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Articles on this Page
- 04/02/18--09:00: _Announcing Line-up,...
- 04/03/18--07:15: _Humans of Simulated...
- 04/05/18--08:00: _What Will I Be When...
- 04/11/18--07:39: _Black Pyrotechnics:...
- 04/15/18--21:00: _On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: _Draw me like one of...
- 04/19/18--11:08: _Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: _First Look: Whisper...
- 04/24/18--08:52: _'Reigns: Her Majest...
- 04/25/18--07:56: _Web Archives’ Photo...
- 04/30/18--05:38: _I Cook Every Chance...
- 05/01/18--07:47: _Artist Profile: Leo...
- 05/08/18--21:00: _Real Artists Ship: ...
- 05/09/18--11:07: _Notes on a Play for...
- 05/10/18--08:30: _A Social Network fo...
- 05/14/18--07:47: _Swipe Right if You ...
- 05/15/18--09:05: _To Lose the Scroll ...
- 05/16/18--11:23: _Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: _Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: _Artist Profile: Mer...
- 06/04/18--10:32: _American Hospitality
- 06/06/18--10:00: _Collect, Curate, an...
- 06/12/18--09:20: _Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: _Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: _The Paradox of Into...
- 07/10/18--10:46: _An Excess of Consci...
- 07/26/18--14:03: _The Internet’s Revo...
- 08/01/18--09:00: _Open Call: Rhizome ...
- 08/02/18--07:25: _Olfactory Suggestion
- 08/08/18--13:47: _Entering the Gray Zone
- 08/14/18--13:03: _‘An Oasis, a Utopia...
- 08/23/18--07:48: _The World Isn’t You...
- 08/27/18--09:49: _Building a Communit...
- 09/05/18--10:21: _Continental Drift: ...
- 09/11/18--10:43: _Rest in Peace, Ethi...
- 09/16/18--21:00: _Save the Date(s): R...
- 09/17/18--08:28: _Open Call: Past, pr...
- 09/24/18--11:53: _Rhizome Members Par...
- 10/04/18--08:24: _Announcing 2018 Mic...
- 10/12/18--08:17: _“The Art Happens He...
- 10/30/18--08:17: _Worse than Scabs: G...
- 11/01/18--07:01: _7x7 Beijing: Detail...
- 11/05/18--06:35: _The Body Was Under ...
- 11/06/18--05:48: _Vote Auction 3.0: D...
- 11/19/18--14:37: _A Rhizome Holiday S...
- 11/21/18--14:11: _Get Off the Interne...
- 11/27/18--11:00: _Rhizome Presents: J...
- 12/12/18--07:46: _Model Behavior: An ...
- 12/14/18--06:24: _Artist Profile: Jak...
- 12/18/18--07:08: _National Film Board...
- 04/03/18--07:15: Humans of Simulated New York
- 04/05/18--08:00: What Will I Be When I Grow Up? A Production Company
- 04/11/18--07:39: Black Pyrotechnics: On the New in ‘New Black Portraitures’
- 04/15/18--21:00: On the Edge of Google
- 04/18/18--08:53: Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes
- 04/19/18--11:08: Online Within Limits
- 04/23/18--10:42: First Look: Whispering Pines 10
- 04/25/18--07:56: Web Archives’ Photoshop Moment
- 04/30/18--05:38: I Cook Every Chance in My Pot
- 05/01/18--07:47: Artist Profile: Leo Castaneda
- 05/08/18--21:00: Real Artists Ship: Recent Projects From Seven on Seven
- 05/09/18--11:07: Notes on a Play for Four Bots
- 05/10/18--08:30: A Social Network for One
- 05/14/18--07:47: Swipe Right if You Love ISPs
- 05/15/18--09:05: To Lose the Scroll is to Lose Your Soul: Presenting Blockedt!
- 05/16/18--11:23: Big Glitter
- 05/23/18--07:30: Seven on Seven 2018
- 06/01/18--11:57: Artist Profile: Meriem Bennani
- 06/04/18--10:32: American Hospitality
- Curated lists can guide users to the most interesting pages in a collection, and with further description and per-page annotation, provide a path through what’s been collected. Especially when lists are displayed in the new sidebar (to the left of captured websites) they can make it much easier for users to browse a collection. As has been the case with collections, users can choose to keep their lists private or share them with the world.
- The main collection view has been redesigned to provide a cover page showcasing lists and descriptions as an easy entry point into collections.
- Webrecorder now features a newly designed table view with filtering options, making it quicker to find a specific URL (page) in your collection.
- Links into Webrecorder collections always contain a user-defined collection name instead of cryptic identifiers. Previously, this meant that if a collection was renamed, its URL would change and outside links would break. With this new release Webrecorder keeps track of renaming and forwards users to the correct new collection page.
- A new visual design with subtle contrasts ensures that the web materials in collections remain the focus of presentation.
- 06/12/18--09:20: Landscape Painting
- 06/14/18--12:16: Island Mentality
- 06/28/18--12:09: The Paradox of Intolerance
- 07/10/18--10:46: An Excess of Consciousness
- 07/26/18--14:03: The Internet’s Revolutions
- 08/01/18--09:00: Open Call: Rhizome Microgrants 2018
- 08/02/18--07:25: Olfactory Suggestion
- 08/08/18--13:47: Entering the Gray Zone
- 08/14/18--13:03: ‘An Oasis, a Utopia, and a Nightmare’
- 08/23/18--07:48: The World Isn’t Your Internet
- 08/27/18--09:49: Building a Community Archive of Police Violence
- 09/05/18--10:21: Continental Drift: Notes on “Asian” Art
- 09/11/18--10:43: Rest in Peace, Ethira: An Interview with Amalia Ulman
- 09/16/18--21:00: Save the Date(s): Rhizome's Fall Events
- 09/17/18--08:28: Open Call: Past, present and future in the net art archive
- 09/24/18--11:53: Rhizome Members Party & Benefit Art Sale!
- 10/04/18--08:24: Announcing 2018 Microgrant Awardees!
- 10/12/18--08:17: “The Art Happens Here” opens at the New Museum January 22
- 10/30/18--08:17: Worse than Scabs: Gamer Rage as Anti-Union Violence
- 11/01/18--07:01: 7x7 Beijing: Details Announced!
- 11/05/18--06:35: The Body Was Under Threat: UBERMORGEN on ‘Vote-Auction’
- 11/06/18--05:48: Vote Auction 3.0: Digital déja vu
- 11/19/18--14:37: A Rhizome Holiday Surprise, From our Network to Yours
- 11/27/18--11:00: Rhizome Presents: JODI at ON CANAL
- 12/12/18--07:46: Model Behavior: An Interview with Jonas Lund
- 12/14/18--06:24: Artist Profile: Jakob Kudsk Steensen
We're pleased to announce the 10th edition of the celebrated art-tech platform Seven on Seven, to be held May 19 at the New Museum. This flagship Rhizome event brings together leaders in art and technology for an extended creative collaboration, giving them a simple challenge: "make something." On Saturday, May 19, pairs will reveal their projects at the day-long conference event.
Tickets are on-sale today, here. A limited number of subsidized artist and student tickets are also available by lottery—if you qualify, please request one here. To explore past Seven on Seven programs, visit: rhizome.org/sevenonseven.
The 10th edition of Seven on Seven takes place in a moment of broad public disillusionment with digital platforms and their impact on interpersonal communication and media culture. Against this backdrop, the collaborators rethink ways of communicating and organizing through technology, looking to evolving disciplines such as machine intelligence and blockchain governance while revisiting fundamental principles of digital culture.
Seven on Seven 2018 will feature:
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw at Alphabet Inc.
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
Over the next few weeks we will reveal more about this special 10th edition—including details of a forthcoming publication produced with our long-time friends at Wieden+Kennedy New York, edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome Special Projects Editor, and designed by W+K's Global Creative Director Richard Turley; a special after-party event; and much more.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Spring Place is Seven on Seven's after-party partner.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
The role of simulation in planning is nothing new—it’s how Google Maps anticipates there’ll be traffic on a daily commute, and how the Obama Campaign in 2012 forecasted an electoral edge over Mitt Romney. It’s also used by stock traders to gauge investment patterns and by private and public defense organizations both to regulate border control and evaluate the effectiveness of different military strategies. In projecting existing data onto constructed scenarios, simulations are able to portray imaginable futures. These futures, however, bank on the predictability of human behavior—that people will operate the same way they have in the past, and that their tendencies can be reduced to discrete, codeable particulars.
But the technology underlying these models could also be used to simulate previously unimaginable futures. The data inputted could be altered to rig the simulation, allowing us to formulate responses to questions like:
What if a city’s economic policies were entirely at the hands of its workers?
What if a city’s residents didn’t have to work?
What if they all had access to affordable healthcare?
How would their lives change? What would they be freed to do?
In their digital thought-experiment Humans of Simulated New York, developed during a month-long residency at DBRS Labs, artist Fei Liu and writer and developer Francis Tseng offer a platform to discuss such hypotheticals, while laying bare the paradoxes at work behind large-scale planning and policy-making. First, the simulation assigns users a random identity, whose characteristics are culled from a database containing decades’ worth of actual New York City census data. Users must then propose and vote in favor of legislation that would benefit their new avatar. The success of the user is contingent on her investment in the character she’s given, however different from her that he may be.
Unlike the more familiar urban simulation SimCity, in which infrastructure development takes precedence over the interplay of demographics, HoSNY dives straight into the invisible structure of the city’s political economy, placing it in an intimate relationship with the player-as-subject. The idea, according to the minds behind the project, is to address Fredric Jameson’s call in Postmodernism for a “situational representation” of the relationship between the individual subject and the “unrepresentable totality” of the society in which she takes part. It is best thought of as a fortified version of information visualization that immerses people in an experience of data, instead of merely presenting that data.
