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Articles on this Page
- 12/20/17--21:51: _Christmas as a Service
- 12/22/17--06:12: _Watch: Jordan Wolfs...
- 12/28/17--07:09: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/29/17--07:00: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/29/17--14:29: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/30/17--00:00: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/31/17--08:50: _The Year in the Int...
- 01/02/18--09:12: _Left.gallery: Downl...
- 01/03/18--07:43: _Reinventing the Art...
- 01/04/18--10:00: _Towards a Postinter...
- 01/08/18--11:03: _Against the Suprema...
- 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...
- 12/31/17--21:00: _2018: 10th Edition
- 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
- 12/20/17--21:51: Christmas as a Service
- 12/22/17--06:12: Watch: Jordan Wolfson in Conversation
- 12/28/17--07:09: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 1
- 12/29/17--07:00: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 2
- 12/29/17--14:29: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 3
- 12/30/17--00:00: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 4
- 12/31/17--08:50: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 5
- 01/02/18--09:12: Left.gallery: Downloadable Objects, Blockchain, Bitcoin
- 01/03/18--07:43: Reinventing the Art Lab on the Blockchain
- 01/04/18--10:00: Towards a Postinternet Sublime
- 01/08/18--11:03: Against the Supremacy of Thought
- REANALYZING THE THOUGHT FETISH
- THE CONTEMPORARY
- THE END OF ART
- THE CONCEPTUALIST GAMBIT
- AN OAK TREE (1973)
- CARTESIAN DUALISM AND ANTIBLACK ANIMALIZATION
- THE VIOLENCE OF MODERNISM
- LAROCHE’S POST-ART
- BLACK RECLAMATION OF CRITICALITY
- 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
- 12/31/17--21:00: 2018: 10th Edition
- 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
The modern browser has, for the most part, dispensed with UI ornament. There is a URL bar, a handful of icons for extensions, and maybe a bookmarks bar: that’s it. Even Internet Explorer’s spinning globe has been deprecated in favor of Microsoft Edge’s flat-color toolbar.
Firefox and Chrome still allow the user to customize the look of their browsers through installable “themes,” and these might be the last few relics of a time when browser interfaces could be as loud, colorful, or bizarre as the user desired.
Christmas browsers, a phenomenon of the late 90s, are examples of these custom interfaces, full of colorful excess and holiday cheer.
In the mid-90s, users could choose from a variety of specialized standalone browsers, including browsers featuring tools for maintaining e-commerce sites, children’s browsers, and a browser built for Russian-speaking audiences with built-in translation tools. Instead of adhering to a standard look and feel, many of these browsers had interfaces that differed highly from one browser to the next.
However, a handful of specialized browsers survived into the late 90s, due in part to a short-lived Windows software component that allowed custom browser interfaces to be built on top of Internet Explorer 3 and 4. Two surviving Christmas browsers — Santa’s Browser and Christmas Browser 99 — were built using this approach.
Although these browsers were built on top of Internet Explorer, they eschewed the professional aesthetics of the Microsoft or Netscape browser in favor of homemade, Geocities-esque collage. Christmas Browser 99 abstracts forward and backward buttons into a string of lights, with each blinking section representing a previously visited webpage. Santa’s Browser’s refresh button is a festive wreath shaped like an arrow.
Both Christmas Browser 99 and Santa’s Browser can be successfully run in an emulator, but with limited functionality. The READMEs for these browsers document extensive lists of features, few of which function today. Christmas Browser 99’s greeting card functionality redirects the user to a server that doesn’t respond. In Santa’s Browser, e-commerce links go nowhere. Attempts to create a Christmas wish list send the user to registration on a website that no longer exists.
At this point, it is impossible to know what has been lost. Would any of Santa’s Browser’s “2000 links to Christmas-related web fun” function today? Unfortunately, even a complete copy of the installation files for these browsers is not sufficient for meaningful preservation, as most of the interactive content relies on a dead external server. In 1999, it was unusual for an application to make network calls just to load its main interface — but in 2017, many apps have little to no offline functionality, and the very idea of an “app” is itself not much more than a comforting reference to the self-contained software of the past.
The Christmas browser may seem like an odd choice for preservation, but it illustrates a central challenge facing Rhizome’s software curation program. Preserving an application without the context of its network was not sufficient even in 1999, and the impossibility of fully reconstructing these relatively simple apps in 2017 illustrates the need to consider the multiplicitous relationships that define any digital cultural artefact in a preservation context.
Lyndsey Jane Moulds is software curator at Rhizome.
In June, I curated a screening of video works by artist Jordan Wolfson at the New Museum as a part of the First Look series, an ongoing exhibition and event program co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum, online and off. After the screening, Wolfson and I discussed virtual reality, white masculinity, and violence. Watch video of the conversation below.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
1. The Social Contract
To begin, here’s a nice, pared-down Libertarian bricolage calling into question the foundations of society.
2. Distracted Boyfriend
2017 was a year in which male sleaziness was acknowledged, and punished, as never before, and this change in the popular mood seemed to have been foreshadowed by the most prevalent meme of the year, the “Distracted Boyfriend”.
I particularly liked the Greek mythological version above, and also the Henry VIII variations.
As we’re returning to more irrational, pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking, Greek mythological memes have been in the ascendancy. Sisyphus, for instance, has become something of a hero in recent meme culture, which is often characterized by a sense of hopelessness and futility.
The last panel was already a popular meme, but has now been placed into a larger, more epic narrative.
Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic’s popularity amongst the extremely online makes perfect sense: he rejected the trappings of conventional society, choosing instead to drop out and troll his supposed betters.
This variation, which includes one of its precursors as an inset in the corner, reflects a growing movement towards complexity and meta-narratives, a subect that is discussed in some depth (and with reference to Wassily Kandinsky’s drawings of the dancer Gret Palucca), on the Philosopher’s Meme page.
5. Enlightened Pepe
“Enlightened Pepe” is another template that lends itself to loquacious complexity: here’s a version promoting the kind of leftist transhumanism that friends keep shilling to me at house parties.
6. Dancing Hot Dog
Bleak, defeated existentialism was the order of the day in 2017. Here, in a rare example of an augmented reality meme, we have a cartoon hot dog that speaks like Søren Kierkegaard.
On the subject of sad dogs, a special mention must also go to this Piano-playing Beagle.
7. Bannon of Arabia
I love this video, and have watched it so many times. I love how the repetition of the video, combined with the building intensity of the music, keeps heightening and heightening the dramatic tension.
8. Bert & Ernie
A beautiful tale of friendship, stoicism, and perhaps also repressed sexuality, which, nonetheless, has a depressing message: the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. It’s too late.
Bert and Ernie’s silence, their retreat into bland pop and intoxication, represents our collective denial. Every meme is a self-portrait of the networked society.
9. This Man Dispenses the Cubes
Like all the best surreal humor, this speaks to an underlying reality: a fear of our own redundancy in the age of automation.
My grandmother lives alone in Yokohama and has a talking sink. Because I never learnt to speak Japanese, I have never had a proper conversation with her. Compared to her sink, I am nothing.
It’s a rush of pure emotion. It’s how we see ourselves, and how we cling to our pasts. It’s Gatsby’s green light across the shimmering water, and all our hopes and dreams for the future, as we move, once again, into another year.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
2017 has oftentimes felt like being in a holding pattern over choleric lava; each rocketing incendiary force keening to fuck us down to hell with the disappointment that our last moments will smell like the sulphurous farts of an elderly dog. Last night some friends and I took shelter in an underground Edinburgh bar in the last country that has not gone insane and suggested that America and England’s daily life is now like walking down a long corridor of endless doors and trying to multitask to agonizing screams; when you open a door a Silicon Valley algorithm firebombs everything you hold precious in front of you while you try not to cry and drop coffee on your shoes.
2017 was also quite funny, if you ignore everything I just wrote.
CORBS AND CANS
For example, the last politician in England who has (for the most part) held steadfast and admirable values for most of his life (despite the New Labour policy of steamrolling every non-neoliberal in town) went out in the 2017 weather to get some Special Brew tins & coffee in something that can only be described as the robbed shell suit of a nineties swamp monster. The overall effect is of a man who has dedicated his life to politics and poor people but has no idea about PR: the exact opposite of Satan’s cheese puff, Trump, and therefore, one of the most soothing men to read news and smile about.
Scotland’s been doing okay despite England forcing it to leave the EU, membership to the EU being the only thing that assured we did not vote for an independent country, which I assume we now deeply, deeply regret with the power of a thousand suns. But something that stern English Daily Mail readers like to whine about is that when Scottish tennis winner Sir Andy Murray is Going About Winning Tennis Things around the world he better be smiling about it, he better be happy to be trotted out the athletic pet of the dead British Empire. Sir Andy Murray (not a fashion model) has been told to smile so often it’s like he’s permanently a pretty teenage girl walking past a building site. But in 2017, Sir Andy Murray proved the frown is his super power: when he tells this complacent reporter that Sam Querrey was the first male US player to reach a semi-final since 2009, it was like the scowl had X-Men-like qualities and it lit up the reporter: if you listen carefully you can hear the man’s flesh sizzling in the background as Murray basks in the simultaneous arousal of thousands of heterosexual women around the country who can’t help but be impressed by baseline male respect. As if you could forget Serena Williams and be a sports journalist.
