond Bunny’s hand-coded work.
So instead of thinking about an imaginary generalist user, the app only needed to make sense to Bunny, its intended audience. While sketching our ideas for this tool, Bunny came upon a name—Collectable—and I came upon a tagline: “an anonymized social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.”
Like any social network from Facebook to Twitter, we needed a “private” setting where work is done and a “public” place where work is displayed; I wanted the private view to be limited to your phone to keep it all the more personal. The .ART administrator, which sponsored the 2017 Seven on Seven, generously helped us out with a domain, and so our project was born: Collectable.art is a platform for collecting and sharing text and images via an iOS app and website.
Building the app
The representation of the app’s interface in Xcode
With only a few weeks in which to work, I had to make decisions about what tools to use in order to complete our project in time. I leaned heavily on Google’s Firebase tools for the app’s database and user authentication, which freed up time to customize the app’s user interface to match the early sketches Bunny and I worked on.
Apple has a lot of opinions about how iOS apps should look and feel—opinions that were not shared by Bunny, whose online work is formatted with Web 1.0 styles like Times New Roman and default blue-and-purple-colored links. Replacing the modern gradients and icons of a 2017-era mobile app was a funny and refreshing challenge; I found myself occasionally going against what I had been taught was “right” for an app, although of course user experience has no objectively correct answers.
We replaced the idea of a user profile with Bunny’s “adoptable” awareness ribbons, which allow unique identification without having an identity connected to the real world. She also created the icons and assets used throughout the app, as well as the web page templates that the user’s collected data slots into.
Both the Swift OS app and the Node.js web app are open source and publicly accessible on Github.
Adding an image to a collect using the app
Using the app, you can create and store “collects,” which are sets of text-and-image pairs. These images can be taken with a phone camera or downloaded from an external source, so the app can be used anywhere. Public collects—it felt useful to provide a way to “hide” work if desired—can be seen on the website. There are nine templates, created by Bunny, that you can choose from to format your data. (Because not everyone can be Bunny Rogers, the app itself also contains help instructions.)
Currently on Collectable.art you can view Bunny’s lamb graves, photos of incorrectly formatted social media icons that I have collected over the years, and more—I even used Collectable.art used to document the Seven on Seven conference as it was happening. More recently, students at PS 317 in Queens have been working on their own collects, including slime/squishy things and noods.
To make your own anonymized collects the style of Bunny Rogers, get started at collectable.art/app.
The FCC has announced that net neutrality will expire in the US on June 11. This Wednesday, the US Senate will vote on a measure that would reinstate it; this measure is currently one vote short of passage. Email or call your Senator today.
Polimbo (the name is a portmanteau of “Policy” and “Limbo”) is a policy education tool presented in the form of a quiz. The app presents player with a number of scenarios which connect back in one way or another to net neutrality. Some of those scenarios are more science fictional than others — a world where video conferencing calls almost never freeze is probably closer at hand than one where “Data Police track data obesity and waste” — but all have to do with the flow of data and how much control corporate and government entities, real or imagined, have over that data.
For each scenario the player swipes left or right, indicating disapproval or approval. After twenty swipes the player is given their result: either their choices indicate they’d prefer a world with net neutrality rules in place, or the reverse. Each result also comes with a list of politicians and civil servants who feel similarly.
The app was conceived of by members of the DIS collective and Rachel Haot for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference last spring as an experiment in familiarizing people with sometimes difficult-to-grasp public policy. Policy is often complex and abstract, even when it has very real and material consequences, and the point of Polimbo was to offer a slightly tongue-in-cheek way to clearly and simply connect policy to those consequences. I can tell you that with some certainty because in the run-up to Seven on Seven last year, I helped DIS and Haot with research on what eventually became the net neutrality scenarios presented by Polimbo.
Like its swipe-based forebears, dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble, Polimbo’s decision tree doesn’t have a neutral option. The player has to choose whether they like the scenario the app confronts them with or not. The idea was that throwing some uncertainty into the mix and muddying the waters of what’s good policy and what’s bad policy and then forcing players to choose might make them better think through and better analyze the reasons for and consequences of their positions.
Assessing the game frankly, we probably didn’t do a very good job of muddying the waters. If the speculative prompt “your content is flagged as a low-level national security risk, and your site is subject to broadband speed penalties” didn’t give away where those of us in the room when the game was made stand, one of other nineteen probably did: we were broadly in favor of net neutrality. Many of the prompts on Polimbo were tweaked to make them less dystopian, and others were tossed in production because the stories they told were too obviously sinister, but our own thoughts and opinions are clearly present. That isn’t to say there wasn’t a genuine attempt made to allow for the ser to find themselves on either side of the net neutrality debate. However, in practice, all but the most zealously devoted Verizon shareholders and/or libertarians were probably presented with the result “You are for Net Neutrality” and photos of the beaming faces of Barack Obama and erstwhile FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
By intimating (even jokingly) that Polimbo was a neutral platform, we weren’t necessarily forthright about the opinions and intentions that we held about net neutrality, except in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of way. Thus, the app was less a way for player to determine their opinions on policy than an effort to persuade–an effort to prompt players to think through some of the possible consequences of net neutrality’s rollback.
Winking and nudging is fine, even ideal, for art, but it’s a little too subtle for policy, especially so for a policy debate over something as poorly named, deeply complex, and politically contested as net neutrality. And so, if we could do it all over I would give the player have more information, to show them that these scenarios aren’t just stories or jokes. Tell them everything, or at least everything that occurs to you as designer, researcher, artist, wonk, whatever. If Polimbo’s net neutrality quiz felt like a speculative dystopian experiment in May, now it feels urgent and real, with looming consequences for the player. They’re just a person trying to make their way in a world of often complex policy, and it behooves us to be forthright with them. It’ll be the best way, when it comes to that policy, to allow them to play without being played.
Blockedt! by Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti is part of First Look: Real Artists Ship, a selection of works from recent editions of Seven on Seven. The Blockedt! iOS app, developed by Noah Keating, is currently under review for inclusion in the app store.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti have created what some would call an anti-social social networking app and, as part of their collaboration for Seven on Seven, produced an introductory pitch video explaining its functionality. The network, aptly named Blockedt!, may well be the first application that has no visible features, no distinct content, and no other visible users, despite its invasive end user license agreement.
It’s not uncommon to come across an advertisement that urges us to take a step back from our devices—to take a deep breath, and embrace the richness of our surroundings, without the need to document, record, or share them. When we look at contemporary life, it is evident that our experiences are frequently punctuated by technology. No one is free from the magnetic pull of social networking. On the feed, companies and users unite in endlessly reciprocal adoration. We’re expected to wake up to our twitterverse, “like” our former boss’s vacation photos, and comment on our distant cousin’s newborn, all the while feeding our every digital motion into an ominous sea of marketable data.
For their Seven on Seven project in 2018, Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti decided to take a closer look at the imminent digital fatigue that results from social media, albeit from a humorous perspective. The two produced Blockedt, a fully functional application that invites its users to participate in the soothing, meditative gesture of scrolling, while freeing them from the obligation of sharing, viewing, or re-posting any content whatsoever. The app is, essentially, just a blank white screen. Its impractical nature reveals an uncomfortable dichotomy between our basic need for deep human connection, and the basic gesture of touching glass that we habitually engage in on impulse.
Musson and Perretti introduced Blockedt in a stylistically familiar pitch video, aimed at potential shareholders for the app. In the video, Musson takes on the persona of a fictional, buttoned-up CEO named Guy White, who is described only as “Visionary, Not Poor.” Smiling at an office desk, fingers tented, he proclaims, “Technology has had a profound impact upon all of our lives with its immediate interconnectedness. We've become shackled to our timelines. Indentured servants to our smart devices.” He then introduces what he, jokingly, calls an American-sized solution: Blockedt. Blockedt is arguably the world’s first app to openly acknowledge our technology’s addictive qualities. But on Blockedt, the unique experience of social navigation has been reduced to the singular activity of the platform: scrolling.
In some sense, Blockedt is a satirical response to the way that social media has capitalized on our natural need to share content, preying on our human impulses. The app is pending approval by the App Store, but in the meantime users can get scrolling on the web-native app. Because as they say at Blockedt, “to lose the scroll, is to lose your soul.”
As part of their contribution to Seven on Seven 2017, Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka took a closer look at a modern digital folklore legend: Blingee.com. The collaboration resulted in a collection of three works, presented as part of First Look, the ongoing series of digital projects co-curated and co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
In a 2010 blog post titled All That Glitters, Olia Lialina discusses the transition from the early animated GIF to the glittering GIF of the new millennium:
No matter how funny and unprofessional early animated GIFs appeared, they were animated. The figures or objects were in constant action—running, dancing, rotating around the sun, or working on an endless construction. With the new millennium came new GIFs, glittering and blinging graphics created with new tools called glitter graphics generators. The principle of these was to take a static image—photo or graphic—and decorate it with all sorts of glittering-sparkling “stamps,” from stardust to rotating necklaces.
Lialina has long credited the popular graphics generator, Blingee.com, as an important piece of modern digital folklore. As an avid Blingee adopter, she has explored the site as a tool, subject, and community base. The web service allows users to create animated GIFs by compiling and layering “stamps” into collages, adding to the website’s massive collection of clipart, icons, and digital stickers. The site does offer limited communication through comments, voting, and forums, but its most distinctive attribute by far is its navigation system. Users can endlessly surf from one image to another through stamps and Blingees, much like you would use a series of text links, or back and forward buttons, to browse the early web.
For their Seven on Seven collaboration, Lialina and Tyka aimed to survey the data and the philosophy behind Blingee. *Once again to IVK* (2017) uses an automated tool they’ve created to mirror the process of surfing through Blingee by identifying the corresponding stamps that lead to each composition, and surfacing other Blingees created with these stamps. In one iteration of the piece, called staying with IVK, they use the tool to trace the animations of Lialina’s favorite Blingee user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova. Another version (away from IVK) follows various compositions throughout the network.
Tyka also used machine learning to replicate the Blingee creation process itself. In an attempt to influence the machine to create political images, he began feeding the system images of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with popular sets of Blingee stickers. Using these images, the system reproduced its own—very convincing—political Blingees. We see Obama donning a glittering chain and baseball cap, or devil horns, and McCain signage overlaid with flower blooms and flashing dancers.
The bot-generated political Blingees are comical, amateur, and deceptive. What is alarming, though, is our own inability to distinguish between human and automated cultural production. *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling* (2017) measures exactly that, tasking users to respond to captcha-style quizzes, and determine which compositions were created by bots.