Perhaps the most crucial point the project raises is that bias and exclusion are inextricable bounds, aspects that define the construction of a city, no matter how “ideal” the city’s design may seem. The definition of a perfect society is always limited by the vision of its creators, from the pre-internet digital utopias of media theorists like Douglas Rushkoff to the post-technological societies of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series. Further, utopias have been defined by the shortcoming of exclusion since their inception. Think of how Thomas More’s relies on physical boundaries as a means of exclusion, and how Plato’s utopia relies on a bias toward different crafts.
By rendering this problem transparent, HoSNY may be an effective way of shattering the narrow frameworks of today’s most idealistic thinkers—the engineers and founders of Silicon Valley. If, as the simulation suggests, these tech-devotees—typically white, wealthy, anglophone, cis- males—could step into the mindset of a demographic they may claim to understand by the contours of their quantifiable aspects rather than their lived experiences, they just might have a better sense of how their plans for society actually affect people unlike themselves. What they’re likely to realize, as HoSNY points out, is that even their own philanthropic visions of utopia are stunted by their capitalist context and, more to the point, insurmountable alterity.
HoSNY has important predecessors in other highly instructive simulations, likeDwarf Fortressand Parable of the Polygons, themselves exercises on exclusion in virtual societies. HoSNY also has a non-virtual historical predecessor: Salvador Allende’s Project Cybersyn, which was a network of computers operating from 1971 to 1973. The computers were set up to predict what might happen if Chile’s workforce had decision-making power over its industries. The project gestured at the possibility of simulation to posit an unprecedented economic reality, although its short life-span questions the actual capacity of cybernetic systems to sustain one.
HoSNY also provides an alternative to classic economic models by taking into account irrational human behavior, building on the work of recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. By demonstrating that the far-off consequences to adjustments in the city’s management are unpredictable, the simulation points to the absurdity of relegating its operations to AI algorithms. But this is precisely what today’s “Smart Cities,” which embed digital technology across city functions to manage complex systems like traffic and resource consumption, are ignoring. As computer science professor Dan Rockmorepoints out, “thoughtful technology deployment” is increasingly devalued in a world where immediate profit takes precedence over the considerations of long-term repercussions. Such factors perhaps account for why we are only now dealing with the unwitting discrimination wrought by image-recognition software, or with the sociopolitical mess of Uber, even as it carries on with its plans for self-driving cars.
Problems like these might be avoided by getting young developers to read works of speculative fiction. Stories like Dave Eggers’ The Circle might, for one, help us foresee the dark consequences of pervasive surveillance technology in ways that data alone cannot. Rockmore notes that H.G. Wells’ The World Set Free helped Churchill anticipate the threat of atomic warfare. Similarly, tools like HoSNY might serve as a powerful strategic weapon to combat and question technological tunnel vision, since it uses the very vocabulary that resonates with contemporary developers.
But HoSNY itself, as a data-driven project, shouldn’t replace the frameworks that keep a city functioning. While it may have considerable real-world applicability, it is meant to raise questions, not provide catch-all solutions. But blind faith in algorithms is catching on: Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei has called for a universal city software, or “city OS” that sounds eerily like a real-world version of SimCity. And recently, the New Orleans Police Department secretly enlisted data-mining firm Palantir to implement a predictive policing program, whose dubious methods in inculpating criminals is already being challenged in court.
What’s more, basing policies on speculative fiction isn’t going to guarantee a more cautionary approach to dealing with societal complexities. The same Wellsian fantasy that fostered Churchill’s pacifism also justified his suprematist Malthusian policies towards India which led to the Bengal famine of 1943 that took the lives of over two million people. Even if imagination and technology are invaluable tools for envisioning a better future, they still need to be accompanied by a hefty dose of grounded, humanist discretion through democratic decision-making.
HoSNY may prove most productive for its potential as concept rather than as commodity, although simulations prove to be highly lucrative. In 2016, the Danish police reportedly paid Palantir up to $40 million to use their software to identify terrorists. Many virtual stock trading platforms, used to practice trading and investing, are paywalled (though trading simulations do not yet come close to real trading scenarios, in which success is determined over years, not months, and there’s real money on the line). Even if its machine learning algorithm may make anticipating the future a little easier, HoSNY still originates in part from the constructs of human hands, failing in action, but succeeding as art–a domain in which, according to Dena Yago, “practices that cannot function within generic constraints run up against the walls and expose fissures in the structures they are working in.”
HoSNY ultimately speaks for the potential of creative imaginaries as instructive tools. It is only within the infinite bounds of speculative provocation that the issues which projects like HoSNY discuss are even able to be brought to light, and evaluated in all their complexity. Taking them out of this discursive context and transferring them directly into non-virtual terrain poses the threat of negating the very point they’re trying to make – that computer-run systems should be used to illuminate weaknesses and flaws in society’s scaffolding, but not necessarily to fix them.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Ryan Trecartin's I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Released at a time when social media platforms were still in their youth, Ryan Trecartin’s I-BE AREA (2007) feels comfortably contemporary today, more than ten years later. With its exuberant adolescence and multiple, chaotic narratives of ontology, the film was a harbinger of a future that has now come to pass.
The film addresses questions of the post-human, queer subcultures, race, the post-gender body, reproduction, family structures, and interpersonal relationships–some of the many facets of the multiplicity of self inherent to the social web. Actors rapidly cycle through names, genders, and appearances. Multiplicity and hybridity is expressed at all levels of the film's construction: dialogue, costume, make-up, and collaboratively constructed environments and props, and then again through Trecartin’s interventions in post-production.
Trecartin’s signature editing style is perhaps the most essential to the construction of the work: Trecartin himself has stated that “everything is performed for the edit––performed to become live through mediation. Editing is itself a part of articulating the character, and so I see it as a performative gesture.” The edits, comprising rapid jump cuts, manipulation of playback speed, and adjustment of vocal pitch, allow characters to perform in disjoined spaces and fractured time, stitching together sentences that are delivered in multiple locations into a continuous monologue. The addition of visual effects is also pertinent to narration and plot development: references to the screen, the browser window, and the avatar become transitions between scenes that often involve travel through a screen or an interface to arrive at an alternate location.
The film’s intentional confusion between life on-screen and off extends to its surroundings. The physical environments that accompany Trecartin’s video in the gallery space, as well as the work’s alternative presentation as a series of parts uploaded via YouTube and viewable on one’s personal browser, implicate the viewer as an active participant in the scene.
I-BE AREA is built upon the creation, dissolution, and collision of personal spaces, called “areas” throughout the film. Digital elements are wholly recognized as extensions of the self, as well as the ability within the network to form “multiple selves.” This ability is most fully realized by the character of Oliver, who later becomes Amerisha (played by Trecartin) after a clone named I-BE2 adopts their personality and renames themself. In I-BE AREA in Out of Order Youtube Messy-Format (2008), the exchange is contained in a YouTube upload titled I BE AREA (I-BE2 becomes Oliver becomes Amerisha).Original Oliver expresses their digital/personal ennui by way of a video-player popup that sets-up their individual “area”:
“Hi, my name is Oliver. I'm 5'11” and I look like this. I’m just sick of it though. Oliver, what are you sick of? I'm talking about my lifestyle vibe. My horoscope, my attitude, my email address, my fucking mother everyone. The books that I don't read, the boys that I never dated and the girls that give me high five. My CD's on freakin' repeat basically. I know. Rewind. I could leave any day and just go. But don’t hear me wrong. I love my Total Ohio awesome. My liberal laid back lesbian moms. And my incredibly sexy , gay girl siblings.
But fuck it. I just found myself and it doesn't look like anything. Not Oliver, not Ohio and not gay. It looks like this kind of. Sorry. I need a fucking poser to be me so I can compassionately ditch this shit with love and care while knowing that some well bred loser bachelor motherfucker is happy butt-fucking my old lifestyle. My one-way plane ticket to Brazil costs 995 international dollars. My address should appear now, send me a one-way money order and you get this box. Inside is my cell phone, outfit, all my passwords slash keys, plus a live subscription, hard copy PDF file of all the people I know in my life, how we relate and why I do the things I do.”
Oliver’s monologue consists of references to her technological extensions(cell phone, passwords, “PDF file of all the people [she knows] in [her] life”) as the necessary tools to usurp her being. The body is no longer useful as the physical vessel of the self; in its place, digital material may be transferred from host to host, and manipulated at will. Once I-BE2 becomes Oliver (and almost immediately, Amerisha), they begin making plans for their new life. Amerisha mentions that the old Oliver is now in the trash with Amerisha’s original avatar (the origin of I-BE2, who was deleted in an earlier scene), and looks into her future, stating, “What will I be when I grow up? A production company.”
In seeing a future self as an engine for media output, Amerisha’s statement feels especially prophetic of a future of cultural production through social media. The idealization of the production-company-as-self (it appears two more times in the film’s transcript) is one of the most solid reaches into the near future that Trecartin presents in I-BE AREA. An increasing necessity for immaterial labor in a mediated stage of neoliberalism presents the need for an updated Foucauldian “entrepreneur-as-self.” The massive viewership and subsequent monetization of platforms such as YouTube has given rise to an unprecedented new generation of independent content producers, or “influencers,” often using editing techniques akin to Trecartin’s in an attention-grabbing, formulaic way (watching footage of YouTube giant-––and as many would argue, villain––Jake Paul destroy a room in his production company’s mansion resembles an explicitly masculinized version of I-BE AREA’s’s chaoticwoodshop scene). In the case of both YouTube and other platforms, the focus for users has moved from interaction to a consistent output of content-as-identity through easily accessible channels provided by media companies–in exchange for the promise of a trickle of income which may be shut off at any time.
In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2014, Trecartin compared the fast-paced, “panicked” way his films are shot with the way that “people use technologies before they understand the implications of them, or before they even learn what, like, the actual function of a particular app is supposed to be.” Watching Oliver surrender their identity and abandon her selfhood through the hand-out of her personal data in 2018 bears a striking resemblance to the current mediastorm surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica––which, come to think of it, sounds like a potential name for one of Trecartin’s characters.