This year my friend Megan Farokhmanesh noticed that on the 20th anniversary of the best worst Batman movie, Batman And Robin, (which I still maintain has a tie-in novel that is dynamite, a much better rendering if you ask me) Joel Schumacher was talking about nipples on the batsuit again. Megan correctly surmised that this is the most important thing about the film: the objectifying of the male form that the film seemed comfortable with. Schumacher himself said that he hadn’t realised what a firestorm he’d cooked up by erect male headlamp inclusion. The reveal is that when objectification is reflected at men themselves, we start to ask if Batman would be sexualizing his own suit: if yes, that says something very interesting about Bruce Wayne, possibly one of the most interesting things any writer might have said about him. If no, then we must ask exactly why it is most female superheroes in films always create impractical sexualised outfits for themselves without fail and without the audience immediately rupturing with questions about the believability of her character. I guess some might live in a fantasy land where dressing that way does not interrupt the ‘rescue small children from a burning building’ plot with mundane sexual harassment or some dude pestering for a date, but I suspect this world is not like Gotham City. In Batman and Robin, Alfred made his niece a Batgirl suit that in Terry Pratchett’s words might be "six weeks work for an experienced panel beater." But don’t let’s look at Hollywood too closely; we might find a gaping maw of rotten garbage.
Tula Lotay, Wonder Woman, poster drawn for @MondoNews. Source: https://twitter.com/tulalotay/status/870724076062609410
This year the artist Tula Lotay has been tapping her boots and then solidly knocking balls out of the park. Best known for her work in comics, Tula Lotay is someone whose feathery lines, hard-jawed men and voluptuous-lipped femme fatales remind me of the creatures on the front of old golden age Black Mask magazines (only when I look those up, they pale in comparison). Her colors, especially, are the most vibrant palettes and pop art joys to look at, but my favourite scenes of hers are the romantic clinch, or when her characters look meaningfully at each other. There’s something electric in the art she produces, like she vibrates a wild abandon or ecstasy into her characters. Probably the greatest compliment I could give her is that she draws like she is in love with people, and what better reason to wake up in the morning than to see love like that on a page. I have given her all my money.
FOOTBALL-THEMED INTERACTIVE FICTION
Welcome to the section of the article where I tell you that you are in love with Jon Bois. It’s true; I am in love with Jon Bois too. I have never met Jon Bois. But his interactive fiction masterpiece 17776 is one of the most important pieces of internet art I’ve ever been exposed to. He would probably laugh derisively at this; this is why I am in love with Jon Bois. That, and I too love American football as romantically as he does. Please read this. It is wonderful. It is hilarious, exuberant, and it is also as beautifully paced as any TV show you will watch.
FRANKIE BOYLE ON CONSERVATIVES
The fact that Frankie Boyle can make me laugh about the terrible political situation we are in, and still preserve the anger I need to get things done, is probably the only thing making me feel generally jovial any more:
BIG NEV'S TWITTER
Him and Big Nev Southall, the gentle giant of Twitter, who looks down sternly upon racists and bigots, and succinctly inquires as to why they might be such twats to strangers, and who listens intently to when he is given new information about how to be kinder:
CLIFFE LIVES ON
Since The Toast died I’ve been bereft, but Nicole Cliffe is still around to teach me things. For example, the phrase “cum gutters” is now firmly a part of my vocabulary, and Joe Mangianello’s golden retriever-like insistence on wolfing down blocks of cheese is now something I’m aware of thanks to her:
CLIMB OVER THEM
Where I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a place beset by climbing and bouldering walls - we have Europe’s largest indoor climbing wall, situated in an old quarry, as well as a wealth of actual massive motherfucking mountains surrounding us. There was much laughing and rejoicing at my local bouldering wall when this rebuttal of a GQ mess about climbing was published, which sees women climbers pictured in their natural state: actually climbing. With clothes on.
I read Carrie Fisher’s Princess Diarist this year, and it broke my heart in two. Harrison Ford treated her very cruelly, and it occurred to me that he probably didn’t know that he was abusing his power - it is common of men to think that because women have ‘power’ over them sexually that that somehow puts mouthy nineteen year old girls on an equal footing with married male co-stars 14 years older than them. Perhaps male sexuality is invisible to male heterosexuals. But she also knew that she was in love with him and he wasn’t in love with her (I assume, from his actions), and it’s always hard to read about that sort of thing. I loved this interview with Mark Hamill, where he says that he and Carrie made out and gambolled around like teenagers more on an equal footing, and I think it shows an extraordinary amount of respect and fondness for her, something I think her memory deserves. Though I don’t believe Mark Hamill is a good kisser, so, there is perhaps one false claim to be considered.
I assume that many people will recommend this read on millennials to be worth your time, but I consider this next article the most valuable Serious piece of 2017: Brit Marling on the Economics of Consent. A woman may say nothing and a powerful monied man has still decided whether he will give her work based on how likely it is she will say yes to him on any subject. If she starts to say no, even to sex (one of the worst abuses of power) it is no longer a disagreement on professional values. He wrongly interprets her as her rejecting him as a person. And sometimes the woman said yes once, and then has used up her ‘professional’ value after that: she deserves no politeness or courtesy any more. And this has egregious effects on the ability of men and women to work together, to co-exist together. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed.
If 2018 doesn’t continue to hit the “enable all disasters” button on its SimCity 2000 game, I’ll see you next year for more ways you can prevent yourself from doing any work. Until then, death to the bum rag The Daily Mail.
Cara Ellison is a writer and narrative designer for videogames. She is currently working on the game Dreams for PS4. She has made a corner of the utopian internet here: http://caraellison.co.uk/
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
How do you summarize the hellfire of a year that was 2017? There’s so much to cover! Where to start? Rather than let this list get very dark, very quickly, I wanted to focus on some of the Internet Things that made me pause, made me smile, and gave me some hope.
1. Chelsea Manning’s Emoji Use
Chelsea Manning’s use of emoticons and emojis to express joy, make jokes, offer support and send up dumb motherfuckers on Twitter. She is bringing a joy to the Internet that is equal parts earnestness and snark, backed by a foundational leftist activism, and I 👏 am 👏 here 👏 for 👏 it. 👏
#MeToo was important for so many reasons: the movement was started by a woman of color (crucial given that the dominant conversation already excludes so many WOC voices). The hashtag is potentially causing a real sea change. Of course, it is not without its problems, and it is yet to be determined whether we’re in the midst of actual cultural change, a flash in the pan zeitgeist, or a fade, but for now, #MeToo is creating much-needed dialogue around sexual harassment.
3. Slicey Bois
I’d call this a burgeoning meme as it is not widely used. Ben Gullard, an artist and classmate from my master’s program, posted this celebration of guillotines, newly called “slicey bois,” on Facebook. Perhaps it’s the happenstance of discovery, since it appeared in my timeline right after the Republican Senate voted for the largest overhaul of the US tax code in 30 years, one that enable drilling in the Arctic, attacks core components of the Affordable Care Act, and treats corporations better than people. So, I loved the idea of the slicey boi, as well as the timing of when it appeared in my feed. Why not have more guillotine memes shared by teens, just as US Republicans are having very much a “let them eat cake” moment?
4. Expanding Brain/Whomst
Generally, I love all expanding brain memes, but this one and its variations, especially. Grammar correction is deployed as a petty tool in digital conversations. It’s fascinating to watch used in debates, because the move is both incredibly disarming, and it is designed to be that way. Seeing a meme that then uses made up formal grammar to mock this pettiness is hilarious.
5. Astro Poets Twitter
The Astro poets Twitter account is devoted to take downs, send ups, poetry, emotions and humor. Astro poets, who write an astrology column for W Magazine, strike a perfect balance between activism, humor, and hope, between reminding us that words can’t be banned because poets exist, beautifully written horoscope tweets, and calling out star sign bullshit.
6. Bail Bloc
Bail Bloc is one of my favorite activism and art projects of the year. It can be incredibly effective; it was incredibly well researched and executed, and it is the best use of a cryptocurrency I’ve seen out there.
7. Twitter’s Redemption
This. Thread. Right. Here. It reminded me of why I love(d) Twitter, which is harder now with the continuing harassment and the Nazis. Sometimes there’s magic on Twitter, a very broken product with broken leadership that doesn’t seem to care about community.
8. RIP Vine, RIP AIM
This year saw the death of Vine and AIM, too. Rest in Peace. RIP. We will miss you, for forever. You were too good for us, and we didn’t deserve you, but we will remember you. A/S/L and seven second videos 4ever.
9. Wendy’s Social Media
I briefly worked in advertising and was allowed to write tweets for Mastercard (why would anyone let me do that is beyond me) but I learned just how much copywriting and approval goes into managing a brand’s social accounts. These clapbacks from Wendy’s areonpoint and fucking savage, because either Wendy’s HQ DGAF or they are super on board with being assholes. Either way, it’s amazing.