For their final collaboration, *Treasure Trove* (2017), Lialina and Tyka expropriated 440 individual jewel animations from the Blingee platform. Lialina created a colorful multi-layered composition using hundreds of glittering images that dance, flicker, and rotate across the page. Visitors to the site can click, drag, and reorder the sparkling GIFs as they please, freed from the restrictions of Blingee’s own interface.
The gaps among these three works highlight the parameters of the Blingee interface, as well as the role of the user in interacting with and perhaps manipulating it. A single flashing stamp on a transparent background can serve as source material for dozens of user generated images. A page of “Southern Belle” Blingees can lead to a series of Saved by the Bell Blingees. The format offers millions of animations, and each one can be thought of as a singular, shining, static composition. Alternatively, they can be thought of in terms of their fluidity—their connection to, or departure from, the images uploaded before and after. Whatever the case may be, it would seem worrisome, to say the least, that in an age of the “post-factual,” this vernacular can be performed and produced by machines.
Watch Lialina and Tyka’s full presentation for more on the theory and practice of Blingee:
Header image: Screenshot from *Treasure Trove*, 2017 by Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka.
Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian at Seven on Seven 2018 (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
The historic tenth edition of Seven on Seven took place before a sold-out audience on May 19 at the New Museum, with an afterparty co-hosted by Impossible Foods at Spring Place. The participating duos revealed seven new art-tech projects, ranging from a Photoshop add-on to a make-up tutorial to a decentralized religion. The event also featured a presentation of digital art projects by third and fifth graders from PS317 in Queens (thanks to the support of Deutsche Bank) and a print publication on the state of culture and tech, created by Rhizome and Wieden+Kennedy NY.
At the close of the day, Rhizome revealed that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be presented in Beijing in October 2018 as part of the EAST Conference at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
Video of the full event will be online shortly. Photos from the dinner and afterparty, co-hosted by Impossible at Spring Place, can be seen on Rhizome’s Facebook page.
WHAT’S TO BE DONE: A Seven on Seven Magazine
Photo: Aria Dean
Marking ten editions of Seven on Seven, What’s to Be Done? takes stock of art and tech as seen by Seven on Seven alumni—Mike Krieger, Tracy Chou, Miranda July, Paul Ford, Kate Ray, Martine Syms, and Claire L. Evens—other luminaries—such as Paul Chan and Fred Turner—and, via an open call survey, the Rhizome community. The publication was edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome's Special Project's Editor, and designed under the direction of Richard Turley, Global Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy New York. A limited number of magazines are avaiable by request to Rhizome members (contribute!)
Art & Technology Residency at PS 317 Waterside Children's Studio School
With funding from Deutsche Bank, Rhizome held a six-week residency led by arts educator Diwa Tamrong in Queens public school PS 317, the Waterside Children’s Studio School.
Students made online artworks inspired by past works from Seven on Seven, including a quiz inspired by DIS and Rachel Haot’s Polimbo (from Seven on Seven 2017). Polimbo was designed to help users understand the potential consequences of policy decisions; the students’ version focused on the issue of whether phones should be allowed in schools. Students also made blingeesinspired by Olia Lialina & Mike Tyka’s Blingee research from last year's Seven on Seven.
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Cortright and Tashian’s project was the culmination of a friendship that stemmed from one of the technologist’s earlier projects, “Lost in translation,” which the artist had used to title many of her works. Their collaborative project was a new set of scripts for Photoshop which produced randomized interventions into Cortright's celebrated digital paintings, made on the app, which often comprise hundreds of layers of individual brushstrokes. Cortright usually exports the paintings from Photoshop at a “decisive moment” to a more finite form, on silk, aluminum, acrylic, linen, or paper, but this new set of scripts allows them to live on in a variable, ever-changing state.
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Cwynar and Sherwin premiered a new performative lecture and video derived from '80s-era VHS and contemporary Youtube-based make-up tutorials, intertwining the histories of color and representation in image-making tools and cosmetics. Shayna Gold oversaw make-up and designer Tracy Ma starred in their video. (Read more at Garage.)
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
The pair premiered chapter one of a new sci-fi book, Cardboard Friction, which explores the development of a distributed autonomous organization (DAO) against a tyrannical e-commerce company. Chapter one is available at http://cardboardfriction.com/, and was accompanied by a book trailer by culturesport.tv.
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Raspet and Tseng began their project exploring potential to arbitrage phosphorous as a way to impact global energy consumption. When this project faced unexpected issues, they pivoted to cell.farm, which seeks to use blockchain technology to collectively model a ribosome, en route to one day modeling a full cell. Their white paper can be downloaded at http://cell.farm.
Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green presenting at Seven on Seven (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw
Tajima and Green explored the toxicity of Twitter speech by developing a series of bots generated from the accounts of celebrities and bigots. They then visualized the toxicitiy of various genres of online speech speech through an analogue sculptural kaleidoscope.
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
The pair premiered "0xOmega," a new consensus-based crypto-religion that aims to foster collective consciousness on the blockchain. The religion will launch with the future release of Omega, a token which empowers their followers’ participation in the faith. The pair additionally premiered the religion’s white paper—described by the duo as a “flame paper”—and its first sacred object — the Dogewhal — in the form of a 3D-printed totem and video created by Singer.
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Rezaire and McDowell closed the event with a meditative session on the sonic origins of the universe, a means of communication, and a method of finding healing. McDowell performed musical compositions, while Rezaire narrated a guided meditation and philosophical reflection. Rezaire’s narration drew on vulnerable forms of knowledge held by cultures that are generally excluded from narratives of technological progress.
The event closed with the ringing of a gong, as participants slowly came back to themselves.
Seven on Seven Beijing
Rhizome's Executive Director Zachary Kaplan and, via video, Qiu Zhijie, Director of EAST (Education, Art, Science, and Technology) and Dean of the School of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, announced that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be held at the school in October as part of their 2018 EAST conference. This program is jointly organized by Rhizome's curatorial team and Baoyang Chen, organizer of the EAST conference. Details to be announced in the coming months!
We thank our 2018 Partners
Meriem Bennani grew up in Rabat, Morocco, and Paris and has lived in New York for the past decade. Her multimedia practice engages identity as related to femininity, feminism, and the intersection of religious and secular pop culture in her native Morocco, New York, and globally. Bennani’s practice encompasses video works that appear in expansive and immersive spaces, from a farcical advertisement for festive holiday hijabs that screened on the giant oculus screen of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (Your Year by Fardaous Funjab, 2017), to whimsical interactive viewing stations that presented playful portraits of Moroccan women at the Art Dubai fair in the United Arab Emirates (Ghariba/Stranger, 2017). She both celebrates and exposes the private lives of women—from her own family members, to those on the street, in popular media, and in her digitally tuned-in world. Straddling these oft-disparate cultural interstices, her clever, socially pertinent works resist simple categorization.
Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017)
Simone Krug: Your delightful video Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017) is a mock-reality show that follows the life of a fictional hijab designer who creates futuristic, campy, almost ludicrous designs using a tennis ball basket, a multi-tiered wedding cake, and so on. This piece troubles the way Muslim women are portrayed in the media, where the hijab becomes a fun, silly fashion accessory. Do you see works like this one as narratives? Of course, you apply the imaginative potential of the digital to animating and creating comical anecdotes. With this in mind, how do you engage with or consider the idea of storytelling?
Meriem Bennani: Most of my work is about stories and how to tell them best. I believe so much in the super stickiness of the emotional continuity that defines storytelling that I don’t ever treat it with care. I like to submerge it and hit kick lick it implode it in any way possible … in a very organized fashion, though!! I don’t care for a single way of telling the story throughout. I think that if each segment can be told in the language most adapted to it, why not?
So you know the love scene can be from a soap, the argument, reality t.v., and the party scene, wedding footage. The storyline pierces through, and it holds all the experiments together. It is like playing Jenga super dangerously, but really, you’re using superglue in between. At the end, the tower looks like never before. Hopefully in a good way ...
SK: Video pieces like Fardaous Funjab delve into the cultural import of the traditional Islamic women’s head covering and seem to both glorify and critique the image of the hijab in both Moroccan but also in global visual culture today. Could you expand on your interest in this subject and the themes it evokes for you?
MB: These works are mostly from 2015. You know, I age like a dog or a pop song, seven years at a time. I lost some interest in the subject in some ways. Although absurd and surreal, these works are descriptive. For a woman who wears the hijab every day, or in places where most women cover themselves, I don’t think that the veil is seen as a religious object every single time it is put on. On a daily basis, fashion also plays an important role. If you look at all the Modest Fashion bloggers, it’s very clear that the hijab has established on its own an existence in the fashion world. Fardaous Funjab can be about reality television, success, money, and fashion in general, not only in the Middle East. I want to depict and reimagine these ideas, without having to establish them in an occidental setting to reach universality.
Ghariba / Stranger (2017)
SK: More recent examples of your work think about womanhood differently and take on a more documentary style. You've exhibited the multichannel video and installation Sifam & Hafida (2017) at The Kitchen in New York City; in it, you explore a generational rivalry between two women who sing traditional Moroccan prose poetry known as aita. You’ve also presented the multichannel video and outdoor installation Ghariba/Stranger (2017) at Art Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a piece which depicts a personalized perspective into the lives of four Moroccan women as they go about their day. Considering these more recent pieces, could you speak more about how your work has changed?
MB: I guess from Fardaous Funjab to these pieces, the biggest shift happens in my process in choosing the starting point for the piece. Fardaous came after mostly making drawings and animations, which means constantly making work that is some sort of invention of a fictional setting, or through a heavy filtering of reality. Fardaous was almost fully scripted. When I shot it, though, I realized my favorite scenes were when my mother (in the role of Fardaous) would improvise and word things in ways I could never have written alone because I’m not a screenwriter. I don’t have that (very impressive) skill which makes writers come up with voices outside of their bodies! In Ghariba and Siham & Hafida, I adopted a more collaborative approach and tried to use the moment of shooting like an opportunity to bring these outside voices into my work, which is more collaborative and scary for me. I moved the invention part to post-production, in the edit, where I recreate an artificial and amplified version of the narrative and characters through editing and digital manipulation.
SK: Shifting gears a bit, I want to ask about your interest in digital culture. You've made pieces in which you comically elongate iPhones or animate the Apple logo such that it's a shimmying, jiggling icon, as in your work iButt (2015). These slight tweaks are comical in that we still recognize the commonly used objects and universal logos you're playing with. On your Instagram last year you posted a hilarious, if not disquieting, animated clip of Donald Trump staring up at the August 2017 solar eclipse, wearing sunglasses with lenses that both resemble and then transform into hooded KKK figures in the sky. Could you elaborate on what draws you to manipulation and distortion as an approach to making? Further, what's appealing about using these mainstream images, commodities, and brands?