This is not to say that Trecartin’s imagining of the future is a sinister one; the visions of technology in I-BE AREA are particularly euphoric when performed by the actors and environments, and through Trecartin’s edits. Trecartin often points out the collaborative element of his work, and the modifications actors make to his scripts (which come before anything else), a process that, nods to the potential for different cultures to emerge online through translation and transmission of digital tidbits, creating cyclical and deeply coded languages. The interplay between these participant-led interventions and Trecartin’s pre-established structure of multilinear narratives (or of the internet itself) gives the film a collective voice (and memory), which prefigures the to dynamics that have since shaped multiplicitous selfhood online.
This article accompanies the online exhibition First Look: New Black Portraitures, presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
The powerful work in “First Look: New Black Portraitures” forces a confrontation, and beckons the question, what exactly is new about new black portraitures? Perhaps the “new” is the event of disruption that occurs whenever blackness enters the scene, the way blackness interrupts and corrupts technologies of the visual, data and archives: in this case, portraiture. Perhaps the “new” is the phenomenal way in which these prolific, brilliant artists explore how blackness destabilizes technologies that seek to render it legible, especially through the figuration of the face. Perhaps the new here might be thought of in terms the explosive force of these artists’ works: black (pyro)technics.
Each of these artists reconfigures the problematic of the portrait anew, and in remarkable ways. Each troubles what exactly portraiture is said to be, undermining its historical protocols and artistic conventions – they offer a new political vernacular of the portrait itself. Portraiture has been a flashpoint of racial antagonism and, in the words of Lorna Simpson, “guarded conditions.” The pseudo-event of “emancipation”—what Saidiya Hartman calls the “non-event of emancipation”—means that the afterlife of slavery is always already embedded in every media interface—video, television, film, and now online and on social media—and forever liable to be transposed onto it. In the digital afterlife of slavery, the image is further operationalized as a site of biopolitical surveillance and racialized capture. The virality and circulation of black suffering and death online, on “social” media, discloses the recursive, never-ending loop of anti-black violence, the bound(ed) infinity of its circulation.
Each of the artists in “New Black Portraitures” confronts the face and faciality as a site of anti-black surveillance, and also offers new methods and forms of portraiture in resistance. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari, in a critique of Levinasian ethics of faciality, argue that the face is racism’s portrait. Contrary to Levinas, whiteness is an originary facial recognition technology. For these artists portraiture is sabotaged and re-assembled via blackness. “New Black Portraitures” takes us into what Deleuze and Guattari call “the black hole of subjectivity.”
Sondra Perry, It's In the Game '17, 2017, still from video
Sondra Perry’s film, It’s In the Game ‘17, opens with Marvin Gaye’s and Diana Ross’s “You Are Everything,” mixing in the lyrics, “As she turned the corner/I called out your name/I felt so ashamed/When it wasn’t you, wasn't you […] You are everything, and everything is you.” Perry ruminates on blackness, the vast distance between iconography and historical record and the visual archive of the figures in blue, sculptures that are universally heralded signifiers of history, colonial treasures, and the personal archive of the family photo, and the portrait. We can read the film as Perry thinking through the disjuncture created by the archive of anti-blackness and the anti-blackness of the archive. That disjuncture between when one’s image (sculptural) is treated as singular achievement, and when one’s history and image is subjected to historical erasure. Perry shows how blackness warps the racial geometrics of facial recognition. Facial recognition technology functions as a truth procedure, seeking to render and establish the fact of blackness.
Here, Perry’s work overlaps with Rindon Johnson’s Away With You, which also speaks to how blackness exceeds computational capture through dis-individuation (un-trackable, according to the individuation of facial recognition). Both Johnson and Perry illustrate that the politics of Black Portraiture figure black social life and politics beyond faciality as the hegemonic site of representation as it is a troubling category for blackness and one that blackness troubles given the relationship, as the artists all know and explicitly or implicitly reference, between faciality and surveillance and policing. Johnson indexes the global surveillance of blackness, for instance, in the augmented reality feature where you can rotate the screen, taking on a panopticon view.
Rindon Johnson, Away With You, 2016, still from VR video
Juliana Huxtable’s portraits play on the interplay between absence and presence. What is absented from Huxtable’s portraiture is the very historical signature of the portrait itself: the face. In Huxtable’s portrait series, the body without a face performs as a surrogate that dramatizes commodification. The body is stamped with imagery of jeans, popularized slogans; it is imprinted by tattoos, and is marked by grammar of racial capital and slavery. It is branded as an aesthetic object.
Pastiche Lumumba’s Community Standard: A Poortrait across Platforms is brilliant for its parody. Poortrait indexes black queer/trans lumpen-proletarian realness that defies both Instagram’s politics of respectability and any claims of “respectability” jurisdiction over black visuality and visibility. Lulu: My Body is further critical speculation. There is no mention of the heteronormative grammar of gender, only a black queer/femme grammar and a figuration of Lulu. Lulu scandalizes and rejects any claims to uphold Instagram’s “community standards” through beautiful adornment (a grill, cleats morphed into high heels, for instance) and salaciousness. Lulu begins in the inhabitation of what Pastiche Lumumba elsewhere terms “low culture.” Lumumba’s work is both a powerful critique of the portrait as the visual technology of the bourgeoisie and a demonstration of the aesthetic power of the unrespectable, the non-sovereign, the rabble.
manuel arturo abreu’s Ambient Portraits relinquish the ocular for the auditory, creating a soundscape that pierces, an acoustic ecological field of frequencies and vibrations that dilate and stretch sound, that harmonize and then collapse into a single point. The first portrait, hamishi, feels like a sonic disturbance. In opting out of the visual, abreu brings sound online as animating force. The significance of this is again, a new technology of portraiture—an ambient portrait is no less of a portrait than any other. This gesture forces us to reconsider the methodology of the portrait itself. abreu’s ambience also moves to a different register in that it creates an atmosphere through sound. This moves us towards a different conception and experience of portraiture and actually forces a reconsideration of what constitutes portraiture in the first place. Further, it shows how the notion of the portrait might be expanded. Instead of the face as the symbol of liberal self-possessive individualism, we have the signature of a sound. abreu’s ambient portraits speak to animacies beyond the category of personhood and the subject, and beyond personhood and beyond subject/object distinction (since ambience isn’t personified, is neither subject nor object, and yet, it has a presence). The sound portraits imprint upon the listener, and leave them with the recognition of a new form of portraiture.
N-Prolenta’s film Ally Theater juxtaposes the solidity of architecture—the steel and concrete linearity, the volume and imposing size of pristine architectural design, and the skeletal becoming of buildings under construction—with the plasticity and liquidity of form. That liquidity manifests as a cursive line, “fantasy is a place where it rains,” and a watery black figure in the foreground in juxtaposition with the buildings in the background. We can make out a face, but there’s a dissonance within the semblance of the portrait given the distortion of the figure. Gradually even the semblance disappears, fades to black with grid lines. The garment the figure is wearing becomes the entire representation, then even that liquifies and is transported away. We are left with another spatial distortion, almost a haunting, the two buildings mirror each other. The interstitial space where they join becomes ghost-like, a face under construction.
N-Prolenta, Ally Theater, 2017
Hamishi Farah reimagines the conventions of portraiture by blending them together with new visual capabilities. Their painted portrait of Mike Meyers is animate, with uncanny features, as though inhabited by a ghost or inflated like a balloon. The portrait feels eerily alive in its animacy; the convex nature of the face with its moving eyes disturbs. The piece is the nexus where forms of the traditional painted portrait (pre-camera), CGI, and facial technology converge and distort. The image is taken from Myer’s reaction to Kanye West’s impromptu denunciation of Bush’s anti-black economy of empathy and antipathy—“George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”—during the racial capitalist disaster of Katrina. This piece raises questions of form, both in its dis- and re-configuration of the portrait. It begs the question of what the relationship both is and might be between verisimilitude and portraiture, and signals how new visual technologies constantly transform this relationship.
All the artists in NBP reinvent visual technologies to both trouble the violence of visibility and the face as a site of surveillance. They also move beyond the face, either choosing to distort it through technology, elide it, or reject it completely in favor of other forms of representation. Not post-racial but rather, post-facial.
Image: Miao Ying, LAN Love Poem—FLOWERS ALL FALLEN, BIRDS FAR GONE (Still), 2015. GIF animation.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
I landed in China almost five years ago, beginning a trip to Myanmar by bus and train that has not yet ended. I wanted to better understand how media, especially art, changes within different cultural, legal, and economic locales. I was just beginning to feel the dimensions of my lived experience in the US, the windows through which I saw the world, and wanted to push myself beyond.
Early on, I interviewed artist Miao Ying in a hip cafe in Beijing. Despite having no Google maps to help me find my way, and difficulties adjusting to censorship via VPNs for my Gmail, waiting for Miao I found myself closer to home than I expected. I ordered an Americano in English, and looking around, found half of the customers were on Facebook (over a VPN, of course). Down the street was a bustling McDonald’s. That feeling, of being at home, was a profound misreading of the place, and Miao quickly showed me just how far away I was from an internet and media ecology I understood.
Miao’s artworks, featuring remixes and collisions between various local internet cultures, were the most bizarre yet nuanced representations of the kind of cultural exchanges going on in China that I had yet seen. US media discourse presents China’s internet as a black box, filled with single-party promoted content and hounded by censorship and surveillance. I was led to believe that in China, there is no freedom, no opportunity for expression or cultural exchange. This was the West’s own propaganda, more subtle for sure, but there.
Miao’s animated in-browser collages of net screengrabs acknowledge these negative attributes, while also revealing insanely vibrant and weird net cultures thriving in spite of the limitations. Chinese netizens were picking from many influences locally, as well as around the world, and then remixing and transforming content. They created sophisticated and constantly mutating vernacular languages, at times in spite of censors, at times designed to escape the notice of censors. Google was simultaneously there, and wasn’t; privacy software allowed access, but the difficulty allowed for Chinese equivalents, most notably Baidu, to emerge and thrive. The tension produced a lot creativity.