10. Congressional Edit Tracking
Consider CongressEdits, a bot that tracks all of the edits made from the IP address of the US Congress. You can see things like the Sean Hannity article or human feces or the legend of Zelda videogame being edited. You know, really important political stuff.
⭐️ Slime Vids
If you were born after 2000 you already know that slime vids are the shiiiiiiiiit. They constitute a mostly unrecognized fetish, in the same vein (and often in tandem with) ASMR and other physical deformation vids, like press-crushing, sand-slicing, and so on. Slime vids are a culmination of so many satisfying elements into one gooey, bubbly, and probably highly toxic paste. They remind me of wanting to eat screen printing ink, a desire I can't say I've grown out of.
Slime vids have also been cited as a cause of glue shortages in stores, which is fun. You can find them easily online, whether on Instagram or Youtube. For whatever reason, I've stuck with @theslimeyhoe, who in addition to being a child with brilliant branding sense, is more or less an aggregator account, posting other peoples' work but adding small notes about their day, or integrating back and forth conversations with other slime accounts, like some sort of embedded slime-diary.
⭐️ Zuckerberg Puerto Rico VR Livestream
In keeping with our society-wide, ever-developing skill of smiling through gritted teeth, here's a “best” live event of the year. I challenge you to name a more illustrative indictment of the state of new media art than Mark Zuckerberg high-five'n in VR, in front of flooded Puerto Rican homes. Here is a gleaming, wide-eyed tech demo of Silicon Valley individualists patting each other on the back with millions of dollars, bundled in hollow platitudes, all the while submerged in a heavy fog of incalculable human sadness that they have little vested interest in correcting.
A better commentary than any art show I’ve been to on how imperfect and absurd the future (regardless of the marvels of its innovations) will be and is, and a spiritual successor to the Boring Dystopia Facebook group, @Shitty_Future is a welcome counterpoint to all the hyperbolic promo-babble that startup bros inundate us with on a daily basis.
⭐️ Surreal drag makeup
A number of artists have been plumbing the depths of drag makeup for some months now, and I’ve probably only just now caught the wave. The medium has transcended hyperreal facial feature embellishment and moved into surrealist mask-making or abstract illustration over, and on, the skull-canvas. Belonging to a mostly Insta-centric world, the artists I've been following closest have included @isshehungry (aside: she was actually hired for the recent Bjork Utopia cover, which was a refreshing change from stylists and editorial directors' using the usual hackneyed and hollow artist copies via their most evil weapons and executors: the moodboard and the sullen studio intern), along with the brilliant @matieresfecales, @suckgenesis, @monar.x, and salvjiia.
⭐️Russians use videogame screenshot as propaganda
The intersection of 3D graphics and propagandistic fakery is always captivating to me, so when the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation’s Facebook page posted a screengrab of the mobile game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, it seemed like a moment of true comedic confluence.
⭐️ Something Is Wrong On The Internet
As someone who is moving increasingly towards surreal children's animation and Youtuber garbage in my personal practice, and also as someone who genuinely feels unending glee from watching the fascinating proliferation of (seemingly) procedurally-generated 3D kids' vids, the very good article "Something Is Wrong On The Internet" by James Bridle strikes me as maybe slightly alarmist, but a nonetheless vital read. The piece captures a cross section of vids that lie between borderline-fetishy fanfic, democratized 3D animation, and commandeering of search keywords for anonymous Youtube cash schemes, and then discusses the possible health implications for the children that voraciously, and innocently, inhale it all.
⭐️ Weird Mike gets repeatedly and savagely dunked on in his AMA
Not one to make resolutions, but my main move next year is to practice a bit more self-care. So together, let's all pinch and chef kiss our fingertips, mmmm omma nom nom, at this delicacy of soul-restoration that is Pizzagate-peddling, white supremacist shitbag Mike Cernovich getting flogged within an inch of his contrived life in his Reddit AMA.
Ahahahhhhhhhahhhahhhhhhhh ... feels good man.
Here's a small dessert that pairs well: https://twitter.com/CaptainSnoop/status/940790637300998144
⭐️ Unionization of digital media companies
A Truly Good Internet Thing that's begun happening with more frequency this year is a growing push to unionize digital media companies, despite pushback from their supposedly progressive bosses (group negotiation for fairer wages stifles all that innovative disruption, guys!) and just outright assholes submarining the whole thing out of greed. Vox, Vice, Gawker/Gizmodo, Huffington Post, and many others have seen measured successes in organizing for a transparent wage scale, severance, and collective bargaining for workers’ rights.
⭐ Secret Image Macro Poetry
There's a relatively small, cultish subsection of image macro creators on Facebook who have taken the format to a place that rides the line between alt-lit poetry, memes, and self-medicated depression-core journaling. I've found myself following the field passionately this year. I won't post the link for fear of the banhammer (and art communities such as these are so tenuous anyway, that a passing article can easily break their equilibrium) ... but they're People, Umm ... what can I say that doesn't give it away? ... who sometimes ... layer text in simple, deskilled ways over found imagery ... and are also ... oohhhh, IDK. I bet you can find it.
⭐ The Boston Dynamics backflipping robot
Look, you’ve probably already seen this, and maybe upon review an ambient sense of singularity-borne apocalyptic dread is a bit more pronounced, but to come full circle, let’s just marvel at how siiiiiiiiiiiick this robo-backflip is, one more time. Before it’s not cute anymore.
This post contains semi-nudity.
After a year of death and doom, we all started 2017 hoping for it to get better and for things to make sense. So when Beyoncé, peace be unto her, announced her pregnancy via Instagram, on the first day of Black History Month, not only pregnant but with twins, there was joy and hope in the world (and the picture quickly became the most liked image on the platform).
Super Bowl LI
What better event is there to invest all the affective energy of the country’s political strife than a football game? This year’s Super Bowl was more than just football. It was symbolic with precise parallels to the real world: The New England Patriots as Trump, the Atlanta Falcons as the Resistance (their official slogan: “Rise Up!”) and Lady Gaga’s halftime performance as the Women’s March on Washington. The underdog Falcons gained a historic lead, Gaga’s performance was praised for its apolitical feel, and the Falcons blew their lead and lost. Having laughed my black ass off the day after the election, I was sad about the outcome of this stupid game and I was not alone.
Dana Schutz Fake Letter
The whole Open Casket controversy was a mess and grossly mishandled by the curators, the Whitney, the artist, and the powers that be in the community at large. Debates raged on and ultimately, nothing happened. During the media firestorm, an anonymous individual sent a letter to Art.sy, claiming to be Dana Schutz apologizing, which they published—as did many other sites—for a couple of hours, until word got out that it was fake. The art world got duped into believing that the artist had taken accountability, which never happened.
2017 was a great year for music and for rap music, even greater. There was one track, specifically, that exploded in the way a rap song hasn’t in years (no, it wasn’t “Bodak Yellow”). It was a 7-minute diss track by Remy Ma called “SHEther” in which she skewers Nicki Minaj in easily one of the most relentless takedowns ever, creating the most Hip Hop moment of 2017 (sorry, Black Thought). Nicki pretty much failed to effectively respond, which greatly harmed her credibility, similar to Ja Rule's withering away after 50 Cent's evisceration. Nothing was the same.
Speaking of Ja Rule, he came back in to the media spotlight this year, and not for his music, but Fyre Festival, a catastrophically botched music festival that he and venture capitalist Billy McFarland attempted to mount in the Bahamas. People paid hundreds and thousands of dollars, expecting luxurious amenities and headlining acts (red flag: those acts were Rule himself and Blink 182) but were met with tents and lettuce sandwiches. They were also stranded on a beach with stray dogs. The tragicomedy wrote itself.
Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad
Pepsi also took an L in a failed effort to make a politically engaged ad starring Kendall Jenner in which she stops a riot by sharing a soda with one of the cops. It was one of many such tone-deaf advertisements this year, but was special because it was so absurd.
California congresswoman Maxine Waters will not allow Steve Mnuchin or anyone else to waste her time. The sentiment is one that people should and did get behind.
The Oscars was another metaphorical battle between the whiteness of La La Land and the Blackness of Moonlight as frontrunners to win Best Picture. Somehow, an envelope got switched and Warren Beatty mistakenly announced La La Land as the winner, but it was fake news and corrected (after waaayy too long, like minutes). This provided a perfect possible template for inserting more fake news, like Beyoncé winning the Grammy for Best Album, or The Falcons winning the Super Bowl.
If the World Wide Web is an iceberg, its tip is the Surface Web, the Visible Web, the Indexed Web, the Lightnet of detectable cyberspace. This is the 4% through which average internet users navigate each day, while the remaining 96% rests beneath a veneer of public search engines and social media. This vastly uncharted alternate multiverse is colloquially termed The Deep Web. Yet even further within such recesses, lies a Dark Web—through which the Silk Roads of the e-scape wind over, past, and beyond servers, where cryptomarkets offer goods to buyers without the utility of exports, imports, and governments in general—undulating and virtually untraceable. Whereas these darknet zones originally served to sell anything from illicit drugs, pornography, and weapons, to prosaic merchandise, the digital marketplace today has evolved into an arena of legitimized transactions and investments out in the open, involving digital currencies (also known as cryptocurrencies) such as Bitcoin.