MB: Those short clips and Instagram videos are disposable ideas more than full pieces, much like the products or events they are referencing. It’s funny to reference things that are very time sensitive and then watch them sink into obsolescence at a high speed. When I watch the video from my show FLY from 2016 and hear Rihanna’s Kiss It Better in the soundtrack which featured in this piece, I feel nostalgic for that summer. It feels dated. I remember choosing that song as a time experiment because it was a hit then, and it would act as a chronological marker. Using popular songs and mainstream or iconic references is just a tool, the fastest shortcut to some type of universal signifier that will land a joke or idea in a heartbeat. I only find it useful or interesting when it’s made for a specific format that needs to be efficient immediately, almost like a cartoon or a meme. I care less about this when it comes to other longer term projects.
SK: Pivoting from this discussion of the internet, I want to ask about the way you’ve discussed your work in terms of its “frantic internet pace” in the past. This jerky, speedy momentum is notably present throughout your immersive multimedia work FLY which you just mentioned; FLY showed at PS1 in 2016, featuring a buzzing animated fruit fly flitting around diaristic footage of a day in the life Rabat, from the open stalls of an outdoor marketplace to a wide boulevard where locals congregate around a tiled fountain. Presented on multiple, sculpturally stacked monitors, this colorful, mesmeric piece emanated a convulsive, fast-paced cadence. What’s appealing to you about this pace? Do you ever think about slowing down?
MB: My work would only slow down if I did, which seems difficult these days. I’ve been thinking more and more about how production schedules and budgets end up shaping art and its frequencies. This is not the sexiest idea and most of us don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. I sometimes think about that fruit fly, a digital character I created for FLY, and how she would probably collapse if she stopped moving, almost as if her robotic body was powered kinetically. This way of rushing through the world and ideas shapes the speed of my edits. A lot of the movements are most likely inspired by the experience of browsing, so in a way my fast pace mimics the pace of the first steps of online research, and at the end the research itself becomes the exposé: it compiles content from different sources, all served in their original containers.
Siham & Hafida (2017)
SK: Let’s move on to discuss the physical environments you create for your videos, which are often projected onto multidimensional screens, as in Siham & Hafida, 2017. How do you think about the idea of using surfaces as mediums for conveying larger concepts? Does that idea hold any significance for you as you create?
MB: The word surface makes me think of projectors. Something feels very old school about projecting, a two-part apparatus (the projector and the screen) circulating the moving image. I wish I could get an image on a full wall or sculpture without projection mapping, but from within. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to turn any three-dimensional object into an LCD screen? It reminds me of the use of gold in Russian miniatures as a divine light being produced by the object, rather than depicted as an idea of itself. When the light comes to the surface from within, the object feels like it has a mysterious origin. Not to get too spiritual! With projectors, you trace back the light source and it’s ... a projector! And that machine becomes part of the work. Many artists who work with video and installation are trying to stretch the poetics and aesthetics of projectors and their hanging, and expose the devices inside the installations, but their position outside of the screens is always a reminder of the surface.
SK: What is the significance of creating immersive spaces with whimsically shaped screens and seating for your video pieces (as with Siham and Hafida, and many other pieces)? Is there something about the act of viewing that necessitates this type of space? Do you see yourself as an artist who works in installation? How do you see the body interacting with your works in space
MB: I see my installations as experiments around new viewing solutions. The single channel option was inherited by cinema from art and photo history, and it feels like our relationship with screens today should help update the way moving image is presented. We got so good at navigating multiple devices, yet the single channel prevails as a default. Initially, the immersive space is not necessary to the viewing but as I work on the videos and the 3D drawings of the installation simultaneously, and inside the same laptop screen, they develop a relationship. They make the jump from my harddrive to the world together, are shown for the first time as a pair, and become necessary to each other through that process. It’s kind of emotional. I started making installations and sculptures to host moving image. In this way, caring so much about the viewing of the video tricked me into becoming someone who works in installation and sculpture. I never thought I would think in those terms.
SK: Do you consider the way that distraction and attention function today in creating spaces like this?
MB: I think about it a lot! I always think: how do I make people want to be in this space for the full time of the video loop? And this challenge is getting harder as I move towards longer video formats with a storyline that requires one to watch the video in a linear way. First, I always make sure it’s comfortable, kinda like the installation where you can take a nap and end up watching the whole thing. Here again, the storyline is great glue: for your body to stay, I mean! There is a constant push and pull between the story or characters allowing you to engage, and the sculptures or special effects pushing you out. But in this way, the distraction remains within the piece. You are in and out of the core of the story but still inside the space of the video and its installation. And even if you take a phone break, you are inside the video, another character negotiating your life on and offline, along with the ones on camera.
SK: Can you talk about new themes you're working on now?
MB: I am working on a science fiction project that has to do with immigration in a teleportation era, with a focus on the African diaspora.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? When I was a teenager. I used Photoshop and made music on the demo version of this software I got in a cereal box.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris for animation and then Cooper Union here in NYC.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I do a lot of animation and after effects for production companies.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
It’s very simple :
This article accompanies the inclusion of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 and b.a.n.g. labs' Transborder Immigrant Tool in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool, developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab at UC San Diego between 2007 and 2012, is a straightforward app: it’s simple, equal parts code and poetry integrated into cheap Motorola burner phones that are meant to provide border-crossers, at any given border but particularly the Sonora-Arizona desert, with direction and sustenance in the form of locations of nearby water caches, first aid kits or law enforcement. The water caches are placed there by various volunteer organizations, and anyone can adapt the open source code with coordinates applicable to their own hellscape border-localities, but the artists, theorist and poets behind the tool collaborated directly with Border Angels, a non-profit organization based in San Diego working for migrant rights and prevention of immigrant deaths at the border.
Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, Transborder Immigrant Tool (2007; photo courtesy 319 Scholes)
The Border Angels have a lot of work, and it seems like it increases daily. Deaths peaked in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration flooded the INS and the Border Patrol with cash to aggressively expand their Prevention Through Deterrence strategy, “boosting its effectiveness with state-of-the-art technologies, upgrading its fleet of vehicles and aircraft, and installing better fencing, lighting, and passive sensors.”1 The idea was to militarize the urban border areas with the highest traffic. For Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego they deployed 1,500 agents at a time; for Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, 750; and for Operation Safeguard an increased number of agents were assigned to the Tucson urban area, effectively siphoning immigration to isolated, extremely dangerous areas.
As archaeologist and author Jason De León puts it, the Prevention Through Deterrence policy meant funneling people trying to reach the United States into the Sonora desert of Arizona and the backwoods of Texas so that they’d get hurt or die. The hope was that if enough people died, perhaps that would deter and stop others from trying.2 A 1997 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited in De León’s book includes a graph that lists different metrics by which to measure the effectiveness of Prevention Through Deterrence, and one of them is the increase of migrant deaths: The numbers are apparently read as more deaths equal more deterrence.3 This policy is still in place; the U.S. Government knowingly corrals immigrants into harm’s way, deserts, rivers, steep mountains and canyons, in hopes that their very-possible death or injury will serve as deterrence to their fellow would-be border-crossers, and it has not worked.
De León and the Border Angels believe that the official number of deaths, 2,000, is vastly underestimated, and consider it to be closer to 10,000. The weaponization of wilderness turns the landscape into the “unsung hero of the border patrol”,4 a fixer that both kills and gets rid of the mess. As Amy Sara Carroll, a member of the EDT 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab and the author of the poems in the Transborder Immigrant Tool, writes: “Ecology holds trauma and promise simultaneously, [it] becomes part of a larger built environment that regulates the policing and disciplining of ungrammatical bodies.”5 The TBT directly addresses this, the poems are read out loud by the phone to the travelers and they provide survival guidance to overcome some of the harshest circumstances. The Tool is meant as a last-stretch resource for the user to turn on once they’re in desperate straits, likely because the GPS and audio features drain the battery in an hour.
image courtesy of Ricardo Dominguez
The poems want to be welcoming rather than distracting, “to enact a place of hospitality”.6 They try to alleviate some of the hostility surrounding the traveler by conveying information with a tone that is both encouraging and soothing: “The desert catches water in unlikely places that it resists divulging. Do not expend all your energies searching for its secret stashes, but likewise do not assume that its pockets of moisture are nonexistent.” The poems offer advice on water sources (“Walk in the footprints of coyote or fox to the freshest water available”), desert storms (“Sand becomes sandpaper against the skin. Turn your back to the wind.”), rattlesnakes (“Diamondbacks, too, are creatures of habit, returning to rest stops.”) and edible cacti (“Consume the fruit of prickly pear, saguaro, organ pipe, yucca, or cholla for their mosure alone.”)7; useful and possibly life-saving words sprinkled with lyrical and kind gestures. They exist mid-way between the aesthetics of instruction manuals and folk knowledge,8 the kind of tips that only long-time desert-commuters like the people indigenous to those areas would have. The Tool is meant to be both effective and affective, an aesthetic intervention into the political and material realities of the border.
As deadly as the journey they are willing to embark on is, the mostly Mexican and Central American would-be border-crossers have it worse at their places of origin. Mexico and many other localities in Central and South America are immersed in what Sayak Valencia has defined as Gore Capitalism, for a few decades now. Invoking “gore” as in graphic violence, the term refers to the “explicit and unjustified spilling of blood, the high percentages of entrails and dismemberings frequently mixed with economic precarity, organized crime, the binary construction of gender and the predatory uses of bodies, all through the most explicit violence as a tool of necro-empowering.”9 Valencia paints this picture of life in Mexico to make clear the consequences of a detonated nation-state that mutated into a narco-state, a description that can also apply to nearby countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Necro-empowering indicates “the processes that transform contexts or situations of vulnerability and subalternity into the possibility of action and self-power, reconfigured in dystopian practices and perverse self-affirmation achieved through a type of violence that is profitable within the logic of capitalism.”10
This results in entire countries that, under the grinding pressure of “global hyper-consumerism, colonial after-effects, binary constructions of gender and despotical exercises of power by corrupt and authoritarian governments,”11 are transformed into narco-states ruled by a necro-politics in which government and organized crime are significantly enmeshed. The role the United States’ interventionist and extractionist policies play in all this chaos is not minor. Its sponsoring of international state-inflicted violence, its preternatural thirst for illegal drugs and weapons, and the feudal-like economic conditions it demands from less powerful and less white populations within it and around it, have created a perfect storm of genocidal proportions.12
So, the United States protects its borders, and people continue to be undeterred from trying to cross them. And yet the Transborder Immigrant Tool was conceived from a place of hope and of “commitment to global citizenship.”13 Its makers describe a world where “GPS technology is ubiquitously available and every border crosser is equipped with not only GPS, but other technological enhancements: night vision, anti-infrared clothing, Bio-Nano HyperHydration fluids or high jumping prostheses.” As the dreams of global citizenship and the “obsolescence of physical borders”14 slip further and further out of the grasp of our reality, it takes a special kind of artivism to imagine a time in which those instruments are readily available to border-crossers and not to those hunting them. Ironically, the TBT itself was never in use by actual immigrants in the desert. Perhaps this was because of the intense backlash it received during its development from people like Glenn Beck,15 or maybe because of how hard it is to make things within an academic or art environment that can ultimately be functional and scalable to the real world, specially if they are not chasing a profit.