Now, I live in Cambodia. Google hasn’t really fully arrived here. My street is not imaged on Google Street View (GSV). As I wrote for Rhizome in 2015, here, “a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet,” and almost exclusively through a phone. In Cambodia, poverty engenders lack of access to education and the requisite language needed to engage with technology. Of the small percentage of people online, they are predominately male, educated, relatively wealthy, and urban.
Growing up how I did, in a middle-class, white home on a pre-GSV grid, privileges of my offline world carried over as my life became more networked. I could connect and engage with people and ideas over great distances, while never experiencing censorship or harassment. Accordingly, it was easy to consider these corporate platforms as liberatory tools for exchange and self-expression. While Miao’s artwork showed the fallacy of an universal internet culture by highlighting the creativity on various Chinese platforms, Miao also helped me to reflect more critically on the parameters of my own networked life.
Miao’s work allows for a more nuanced view, one which creates space for agency. While networked power is undeniably undemocratically wielded in China and Cambodia, it too is increasingly centralized amongst a handful of private platforms in the USA. Companies such as Google possess an ever more powerful stake in how we see and relate to the world, yet meaningful access to their inner workings, their own black boxes, remains nearly impossible. At their most perilous, a corporation—like a government—that controls the means for relating to or seeing the earth risks reorganizing the planet to fit its business model. What artists can help us see inside our own centralizing internet? Who will show us Google?
What we see when we look at Google is a methodically manicured image. It is only advertising; noise hiding much deeper machinations. To begin with the basics and look beyond the sleek design and the various end-user interfaces Google provides, let’s reflect first on the hardware supporting our browser experiences. To do so, I turn to writer and artist Ingrid Burrington. Burrington investigates the politics embedded in networks, especially through their infrastructures, the hidden interfaces not for intended for us—the end-users—at all. Any ability I could claim to seeing Google, comes in part from thinking with Burrington’s writing.
In Burrington’sseries of essays for The Atlantic, she seeks to counter what she refers to as the “pernicious metaphor of The Cloud.” What Burrington unearths are a much more lively, and untidy images. Through Burrington’s research trips, she begins to reveal for us some of the actual wires, data centers, and people constituting and maintaining a network. The hardware and people she finds therein are antithetical to the advertising we are sold; they are messy, fragile, and they are human. Their intricacies are often hidden within giant private data centers, or buried under public streets, only suggested at through obscure symbols spray painted on the sidewalks above.
We are encouraged by companies like Google to put as much of ourselves onto the network, to rely upon it completely. To entrust these platforms with precious family photographs, intimate correspondence, and our businesses, to name a few, requires a great deal of trust on the part of us, the end users. The more we come to rely on these services, and the infrastructure supporting them, the more trusting we must be.
To garner this level of confidence, the platform must present itself as seamless, the storage impermeable, and the connection flawless. This ephemeral, sleek, universal network is not at all what she uncovers. As Burrington writes, the “rhetorical promise of The Cloud is as fragile as the strands of fiber-optic cable upon which its physical infrastructure rests.” It doesn’t inspire a lot of trust, but this is how it all actually works.
But I didn’t know all that when I moved from my home state of Indiana to New York City in 2010. The myth and magic platforms peddled still felt largely real to me then. However, one of the first, personally monumental exhibitions I saw there was New Museum’s “Free,” curated by Lauren Cornell. “Free”featured work that deeply challenged not only my understanding of art, but also my assumptions around the kind of media ecology in which we were all swimming.
Wandering “Free,” I kept returning to works from Jon Rafman’s series Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008 - ongoing). Rafman screen-grabbed, enlarged, printed, and framed an assembly of unrelated moments from GSV. Men in tracksuits flip off the camera; possibly sex workers stand along the road. A curious bright glitch stains an otherwise remote wooded road. I was previously aware of the project, but only via its blog. Physically manifested in the museum, the photographs gained a presence hard for most photographs, random or curated, to earn bumping around online. They demanded deeper reflection.
As writer Joanne McNeil noted in her catalog essay, the images possessed a disconcerting grainy quality, giving them a worn-out look that was discordant to the fairly contemporary tools (automated facial blurring) and prodigious scale of the project. While in-browser GSV’s images are utilitarian and impressively thorough, presented as finite art objects the tiny imperfections in the shots come to the fore.
These blemishes reminds us of Clement Valla’s essay and artwork, “Universal Texture,” which specifically seek out the imperfections in Google’s algorithms. Universal Texture is the algorithmic system that the company uses to create some of the most comprehensive—and certainly most used—maps of the Earth. Valla calls into question Google’s “God’s eye view” by slowly picking at the edges, searching for seams and cracks. While Burrington was busy digging for pipes and humming data centers, Valla begins at the opposite side by reverse engineering what Google shows us, in order to reveal the embedded politics steering our gaze.
Image via Clement Valla, 2012.
Valla scours the Universal Texture, collecting what he calls “edge conditions”: instances that at first glance appear to be glitches, but in fact reveal glimpses into the inner workings of the map itself. Collapsed bridges or skyscrapers stitched together into near-cubist sculptures are the still-visible clues into how the algorithm attempts to stitch together a singular, universal view from millions of disparate photographs taken on different days, at various perspectives, altitudes, and with disparate technologies. These are the limitations of this still-human product.
In Rafman’s work however, the algorithm’s constraints are secondary to the unprecedented gaze GSV allows. For Rafman, GSV’s incursion into public space was a violent rupture in privacy. The blown-up shots simultaneously humanize and objectify the subjects, existing somewhere between fiction and a documentary. We pass and look at much as we drive and public space always contains passing glances, but in the moments Rafman has chosen, people are frozen in time, and a passing glance becomes a corporatized gawking.
“The detached gaze of the automated camera,” Rafman writes, “can lead to a sense that we are observed simultaneously by everyone and by no one.” Erasing these pedestrians’ identities through facial blurring, which Google does for legal reasons, is little absolution for the invasion. Whether we, the viewers of GSV, know who they are or not, whether we know exactly when these shots were taken, these people are captured, flattened, decontextualized, and made vulnerable in the unflattering utilitarian light of Google. Their image is not their own.
Jon Rafman, Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 2008–.
But Google is not a cohesive whole, either. GSV’s scale resists comprehension, but Rafman’s highly curated selection makes it possible. Google’s data—and therefore profits—come from a variety of quotidian sources, such as geodata from your phone or cookies from a search, the cameras on a GSV car, and frequently, an unseen woman, sitting for a long shift, scanning thousands of books, as is the subject of artist Andrew Norman Wilson’s ScanOps, (2012 - ongoing).
In ScanOps, Wilson collated small mistakes from Google Books scans such as the fingers of the scanners, or a page, only half-way turned and distorted. By collecting errors made by Google’s employees, Wilson highlights not the algorithms, but the labor, and most importantly, the employees behind the scanning. So as Rafman calls attention to and humanizes those captured by GSV, so does Wilson for some of the most marginalized employees within the Googleplex.
Looking through Wilson’s selection, we find odd glitches and lovely color schemes such as a white page, and pink rubber thimble worn a brown-skinned hand, accidentally captured. Slowly, the number of digits of people of color in ScanOps becomes unignorable. When Wilson—noticing a racialized difference in labor—attempted to interview and film these workers, he was promptly fired from his contract at Google. His footage was ordered to be destroyed. The resulting artwork, Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), details the story.
Andrew Norman Wilson, An Exact Narrative of Many Surprizing Matters of Fact Uncontestably Wrought By an Evil Spirit or Spirits, In the House of Master Jan Smagge - 8, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminium composite material.
Wilson highlights the distinct classes of workers within Google, and the proportions of privilege and respect they are allowed. While Silicon Valley promises high wages and respectable jobs, data entry remains nearly invisible, and decidedly so. Asking how the service is made, how it works, who profits from it and who doesn’t, stands to tarnish the company’s image. Luckily for Wilson, he was already planning on quitting for graduate school. I wonder whether any of the scanners would be so lucky.
These curated windows into Google begin to reveal the dimensions and power of its gaze. We see bystanders within their own personal stories, staring at the nine camera clad car, and we stare back at them. We are given access to data, but we cannot forget the people who made it possible. We may use this exceptionally large map, but here we are reminded of edge conditions left by imperfect technology and the programmers still troubleshooting. In the process we begin to feel hints of the dimensions of Google. It is a subtle, and pervasive presence, its mode of looking and collecting everything, embedded into our daily lives. But, what can we do?
There is a slow-creep to surveillance, always searching for increasingly granular data. Obfuscated collection and labor hinders awareness and agency, not to mention protest. As Rafmanreflects, while there is a “‘report a concern’ on the bottom of every single image, how can I demonstrate my concern for humanity within Google’s street photography?” The space in which to have this discussion, the edges with which to see, for room to reflect, are barely visible now, and constantly shrinking.
In seeking to organize all the world’s information, Google has the potential to reorganize much of the planet to fit in with its bottom line. Searching behind the interfaces we so often take for granted in-browser, these artists reveal complex undercurrents, bubbling just beneath their smooth surfaces. They provide tangible artifacts and frameworks with which to see and debate Google’s own black boxes. They offer their concern.
Draw me like one of your French AI-generated nudes. As one of many amorphous masses of flesh, all rolls and folds like a browner Rubens. Drooping and melting, spilling over, exceeding myself. A face that’s a sallow study in crisscrossing stretchmarks, accented with the bruisy purples of undereye circles. A body that’s dubiously beige, like when women’s magazines hit you with the Fair and Lovely filter. Ugly bags of mostly water. Supine or just slouching; it’s hard to tell.
It’s rare that I have such a visceral reaction to a set of nudes, a category of image which usually evokes a celebratory if not—excuse me for this—empowering response. The images, a set of AI-generated nude portraits from Stanford researcher Robbie Barrat, are undoubtedly as gorgeous as they are unsettling. “Usually the machine just paints people as blobs of flesh with tendrils and limbs randomly growing out—I think it’s really surreal. I wonder if that’s how machines see us,” he wrote in a tweet that went viral last week, adding that the machine always paints faces in the same way “with this weird yellow/purple texture.” He has no idea why, but he likes it. Personally, I find it terribly violent, in a boot stamping on a face forever kind of way.