Meanwhile, though online art networks have been in existence for quite some time, the art world has often lagged a step behind the breakneck developments of the tech industry. But over the past several years, in what could be considered a “digital media art” vogue, the exhibitions, galleries, and collections of today, such as Dot Dash 3, Vngravity, Daata Editions, and Sedition, have increasingly moved—sometimes entirely—into virtual marketplaces. For better and worse, the fate of these initiatives will be taken as an indication of the answer to a long-standing question: can art display and collection be sustained in the screen-contained expanse of game engines, AR, unsupported plugins, mobile apps, defunct links, and the swelling necropolis of extinct sites?
Harm van den Dorpel, Autobreeder (lite), 2016
Left gallery, based out of Berlin, is a particularly enterprising model, the first to directly employ Bitcoin and blockchain technology, though it does not (yet) operate on the Dark Web. Co-founded in 2015 by artist and programmer Harm van den Dorpel with anthropologist and partner Paloma Rodríguez Carrington, it is perhaps the most organic offering within this space, given its adaptation of cryptographic exchange and computational language. Supported by cleancut content, sleek aesthetic form, and the mission to “produce and sell downloadable objects,” the platform’s matter-of-fact UI—designed in collaboration with Beautiful Company—mimics the feel of an app store that meets contemporary art gallery. All available works and curated exhibitions are viewable via the click of a button and horizontal scroll. Said “downloadable objects” are available for purchase by credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin in file formats such as, but not limited to, .epub, .mobi, .app, .exe, .saver, .mp4, .html, .gif, .txt, .rtf, and .m3u.
During his studies in artificial intelligence at the Vrije Universiteit and then in time-based arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, van den Dorpel first noticed the art world’s lack of affinity for and indifference towards the curation and preservation of immaterial media. After he attended an event at the Austrian Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts (MAK) in Vienna in 2015, by invitation from Cointemporary, left gallery was born. The museum bought one of van den Dorpel’s works, Event Listeners, which became the first recorded occasion that an artwork was purchased by an institution using Bitcoin, and eventually all one hundred editions of the work sold out. With the hope to fill a gap while extending the precedents set by platforms such as Cointemporary, van den Dorpel and Rodríguez Carrington geared left gallery’s vision toward a generation acclimated to buying smartphone apps, icon packs, and subscriptions to software and streaming services.
This model, centered around “affordability,” translates into a collection of large editions (often in editions of one hundred) made accessible to a wider demographic of collectors, while simultaneously made scarce on the web in order to sell exclusive, largely commissioned work. So far, the gallery’s growing collectorship includes a wide sample set, from graphic designers to startup offices, individual collectors from the tech and business worlds, to speculation-focused art collectors in China purchasing with Bitcoin.
Damon Zucconi, uneel cbggre naq gur fbeprere'f fgbar, 2016
A quick primer here for those unfamiliar with the lingo: cryptocurrency is an electronic currency type for the online market, and Bitcoin is the earliest and most popular decentralized cryptocurrency. Underlying Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies is the technology of blockchain, which helps create and then serve an open consensus of synchronized data that records transactions between two parties efficiently, in a verifiable and permanent way. By design, blockchains are immutable to any data modification without the consensus of a majority of users. Bitcoin is just one of many possible applications of this particular blockchain, and there are many other customized blockchains, each with many possible applications built on top of them.
In an application of ingenuity, left gallery’s platform further authenticates its editions through a platform called ascribe, which facilitates the connection between art world makers and collectors and auctioneers. The platform further registers all works, offering artists a way of selling with a certificate of authenticity attached to the moment of timestamping ownership. Any information can be stored in the blockchain. If ascribe or left gallery cease to exist, that information will remain verifiable as long as the blockchain is around, since ascribe only offers the interface which places the work on the blockchain. Through a seemingly complex technical story, ascribe reveals itself to be quite a basic service. Once collectors understand how their ownership is stored independently, the purchase incentive increases. Perhaps most credibly, ascribe’s system allows the resale of editions independent of the gallery’s interface, as opposed to other digital edition sites that vendor-lock work into their platforms. Left gallery therefore makes it possible for collectors and buyers to take that artwork out of its original context for recirculation in the wider art market.
William Kherbek, Retrodiction, 2017
In a vignette published in Spike Magazine, the gallery’s curatorial vision explores “the quasi-colonial relations that are increasingly being built into the internet’s infrastructure, a mentality left gallery seeks to confront and oppose.” The mobile landscape has undoubtedly been dominated by heavy corporate censorship. The only way to get an app on a smartphone is through an account with Google or Apple which earns 20% of the revenue from purchases. And for every app purchase from any kind of service or shop, there is a further sum deducted just to allow the transaction to take place. Left gallery offers a way of bypassing this system by offering apps otherwise disallowed by Apple or Google (given that there are no categories for “art” in those app stores).
The question of obsolescence is a pressing one.“Digital editions” of works shown by galleries are often limited to video, and do not necessarily take full advantage of the new medium-specific capabilities that software offers. Even software and files are now becoming outdated with the advent of online streaming media. Packaging the works as standalone “files” simplifies some of the issues inherent in browser- and network-dependent works. Left gallery takes a pragmatic stance towards conservation issues, exploring a range of strategies depending on the artist’s project alongside practical considerations. For instance, when macOS does not support a particular screensaver file format anymore, the software will be recompiled in collaboration with the artist.
Jeffrey A. Scudder, JAS 126.96.36.199.3, 2016
In a conversation over Skype, van den Dorpel muses, “left gallery offers software so that the art can be interactive and generative. Not only using decentralized technology for ownership but also for payment, and calling it left gallery, is a political conviction. We have very limited means of opposition or rebellion, but generally, art has a very small but direct force.”
As Rodríguez Carrington elaborates, “The most important thing is that we offer art, and that people can buy this art without understanding blockchain or Bitcoin. We don’t perceive these works as purely digital or virtual; they are actual objects, hence ‘downloadable objects.’ The blockchain enables us to offer people a decent and relaxed way of ownership, of collecting art, while supporting the artists directly.”
Rodríguez Carrington’s background in anthropology with a concentration in popular culture has further driven left gallery’s broader interest in the art world as interdisciplinary community. The gallery hosts events in physical spaces, its owners understanding that an exponential increase in online peers has not diminished—and perhaps has only exacerbated—a longing for physical contact. Offline events have incorporated digital painting, live performance, music, and cooking as a way of increasing visibility, introducing artists and the gallery to the public, and expanding dialogue. In one collaboration with the artist William Kherbek, the gallery worked with a bookstore in Amsterdam selling physical copies of the artist’s poetry, and organized a poetry reading in conjunction with the launch of their virtual poetry pieces. Other collaborating artists include Micah Hesse, Dorine van Meel, Damon Zucconi, Gene McHugh, Sean Lockwood, and Ryan Kuo.
Gene McHugh, Bang Bros, 2015
It may be interesting to note that despite the exclusivity and legitimacy which comes with physical gallery space (versus the lack of scarcity in cyberspace), software-based works that are inserted into actual physical spaces take on a newfound scarcity via a subsequent need for programming. This demand adds value and legitimacy to the software-based artwork, bringing value full circle. Perhaps one recurring lesson is that founding utopian ideas driving the development of the internet and the internet art lauded in the 1990s do not and cannot survive on their own, without adaptations of hybridity, and hybrid exchanges between on- and off-line, as left gallery practices deliberately.
In terms of expanding a long-term vision, left gallery has also begun to offer “mastery editions”—unique, extended, and exclusive editions which are further bound to hardware—equipped for those collectors looking for guidance in terms of display, an output the gallery describes as more “backroom” and off-model. While there aren’t necessarily plans to start sending out small computers or screens to individual buyers, left gallery does aspire to find solutions for digital art collection in real time. “We’re not looking to get the next thousand digital artists to use our platform. The curatorial process here is very important and we include works that we believe in,” van den Dorpel affirms in conclusion. “We’re not a startup in the capitalistic sense, which is very much based on quick growth, quantity in user-base, investors, and exit strategies. I think it’s most critical that left gallery as a whole has an experimental and collaborative structure. The future is to maintain what we do, while making what we do clearer and clearer. We’re not in a rush.”
While the value of the few million existing bitcoin across the globe is on a parabolic rise, with a predicted end-game value of $400,000 each, according to analyst Ronnie Moas, left gallery hopes to meet the increasing demand for digital artwork by offering an organic solution to the precarious complications of virtual art circulation for both artists and collectors. While the blockchain-based space certainly operates on left-leaning attitudes regarding accessibility, the platform itself is one where the worlds of tech and art, software and hardware, virtual and actual, collide at a generative center.
Header image: Dorine van Meel, Disobedient Children, 2016
Fold-out drawing from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale, Naples 1599.