As the current president of the United States walks amongst prototypes of the ultimate border wall and coyotes rub their hands together in anticipation of the increased fees they’ll charge for digging under or climbing over it; and as the renegotiations of NAFTA point at even worse terms for Mexico’s workers; and as the U.S. Attorney General promises more punitive measures against migrants, they are still coming. And they will keep coming, until the necessary, radical change comes that gives them back their basic human rights.
1. Attorney General of the United States. “1995 ANNUAL REPORT OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES.” Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/annualreports/ar95/chapter3.htm.
2. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018.https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
3. Jason De León. The Land of Open Graves : Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015, 34.
4. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
5. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014, 2.Accessed May 7, 2018. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/bitstream/handle/1828/7136/ElectronicDisturbanceTheater_TransborderImmigrantTool_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
6. Micha Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Domínguez, and Brett Stalbaum. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool: Violence, Solidarity and Hope in Post-NAFTA Circuits of Bodies Electr(on)/Ic.” MobileHCI ’09 Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, 2009.Accessed May 7, 2018. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.561.1854&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
7. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014.
8. Marino, Mark C. “Code as Ritualized Poetry: The Tactics of the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 007, no. 1 (July 1, 2013). Accessed May 7, 2018. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000157/000157.html.
9. Triana, Sayak Valencia. “Capitalismo Gore y necropolítica en México contemporáneo.” Relaciones Internacionales, no. 19 (2012): 84. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://revistas.uam.es/index.php/relacionesinternacionales/article/viewFile/5115/5568
11. Ibid., 25
12. The number of deaths in Mexico that are a consequence of President Felipe Calderón starting a Guerra Contra el Narco (War on Narcos) in 2007, is around 250,000. The Mérida Initiative, discussed under George W. Bush’s presidency and signed into law under Obama, had allocated US$2.5 billion to Mexico’s politicians for this conflict by 2015. The initiative also funds similar measures in Central America, and has led to the militarization of entire countries, and the rampant abuse of power and unquestioned immunity for military and law-enforcement that it entails.
13. Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab. “Border Research and the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Media Fields Journal, no. 12 (2017), 4 http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/707453/27403322/1483769740987/Dominguez-Formatted+1.pdf?token=P5QUtZIB945fHA%2FWqqzZV0tWlXY%3D.
15. “Fox Beck Indoctrination.” Video, 2010.http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/markcmarino/clips/fox_beck_indoctrination_100902a.flv.
Rhizome is very excited to announce today’s release of an updated and expanded version of Webrecorder. As with earlier versions, users can capture web pages, including interactive features, and share their collections. Webrecorder now has gained a robust new set of tools for organizing and sharing pages in a web archive. We have also refreshed the platform’s look and feel. See our steadily growing user guide for instructions and educational resources.
List creation: Drag and drop pages to fill out your lists
Head to Webrecorder.io to try out these new tools and features!
Behind the scenes improvements in this release include the separation of Webrecorder’s user interface (front end, using React) and technical architecture (backend, relying on Python and Docker). This new API-based framework will improve performance, make more rapid development possible over time, and open up ways for other tools to interact with Webrecorder.
With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we look forward to further growing Webrecorder and its suite of services. In particular, keep an eye out for news about automation and professional tools.
Add annotations to items within your list
Led by Ilya Kreymer, our development and design team—Mark Beasley, Pat Shiu, and the newly joined backend developer John Berlin and summer developer fellow Aarati Akkapeddi—have done an incredible job bringing this new release into being. Dragan Espenschied and Anna Perricci have led product and partnership development as use of Webrecorder has steadily grown, particularly in libraries, archives, and museums, both in terms of number of users and levels of engagement.
If you have any questions or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a free, open-source platform offered by Rhizome, Webrecorder is advancing our mission to make web archiving available to all. The generosity and knowledge of our user community, including testers for this new release, contributed immeasurably to the improvements you will see in this new version of Webrecorder, so we would like to especially thank:
Hélène Brousseau (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
Sumitra Duncan (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Anisa Hawes (Victoria and Albert Museum/Posters Network)
Stefanie Hew (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Jasmine Mulliken (Stanford University Press)
Lelland Reed (NSCAD University Library)
Léa Trudel (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
The artist duo exonemo, formed by Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa in 1996, work with media in a humorous and experimental way to promote “explorations of the paradoxes of digital and analog computer networked and actual environments in our lives.” Their 2004 work, Natural Process, is an “installation hack,” consisting of a hand-painted recreation of Google’s homepage (at the time) displayed in a gallery and then livestreamed into an online exhibition. Today, the work is on loan and online for the first time since 2004 as part of “Open Space 2017: Re-Envisioning the Future” at ICC in Tokyo, and on view as part of Net Art Anthology.
To begin, how did the two of you begin collaborating as exonemo? What was the community of artists working with the internet and technologies in Japan like at the time?
Everything was chaotic, so what we were creating was not categorized as art at the very beginning. At that time in Japan, there was no artist mainly working with the internet, except us. In the late 1990s, some collaborative projects with artists, such as “Sensorium” or “Postpet” had come on the internet. And a big anonymous BBS “2ch” had a big influence on Japanese underground communities. In 1999, we met JODI at a restaurant in Tokyo. It was the first encounter with the internet artist in actual space.
How was Natural Process conceived? What was the reasoning for choosing Google’s homepage as the source material of the “landscape painting”?
The idea came up when we had an opportunity to participate in a“contemporary art” group exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Most of exhibits were painting, photograph, sculpture or installation which could be construed in the context of contemporary art. Therefore, as an alien from the internet, from outside of contemporary art world, we tried to install new reality of the internet era into the museum. Then we decided using a traditional analog media (painting) in combination with a symbolic image of the internet (Google's homepage). At that time in 2004, we had frequently accessed the “Google front page” when searching something. We thought it was a new landscape seen through our virtual “windows.”
In Natural Process, there’s a strong focus on transitions between the digital and analog presence of the landscape of the digital––an “installation hack,” in your words. For you, what occurred in the spaces between these different representations of the webpage?
In the process of continuous transition between digital and analog, we made a situation which would be able to slip some sort of noise or human error. (ex. a painting by painter who was unfamiliar with the Google’s homepage. visitors at the museum had been captured by a webcam set in front of the painting, and a visitor tried to hack it...)
This faulty (we dare say it “natural”) process had revealed gaps between nonphysical and physical media/space clearly.
What differences in reception occurred when the work was viewed online versus in the exhibition space (at the Mori Art Museum)?
People online accessed individually to the digital image from their personal space, but people at the museum met the painting in a public space with many other people.
A digital image had been copied and spreaded on the internet. It brought a personal experiences for people online. On the other hand at the museum, physical painting is one and only, hence people gathered and related to each other in the public space. That was one of big differences between two different spaces.
The artwork is now in Google’s collection–– how did this happen? Do you still see the work as being complete as only a physical object, not livestreamed?
We contacted with Google after opening the exhibition. Then we got a feedback that a founder of the Google saw the livestream and he liked it. Therefore we asked Google Japan if they would like to own the work. They wanted to have it but without a webcam. We wanted to installed the whole system including livestreaming, but it still seemed to have meanings to install even only the painting. In fact, meanings of the painting have been changing along with Google’s growth; thus, the process is still underway. We are glad to be able to present with original installation again after many years.
Since Natural Process was exhibited in 2004, Google’s place in the digital hierarchy has radically changed alongside general human interaction with the internet and its associated technologies. Have you noticed your practice adapting to these shifts?
No. But we chose Google's front page because we usually started "net surfing" from that page and it was necessary for us. In 2004, Google search was the simplest, fastest and had a potential to change the internet (actually not only the internet), and they still has been expanding their influence. However, their front page will not be chosen as a landscape of 2018, because today we all see different landscapes through individual social media windows.
This report about Ed Fornieles’ recent workshop What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? is published in partnership with DAOWO, a series that brings together artists, musicians, technologists, engineers, and theorists to consider how blockchains might be used to enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture. The series is organized by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others.
Imagine an island not far off the coast of French Polynesia, floating quietly while it absorbs hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in crypto capital. Idyllic animatronic palms made of stainless steel manufactured in Germany and coated in organic coconut husk waft gently in the breeze, while an underwater generator noiselessly converts salt water to a drinkable resource. A backdrop of impossibly green hills glimmer with solar panels coated in a thin layer of hyper-absorbent algae, courtesy of a Swedish start-up whose CEO lives in a villa nestled into the landscape. Welcome to the future of Seasteading.
A few years ago, when British artist Ed Fornieles began researching the social dynamics of the blockchain and cryptocurrency, this sort of scene was an ecstatic fantasy conjured up by what’s generally perceived as the delirious imagination of the rich and bored; of opportunistic Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and a pack of wily investors on the hunt for the next lucrative buzz. “Now it’s become our present reality, and it’s not so funny,” says Fornieles of the burgeoning crypto society. We’re gathered in the Goethe-Institut London on a drizzling afternoon in March, and Fornieles, embodying the role of a digital coach and dramaturge, is introducing the concept of live action role play, LARPing for short,to a motley group of around two dozen participants including students, artists, techies, architects, and–unbeknownst to all–IRL Seasteaders in disguise.
Convened in collaboration with Ruth Catlow, co-founder of online research platform and gallery Furtherfield and Ben Vickers, CTO of the Serpentine Galleries, the workshop, titled What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)?, is the fifth installment of DAOWO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization With Others): a series bringing together artists, writers, curators, technologists, and engineers to investigate the production of new blockchain technologies and their socio-political implications. It’s also an effort “explore the hazards of formalizing the idea of ‘doing good on the blockchain’,” according to Fornieles.
Participants are sorted into four groups, or islands, adopting the personas of crypto-millionaires and billionaires in order to configure a speculative society upon the Seasteading frontier. The LARP is organized into four sessions, including a period of self-actualization, where the committee members of each island settle upon an operating structure for their crypto-community; a four-year throwback, where the group reflects upon the success of their fledgling island’s socio-political structure and makes any necessary adjustments, and finally a fifty-year “truth and reconciliation” process followed immediately by a super convention, where each island proudly presents its success story – or laments its struggles – to the broader international Seasteading community.