Robbie Barrat, AI Generated Nude Portrait #1 (2018). via SuperRare.co.
Of course, it’s not a machine in the traditional sense, but an algorithm. And it isn’t painting per se, at least not in the way one might imagine an algorithm spitting commands to a mechanical arm wielding a brush, in the proto-Zamboni Formalist vein of Matthew Stein’s 1998 web robot Puma Paint. Rather, it generates images through call-and-response machine learning; it is a class of AI algorithms known as a Generative Adversarial Network, or GAN. (Call me the GAN girl, maybe.) Think of it as a dialectical faceoff—a classification struggle, if I may—between two neural networks that have been fed the same dataset of images.
The first network is the generator which, perhaps unsurprisingly, generates images based on that dataset. The second is the discriminator, which evaluates that generated image against the dataset before assigning it a probability as to whether it is real or fake. Based on this feedback, the generator network tries to improve the image before trying its luck again, and again and again: it learns. As the algorithm gets trained, it produces better and better fakes, some of which appear photorealistic in their sophistication. (Efforts to apply GANs to natural—that is, human as opposed to computer—language generation have thus far been far less successful than their image counterparts). It’s not dissimilar to certain models of art pedagogy. Is a GAN something like an MFA for algorithms? And if so, what might outsider AI art look like?
Back on Twitter, responses have been largely admiring, and mostly ellide the unbearable whiteness of Barrat’s dataset (because, art history) and by extension, portraits. “Ooooo like sweet mounds of dough,” comments one user. Francis Bacon comes up several times, and one user points to the similarities with William Untermohlen’s moving series of self-portraits chronicling his progressive degeneration into dementia. One image in particular has a familiar looking yellow coif; Trump jokes abound, as do references to various sci-fi dystopias, and Terry Bisson’s thinking, conscious, loving, dreaming meat. So many people use the language of dreaming, in fact, that I wonder whether Philip K. Dick or Google’s DeepDream Generator is responsible. The jury is very much out on whether machines can think for themselves (never mind the imminent Singularity) but everyone seems happy, at least in this thread, to agree that they can dream.
Most interesting is a comment from the Barrat comparing AI-generated art to Sol Lewitt’s’s rule-based art, which in turn begs the question of who exactly is the artist here. In response to someone asking why he didn’t try tinting his images in post-production, Barrat replied that he did not want to modify by hand what the AI outputs, and that doing so would run counter to the intention of the work. Still, he added “I am working on augmenting the trained network by overfitting on a small dataset of non-white nudes to try and get a more even distribution over skin tone, though.” Putting aside the trying “in the future we’ll all be brownish and what do you mean representation is not the same thing as reparations” feel-goodism, it’s worth wondering what else this will change beyond color. Depending on whose depictions his dataset draws from (one only hopes it won’t be Gauguin and/or his compatriots who turned their gazes to the Middle East), it is like that the poses will change. Perhaps they will read as more servile or more sexualised or even as less passive; perhaps these new images will even affect the pinkish-beige average so that all the AI’s nudes will rearrange their limbs.
My one takeaway from several seasons of America’s Next Top Model was the different poses required for men’s and women’s magazines and I like to imagine a spectral, algorithmic Tyra Banks analogue, screaming poses and art directing from within. And I wonder too, what the algorithm wants, freed from the cis-hetness of art history. Does the generator network just really want to please the discriminator and is its ideal body one that is likeliest to be considered a match? Left to its own devices, would it arrive unsupervised at an androgynous, agendered mean? Regardless, the boundaries are clear: Barrat is only willing to alter the instructions and not the output, what the machine has created within those systemic constraints. If generative art can be understood as a ceding of control to external, logic-based systems—and what is more logical, in its own way, than the natural world?—who is giving up control here? Is the algorithm simply implementing Barrat’s concept? Are its ideas its own?
And—isn’t it funny to emphasize a kind of authentic, purely AI-generated facsimile (or at least its attempt), at a time when we’re so consumed by fakes? GANs haven’t been around that long. They emerged in mid-2014, predating this administration’s fake news bot-or-not maelstrom by a couple of years, but it’s still tempting to posit some kind of causality. Isn’t it kind of wild how entire swathes of the internet have swarmed together to function as a collective fact-checking discriminator networks? And a new front in this conflict has recently opened up around the phenomenon of deepfakes, or AI-generated porn based on the likenesses of real celebrities or people, which extends face swapping to its logical, Rule 34-ed conclusion although it has more recently been widely banned.
From its earliest days, the tech industry has framed computing in terms of passing, of hiding its artifice, its non-human fakeness. One might consider GANs as akin to a neverending Turing test, except that here, a computer is both examiner and examinee. Meanwhile, with the advent of phenomena like botnets, the Turing test as we know it has been inverted, and it’s up to us to prove that we are not fake, that we match the database of blobs of flesh categorized as human. Now it’s people who are asked to decipher CAPTCHAs—to perform free labor for Google’s algorithms—and to check a little box that says I am not a robot. You know how people like to say “I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords”? Turns out we’re already working for them.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Miao Ying's Blind Spot (2007) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Lola Martinez: Blind Spot is one of your earlier works about internet culture in China. Could you explain what it is?
Miao Ying: For the Blind Spot, I inputted every word, from A to Z, in the standard Chinese dictionary into google.cn, which is Google China. Over the course of three months, I spent ten hours a day searching a whole vocabulary of about 65,000 words to see which ones would be censored. When I came across a censored word I would erase if from the dictionary, only leaving its definition visible. So when reading the book, you cannot see the actual blacklisted term, but you can infer which one it is from the meaning. In my search, I came across 2,000 censored words.
What's interesting to me is that there are words that we know would definitely be censored, like something related to politics, but there are many that are blocked yet there’s no clear logic as to why. For instance, there is a term for a sticky rice dessert (Ba Bao Fan), which has nothing to do with the political at all, and was censored. During my search, it felt intriguing to know what was censored by the Chinese government because they never tell you where the boundary lies. Instead, the Chinese internet operates in a gray area. I had to test or search in order to know exactly which word fell into the category of censorship.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: What led you to take on such an extensive search?
MY: When I was a student, I read an article about censorship on google.cn, which stated that no one would have the time nor means to find out what was the criteria for the list of censored words—that it would be an impossible task to uncover what was on the list, and why.
Initially, my curiosity was a driving force which motivated me throughout this project. As this was the first piece that I made about censorship and the internet, this project was about finding out what exactly was restricted in order to make others aware. People in China don’t realize what censorship is—to them it’s just a note on the bottom of the page.
LM: How are you able to tell if your search is blocked?
MY: Originally in China, when you first searched for sensitive terms or subjects on google.cn, your internet service would be blocked for 10 minutes. Later (Google left China in 2010), instead of blocking your service, a sentence on the bottom of the webpage appears stating “according to the local laws, some of the results are not showing.” This phrase let you know if what you are searching is considered censored on google.cn.
LM: I’m curious about the history of internet usage and censorship in China and how it has emerged and developed. What is the context from which the book emerged from? What is it like today?
MY: Over time the internet environment in China has changed. 2007 saw the beginning of social media. At the time it wasn’t popular yet, but most Western platforms were made accessible in China. There was Facebook, Google, and Twitter so many people start using them. By 2010 though, most of these platforms were blocked and became inaccessible.
I think this is when the idea of censorship started to burst. My theory is that before 2010 censorship was one-sided agent coming from only the government, but because of the race of social media, censorship becomes two-sided and the idea of self-censorship emerges. Now that everyone has a smartphone and access to social media, the government implemented heavy censors across all social media platforms.
Then there’s the Great Firewall, which as an organization is really a mystery. No one knows where it is or who works for it, but as a whole, the Great Firewall controls and limits every people’s internet life.
I believe soon there will be a new method of censorship. By 2020, they will be implementing a Social credit system (Citizen Scores) which monitors what you do online. The behavior of every single citizen and legal person (which includes every company or other entity) in China will be rated and ranked, whether they like it or not. Who are you friends with, what did you say online, will impact your credit and can cause consequence such as slower internet speed.
So although all my work is not only about the Chinese internet, it’s still a main part of it, and I let it consume my work because there is such unique and rich material out there when talking about this subject. With all of these social media platforms developing really fast, and new apps coming out, everybody is using it on the streets. Even old people—they’re scanning barcodes.
LM: Have these shifts in internet usage or accessibility affected your views on censorship? And thinking of these modes of surveillance, did you experience any pressure or tension while conducting your search? Did you feel like you were being monitored while making the work?
MY: These turning points caused my work shifted, as now I am more interested in ideas of self-censorship and how that eliminates or triggers people’s creativity. When you are controlled by this large force for such a long time, you start to develop a bond with those who hold this power. When I made the work, it came with the idea that I could make people more aware, thus causing a change within the system. Over time though, I think I was the one who was changed. My thinking shifted to understand that this overpowering environment is shaping everyone who is using it. My personal relationship to censorship as an artist became more like a sick relationship, almost like a bad boyfriend, a Stockholm Syndrome.
During the time I made the work, they discontinued blocking internet service for short periods of time, but because I was searching so heavily for words that were sensitive, they actually blocked my service for 20 minutes. I was worried when that happened, but no came knocking on my door, so I guess it was some type of warning. I remember the first time when my service was blocked it felt very offensive. That’s why I wanted to make a physical object because It’s not completely offline, but it’s online within limits.
Miao Ying, Blind Spot, 2007, book, Photo by Alex Lau
LM: Have you seen examples of users trying to combat these methods of censorship or access? Or are they generally more complacent to these boundaries?
MY: I don’t think people are bothered by it much. The thing about censorship is that it’s so powerful, that trying to go against creates a great inconvenience. People are definitely aware, but they are complacent because they are so used to it. Most will make fun or mock the situation, but will not do anything about. In the end, you are just like “I’m dominated by it, fine, there’s nothing one can do.”