This report is published in partnership with DAOWO, a series that brings together artists, musicians, technologists, engineers, and theorists to consider how blockchains might be used to enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture. The series is organized by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others.
When discussing the uses and implications of blockchain at “Reinventing the Art Lab on the Blockchain,” a workshop and panel held at the Goethe-Institut in London on October 26, conversations pivoted around a central concern: while the decentralized structure of blockchain may liberate us from centralized powers such as banks, the highly precise identification and registration of data through automated transactions can reduce meaning to code and trap us in totalizing systems.
Order is both clarifying and restrictive. In the panel discussion, curator Helen Kaplinsky and artist Hito Steyerl drew similarities between the Victorian cabinet of curiosities and blockchain: both reduce the individual to its category. Looking at a stuffed bird, arranged in a cabinet of curiosities, fills us with both wonder and revulsion. This exotic animal, once full of life, is abstracted. Something of its beauty may be captured in the taxidermy, but essentially it has become a sad specimen, categorized in an index of the species. Moreover, creating a cabinet of curiosities asserts mastery over others: the Victorian aristocrat affirms their wealth and social hierarchy through the act of collecting, ordering and display.
This oscillation between freedom and entrapment could be seen throughout the workshop conversations. After an introduction by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers, instigators of the DAOWO series, the participants—a mix of artists, researchers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and public institutions—were divided into four groups each led by an arts practitioner who had been experimenting with blockchain. The groups were asked to explore how blockchain is affecting the arts and to delve deeper into the pragmatics of applying blockchain to specific scenarios. This led to more questions than answers.
Blockchain in the art ecosystem
Holgrave shared her research charting the use of blockchain in the arts. From authentication of artworks to digital currency payments and resale rights, the sheer number of companies offering blockchain-based services highlights the speed at which blockchain is being applied to the arts, especially the art market. With so many competing entities, many with little understanding of the art they seek to “disrupt,” the question became: how might best practices, standards, and ethical guidelines emerge?
Consensus in cooperative models
Kaplinsky’s group took the “Temporary Custodians” project, a fundraising initiative and artwork, as a use case to explore investments that are blockchain-enabled and cooperative. Models such as Temporary Custodians offer new ways to think about how we sustain the arts, but as the ongoing Ethereum fork debate has shown, gaining consensus in shared ownership structures is a challenge that technology alone can’t solve. With a range of competing values at work in the arts—from making money to supporting experimentation—how do you agree what’s best?
Blockchain as a memory bank for art
Mark Waugh, on behalf of the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS)
Once sold, artworks may be resold and inherited many times over. Waugh explained how DACS is experimenting with blockchain as a way of managing the complexities of artists’ resale rights and assuring provenance. He also put some of the emerging practical and theoretical challenges to the group. This led to the question: how can we ensure that the use of blockchain does not inadvertently reaffirm existing inequalities in the circulation of art? For example, if blockchain becomes a memory bank for art, one effect could be to marginalize work that is ephemeral or philosophically opposed to entering into contracts.
New economies for digital and networked art
Inspired by Furtherfield’s Do It With Others (DIWO) collaborative ethos and blockchain-based, self-sustaining artworks such as Plantoid, Catlow asked her group to explore how blockchain could be used to create art and sustain artistic practice. Can blockchain help generate the resources needed to sustain art making as an end in itself, rather than at the service of the market or other imperatives? What models of coordination and new formats for production would be needed?
Blockchain may be used to free us from centralized power structures and increase artistic agency, but may equally reinforce existing inequalities and reduce meaning to code. What values should blockchain serve?
The conversations held in the working groups were evidence that a complex array of values are at work when we apply blockchain to the arts. The design and structure of technologies such as blockchain are shaped by the values of whomever develops the system—largely fintech startups and major tech companies. The mix of perspectives among workshop participants also highlights the range of competing values already at work within the arts, for example within commercial or not-for-profit galleries. Given this complexity, initiatives such as the DAOWO series play a vital role in helping us understand the pros and cons of using blockchain in any given scenario. This is necessary if the arts are to rise above the potential limitations and hazards of blockchain, and as the DAOWO instigators intend, focus on how blockchain can “enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture.” Gaining consensus on what values inform the culture which DAOWO aspires to may turn out to be the biggest challenge of all. This is a political and moral challenge rather than a technical one.
In 2007, Google launched Street View, a new feature for Google Maps. For the first time, users could leave the map’s default bird’s-eye view perspective, and enter a 360° immersive street-level world. To build this world, Google launched a fleet of cars that used automated multi-lens digital cameras to photograph every street, highway, and alley. The images were then analyzed, altered and corrected, and stitched together to produce Street View’s navigable three-dimensional environment.
Shortly after Street View’s release, artist Jon Rafman began to explore its world, taking screenshots of scenes he found along the way, which laid the foundation for the collection Nine Eyes (2008-ongoing). In terms of form, Nine Eyes of Google Street View is perhaps best known as a Tumblr (http://9-eyes.com/) but the images have also been printed and exhibited physically (as in the exhibition “Mirror Sites” at M+B in 2012), as well as remixed into other works, such as You, the World and I (2010). It is important to note that Rafman was not alone in his Street View travels, as many artists and photographers—such as Michael Wolf or Douglas Rickard—were pursuing concurrent projects. What distinguishes Nine Eyes of Google Street View, however, is its pursuit of the sublime in the postinternet age.
Rafman’s approach to photography is unmistakably postinternet. Following the definition formulated in Artie Vierkant’s essay “The Image Object Post-Internet,” postinternet art refers to objects and images that have been created “with concern to their particular materiality as well as their vast variety of methods of presentation and dissemination.” For Vierkant, this type of production is always inherently informed by certain characteristics of life under Web 2.0 such as “the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” Google Street View, as an attempt to fully map physical space onto the digital screen, provides an exemplary source material for such work, since it presents life itself in the same way Guthrie Lonergan described “Internet Aware” art: “when the photo of the art object is more widely dispersed [and] viewed than the object itself.”
As postinternet photography, the images in Nine Eyes of Google Street View testify above all to the processes of their own making and dissemination. There is no coherent subject matter unifying the images. Certain themes recur, such as glitches in the stitching system or people giving the finger to the camera, but what organizes the photographs together into one single work is simply that they have been selected from Street View during one of the artist’s marathon surfing sessions. Rafman highlights the digital aspects of his photographs—such as pixelation, watermarks, and the navigational interface which appears in nearly every image—but this never detracts from the sense that the photographs portray something real. Instead, they declare the extent to which offline life is always already structured by the online. This is what leads Geoff Dyer to describeNine Eyes of Google Street View as giving the impression that not only is Rafman not an “old-school photographer,” but that it almost seems as if he has never even been outdoors, and that “his knowledge of the world derives entirely from representations of it.”
The sense of slipperiness between these two modes is furthered by the work’s form as a blog, which acknowledges and facilitates the sharing of the images. By organizing the photographs in a Tumblr, where users frequently reblog and circulate images produced by others, Nine Eyes of Google Street View never exists in a stable state, and instead takes its potential circulation as inherent to the work. The fact that Nine Eyes of Google Street View remains ongoing—despite last being updated in 2014—reflects the temporality of the blog, where there is never a clear sense of finality, since as long as the blog still exists there is always the capability for one more post. Online image sharing is also evidenced by the physical prints Rafman makes, which detail how an image spreads, transitioning from the screen to the gallery, before once more returning to the screen through exhibition photographs.
Like much postinternet art, Nine Eyes of Google Street View does not take a compelling critical stance, but for Rafman, this is intentional.1Nine Eyes of Google Street View may at times gesture towards critique—it shares a name, for example, with an intelligence sharing alliance composed of nine countries, bringing to mind issues of mass surveillance—but its focus lies elsewhere, in aesthetic experience. As Rafman states in a 2011 interview with AIDS 3D, “Aesthetic experience for me is self-justifying… it is very important for me to maintain a separation between art… and politics and critical theory.” While most postinternet art draws upon contemporary corporate aesthetics, Rafman instead draws influence from the romantic period, bringing the search for the sublime into the virtual realm.2
Though the concept of the sublime dates back to classical antiquity, it came to renewed prominence in the romantic period due to the writings of Immanuel Kant, who devoted a lengthy section his Critique of Judgement to the topic. For Kant, the sublime is a sensation in the mind that is aroused through a specific type of encounter. It is a carefully balanced sensation, simultaneously evoking displeasure—caused by an awareness of inadequacy and the limitations of human thought—and pleasure, “arising from this very judgment of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason.” In order to evoke this feeling, the subject must encounter a seemingly limitless, violent, though not harmful, object. In Kant’s schema the ideal object of the sublime is nature, since it is an outside to the enlightenment society in which Kant lived, governed by reason and logic. In its most chaotic, violent, or terrifying forms it pushes the subject into a sublime encounter, initially evoking the limitations of man and society, but ultimately leading to joy through the mind’s capability to overcome this displeasure. More precisely, for Kant the sublime is “an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.”3
Though Kant privileges Nature, as historical moments shift, so too do the objects of the sublime. In his characterization of the postmodern period, Fredric Jameson updates the enlightenment concept of the sublime into what he terms the postmodern or technological sublime. Since “the other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all,” Jameson replaces it with technology, as it “seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.”4 Jameson wrote, however, at a time when global networks of communication like the internet were novel and still in their infancy. How can the postmodern sublime be conveyed through postinternet art, when “the internet is less a novelty and more a banality”?