In order to introduce different practical challenges and ethical quandaries, Fornieles throws two Seasteading communities on artificial islands and two pre-existent (and potentially already inhabited) islands into the mix. While Seasteading technically excludes such “organic” islands, the idea of “mining cryptocurrency in paradise” has mutated into colonizing real communities ravaged by natural disaster, as many critics including Naomi Klein and Nellie Bowles of the New York Times have noted about Puerto Rico. He’s also established a dozen roles for participants to assign themselves: from Ministers of Religion and Education, to Island Architect, Mayor, and Chief Technology Officers, in order to jump-start the camaraderie (or anarchy). “For first time role players, there’s a tendency to be the sociopath you always wanted to be,” cautions Vickers in the warm-up introduction. “Please try to suppress this desire.” Otherwise, it’s game on, and immediately after we separate into groups, all kinds of strategic and ideological questions emerge: Do we want a central government, or is it best to leave politics to algorithms? Should we convene a Church of Something, or are we all too woke for religion? Do we need a justice system, a formal corrective center, or a Sims-like human rating system to self-regulate behaviour? Maybe we can just vote people on and off the island?
I’m relieved to be sorted into an artificial island established by Paypal founder Peter Thiel, therefore bypassing what plenty of cultural theorists, including Klein,1 have pointed out as the immediate and unmistakable stench of neocolonialism. We’re given a name, “The Pilgrims,” and a socio-political disposition: as “Modern Libertarians,” we’re supposed to be a “free-thinking community that believes the only way to create an honest, new, distinct way of living is to set sail and create a new network.” Filled with neoliberal buzzwords like innovation, entrepreneurialism, and disruption, Pilgrim Island is the paragon of Seasteading ideology. Oh, and we’re really into wearing all-black hi-tech athleisure. Seriously–it’s the stuff of neoliberal dreams.
But without a pre-existing ethical quandary to mediate, the need to immediately establish an ideological commons stays airborne. The island’s socio-political landscape ricochets between one participant’s idealized utopia and another. Still, whether by defaulting to their actual areas of expertise or diving head-first into a full-fledged crytpo-billionaire alter persona (I suspect the former), the founding committee of my island quickly jumps on their self-assigned roles. I note with interest as the player to my right, a small, sassy woman sporting a bowler hat, a markedly “business casual” blazer, and big, blinged-out hoop earrings, promptly elects herself mayor without much resistance from the rest of the group. Almost as if by reflex, she launches into a compelling speech that touts the glory of the hands-off and unregulated economy of Seasteading; the imminent intellectual and financial capital to be gleaned from the “limitless potential of high-tech islands based on real life values.”
Things quickly slip off the deep end. Less than twenty minutes in, the island’s architect has gone on a minimalist-inspired rampage, apparently inspired by a very jovial spiritual pilgrimage with his “good friend” Elon Musk to Vegas. Conjuring a Panopticon2-like self-corrective facility-cum-worship center in the middle of the island known as the PayPal Meditation Center, the architect introduces an elaborate system of self-enacted punishment for residents involving a penny-by-penny payment for one’s sins fulfilled by the obsolete performance of extracting Real Money from an ATM (the horror!). Meanwhile, the Minister of Religion is busy ordaining a Thiel-inspired sect that ties spirituality to physical health, brandishing a harsh, zero-tolerance approach to dissenters.
She colludes with the Minister of Agriculture to debut an all-seeing pineapple that simultaneously provides sustenance to Pilgrim Island’s speculative inhabitants while also monitoring their spiritual commitment. The Minister of Education crafts a secret p2p anarchist boot camp on the Northwestern coast of the island, for the self-conscious younger generation eager to find deeper meaning in this brave new digital world. For a reason that still escapes me, Peter Thiel is then involved in a tragic water-taxi accident that ends in the ultimate demise of he and his partner. A referendum is held for a new leader amidst the for-profit utopian soul-searching…
As for myself? In order to preserve proper journalistic objectivity (obviously), I’ve self-identified as a ghost (more specifically, the ghost of reason). This works great at first, but when we hit the four-year benchmark, I learn the Minister of Religion has been voted off the island, a movement initiated by the Energy Manager and Local Representative. As the spiritual attachment, I also get the boot; we’re shipped off to a neighbouring island called Blue Frontiers that’s likewise self-fabricated, and also exhibits the same weakness of a spiritual void. With an algorithmic overlord, the (not-so) speculative island is situated after the unfortunate ravaging of French Polynesia by an unavoidable natural disaster: A narrative that oddly parallels that of Puerto Rico. Fast forward 50 years into the future, I am welcomed to join them in a painful process of reflection.
We quickly learn that an existential ennui due to lack of faith and purpose amongst the island’s population has led to a mass suicide. “There have been lots of residents killing themselves, but our technology is so good, can it really be that bad?” asks the island’s hands-off Mayor, who apparently doesn’t believe in building. Having fired the Architect early on (“We’ve all enjoyed the beach, why pollute it with architecture?”), whose algorithmic approval rating sits at a measly 32%, the Mayor proceeds to gloat over his 90% approval rating, while the Chief Technology Officer also curiously boasts a sky-high rating of 96%. Suddenly, Pioneer Island’s schizophrenic governance starts to look pretty good.
Minutes later I find myself at the mid-century International Seasteading Convention, where I am exposed to the triumphs and tribulations of our near-present Seasteading future. Alt-right acceleration gives way to a hyper-libertarian group named Sol declaring allegiance to a new religion steered by Crypto-Christ that touts a new hedonistic world order, completed by furnishing its children with sex robots. An Anarcho-communist community has catapulted its Mayor and Minister of Education to a new planet, and tout the great success of introducing an emotional currency to the island’s residents while skirting around the issue of a veganism-inspired massacre. “We’re leaving a very beautiful piece of archaeology for other nations to learn from,” the Mayor proudly asserts from her new life across the galaxy.
An animatronic tear rolls down my cheek as I hear the recent struggles of Pioneer Island. With their reputation system based on the blockchain overloaded by a sea of new residents, their dwindling natural resources (“We have plenty of crypto, but no food or water”) leads to an appeal from the rest of the bitcoin billionaires to lend a helping digital hand. Still, the Mayor remains unshaken, once again delivering a solid speech that praises the blockchain mantra of “pioneering small, self-organized projects that lead to independence,”; of “never aiming for total cohesion and never following democracy,” but instead “generating local, self-sufficient systems” in order to achieve success.
Curiosity takes over, and I approach the brilliant spokeswoman after the workshop winds up in order to uncover her background. Turns out she’s none other than Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, the self-termed “Seavangelesse” and research strong-arm of Blue Frontiers. Currently pursuing a PhD that investigates the politics and sociology of Seasteading at the University of Warwick, Mezza-Garcia was recruited by the Blue Frontiers team in 2017. Now, with the company just months from unveiling to the public its island off the coast of French Polynesia [after this report was filed, the island nation pulled out of the deal–Ed.], she’s keen to spread the message amongst the masses and change some minds. Naturally, we go for a drink.
“If someone like me who basically lives and breathes Seasteading 24/7 can get so much wrong, it’s no wonder the general conception of Seasteading is so far from the truth,” says Mezza-Garcia. “The biggest mistake people make is laminating the ‘evil billionaire’ narrative onto the whole enterprise.” Still in the midst of her research, Mezza-Garcia has nothing but admiration for the wealthy patrons of Seasteading. Rather than using the enterprise merely as a tool to acquire more capital, Seasteading companies like Blue Frontiers are more interested in the limitless social, political, and ideological benefits awaiting this post-human frontier, she argues. “It’s a step into a world where we all have more decisions.”
As for the regular members of society who can’t afford their own slice of animatronic paradise on the enlightened blockchain, hotel accommodation will soon be available on Blue Frontiers’ islands. For now, role-playing is a valuable exercise for warming up a heterogeneous batch of the general public to the idea, so they can form their own opinions. For Mezza-Garcia, What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? is the first time she’s seen artists – “instead of libertarians or blockchain people” – engage with the principle ideas of Seasteading in a direct, open, and low-stakes way; many attendants of the workshop voiced a similar sentiment (but thought another round or two of role-playing would help them with the trickier bits–like avoiding vegan anarchy, or summoning a Bitcoin Jesus).
As the once-distant dream of Seasteading is eclipsed by its imminent reality, the potential of role playing as an educational strategy emerges on both ends of the chain – but the takeaway is by no means consistent. Eager to make the operations of Blue Frontiers accessible to a broader audience, Mezza-Garcia celebrates activities like this as a potential source of new recruits. She even intends integrate LARPing into Blue Frontiers board meetings to encourage a top-down empathy with non-billionaires of the blockchain. Yet the results of the workshop–in which speculative future Seasteading communities are ravaged by a despairing lack of faith, suicides, and massacres–paints an entirely different story: One that becomes increasingly problematic when one considers the flawless criminal, mental, and physical health records Blue Frontiers’ selection process requires, alongside the obvious economic factors.
For a community keen to “enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity,” according to Blue Frontiers’ co-founder Joe Quirk, their operating logic seems to reinforce many of the social stigmas and power structures already responsible for much of the suffering and inequality within contemporary society. Rather than offering any single narrative or conclusion, LARPing underscores these divergent visions of Seasteading’s (failed) utopia just before the ship sets sail.
All illustrations by Maz Hemming.
 In a piece published on The Intercept on March 20, Klein blasted Bitcoin as “the most wasteful possible use of energy”, characterizing leading cryptocurrency figures as opportunistic “Puertotopians” keen to capitalize on the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico. Klein also equates the “wealthy libertarian manifesto” of Seasteading to the colonizing powers of the new world that seized once-free nations and converted their indigenous inhabitants into slaves.
 Though conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, the idea of the panopticon was popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Says Foucault of the Panopticon’s unlucky captive: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” Remote island or bustling city center, the Panopticon’s relevance has resurfaced in the realm of the digital; see Thomas McMullan’s 2016 piece in The Guardian about the relevance of Panopticonism amid the cross-fire of data capture and digital surveillance.
This interview is taken from What's to be Done?, a publication produced by Rhizome and Wieden + Kennedy New York for the 10th edition of Seven on Seven. The magazine was edited by Rhizome special projects editor Nora Khan, and designed by Richard Turley, global creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. With a donation of $30 or more to Rhizome, we'll send you a copy of the full publication, which features texts and interviews by Paul Chan, Fred Turner, Claire L Evans, and more.
We watched Tracy Chou's collaboration with Claire Evans with admiration: bots with randomized genders and voices played out a tense, tight drama about a plausible Silicon Valley office. Chou, a software engineer, entrepreneur, and tireless diversity advocate, has a clear and intuitive understanding of programming and systems, which she passionately applies to engineering of equitable frameworks to counterbalance gender discrimination and bias.