LM: It’s interesting how you mention that people are very complacent or inactive when it comes to dealing with the constraints of censorship. You on the other hand, went ahead and took on this really intense process, not to circumvent censorship, but to investigate it in a way.
MY: When viewing the work, people aren’t aware of which words. The 2,000 words are never revealed to anyone because it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t censored. The list changes all the time and from the months I spend conducting this project, from the first to the last day, I’m sure the list has been changed or edited. It wasn’t a list to find out why this word is censored, because there is no logic in it.
So unfortunately you cannot really sync the list, but while I was physically searching, those moments were more about pushing myself and the limits of a human being being pushed to those of almost a machine. I started to create bugs—I kept thinking, “Did I check this? Did I miss one word?” At the end of everyday I would go back and forth double checking my results and I felt like a PC that needed to be restarted. This performance of spending time going through each search is a metaphor for the dictionary in and of itself. I think the art is uncomfortable because when you read the book, you don’t see the meaning and all the labor behind it. It’s addressing how censorship is—not why it should or should not be there, but stating that it is there.
LM: It’s interesting to hear of all these different layers of the work emerging—from the dictionary as an object and as a performative gesture. You brought up a tension between man and machine which subtly goes into ideas of labor, as you make a process which can be automated into an intensely tedious gesture. Have you ever considered re-performing this work?
MY: I have thought about it, but since Google left China and only operates in Hong Kong it is no longer the same thing now. Since cannot access Google from Mainland China because it is blocked, the only alternative is Baidu.
It’s not even about censorship at this point. There was a college student, who had a disease so he went to research on Baidu, but he ended up dying. He searched for nearby hospitals, and decides to go to the one ranked first. The issue is that Baidu does not differentiate between what is an advertisement and what is the real result. There is no way for you to tell which is which. They end up putting advertisements first, and it is a huge problem because for many because Baidu is the only search engine they have. For the younger generation who has not experienced Google, they might think that Google copied Baidu, instead of the other way around. Their generation grew up with pure state-run social platforms, so it is their only reality.
Shana Moulton and Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10, 2018 (still). Digital video and web series in progress. Courtesy the artists.
A collaboration between artist Shana Moulton and composer Nick Hallett, Whispering Pines 10 (2018) is a continuation of Moulton’s celebrated video series by the same name, and features a performance by the artist as her alter ego, Cynthia. The website offers a new format for Moulton’s premise: an episodic internet soap opera, with original music and libretto by Hallett.
The mountainous California landscape around Whispering Pines, the trailer park near Yosemite where Moulton was raised, serves as a backdrop to her cult video art series, its format inspired by Twin Peaks and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. In nine episodes dating back to 2002, Moulton appears as Cynthia—hypochondriacal, agoraphobic, and prone to surreal fantasies. Cynthia’s attempts to escape pain yield only fad cures; her quest for enlightenment leads to new-age kitsch.
Whispering Pines 10 sees Cynthia act out her desire to become an environmental activist, despite not being able to leave the house. Her efforts at self-care lead to anxious hallucinations. The attainment of comfort becomes an insurmountable challenge, heightened to mythic proportions and mediated by faulty technology. Just as peace is attained, disaster hits. The voice of a political activist calls out “What is your tree?” from a public service ad, and the question echoes in Cynthia’s mind, setting her on a quest to find a raison d’être. Decor and objects in her home offer solutions, serving as portals into her imagination; the artist has rendered these in blown-out pastel hues with lo-fi digital effects. Spirit guides sing to her in ecstasy as Cynthia discovers how to stage a sacrifice to the earth, with a ritual that connects political action to performance art.
Moulton’s performance is accompanied by an original musical score and libretto from composer Nick Hallett, who appears in the videos along with vocalists Daisy Press and Katie Eastburn. The web series is adapted from Moulton and Hallett’s electronic opera, which was developed at the New Museum in 2011 (in a process documented by Art21) and went on to tour art museums and performance festivals across the US. The duo received a Creative Capital grant to reshape Whispering Pines 10 for the internet.
Beginning on April 23, 2018, Cynthia’s odyssey will be unveiled over seven unique musical videos, which accumulate into a web series. Visitors may subscribe for updates on when new videos launch. At the completion of the seven-part serial, additional features will emerge—including audio remixes, critical responses, and musical downloads. The web site of Whispering Pines 10 is conceived here as the stage for a new kind of internet soap opera.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Shana Moulton is an artist, born and based in California, who works in video, performance, and installation. Moulton has had solo exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2016); Kunsthaus Glarus, Switzerland (2016); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (2015); and Fondazione Morra Greco, Naples, Italy (2013); and a retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, FL, in 2016. She has performed and screened videos at the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Performa, the Kitchen, and Art in General in New York, as well as the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Portland Institute of Contemporary Art; Cricoteka, Krakow; and elsewhere. Moulton’s artistic process and the development of Whispering Pines 10 was profiled by Art21’s New York Close Up series. Her videos (including Whispering Pines 1 through 9) are distributed by EAI.
Nick Hallett is a Brooklyn-based composer, vocalist, and cultural producer working between the worlds of sound, art, and performance. “He draws on a wide range of seemingly contrasting musical genres—from indie rock to early Romantic to electronica to opera—to create arrangements that deploy the voice as an instrument” (Art21). His music has been presented in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Ecstatic Music Festival, Hayden Planetarium, the Public Theater, Town Hall, Performa, the Kitchen, Roulette, and National Sawdust, among many others. Hallett recently completed work on a trilogy of dance-theater scores for choreographer-director Bill T. Jones’s Analogy cycle, which he has been touring with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for the past three years. He received a 2017 New York Dance & Performance “Bessie” award for his music in Variations on Themes from Lost and Found, a reconstruction of work by choreographer John Bernd (1953–88). Hallett is the music director of the Joshua Light Show and codirects the Darmstadt new music series.
Whispering Pines 10 is a Creative Capital Project.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
For the past two weeks I’ve been ruling centuries of kingdoms in Reigns: Her Majesty, reincarnated as queen in perpetuum. The iOS game succeeds its king-centric predecessor, Reigns, in which the player makes choices to advance the narrative by swiping left or right on cards, as in Tinder.
Technology and culture journalist and author Leigh Alexanderis the narrative designer for Reigns: Her Majesty. Alexander’s renowned career in games criticism makes her a fitting candidate to describe female perseverance within an oppressive framework. The former Editor-at-Large for Gamasutra and former Editor-In-Chief for Offworld (a gaming site with a focus on diversity and inclusiveness within the gaming community) was among several high-profile women targeted and harassed in connection with #GamerGate. Since that she has been exploring tech mysticism, and producing an ASMR video series devoted to vintage computer games, interests that are both highlighted in the narrative design of Reigns: Her Majesty.
Reigns: Her Majesty is not simply a version of the original game with an almighty female head of state, but is instead a complex examination of the contradictory obligations and impossible choices for a woman in (proximity to) power. In Reigns,the player directly controls the throne and its succession as king, but Reigns: Her Majesty complicates that straightforward idea of power by introducing and focusing on two other practices that have historically empowered women: witchcraft and the pursuit of self-knowledge.
Despite the romantic medieval setting, recurring themes of magic, and speedy reincarnation without much negative consequence, playing Reigns: Her Majesty is both a fantastic exercise in pragmatism, and a lesson in the slow and demanding work of women’s progress over time.
The gameplay is similar to the original: the queen is presented with a series of unpredictable requests and remarks from people around her, including the King, members of the royal court, the ever-infuriating Cardinal, and her subjects. She must respond with diplomacy to maintain balance between the kingdom’s factions (the church, the people, the army, and the treasury), or perish. A player advances through the game by unlocking new sets of cards, reaching personal milestones, and both acquiring and upgrading magical objects.
Unlike traditional roleplay games in which a player invents a character, then acts according to their given traits to advance the narrative, ruling consistently in Reigns: Her Majesty will lead to a quick and untimely death. Ways to die include beheading by guillotine, being trampled to death by your loving subjects, rotting away in a locked tower, and, my most recurrent fatal end, being burned at the stake for heresy by the Cardinal. To survive, to avoid deposition, the queen is often forced to compromise her ideals in order to appease the kingdom’s various complex political coalitions. No matter what political ideology or code of ethics the queen subscribes to, blind adherence will cause her to be promptly de-throned. To those not privy to the motivations behind these strategic decisions, the behavior of the queen may seem volatile or erratic, stereotypical of an “irrational woman.” Alexander subverts this misogynist inclination by converting it into a strength. Being strategic and cunning are traits typically reserved for male characters in games, but in Reigns 2, success as a queen is directly related to developing those complex character traits.
Another frustratingly realistic feature of Reigns: Her Majesty is the contingent advancement through the game, a movement that is repeatedly hindered by factors seemingly outside of the player’s control: the astrological sign your reign begins on, for example, or interpersonal politics between eccentric members of your court. The All-Mother, the pagan goddess who controls the magic forces driving the game, will occasionally drop hints about disrupting the system’s mysterious mechanics, but these divine clues are subtle and, in my experience, often indecipherable. However, players who pay enough careful and consistent attention to these hints will eventually unlock crucial items, like the magic mirror and destiny altering clock. These empower the queen by alleviating some of the environmental contexts that impede the progress of a reign: the magic mirror can offset imbalance between the four political factions and the destiny altering clock allows the queen to switch astrological signs without being reborn. With enough introspection a player can learn the effects of ruling during certain astrological signs and can engineer further progress in a single reign by strategically switching and opening up different webs of possibilities.