The key to the sublime in Rafman’s work lies in the way the indifferent, mechanical gaze of the automated Street View camera renders even the most banal moments as other, re-presenting life as something alien to the human. Rafman describes seeing in Street View as “looking at a memory that nobody really had”; the scenes depicted in the images be recognizable and banal, but the images themselves are nonetheless foreign. In many of Rafman’s photos, this distance between the viewer and life is laid all the more bare by his inclusion of the “Report a Problem” button in many of theNine Eyes of Google Street View images. Here, the only element that even approaches some form of reciprocity or communication between the viewer and the networks in which they are enmeshed is made viewable, but inoperable. The viewer is held at a distance, experiencing the sublime as they confront the absolute otherness of Street View.
Beyond the camera itself, the sheer scale of the Street View project strengthens the sense of the sublime in Rafman’s images. As Luc Vincent, an engineer who pioneered the Street View project, states, Google’s intention is to “paint the world,” at the resolution of “about one pixel to the inch.” The sheer ambition of the aim of such goal—not to mention the resources necessary for such an undertaking—exceeds the rational, and even approaches the limits of the positivist dominion inherent in mapping. The images ofNine Eyes of Google Street View place the viewer on the edges of the map, faced with something vast and ungraspable. Instead of making the world known, Rafman reveals how Street View renders the sublime.
1. See “The Perils of Post-Internet Art” by Brian Droitcour
2. Rafman’s interest in the sublime is evidenced in exhibitions such as In Search for the Virtual Sublime II at China Art Objects in Los Angeles. The sublime as an aesthetic concern can also bee seen in Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2008-2011), produced contemporaneously to Nine Eyes of Google Street View. In many of the videos and images that make up the work, the Kool-Aid Man, the artist’s avatar in Second Life, is shown alone, starring into the vast abyss of the digital world, bringing to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).
3. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
4. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Do you remember when people misheard the words “fuck that” on the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.” as “fuck thought?” Well, fuck thought. Kind of. Let’s talk about it.
By means of “lack of reason”—with religion, language, appearance, and other aspects serving as a litmus—the animalization of Black and brown people has been a critical tool of domination, invented to justify the white conquest, genocide, slavery, and other violence that engendered the contemporary.
What does it mean, then, that art today prizes thinking and the aesthetics of thought such as criticality, divestment from the sensory, and a demeanor of philosophical objectivity? The white West used these very criteria to dehumanize the global south and facilitate Euro expansion; in a specifically aesthetic context, modernism itself was premised on the spoils of imperial conquest.
Despite clarion calls of posthumanism, it is possible to excavate an exclusionary humanism in the fetishism for “objective philosophical thought” in contemporary art which preserves the modernist dynamic of treating Black and brown people and aesthetics as raw material. We can recalibrate our definitions of art from the contemplation and production of the beautifully useless and self-referential. A continued utilitarian project of the violent subsumption of non-white aesthetics is possible through reading Allan Kaprow’s concept of post-art in the context of the Middle Passage and its afterlife.
David Joselit defines the contemporary as a mode of aesthetic governance relegating marginal practitioners into a position of debt to modernism. For Joselit, this imposition of debt mirrors governance by debt in neocolonialism, rendering what he calls heritage or local context merely a dividend of debt, serving to diversify the art market and globalize its structural tropes (such as painterly abstraction, the white cube, the biennial, etc).1
Joselit’s analytic is useful for unearthing not only the originary violence of modernism with respect to Black and brown aesthetics, but also the ways the contemporary continues this project of subsumption.2 Aesthetic governance by debt allows the increasingly marketized art world to commoditize difference and deploy it for its own ends, whether financial, nationalist, or otherwise.
Yoked under modernism, marginal artists must assimilate to standard aesthetics3 and allow themselves to be deployed in service of institutionality. At a deeper level, aesthetic governance by debt allows art to deny modernism’s own constitutive debt to Black and brown aesthetics, which it used as raw material to shirk the constraints of earlier white art such as three-point perspective and objecthood.
The contemporary is an echo of modernism, it continues the edict of modernism while developing new forms of governance over marginalized artists.
In the afterlife of conceptualism, thinking overcame and reframed making, and embodied a Hegelian assumption of teleological human evolution, such that Western society has outgrown the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the Absolute. Hegel says “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine and worshipping them… Thought and reflection have spread their wings above fine art.”4
During Western industrialization, art’s dependence on the sensory caused it to fall behind thought as the highest vocation and prime engine of knowledge, whose “very essence… is to go from the observable to the non-observable, from the immediate to the mediate.”5 For Hegel, human cultural developments like art and religion are vestigial forms, reflecting an older dependence on the sensory before the modern mastery of nature represented by industry.
For Hegel’s teleology, art is over, but it remains a necessary step in human development: aesthetic contemplation and production indicate the gradient between human and non-human, setting the stage for reason to flourish. It is precisely the intimate revelry of the sensory which, when refined, allows for the philosophical flight into the immaterial, the theoretical, and the nonsensory. Without art, philosophy could not have risen.6
By dint of art’s putative necessity to human development, conceptualism attempted to salvage the patrimony of Western art by ushering thought itself into the set of available artistic mediums.
From this lowered position, modernist aesthetics worked to expand the boundaries of what could be institutionalized as art. Conceptualism went further, and deployed the autonomous inutility of the art object inherited from modernism to show how, as Allan Kaprow states, “art has served as an instructional transition to its own elimination by life.”7
While this may have partly emerged from idealistic notions of thought as medium precluding subsumption into the commodity form, the result was that the subject and role of art—which for Kaprow was “the ritual escape of Culture”—simultaneously subsumed and supervened on the sociopolitical, becoming instead a kind of immaterial or diaphanous residue which could coat any imaginable life context. In modernism, the idea that anything could be art was scandalous, whereas in conceptualism, this indeterminacy became mundane.
With art more deeply yoked to culture, art became a toolkit for interacting with the lived conditions of humanity akin to a social science or school of thought. The modernist decline of art’s primacy resulted in the simultaneous expansion of art to whatever; the reduction of art to commentary on world affairs and meta-comments on its own history; and the valorization of thought as the ideal medium for aesthetic practice in this new context.
Kaprow’s concept of post-art exemplifies this, blurring the line between art and life since “nonart is more art than Art art.”8 Whatever a person wants to get out of art, life has more of it, and art’s duty is to take on a managerial relationship to the sensory by existing in a state of fluidity, even precarity—and in this ephemeral state it haunts life, it folds all life into it. With this vastly expanded aesthetic field, thought as artistic medium engenders a process of art mimicking the disciplines of thought—namely science and philosophy.
It is instructive to consider a work that exemplifies the conceptualist gambit of folding thought into the set of available artistic mediums, with its resultant valorization of reason and philosophical aesthetics.
Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) is a conceptual work consisting of a glass of water placed on a glass shelf 253 centimeters off the ground with an accompanying text.9 The work was first shown at the Rowan Gallery in London, 1974. In Q&A format, the text explains the artist’s process of “changing a glass of water into a full-blown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The oak tree resulting from this metaphysical alteration “will not ever have any other form but that of a glass of water,” and when pushed to answer the question of where the art is, Craig-Martin states in the text that this resultant oak tree is the art object.
Image courtesy of Michael Craig-Martin.
An Oak Tree (1973) plays on the Aristotelian supremacy of essence over accident. The essence of the oak tree persists, despite all of the sensory evidence to the contrary. The ostensible transformation is not aesthetically accessible, and therefore the particular oak tree presented to the audience has no aesthetic dimension at all. Rather, the aesthetic dimension is entirely accidental to the essence which is intended for gallery display: the former is a glass of water, the latter is an oak tree.
The work also reflects the artist’s Catholic upbringing, drawing on the concept of transubstantiation. At the last supper, “Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”10
At communion, Catholics ceremonially consume a cracker and wine to signify the bread and wine which at the last supper was, in essence, the flesh and blood of Christ—despite the accidents of the bread and wine. With this shade of meaning, the artist intends to “deconstruct the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his [sic] capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he [sic] has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art.”11
An Oak Tree (1973) is a fine example of the conceptualist gambit and its vaunting of thought: it simultaneously extricates itself from the abject sensory, and more deeply yokes itself to it (since after all of this metaphysical transformation from a glass of water into an oak tree, the sensory dimension still indicates only a glass of water). In dissecting the social contract between artist and audience, it speaks to contemporary art as a secularized iteration of an originally theological endeavor, one which served as a litmus for humanity.
Kongo-Yombe Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Picasso, Head of a Woman (1907).