We thought Chou's focus on systemic institutional issues would intersect will with Kate Ray's interests. Ray, a programmer, engineer, and journalist, deploys her accessible, allow amateurs to replicate media giant website designs in an hour, and address gender violence and sexual harassment through both low-tech mediums and open-source design processes.
On a Saturday at NEW INC., the discussed their mutual interest in systems and representation, Silicon Valley's blind spots, neoliberalism, what an ethical design of systems might look like, and the present and future of women in tech.
Nora Khan, Rhizome: I’d like to start with both of your collaborations – Kate, yours with Holly Herndon and Tracy, yours with Claire Evans. What did you learn from the experience?
Kate Ray:I had a really good collaboration. I do most of my projects solo, aside from work, which has to be collaborative. I remember being really nervous ahead of time that I would have to work on something with somebody, especially in a high-pressure situation. I was really happy with how our conversations went, and that we were really building on each other. I don't know if I've worked so well with someone in that intense way. Maybe it just shows that you're really good at picking; I think you guys paired us really well.
The project was SPYKE, which was like an old chat app where you had to enable your video camera in order to start talking with somebody. But here, you wouldn't see a video anywhere. You would just see the chat box. You could take a picture of them at any point along the way, and they wouldn't know that it was happening. You'd sort of be spying on them even though you've authorized them to do it. I have been thinking about this a lot this week with all the Facebook revelations. I feel like we were sort of just exploring stuff, and it was really abstract. In the conversation we got into some of the ideas around surveillance; what if you give someone permission to watch, but it still doesn't feel like they're actually surveilling you? The project feels much more concrete when you think about what Facebook has been doing. It started out in this really abstract and emotional place, but certain aspects of it feel more relevant right now.
Tracy Chou:It was great, my project with Claire. So, Claire is a very multi-talented person. She is a singer and songwriter, and a writer. She recently released a book too [Broad Band: The Untold History of the Women of the Internet.] I had a little bit of anxiety because I just didn't know what we were supposed to do. I think in contrast with you, Kate, most of my projects are in collaboration. I've mostly worked on teams with other people. The collaboration part wasn't scary to me. In most cases, I have relatively well-defined output goals: I'm trying to build this project, or product. I'm the engineer on the project, and there is a product manager and designer, and it is very clear. In this case, the goal was just to produce something cool. We didn't know each other before, so there was a bit of mutual discovery around the different perspectives, skills, and experiences that we wanted to bring.
Pretty quickly, we found some common ground around gender issues relating to technology. I thought because she was a singer, she'd want to do some musical. She said, "No, I'm actually in a band with my partner, and I don't feel whole making music without him." That's interesting. I'm not artistic at all. I guess that was the point, pairing a technologist and an artist. She asked, "How about we do a play? And I will write the play." I don't know anybody's who's ever written a play. It's just so far out of my domain. Then she started a Google Doc, and just started writing. I was watching her type out the play in real time. It was kind of amazing. I had never seen that happen before. I had never really spent time with writers in real time.
NK:It seems like it had been labored over much longer. Watching that construction of artificial language was fascinating. Artificial languages demand care and creativity and thought, because the bot- writer thinks long and hard on how a person will respond, on what will make a person feel warm or responsive.
TC: Claire just kind of knocked it out. I was watching her compose it, and then I wrote the Python script to read it out loud in all different permutations. I was amazed by her writing process. Similarly, she watched me do the technical side and was like, "Wow, how did you make the computer read these things aloud in different voices?" She was writing a play script, and I was writing a Python script, and they came together so well. That was cool, to be able to jam together. I started playing with different things, like how long we should pause in between the different characters, how we should slow it down for the robotic voice. She got to test the voice out as well, adding different punctuation based on how the voice would read it differently.
NK: You both talk about or work on redesigning systems through your work, to either reveal or address the unseen. Kate, you have your map where people can mark places they have cried throughout New York and elsewhere. Spyke gives us intimate glimpses of people alone. Bots, maps, language trees. How do you imagine systems revealing the hidden, whether they're biases, microaggressions, or, say, emotional nuances flattened out by sterile, impersonal environments, like work?
TC: The first thing that comes to mind is a discussion I was having with one of my professors from school, who's leading in the AI field. We were talking about this issue of bias in models built from data that is biased. One very promising thing is once you've identified that bias, you can, in some cases, remove it. There was one study that's been floating around about gendered language. If you are training your models over a corpus of general human language data, they'll often pick up gender affiliations between male and doctor, female and nurse. You could say in that case, that the model's working really well. It picks up exactly what it was being fed, which is, unfortunately, biased data. But then we can actually choose to go zero out those biases if we think that there shouldn't be a male correlation to doctor and a female, to nurse.
What's promising there is once we've identified the bias, we can remove it, which is not the same with humans. If you talk to a human, and identify that they have some sort of bias, whether it's sexist or racist or some other form – it's very hard to behave in a way that's not biased. With the machine learning model – with the right types of models – you can just go and manually zero out those parameters. It's not the case for all models. There's a lot of work being done right now in the AI field, especially around deep learning, to make the models interpretable. So, there's been a little bit of a trade-off, where the models that are easiest to interpret are often not the most performant ones. You could imagine, pretty easily, a decision tree. What it is doing is it is walking down a tree of yes, no. Does it cross a threshold or not? You just go down the tree. It is pretty easy to understand how the model made a decision.
But those models don't perform as well as the black box neural networks. There are a bunch of researchers working now on how to understand what those black boxes are doing inside. So, if a decision is made that is not ideal, we can go in and examine why it happened. A lot of times these systems are just training on things you don't understand. When you look at the data, you have some intuition for the domain. You can figure out what it is. In other cases, it's about finding some smart thing in the data. We can't figure out what it is when we're just presented with all of the numbers that are the parameters.
NK: Playing devil's advocate, one might say that this is a road to creating politically correct AI and “politically correct systems.” Meaning, we’re creating data that is equitable when people themselves are not. The flip side of that is, what would a trans-feminist data set look like? An anti-capitalist dataset?
TC: I think it's hard to say what something should be. You can say, let's devise the system, but what does a non-biased system look like, and what does it mean to create an optimal system? There's still a lot of human editorialization, and as you pointed out, what we accept to be good also changes very quickly. Our norms change very quickly. Do we also update all of the models that we're building to map to the new versions of what is correct?
NK:And our positions change based on emotional context, too. Kate, what I really appreciate about SPYKE, is the unearned intimacy with these people front of their computer scrolling through their feeds. It is voyeuristic, seeing these private moments, faces morphing from happy to glum within minutes. Could you talk about your projects as they frame our relationships with technology as extremely human and emotional?
KR: I would say my projects are all very intentionally anti-technology. In general, they have required humans to do human work to make them even a little bit interesting. The only time I have thought of using machine learning was if I could use it in an artistic way, as opposed to creating utility out of it.
A project that I made last year, for Ingrid [Burrington]’s conference about science and speculative fiction, was a really simple bookshelf app. You could use it to make a set of book mixtapes that you could like. You could just name a bunch of books and put them together into a list, and give the list a weird name. Being the opposite of Goodreads is what I was going for. There's no action that you're doing that is creating data. The app is just you, the person deciding what data you want it to make, and then creating it. The same goes for the Cry in Public app. There is nothing interesting there, except for the human's personality being funneled in a very particular way.
I would rather work on projects that use technology but are kind of anti-technology in ethic. I want to investigate the limits around what technology is doing to your data, and find some interesting things going on there. I'm not even using it to make something happen.
NK:It’s a mode of turning people's attention to alternative possibility. This is why your Scroll Kit was used so heavily. There’s a nice divergence here between creating shifts in perception through software experiments, and creating shifts in perception by revealing institutional inadequacy. Do you both think about the tension between experimentation and professionalization within tech, especially as you work with activists now, some of whom worked in Silicon Valley and decide to leave? What types of communities are you able to build within institutions versus outside?
KR:I've struggled a lot with this in the last year, because I used to be immersed in tech. I see a lot of solutions there. But in the last year, I've not wanted to work in it at all. I ask myself, okay, what do I do? Work-wise, I've found a job that honestly isn't a tech company; I work at Pilot Works, which helps people start food businesses. We are renting kitchen spaces and getting people to cook, enabling that communing with a bunch of technology. I do all of my side projects just for myself, with no money coming from anyone. That way I can keep it the way that I want it to be.
NK: Is there value in creating your own communities versus working alone? How has that changed for the both of you throughout your careers?
KR:Well, I've been thinking a lot about gender stuff with the #MeToo movement. Once that came through, I started trying to work on something to address it. Even there, I got in over my head. I said, I don't think I should be making anything. So I started volunteering for an assault hotline. That is the lowest tech. It's an ASP app that breaks all the time when you're trying to train. It's actually interesting, because it's like a really pure form of humanness coming through this not-great chat app; sometimes you feel like you're behaving like a robot, because you have all these scripts to say. But the only thing that you are providing is your human empathy and human presence, your being there. I like how this is the lowest tech, that is enabling some humanness to come through.
I don't know if this will be my solution forever, but I feel like I am backed away from a lot of problems that I don't know what to do about anymore.
TC: Yeah. The tension between working with or within problematic institutions, versus outside of them for a change, is one I see all the time. I personally felt to be more effective to be within institutions or on the inside, because then you understand how those systems work. You know what the leverage points are, and who the right people are to go to. In the end, these are all the people, so you just need to have that human map. From the outside, it's hard to know what drives people to do things or not do them. Obviously, working from within the system has its challenges because then you feel like you are complicit with the bad system, and potentially compromising your values. There is something nice about tracking the totally ideologically pure route, but often, it's not very practical. When you're not following what you believe to be ideologically pure, it can be hard to defend the line in the sand that you've drawn, whatever it is.
I've seen both sides of it. Not intentionally, because I wanted to step out of a major institution, but because I've worked in Pinterest for a number of years and wanted to go on to do other things. I'm no longer at a big-ish tech company, but I've still been operating within the system. I've been working on a few different startup projects. I'm on my third startup idea project since I left Pinterest.
Startups will often participate in incubators as they grow. We had a lot of heated discussions about which programs it was okay for me to participate in, because many have not always had the best record on diversity and inclusion. I still thought it was valuable to go and see these programs from the inside. I have many friends who have gone through these programs and work for them. However being in a cohort was very eye opening. It enabled me to give a lot of concrete feedback. I have no idea if they're going to take my feedback, but there's a lot of daily reminder elements that would only be caught by somebody going through the system.
Take one minor example. When you submit an application, you usually have to indicate your areas of expertise. You check off areas like artificial intelligence, backend engineering, marketing, sales, all these different things. Diversity and inclusion is never one of those things. It's like, wow, no one has thought this would be an important area of expertise. And I don’t think this issue is critical, but it's just one symptom of a greater problem.