The queen must become a master of pragmatic choices. At times ways to advance are unavailable to your player, due to the particular political contexts of their rule. Other times, the progressive or kind action seems (or is) futile. And you are frequently forced to act obediently or outright lie in order to persist. It is possible to live through several generations of your dynasty, swiping through similar interactions with people in power, only to meet the same gruesome end as your predecessors, having effected little change. However, the world may surprise you with a kind gesture every now and then. The small accomplishments accumulate, motivating a player to rule again and again in the face of such evident inertia. The ability to reincarnate through multiple generations and experience many different political eras firsthand allows the player to accumulate knowledge directly, in effect, gaining through experience what is usually passed down indirectly, as wisdom from women who came before.
This nuanced depiction of female power extends beyond the design of the overarching political system to the personhood of individual queens. The hilarious and delightful writing kept me engaged and continuously swiping onward. As in life, the player is capable of a range of emotional responses to instances of microaggressions and outright sexism that resonate deeply with contemporary realities despite taking place in a medieval context. The church complains about your plunging necklines, the king wields power irresponsibly due to his prototypical male ego, and a mysterious sect of snake-men harass your subjects and insist on holding free speech rallies. Alexander perfectly portrays these situations with short, quippy dialog that reads like a snarky feminist Twitter feed.
Reigns: Her Majesty critically examines female empowerment beyond sarcastically ridiculing men. There are moments in which it mocks consumer feminism and recognizes that not all means to female empowerment are good or to be deployed. Periodically, an owl will comment on your in-game progress with absurd announcements, satirizing metrics-driven narratives: “Your decisions so far have illuminated a profile of you as THIRSTY, twit-twoo! Yes, that is your prime trait!” and “Twoo-whoo! That answer has lowered your Successful Intersectional Feminism Index below the 32-point threshold!”
This criticality is also evident in the player’s engagement with a neoliberal magic mirror that encourages narcissism and selfishness masked as self-care. Affirming (swiping right on) the magic mirror’s problematic ideologies alleviates any imbalance between political factions. The narcissism helps the queen persevere, which is a nod to the mandatory philosophical concessions women make when surviving and ascending to power within an inherently flawed and inequitable system.
[Spoiler Warning:] The dark humor, marked with a twinge of optimism, that runs through the narrative in Reigns: Her Majesty demonstrates the relatability of the complex struggle of womanhood over time. The frequent futility of a single reign in concert with slow but measurable progress over centuries imbues the player with a sense of increasing duty to, and respect for, queens maneuvering in complicated political contexts before our time. I haven’t yet achieved one of the three possible endings, but in order to achieve the only true end, you have to kill the king.
Meme credit: Michael Nelson.
“Web archives are going to be weaponized to alter existing trustworthy information and to inject fake, untrustworthy information into the context.”
This was computer scientist Michael Nelson at the recent National Forum on Ethics & Archiving the Web, organized by Rhizome and Documenting the Now, and hosted at the New Museum. His words rang true; throughout the conference, panelists had spoken of archiving in high-stakes, adversarial environments where the content of web archives has serious effects on people’s lives, making them a ripe target for manipulation.
Indeed, only a few minutes previously, Ada Lerner had finished summarizing their paper (co-authored with Tadayoshi Kohno and Franziska Roesner) describing sucessful strategies for manipulating content held in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and thereby manipulating the historical record. (Lerner had shared their paper with the IA, and the organization acted quickly to address all of the potential compromises addressed therein.)
Video from Ethics & Archiving the Web. Lerner’s presentation starts at 1:14; Nelson’s at 1:43:
The concerns that Nelson, Lerner, and others raised would seem to lend credence, then, Joy Reid’s recent claim that she may have been the victim of a Wayback Machine hacker. But in two blog posts yesterday, the Internet Archive and Nelson have cast serious doubt on that idea.
To back up for a moment: last December, Twitter user @Jamie_Maz, unearthed a series of homophobic posts from Reid’s old blog. Subsequently, she apologized; the apology was largely well-received by liberal media outlets. Last week, though, @Jamie_Maz unearthed further posts from Reid’s blog using the Wayback Machine. These were far worse, and Reid denied responsibility, claiming that she was the victim of a malicious hacker, and that she had requested that the posts in question be removed from the Wayback Machine and Google.
Yesterday, the Internet Archive revealed that Reid’s lawyers had contacted them back in December, at the time of the original apology. Their response was unequivocal:
When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions. At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.
We let Reid’s lawyers know that the information provided was not sufficient for us to verify claims of manipulation. Consequently, and due to Reid’s being a journalist (a very high-profile one, at that) and the journalistic nature of the blog archives, we declined to take down the archives.
Reid and her lawyers apparently found a workaround, though; they added a robots.txt exclusion to the site, a short text file hosted on a given website which includes instructions to web crawlers, such as those used by Google and the Internet Archive to automatically capture content from the web. The handling of robots.txt exclusions has been another hot topic in web archiving, but the IA’s current policy is to stop replaying captures from the Wayback Machine if the live site disallows crawling. It’s one of the few ways in which websites can opt out of being archived.
This has meant that, for the general public, @Jamie_Maz’s recent claims had been unverifiable. But, as Michael Nelson pointed out in another post yesterday, there is more than one web archive. He was able to source a number of the homophobic posts unearthed last week in the web archives of the Library of Congress, which does not follow the robots.txt removal policy:
In summary, of the many examples that @Jamie_Maz provides, I can find five copies in the Library of Congress's web archive. These crawls were probably performed on behalf of the Library of Congress by the Internet Archive (for election-based coverage); even though there are many different (and independent) web archives now, in 2006 the Internet Archive was pretty much the only game in town. Even though these mementos are not independent observations, there is no plausible scenario for these copies to have been hacked in multiple web archives or at the original blog 10+ years ago.
In short, as Nelson argues: this is why we need multiple web archives.
This post originally indicated that web captures are removed from the Wayback Machine if there is a robots.txt exclusion on the live version of a given site. It has been updated to reflect the Internet Archive’s policy to stop replaying such captures on the Wayback Machine, not to delete them.
In the iconoclastic riots of Reformation Europe, where the voiceover of Versions (2010) begins, images were degraded, smashed into cobblestones, discarded in pigsties and charnel houses, or made into something new. Some would be salvaged and eventually found their way into the hands of museums, where, centuries later, Oliver Laric would make 3d scans of their forms and reproduce them in different materials, in polished epoxies and polyamides, or render them as animations. In 1608, a statue of the Virgin Mary was taken down from the façade of Basel’s town hall and reimagined as an allegory of Justice simply by replacing the baby Jesus with a set of scales, and here she has been repurposed once more as a rendered scene in Laric’s film and an allegory of repetition, rising before us out of his glistening black digital gloop. “A sculpture,” his narrator explains, quoting Boris Groys, “cannot merely be copied but always only staged or performed.” Every representation is a flow.
Oliver Laric, Maria Justitia, 2010, rendered image of 3-D model, dimensions variable.
The library of Aby Warburg, a wealthy Hanseatic banker’s son with a singular vision of the history of art, was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933, four years after his death, because of the rise of Nazism in Germany. While studying Italian Renaissance art in Florence, Warburg had become convinced that many of these supposedly revolutionary artworks had their roots in astrology, magical beliefs and esoteric ancient religions and, as such, were just another passage of the neverending waltz of symbolic images and icons across time. He believed that their poses were parts of a visual language that has been passed down through the ages, and that the power of these poses only increases with each staging. Laric’s narrator advances a similar claim when she observes that, quoting Anthony Hughes, “Multiplication of an icon, far from diluting its cultic power, rather increases its fame.” Conversely, when an image is debased, when it’s spat on, pissed on and shat on like the Catholic statues in the streets of Basel where we started, its powers are curtailed; this is why so many of us hope to see the president being pissed on in a suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, and why his “Piss Tape” has achieved the necromantic status of a kind of 21st-Century relic, and the latest in a long history of degradations going back to red-figure paintings of Danaë and the Golden Shower decorating Ancient Athenian pottery.
Aby Warburg also came to believe that his philosophy of images could only properly be expressed through an installation of images, and so he began to construct his Mnemosyne Atlas (Mnemosyne being the Greek goddess of memory) by pinning constellations of interrelated poses and expressions onto large black linen boards. The boards have since been lost but the Atlas survives in photographs, in yet more reproductions, which now decorate the stairwell of the Warburg Library, and I’m reminded of these every time I see a post comparing modern celebrities to old masterpieces, and also by Versions, which feels like a new kind of Mnemosyne Atlas, one able to trace how not only poses but also movements and dances recur over and over again.
When I first watched Versions at Frieze, in 2010, at what was a very optimistic, euphoric moment for most net artists, it already carried an air of exhaustion around itself. In this telling, the digital age wasn’t going to hyper-accelerate us into another dimension but rather help us to connect everything together and realize that it’s all the same; it was going be a plateau where suddenly we can rise above the landscape, above the Disney rainforests and rolling meadows, and observe the whole world repeating under us, and see the waves on which we’ve been riding for tens of thousands of years, since we first started painting on the walls of the caves of Sulawesi.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more,’” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Gay Science (1882). “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’” There’s something obsessive inside of us: a tightening loop, a romantic pursuit of the infinite. In the pessimistic reading, we may be doomed to repeat our mistakes and to make the same things over and over again. But perhaps, through these endless recurrences, our understanding can become greater, and our versions more transcendent, as images not only gain power but also slowly reveal their essences.
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in New York.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Levels and Bosses, Preliminary Trailer 01, 2017-18. Video of virtual environment; music by Molly Joyce.
Emer Grant: There are several different formats to your practice, realized across the Levels and Bosses project; at what level do we enter into your work? Does it start from the screen, or the gallery, or from the pages on the graphic novel? What do you see as the relationship between the paintings, the drawings, and the virtual reality game? Is it about being in real-time, or about realism? I’m also thinking about the boss and level metaphor. Do concepts of ranks and levels serve as references to traditional hierarchies across industrialization?