The concept and value of thought in the West belie a desire for divestment from the ostensibly inferior world of sensory phenomena in line with Cartesian mind/body dualism, where bodies are organic machines, and only humans, with reason and language, have souls. As Descartes claims, non-human animals, are simply one more facet of nature ripe for use: “they have no mental powers whatsoever… it is nature which acts in them, according to the disposition of their organs; just as we see that a clock consisting only of ropes and springs can count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can in spite of all our wisdom.”12
According to this idea, a body can only supercede the machinic laws of nature with rational thought; all else serves as the sandbox in which to perfect reason, living and breathing but nevertheless objectified. In this way Cartesian dualism demonstrates that “the practical elaboration of making a commitment to humanity is inhumanism… humanism is by definition a project to amplify the space of reason,”13 Humanism’s project to expand the scope and analytic power of reason requires a corollary dehumanized faction to serve as its foil and ground of deployment.
Building on Cartesian dualism, Hegel argues that “in Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence, … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”14
Hegel frames his mention of Africa as perfunctory, but his portrayal of Blackness as primordial is a necessary assumption for his teleological understanding of history, which evolves toward European reason. Hegel transfers Descartes’ human/animal dichotomy to the realm of human difference, and positions Africa as an inhuman prehistory without thought in order to naturalize slavery and conquest in the “development” of the West.
In art we find a similar process. It was through the animalization of Black and brown people as lacking reason that white artists could render non-white lands, aesthetics, and bodies as raw material to modify and deploy in response to Western art history, both conceptually and materially. By confining Black bodies to what Orlando Patterson terms “social and ontological death”, the West could render us simultaneously as the fungible cornerstones of its program, and as valueless vestiges of prehistory.15 As Murrell states, the stolen objects that served as the inspiration for modernism “were treated as artifacts of colonized cultures rather than as artworks, and held so little economic value that they were displayed in pawnshop windows and flea markets.”16
Armed with the fruits of conquest, white art ‘developed’ away from representation (and eventually objecthood entirely) by means of positing the supremacy of thought as surfing on colonial spoils. Picasso, for example, said “African sculptures had helped him to understand his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind.”17 The same tendency continues today, with Black and brown life “inspiring” white art, with non-white artists strategically included to absolve the white cube and diversify the market.
In response to the squalor of phenomena, art turned the lived into solely a surface for thought: thinking itself is the best medium for art when the entire universe is accessible as source material, allowing a performative divestment from modernist values while simultaneously arguing for the value-neutral availability of its tools in a newly managerial aesthetic practice.
The vaunting of thought in the contemporary in which criticality is a prime currency can be read as an echo of Cartesian disavowal of the sensory. In various histories of conquest, this acts as a defensive response to the excavation of the violence of modernism, and of art history more generally. This is perfectly in line with the speculative turn in global financial capitalism and its various projects of governance by debt, brutal resource extraction, and sanitized diversity, all of which serve to conceal the constitutive violence of capitalism.
From 1,000 Rivers (2014), a photo series by Winslow Laroche. Image courtesy the artist.
In stark contrast to Hegelian notions of art and human development as embodied by conceptualism and its afterlife, Brooklyn artist Winslow Laroche’s reading of post-art is useful for critiquing the supremacy and aesthetics of thought. For Laroche, art conceals the modernist debt to Black and brown aesthetics. In a text-to-speech sound piece featured on the inaugural episode of The Diamond Stingily Show on Know-Wave, Laroche polemically states “All white art is Black face or Brown face and all white people are cops and lurking snitches.”
He questions the post-artistic valorization of objects that fluidly move between commodified art and nugatory non-art—precisely the fungible position the slave occupies in the longue durée of the Middle Passage, situated there by an imaginary deprivation of reason. In light of slavery, such fluidity and spectacle as a “talking commodity” is old hat. Fred Moten disagrees with Marx that the talking commodity is an impossibility, given the reality of transatlantic African slavery.18 Further, Black folks have long known all sociality and aesthetics are always already subsumed into the commodity form under capitalism.
Venerating post-art fluidity only conceals art history’s antiblackness, conforming to the tradition wherein, as Keith Obadike states, “to many white artists, blackness represents some kind of borderless excess, some kind of unchecked expression.”19 Just as Picasso was titillated by the spoils of African colonization, the ostensible supremacy of thought and the corresponding fluidity of aesthetic processes relies on the erasure of modernist violence.
Laroche allows us to argue that far from living in a time “after art,” the West has not yet actually reached the conditions for art: all the West knows as “art” since the Enlightenment is an ecology of criteria for inclusion which relies on the colonial subsumption of Black and brown aesthetics. From this vantage all Western aesthetic developments simply serve to conceal this subsumption. Art objects are not useless contexts for the contemplation of timeless ideas like beauty or art itself; they work to continue the modernist project of treating non-whiteness as raw material for white speculation.20
The conditions for art as autonomous non-utilitarian endeavor will never emerge as long as art’s erasure of its own debt to Black and brown practice continues. Western aesthetic developments simply conceal the violence of modernism, betraying their anxious inability to come to terms with its reality. Autonomous inutility is simply a simultaneous escapism and market capitulation, a covertly useful endeavor of continuing modernist violence.
The supremacy of thought upholds this erasure of white debt. The West has expanded humanism to include everyone, marketizing reason and detaching it from European patrimony. In this sense traditional conservatism—from which reason as litmus of humanity emerged, and which seeks to uphold traditional European values like racial superiority and slow culture—is at odds with market conservatism, which thrives on speed and welcomes any increase in profits including multiculturalism, which it recognizes can easily coexist with white supremacy.21
Consequently, Black artists, if we choose, can operate under the assumption that art owes us. We are the true inheritors of the fluidity between art and nonart. We don’t need to make things or think or write or create value in any way for art’s patrimony: our flesh was used to build it. But we should also recognize that our inclusion into white cubes is not enough. Such inclusion is the least to be done. We must advocate that “Art art” pay dues to the marginalized bodies of aesthetic practice it violently treated and treats as raw material, and return the stolen objects that haunt its institutions.
Image courtesy Rafia Santana.
It is instructive to consider an example that reflects Laroche’s post-art concept. #PAYBLACKTiME is a project which multimedia Brooklyn artist Rafia Santana began on November 9th, 2016. The artist describes the project as a “white-money transference system that provides free meals via Seamless / GrubHub to Black + Brown folx across the North Americas.”22
A description of the work reads: All orders are paid for by the White Guilt Reparations Fund for white people who ask “What can I do?” during a time when we have heavily publicized evidence of their race’s direct connection to the continuous suffering and disenfranchisement of Black / Brown people worldwide.
In an interview with FELT Zine, Santana states that the project’s name is “a play on the phrase ‘Payback Time,’ and also a demand to pay back black people for the hundreds of years of free labor and continuing trauma in the US alone. It is time to pay back / pay black.” The project not only offers white audiences an easy way to make concrete change, it translates the call for reparations into a service answering a need anyone could understand—hunger—and brings the audience into the conversation of what America owes Black people.
When I asked via Facebook chat whether #PAYBLACKTiME was art, Santana responded that “I haven’t thought of it specifically as art but everything I do is art I guess.” In its banal fluidity between art and non-art, and its delegation of audience and aesthetics into potential financial utility in service of feeding Black and brown people, #PAYBLACKTiME exemplifies Laroche’s post-art. It rejects the modernist premise of art’s autonomous uselessness, which is just complicity with white supremacy and a fantasy of escape from the constitutive violence of art and capitalism. #PAYBLACKTiME calls on its audience to recognize the aesthetic value in the concrete, useful act of paying for non-white people’s food. Rendering aesthetics as utility reveals the covert utility of the modernist art object: the hoarding of resources stolen from conquest, which must be redistributed.
From we need the memories of all our members, a show by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape at HKS (Bergen, 2015). Image courtesy the artist.
This essay has concerned itself with the Middle Passage and its afterlife, but Africans who remained on their native lands also faced and continue to face violent colonization processes orthogonal to that of the New World.
Wikipedia is touted as a digital democratization of information, but it often exhibits mob mentality, and its acceptance requirements can be exclusionary of information that does not fit the dominant paradigm. In particular, Wikipedia echoes the general lack of information online about Africa that one would expect from a digital sphere dominated by Western concerns. According to Wikipedia, Africa is the world’s third largest market and the most culturally diverse continent, “and yet it has the lowest and least informed profile of any region on the Internet; moreover, what does appear is often selective, lacks context and reinforces outdated stereotypes.”23
As Tabita Rezaire discusses in her video piece Afro Cyber Resistance, the Cape Town-based collective Chimurenga experienced “the controlling and geographically biased architecture of the internet…Engaged in cultural African history and theory, they tried multiple times to upload African content onto Wikipedia, so as to Africanize the world’s most visited online encyclopaedia and fill the lack of information online about the continent.”24 Elvira Dyangani Ose notes that many of those proposed entries were rejected, some “because their relevance was not proved, others because the style or tone of those entries was too personal or not deemed appropriate to the world’s most ‘open’ Internet platform.”25)
Founded in 2007 by nonprofit lettera27 and contemporary art platform Africa Center, WikiAfrica is a collaborative project aimed at generating content sourced from Africans for publication on Wikipedia. Acknowledging that Wikipedia’s content restrictions are an accessibility issue, WikiAfrica conducts workshops and training, engages field experts, and deploys other initiatives (such as Wiki Loves Women, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut) to facilitate and encourage the publication of accurate, respectful information about Africa onto Wikipedia. The project intends to exist in concert with efforts to increase African internet access, which in June 2016 consisted of around 340 million online users, or 28.7% of the population.26
There is a long way to go, but the production of true information about Africa, sourced from real Africans navigating Wikipedia’s oppressive informatic norms, is valuable groundwork for dispelling anti-African stereotypes and increasing online African representation. Since one dimension of reparations involves knowledge transfer and the violence of in/visibility, WikiAfrica is a good rebuttal to the potential replication of Hegelian anti-black fantasies of Africa.