Another time in a similar context, a presenter spoke about how people view the valuations of their companies like they do the size of their manhood. I was looking around the room, thinking, did nobody else hear that? Why is nobody else upset? There's like hundreds of people, but no one else seems to be upset. There are always a lot of little things. Accumulated, these instances are not intentionally trying to push someone like me out or anything.
One of the other takeaways for me was that, when you’re a startup, most of everything is about growing your company, so even the female founders or under-represented minority founders for the most part are not thinking about the microaggressions they experience, or how to make spaces and places more equitable. They are just trying to focus on growing their companies. I pay a little bit more attention to these things, because I worked so much in diversity and inclusion. I am naturally primed to pick up these little cues. But I acknowledge that the bulk of people's attention is not going towards these issues.
NK:You have spoken about the idea of diversity as a kind of “lowering of the bar,” which is of course a really insidious kind of racist thinking. When you logically deconstruct this language and thinking, there’s a kind of beauty to that. So when person A says, person B was just brought in because of inclusion, you can eye their assumptions. They assumed the working plane was flat to begin with. And what person A is really saying is that, person B, in their mind, doesn’t really have the capacity to do the job. Where does that come from? It comes from centuries of racialized hierarchies in which one group assumes what is in another’s mind. It’s like moving backwards up a messed-up decision tree.
And first-generation immigrants learn the myth of meritocracy the hard way: If I just do my best, then that shields me from being harmed. I wonder about this idea of “just working hard” and “sheer talent alone,” and a pure system. But there’s no pure space without politics. We are all embedded in social reality and history. So when we claim an objective purity, purity for what, and to what end?
KR: It makes me think about a lot of stuff going on in the science fiction and speculative fiction communities. Recently, the prominent award-winning books have been suddenly from women of color writing science fiction. The backlash to those awardees is saying, “Everything is just political now. All the science fiction is all about politics.”
NK: There were the protests around the Hugo and Nebula award nominees.
KR:As if it weren't political, as if you were just writing about the future, and that had nothing at all to do with how the world that you were coming from functioned, or how what you wanted to live in the future wouldn’t relate to politics. That's the most stark, funny example of this purity to me lately.
TC:Also some of the responses are very emotional, and they usually come from people who feel like something is being taken away from them. They don't want to give up their positions of power and their representations as good or superior. It's fundamentally an emotional response, but then couched in rational language. It's like, let's just walk it through. Let's look at the numbers. The graduation rates. But people will find ways to justify their point, and they don’t always make sense. That wasn't really the point. The point was that they felt defensive and didn't want something taken away from them.
KR:Yeah. The friends who have come out strongly on this side have so much more to say to me, than I have to them. I remember after the Google Memo incident, I had older friends from college asking me, "So, what do you think about this?" I would say, well, it's stupid. Then they would just want to talk for 45 minutes about why they thought the Google employee was right, and about the memo and why it was important and why it was good. I had so much less to say, but they had been doing all this reading. Sometimes it felt like the reading and researching was primarily to not face their much more emotional, personal reaction. By reading and listening to podcasts and stuff, they would have an argument that they could present.
One of the more negative projects I planned, that I haven't done, was to take some of these emails that I was getting from friends and just make a bot to generate sentences to mimic them. They would all use the same language. It started to get to the point where if I just saw someone arguing about free speech, well, that plus certain other words, you just knew what someone would argue.
TC:I've actually been happy in some cases when people were not so sophisticated around the packaging of their ideas and straight up said what they were thinking. It gave me insight into what was really going through their minds before they may have found better language. I've talked to people, like Asian male engineers, for instance, who say, this is all we have, this is the only thing we're good at – why take that away from us? I'm like, oh. Our society is really deeply problematic. [laughs]
NK:And that is the precarity of a system that wants us to fight over little parcels of land. I think of the protest against tent cities in California, the growing conservatism of immigrants, and the violence engendered by the model minority myth.
What changes have you seen since 2013, when you started to gather data on women engineer hires in Silicon Valley and place them online?
TC: I think there's been some shifts in the conversation to be less about women and slightly more intersectional, which is positive. It’s less about let's get some data, map out the problem, and more, now we have data, what do we do to fix the problem? There have been some exploratory attempts at solutions, most of which have not been very successful, but you have to start somewhere. We've found some programs that work to mitigate bias. Other programs require a lot of effort. You see a bit of gains from them, but they can't be widely scaled; we haven't found very many successful scalable solutions.
So for example, some companies are doing apprenticeship programs, which are much more intensive on mentoring and onboarding people. It is great to be able to provide those on-ramps for people who aren't coming from the same, traditional feeder backgrounds. But it doesn't work to do that for most of your new employees. You don't have enough bandwidth, practically speaking, to continuing building the business and also onboard new people.
So, there has been some slow progress. One big change is that diversity is now a trendy PR thing for a lot of companies and firms. That can potentially be more damaging, because there are a lot of people who are raising this flag of diversity and inclusion and really aren't doing anything. They are actually counterproductive to the movement. This talking too much – without actually achieving – is also inciting some backlash, like some of the men who think it's all “gone too far.”
I think progress is going to be uneven. We'll make some forward strides, and then some will try to pull back. On the whole, at least the party line is that diversity is important. If that's what people are saying, eventually we'll start pulling in that direction, even if not everyone feels it yet. I think it's better that people say diversity is important than they say it's not important, even if they're not quite yet there with their actions.
NK:The alt- right challenge a shallow form of what identity politics really is, a neoliberal conception of diversity, a flatly marketed idea used as protection by many companies. Ignore our drones; look at our staff. Diversity is not just one different person in a room; it's also diversity of thought, engaging in other’s difference.
TC:What that's demonstrating right now though is, that that same group of people co-opting a lot of this language, even “diversity of thought,” they will also say, well, you're also saying you want biases, but not our biases. I think it falls into the paradox of intolerance. I forget the exact wording. Something like, “we cannot be tolerant of intolerance.”
KR:That's good. I'm going to write that down.
NK:So you create different paths of access, like creating an onboarding process when the resources aren't there. Kate, you put up simple, beautiful, and accessible tutorials for coding. You tell people that coding is difficult, acknowledge what that they might be afraid to ask in a classroom. Early programmers championed being an autodidact. When you didn't have access to a great education, you could teach yourself, tinkering in your room.
KR:That idea of the genius tinkering in his room – that is what the programming community is still attached to. It is the ideal. I got into a good Twitter with some statistician lady who was tweeting a seventh grader's homework assignment. It was a puzzle, about laying out five coins, more than a math problem. I said, oh, here is why I didn't get into advanced math. Then I never got to take calculus. I studied journalism, and then only later did I find myself programming.
When I tell people that learning to code is hard – my idea is that code is not just for people who have math brains, who are able to see the five coins and make a leap of intuition about how they should be arranged. For most of programming there are still certain areas that are highly mathematical, and machine learning is one of them. But most of programming is about being careful and thoughtful, and actually working well with people. Most time gets lost when someone's not paying attention to what someone else thought was happening.
I'm excited for when programming splits into something that's more like the work of biologists and doctors, rather than just being one field. Working at it and just being good at your job are really different from being the math genius sitting in a room who can suddenly make Google.
TC: That there are alternate ways to think of systems and alternate communities. The more diverse perspectives you have, you have more different ideas of what tech can do.
KR:Right. There's alternate ways to judge value in work too. Programming can be something that you can do, if you work hard and gets good grades. This tends to be what a lot more women are doing these days. They are going into higher education. This is better than romanticizing a 16-year-old math genius. The field then opens it up for a lot of people who didn't think that they could do that kind of work.
NK:Which kind of futures do you envision? Are there small moments from the last year or recently even that have made you feel that things are improving?
KR:When things start to go wrong, like with Facebook, we are blaming tech culture and the technology itself. As tech moves into every domain, we'll be able to start looking at the people in power who are making decisions, and how those are having effect on people. This is not a state of affairs specific to tech, even if the decisions are being filtered down through to technology. We will see the effects of their values on things.
“Values” is the kind of word that I use most now. I'm not just looking at a tech company, because that doesn't really describe anything anymore; I'm trying to find out what's shaping the way that they're making. We’ll become more and more able to separate out values, the human role in the making of the tools.
NK:So technical brilliance or ideological purity: these are not enough. You need moral intelligence, you need emotional intelligence.
TC:Yes. I think in the last year or two, we've seen a lot of wake up calls around technology, when it's not designed or implemented well, and those are bad things that have happened to cause us to wake up. I do like that people are starting to have these conversations. There's this one ex-Googler who's written really well how chemists and physicists began to see how their work could be weaponized, made into chemical weapons or nuclear bombs. They had to grapple with ethics. Those practitioners and researchers started thinking about not just what is possible, but whether it should be possible.
Software and tech so far has not really had that same kind of ethical thinking embedded within it. That will become more of a trend in the future. Hopefully more quickly rather than less. On the diversity front, more people are brainstorming and experimenting and committing effort towards increasing inclusion. We still have a long way to go, but there's some positive change.
Above: detail from the cover of Allison Parrish, Articulations (Counterpath Press, 2018).
Like any other no-longer-nascent form hardening under academic and critical gazes, the exact inception point of digital poetry is contested. Florian Cramer postulates that the “oldest permutational text” is “Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.” R.M. Worth’s “Auto-Beatnik” in 1962 is also another oft-mentioned touchstone, as is Max Bense and Theo Lutz’s 1959 remix of bits of Kafka’s The Castle. (The term “digital poetry” is itself a contested term. In his 2007 survey Prehistoric Digital Poetry, C.T. Funkhouser cites 29 potential terms collated by Jorge Luiz Antonio.) Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s 1967 “A House of Dust” has proven, however, to be most integral to cultural memory.
“A House of Dust,” written on Fortran, is an early example of a “slotted work,” one which keeps the grammar of the stanzas intact. This form allowed the titular opening line to repeat occasionally (although not always: early iterations were published under different “A House of --” titles.)
A HOUSE OF WEEDS
AMONG SMALL HILLS
INHABITED BY VERY TALL PEOPLE
An “original” print-out of “A House of Dust” was on display at MoMA’s recent “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age 1959-1989,” and it was the focal point of a 2016 exhibition at The Center for the Humanities’ James Gallery. The various permutations of “A House of Dust” continue to be available on Twitter until such a time as the platform is banned for acceleration of memetic warfare.
So vital is Knowles and Tenney’s contribution that the phrase “Using Electricity” has become the title of a series of computer-generated books published by Counterpath Press. The third entry in “Using Electricity” is, somewhat surprisingly, Allison Parrish’s most recent poetry-programming project, Articulations (January 2018). Parrish’s previous output tended to be screen-only, with the notable exception of a dead-tree copy of her early, extremely successful Twitter bot @everyword (2007). Any potential audience alienation created by her presentation, or the very nature of procedurally-generated text, was typically addressed via user interface, as in 2014’s “A Travel Guide,” and/or by Parrish’s emphasis on reading her poems out loud. Parrish is an excellent public speaker, and reader, and the various processes she uses to create her texts, especially the poems, create highly rhythmic repetition which break down language to great, often comic, effect. For instance, about 31 minutes into this video, she reads Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” rewritten in the framework of synthesia-theory terms “kiki” and “bouba,” sound-shape connections which exist across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Despite or possibly because of its situation within a long history of experimental and generative poetry, Articulations throws the reader, again and again, onto the essential dilemma of the nature of authorship. The most immediate precursor of Parrish’s method is the minimalism of the mid-twentieth century. Knowles was both a student of John Cage, who created “indeterminate music” which could be “performed in substantially different ways,” and an early member of the “Neo-Dada” Fluxus movement. While Fluxus “events” appeared anarchic, they were, especially compared to contemporaneous “happenings,” deeply ordered, with “scores” and strict direction by the movement’s self-appointed founder George Maciunas. George Brecht’s early Fluxus piece “Three Lamp Events” (1961) bears a similarity to the minimalist poetry of Aram Saroyan:
Parrish’s work is deeply inflected by some of the concrete and minimalist poets of the ’60s and ’70s, including Saroyan and Ted Berrigan (whose Sonnets she mentions in the syllabus for her “Reading and Writing Electronic Text” class at NYU’S Interactive Telecommunications Program.)
Jeffrey Perkins’ 2017 documentary George contains footage of several Fluxus events from the early ’60s. Knowles, alongside video-art pioneer Nam June Paik and others, performs similarly simple instructions before the repulsed fascination of onlookers. This is the human body as an input-output device, a flesh module waiting for its punch card. The glee that shines from the Fluxus actors’ faces as they perform the show belie the cheap Skynet-predicting doomsaying which could potentially haunt this realization, that we are so easily rendered mediums for computational-style expression. “We are the tools” can be liberatory, as easily as enforced humanist-art can be cloistering.
Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, George Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti, 1962. Via MoMA.
Following the Dada spirit, Fluxus sought to divorce human communication and action from sense and intention, a tradition that Parrish’s work moves one step further. In this, Parrish has a new kind of edge: the intelligences she deploys are even more unconcerned with “saying something” than any human agent could be. In the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson writes, “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” Parrish’s work interrupts this formulation. The masks are still there, but they speak, if not of their own accord, then at least not with our lips pressed against their fabric.
The poems which comprise Articulations were composed via “random walks” through, as Parrish writes in her Introduction, “over two million lines of poetry from Project Gutenberg.” Part 1, “Tongues,” is comprised of a single 72-page prose poem whose line vectors were determined by pronunciation, leading to such sections as:
Clatter, spatter, dash and patter, in tattered cloak of army pat-
tern, pit, pat, patter, clatter, in flat patterns scattered in flight.
Together with the archaic source-poems’ vocabulary, this crashing onward rhythm helps “Tongues” feel like an epic poem. Also aiding is the fact that “Tongues” is the result of a single walk through a vector space. The mostly-vanished oral-poet tradition, the kind TheIliad descended from, involved composing, live, a new iteration of the same tale each time. As Albert B. Lord puts it in The Singer of Tales (1960), “every performance is a separate song.” The iteration of “Tongues” into a static form mirrors the historical transcription of epic poems into print.
Unsurprisingly, given the means of its production, “Tongues” does not hold together as a single narrative. Occasional lines tell condensed, if obscure, stories:
In any name, n,n. ni/nu Then an end. N man, n tent, and many slain.
More rare are sections that hold together for more than just a few stanzas. The following is a selection from about an entire page of unbroken semi-sense:
...Behind the hill, behind the sky, behind
the hill, the house behind, -- behind the house the house behind
the tall hill; for all behind the houses lay by my house and thy
house hangs all the world’s fate, on thy house and my house lies
half the world’s hate.
In thy house or my house is half the world’s hoard; drive the
herd towards the household, homeward drive the household
cattle, catch the child up to her heart. His eldest brother, who had
heard he heard her breath, he saw her hand, seize her hat, and
snarl her glossy hair. He sang: As once her hand I had, as once
her hand held mine; in the world His hands had made and his
harvest in her hands.
This certainly doesn’t disqualify “Tongues” for inclusion in any kind of pantheon of narrative or epic poetry. The three-act structure has little to do with traditional epics, which were cobbled together from a plethora of sources generated by semi- or anonymous authors. The Iliad begins in media res and covers only a fairly short section of the Trojan War. Non-scholars encountering The Poetic Edda will be hard pressed to find anything resembling internal cohesion without footnotes and copious additional reading and referential texts.
The “vector representation” of Articulations’ second part, “Trees,” was built around “the structure of the line and its component parts of speech,” and the results bear a close resemblance to cut-up, though Parrish’s lines are not yanked intact from disparate sources. Take the second half of “9.”:
That wrapped her breathless clay.
All give him joyous greeting.
Sure these denote one universal joy!
Wring one repentant moan.
Thinking one serious thought.
Put up superior evidence.
Give up dead beat.”
As Alice Notley explains in her introduction to Berrigan’s Sonnets, in the early ’60s Berrigan began to use “Dadaist cut-up and Cageian chance methods, transforming not-so-good poems into an astonishing and original structure.” Necessarily, incomplete lines were (re)arranged to create new associations and rhythms. See Sonnet “XXX”:
Into the closed air of the slow
Now she guards her chalice in a temple of fear
Each tree stands alone in stillness
to gentle, pleasant strains
Dear Marge, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
Andy Butt was drunk in the Parthenon
There is, obviously, a significant difference in Berrigan and Parrish’s processes, but, in both cases, juxtaposition is all. Beyond technology used, the central difference seem to be that in the cut-up method, the poet remains composer and often partial-author. Even if the text is found or overheard material, the poet is still transcribing. In Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (1996), Charles Hartman defines composing as placing “together in a meaningful arrangement a number of independent elements.” In Parrish’s process, the poet is neither author nor composer: the poet is the author of the program which composes as well as the selector of the authorial corpus it scrapes for material.
Parrish would disagree with this authorial division of labor. In an interview with Motherboard, she stated, “It’s just my poetry that I wrote in the same way that Jackson Pollock doesn’t attribute his work to Jackson Pollock and Paintbrush.” This reframes our conception of the author based on functionality, and begs the question: when does an algorithm get co-author credit? When it generates the process, or amends it significantly? When it is used by the author but not written by her? When it has self-spawned out of a neural network bath?
There is an inherent humanist pushback to computer-generated work presented as Serious Literature (as opposed to the experimentation with algorithmic limitations), since, despite the Death of the Author, the End of the Novel, the Barbarity of the Continuation of Poetry, and so on, the artist is still seen as one of the few roles which remains immune to automation. “The human” and its various subcategories (artisanal! hygge!) are primarily subsets of a marketing campaign designed to distract from the ongoing computational reorganization of society along the lines of logistics. Does the inhuman feel inhumane, or have we reworked our concept of the latter to reflect the context of the former?
Dehumanization has its place within various algorithmically-generated micro-genres, though it currently reigns supreme in Unconditional Accelerationist circles, which restarts where neo-reactionary thought stalled out in the wake of the 2016 election not ushering in Immediate Genocide and. or, Nuclear Self-Deletion. (Unsurprisingly, u/acc takes aesthetic cues from the Decadents, Modernists, and, um, Cyberpunks.) As the varied horrors of Nick Land’s career have shown, we don’t need algorithms to create the inhuman.
Compared to the usual precooked media diet of the Overdeveloped World, many computationally produced texts do read as inhuman. “Tongues,” after all, has a rigorous internal cohesion, but one so obscure as to be alienating. The reader knows, due to Parrish’s introduction and reputation, that the poem’s source code exists, but outside of repetition and alphabetization, the true order of the text is even more hidden from the reader than in the Great Modernist Metanarrative Texts.
Modernism is another influence on, and prefigurement of, computationally-generated text. Parrish prefaces her Introduction with a Gertrude Stein quote, and Funkhouser observes that modernists and digital poets alike use “the atomization and hybridization of texts to both subvert and reflect” their contemporary “social and artistic fragmentation.” (Or, as Virginia Woolf put it, “all human relations have shifted.") Comparisons between Parrish’s work and modernism will be as a fruitful, or as frustrating, as the narrowness of your definition of modernism. The non-movement was catholic enough to include Ezra Pound’s diktat that poetry be the undogmatic “result of long contemplation,” as well as Stein’s conception of “an excess of consciousness.” It contains both the proto-minimalism of Imagism and the Total Vision of Joyce.
Articulations depends on by the “textual pilfering” which Raphael Rubinstein declares is integral to any definition of modernism. Pound creatively mistranslated huge swaths of Chinese poetry. James Joyce’s nonsense-pinnacle Finnegan’s Wake sucked in a wide variety of cultural detritus, including newspaper headlines, the then-canon, and toilet gags, then spat out Serious Literature, though it was not widely regarded as such at the time. Articulations switches out Joyce’s input, harvesting Gutenberg’s poetic corpus. Some of the better lines of “Tongues” feel extremely Joycean: “A nightingale for its delight while in age sedate I clear sib, related.” “In rank licentious idleness beleaguer yet sadness rise in me like the flood, of course, I just fell asleep where I sat, such eyes.” Thomas Jackson Rice argues that when Ulysses is read, “the individual reader’s response alters the behavior of the ‘system,’ the book, with each ‘iteration.’” Such a feedback-loop seems to prefigure a potential next phase for Parrish, a combination of her longer texts and her textual interfaces (such as “Gutenberg Poetry Autocomplete”).
Arguing about exactly when textual pilfering has gone too far remains a Very Serious Side Project of the contemporary art world. “Postmodernism” is, if anything, an even more nebulous and contentious term than its predecessor, but suffice to say that contemporary poetry’s most virulent strains remain highly conceptual (please see: Flarf).
It is an obnoxiously obvious nostrum that the avant-garde’s name prefigures its eventual recuperation, but it is easier to see this in its history than its future. In a generation or two, if we all manage to survive the ongoing heat death of the political, Parrish’s works will most likely be recorded in the post-canon canon as formal experimentation, rather than acknowledged for the at-times-hilarious, often deeply strange reading experience they offer: one is constantly worrying at her word orderings, wondering from which processing system them came. An annotated edition would, by isolating Articulations’ various inputs, reconstrain them back into their original contexts and, by defeating their new purposes, defeat Parrish’s purpose, just as surely as any scholarly explication of Finnegan’s Wake does Joyce’s.
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 email@example.com 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.”