Though the project is a collaboration between a nonprofit and a contemporary art platform, it is not necessarily art, shirking aesthetic concerns to focus on the project of Africanizing Wikipedia and increasing digital literacy. As Rezaire states: “even if this endeavour is not thought of or seen as Internet Art per se, it can be understood as an online platform for active social resistance against occidental hegemony and online information control.”27 The art / non-art fluidity of WikiAfrica is not new to the African scene, and neither is its treatment of aesthetics as secondary to utility.
manuel arturo abreu, Herramienta, 2016. Aluminum can, soursop juice, tallow candle. Image courtesy AA|LA Gallery.
Reparations has a fiscal and resource access dimension as well as a representational dimension, but it also has a theoretical dimension. To stand against the supremacy of Western thought begins to lay the ground for the reclamation of critical aesthetics against European reason’s history of Black dehumanization. Black feminist literary critic and theorist Hortense Spillers argues that the Black position is the critical position: “Because it was set aside, black culture could, by virtue of the very act of discrimination, become culture, insofar as, historically speaking, it was forced to turn its resources of spirit toward negation and critique.”28
At a moment when criticality is so “in,” Black criticality remains violently punished and pilfered. Its reclamation from assimilation to Western modalities becomes imperative. While complete non-assimilation to Western thought may be unavoidable due to the coloniality of the world, rejecting thought itself remains a possibility—fuck thought, fuck that—but it doesn’t necessarily respond to the central problem.
Instead, we might look deeper into the utility of thought itself, its use as a litmus for humanity to dehumanize Black and brown people in service of conquest. The institution of thought represses the stark fact that dehumanized people, historically argued to lack reason, are in fact thinking humans. We can recalibrate the situation along the lines of Lewis Gordon: “Blackness… reaches out to theory, then, as theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself.”29 (Gordon 2010: 196-8).
Building on this, Jared Sexton argues that “1) all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought and, consequently, 2) all researches, insofar as they are genuinely critical inquiries, aspire to black studies. Blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory.”30 Just as the autonomous inutility of art remains impossible until the West repays its debt to Black and brown aesthetics, so does a true theory detached from the sensory remain impossible until theory reconciles its antiblack dehumanizing uses.
Image courtesy of @delashereen.
Reclaiming criticality as properly Black may mean grappling with the possibility that, as Hortense Spillers argues, “black culture—as the reclamation of the critical edge…has yet to come.”31 If Black culture as reclamation of criticality’s Blackness is a horizon, it remains clear that the intersection of Black assimilation to American imperialism and American genocide of Black people engenders what Joy James calls a dead zone. “The nexus at which black achievement meets black genocide appears as a conceptual void.”32
Art in a Larochean sense, as the conditional inclusion of Black artists to reify power and conceal modernism’s debt to non-white aesthetics, is one such conceptual void. This foregrounds the necessity for action without a complete or cogent analytic, an imperative to redistribute resources now and ask questions later—or rather, an imperative to see such action as theory itself: repairing the schism between ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking in black.’
James acknowledges the stumbling and illegibility involved in deploying an analytic from the dead zone: “The intersection is unlit…as we repeatedly cross our own past while projecting a real and imagined future as critical thought radically invents meaningful engagement.”33 While the reclamation of Black criticality remains but a horizon, we can look to projects like #PAYBLACKTiME and WikiAfrica as examples of subversive engagement with the always already commoditized technics of sociality in order to repair the injustices and unequal access faced by Black artists around the world. In their fluid status and delegation of aesthetics to a utilitarian reparative role Black artists challenge the contemporary continuation of modernist violence, in line with a Black post-art to lay the groundwork for the reclamation of criticality’s Blackness.
1. Joselit, “Heritage and Debt” (lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, December 3, 2014), February 12, 2015
2. As part of Home School—a free pop-up art school I co-facilitate in Portland—I taught a class called Contemporaneity: building a better white supremacy, which further explores these ideas.
3. “I call ‘standard’ those aesthetics whose principles (1) are recognized and accepted, across a number of variations, by institutional and academic communities and which thus constitute the object of confirmed knowledges; (2) whose principles define either a foundation for art or a philosophical description of art or, more generally, a normality and a normativity; which is to say (3) a determinism of the reciprocal causality of art and of philosophy. It poses well known questions of the type ‘What is art?,’ ‘What is the essence of art?,’ ‘What can art do?,’ and it believes it can answer these questions with certainty. In accordance with these questions, standard aesthetics describes the styles, forms and historical epochs of art in a broadly realist manner, for it believes it is possible to define both art and philosophy.” Laruelle 2012
4. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol. 1, 10. With respect to art, Hegel focuses on the contemplation of beauty, but for our purposes a tautological definition of art as whatever is called art works fine.
5. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 8
6. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 27.
7. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 102.
8. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 98.
9. This text was at first was handed out as a leaflet but is generally wall-mounted behind glass today.
10. Matthew 26:26-28 NIV.
11. Craig-Martin, Landscapes, 20.
12. Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, 48.
13. Negarestani, “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.”
14. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 111-12, 117.
15. The work of Orlando Patterson, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and others lay the ground for the emergence of the Afropessimist texture of thought. The former’s analytic shift of focus toward the position of the slave allowed for the work of Frank Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, Christina Sharpe, and others to build on arguments about the fungibility of the Black body in racial capitalism, the social and ontological death of Black life, and the structure of multiracial global antiblackness. A simultaneous analytic trend of “black optimism” ostensibly in contrast to Afropessimism is exemplified by the work of Fred Moten and others. However, Sexton convincingly argues that the two are not so distinct, as embodied in the paradox that “black social death is black social life.” Both Afropessimism and Black optimism engage the impossible possibility of Black existence as such. Further, “the object of black studies is the aim of black studies,” that is, the horizon of Black liberation from social and ontological death. Sexton continues: “The most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world. Afro-pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism” (Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”).
16., 17. Murrell, “African Influences in Modern Art.”
18. Moten 2003: 6
19. Keith Townsend Obadike, interview by Coco Fusco, in Mendi + Keith Obadike, September 9, 2001
20. abreu, “Notes on the Garage Residency.”
21. Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism.
22. $6,398.79 = Total orders and dollar amount for #PAYBLACKTiME as of December 26, 2016
23. Wikipedia contributors, “Wikipedia:WikiAfrica,” Wikipedia
24., 27. Rezaire, “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” 188.
25. Dyangani Ose, “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary” (lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012)
26. Miniwatts Marketing Group, Internet Users in Africa March 2017
28. Spillers, “The Idea of Black Culture,” 28.
29. Gordon, “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” 196.
30. Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”.
31. Volcovici, “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.”
32. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 460.
33. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 476.
abreu, manuel arturo. “Notes on the Garage Residency,” SFMoMa Open Space: Work on Work Blog. September 14, 2016.
Descartes, Rene. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dyangani Ose, Elvira. “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary.” Lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012.
Gordon, Lewis. “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 18.2 (2010): 192-214.
Hegel, GFW. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol 1. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975.
Hegel, GWF. The Philosophy of History. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.
James, Joy. “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 108.3 (2009): 459-481.
Joselit, David. “Heritage and Debt.” Lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis , December 3, 2014. February 12, 2015.
Kaminsky, Jack. Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics. New York: SUNY, 1962.
Kaprow, Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Laruelle, Francois. “The generic orientation of non-standard aesthetics.” Lecture, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, November 17, 2012. October 21, 2013.
Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Murrell, Denise. “African Influences in Modern Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. April 2008.
Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.” e-flux Journal #53. March 2014.
Obadike, Keith Townsend. “All Too Real The Tale of an On-Line Black Sale.” Interview by Coco Fusco. Mendi + Keith Obadike. September 9, 2001.
Rezaire, Tabita. “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 12.2 & 3 (2014): 185-196.
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Sexton, Jared. 2012. Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts. Lateral 1. Cultural Studies Association.
Spillers, Hortense J. “The Idea of Black Culture,” CR: The New Centennial Review 6.3 (2006): 7-28.
Volcovici, Geoffrey. “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.” Black Quantum Futurism. January 1, 2017.
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.’
Line-up and Details for the 10th Edition of 7×7 to be announced on Monday, April 2!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
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