Leo Castaneda: The graphic novel is a good place to start. It is a good segue into painting and what I’m doing now, which is translating the graphic novel into a fully realized videogame. It started with a challenge from a college friend of mine, Victor Ochoa, who established a comic book anthology back in 2011; he knew my work and suggested I created a comic book out of the “Level One” paintings. The Levels and Bosses series started in 2009 as an attempt to create a mythology out of randomness by adopting the structure of videogaming. There was something about the imagery in the newer games that was unnerving, and this sentiment moved into the aesthetics of my work. In games, each level has a “boss” that would be an antagonist or gatekeeper at the end of the level to allow you to progress to the next level. It’s a matter of progressing through killing or destroying the gatekeeper. Importing this structure would allow me to have the image freedom of working between abstraction and representation, and also have fun creating characters and worlds.
The Level One painting was created through thinking of interactions with the environment in early games. Traditionally, player characters explored levels. The programmer would decide if a pixel was interactive or not; liquids, gases, and solids were interchangeable depending on what they chose as the principle (or what gaming programs call “collision”). I chose to paint an epic version of this using a muted color palette, one stemming from and related to explosive sci-fi Hollywood blockbusters. The graphic novel took ten paintings that I had done exploring the “Level One” I’d created, and its subdivisions (Level 1-1, 1-2, etc.), a reference to how levels are divided in games. In creating the graphic novel, I got to imagine space between the level paintings. It was like creating a map out of destinations. Through structuring the visuals, I could in turn initiate a story.
Level One, Graphic Novel, 2011, page 6.
I tried to consolidate the narrative in creating the First Boss, a cube abstract figure. A sentient black hole – from which the entirety of “Level One” emerges – was rendered by a happy accident of a damaged monoprinting plate. When I was trying to create the protagonist, I wanted there to be less of the traditional narrative binary between protagonist and boss. I decided to call this protagonist “The Other”; the letter “O” relates to the number 0 (zero), a precursor to the 1 of the boss.
The work’s range and ambition has taken on different characteristics throughout its evolution. I eventually realized that the culmination of the work should be an actual videogame. A videogame that innately deconstructs and expands what a videogame is and can be. The process within my painting has become more of a feedback loop: the paintings are created out of images of virtual spaces, and get re-inserted into the virtual. Some paintings work as textures that inform the virtual environment, and other become translations of it.
Item 93201 with Image of Boss, 2014. Virtual reality sculpture/machine: Computer, VR headset, fiberglass, wood, plastic, fabric. Painting: Acrylic Canvas, Wood, faux leather, projector handles. Sculpture: 10ftx5ftx5ft. Painting: 7x11x2ft.
Item Showroom, 2016-17. Virtual Reality environment and video.
EG: Could you talk a bit more about the relationship of frame and “otherness”; I’m interested in how you might clarify what sociological perspective you are referring to. Are you referring specifically to racial, class, and gendered connotations of “the Other” with the black box? Whose other? Also, do you problematize narrative here in the context of “otherness,” in which master narratives and “otherness” offer a dialectical positionality?
LC: The game addresses controlling a thing, a something, that is explicitly not your own body. Videogames are often segmented into first- and third-person perspectives. The frame here is the point of view; a central idea of the game is a possibility of switching, meaning, the potential shift in the relationship between protagonist and antagonist. The player character at the beginning is a humanoid figure, seen in third person view, a genderless, posthuman, ethnically ambiguous cyborg who explores ambiguous landscapes and encounters various “bosses” that challenge perceptions about boundaries and roles in games. In most videogames, you generally work through a linear progression, starting at point zero and chronologically moving through the game by winning, traversing entities, killing them, taking their essence, for the sake of climbing. There is no specific awareness and it's also very binary, very antagonistic. I wanted to challenge that.
Levels and Bosses: Level One interior, “in-game” still, 2017-18.
EG: How do you address the contrast between pleasure and leisure and rules as architecture in drafting videogames as a critical medium?
LC: I'm aware that whatever is pleasurable to me is also a construct of societal conditions. Going back and analyzing my choices involves breaking down decisions into distinctions, which is intrinsic to my methodology. What basically happens in the graphic novel, is that from the point of creation (represented by an explosion), there is the gravitational, coordinated, and choreographed journey between the self and other that flips between boss and protagonist. The perspective feels like it is always pending, in hold, about to change.
EG: The explosive scene reminds me of themutation scene in Akira; the character Tetsuo loses control of his powers and transforms into a giant human amoeba that consumes everything it touches. You are spared no mercy in terms of visual affect and effect. From that point on, it is relentless. I see the reference to anime as a stylistic choice in your work. Anime references can be problematic because of their heteronormative undertones; they are frequently criticized for darker fetishistic tendencies. If you are in fact referring to fantasy animation as a stylistic choice, what kind of value do you extract from it?
LC: Plenty of anime is an inspiration for the work. I think of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and even Dragon Ball Z, using these titles as a jumping off point for the development of a more critical framework. Take the cycles of power in Dragon Ball Z. In my mind, they resemble how I see capitalism functioning at the moment, in which one character’s power level endlessly increases, and likewise, the strength of the enemies increases, both to a point so exponential that their purpose ceases to matter.
As a piece bridging gaming and art, it was important to me to focus or to create the aesthetic of spectacle that draws gamers in. Audiences are already more familiar with games industries, or the movie industry as cultural gateways. I'm happy for people to enter into my work through spectacle and while they're there, differentiate between the imagined and traditional roles of bosses and environments, and in this tension, find ways of creating meaning.
For instance, in my game, I started to play with the idea of an exponential and unbalanced power dynamic between characters, such that each violence and defeat are choices made by both parties. Throughout Levels and Bosses, the Other’s engagement with each boss reimagines relationships of contact between players and antagonists.
In this space, I wanted to allow for a moment of vulnerability, in which the boss would just be still. It would be a matter of continually striking until the protagonist realized that a different approach was needed, one that involved contact. There is a sense of being reprimanded. So, at one stage, a character makes the realization and is teleported, but their insight still would lead to some sort of damage. These wounds accumulate from traveling through the game. The game has a specific fictionalization of violence in this metaphorical wounding. Contact really comes in the moment when you're given the choice to hit or touch the boss; contact is the in-between. Rather than defeating someone to attain victory, the goal is more progression through contact. We expand through these choices to hit or to touch, and progress through each choice made.
EG: Is this work intended for one person to experience at a time? Or is there a community that can emerge, a utopian gesture from audiences participating in the piece, and if so, how to you express this as a strategy in art? There are many possible stages of the piece in an exhibition, but could you talk about the ideal stagings, which create the community you suggest the work imagines?
LC: Exhibitioning involves multiple angles. If I'm thinking about an imaginary audience I guess it would be people who can relate to my understanding of videogames as possessing multiple layers of meaning. The primary platform for this work is Steam, where a lot of videogames get hosted. With at least 125 million users on the site, you can find artistic or independent videogames are either free, or distributing between 1000 and 1 million copies globally for $5 -$10. Gamers come in a whole range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds. It is interesting; most of the people who make videogames are white males but many of the people who play videogames come from all different types of ethnic groups.
EG: I wonder if that dynamic – white men making games for non-white players, if we simplify it – is possibly an iteration of colonialism, but in new form? Ethics and representation come into play in creating narrative, especially when interactivity is a dominant axis. How you see your works as providing an alternative to the industry standard?
LC: Yes, this is an iteration of colonization. I think about this often. The gaming industry is ripe with decision makers in positions of power who ultimately get to decide the validity of narratives and which stories matter. In addition to the ways in which this affects representation, there’s the example of the recent purchase of the StarWars IP: Disney has disowned whole subsections of previously made stories, such as the animated Clone Wars, as out of canon. Fan-created content isn’t even taken into consideration; the company has hard copyright hounds that stifle community participation. People love to draw fanart and fantasize about their interpretation of gaming and movie characters, and for my game I am thinking about the possibility of future user-generated content for players to be able to add their own levels to this game, even with financial retribution. The game establishes a master narrative out of randomness, frames it as rather arbitrary, and then makes it flexible for communal re-interpretation and change, an oscillating flip and reversal of the colonization of the narrative.
Item with oVerhead Reality, 2016. Virtual reality sculpture/accessory: headset, fabric, controllers; interior virtual environment made through videogame software. 10x10x48 inches. Human interacting - Variable. Painting: Item Showroom Screenshot #143
Poster for Entering Virtual Reality Machine, 2013.
EG: How do you see artistic production changing, in terms of collaboration, collective labor, given the increasing complexity of gaming, its companies, artists, designers, programmers? What can artists learn from proximity to these large, complex groups of technologically skilled professionals?
LC: Currently I'm thinking about all of this in terms of authorship because I struggle with how I use my name in this context. In the videogame industry, there is a team and a company that is behind a project. I wouldn’t want this to be known as Leo’s game; for the range of the piece, it makes sense to release it under a company alias.
I struggle because I’ve gone through all the traditional art world steps: art school, an MFA, teaching, to build my practice as an individual working artist. I have to jump through certain loopholes to just have the game present on the Steam platform. Then I think about collaboration, and how a programmer would want to work with a company. I think about working as or through a different entity, not as one that will just serve my “fame”, or notoriety, as an artist.
The other side of this is my identity as a Latin American artist and the voice in the work that is created culturally. My background and upbringing appears in my choices. I consider the reception of a company in the art world, versus the reception of an individual. It’s interesting now, as across the art world we are seeing the system of credit emerging, in which everyone’s work or labor is somehow acknowledged as part of the creative process. And I wonder if operating as a company open this system up beyond mere gestures. For now I’ve played it safe as an individual in the studio.
EG: You’re creating an environment where people engage through initiating endless possibilities. This is a philosophical manifestation of the virtual, through the virtual. It’s a way to stage possibility, even, and offer a model that can be replicated. And you also refer to painting as a thinking process which translates as a strategy across industries. It seems these methods – creating an environment in which possibility multiplies and the audience has agency, or using painting to work across audiences – is a type of a speculative proposition, for renewed participation.
LC: In the gaming and movie industries, painting and drawing are used to create “concept art” as the visual plan towards the creation of worlds and characters. This is usually a team effort towards finding a coherent narrative, and as mentioned before doesn’t leave room for audience input. In my work I try to use the strategies of “concept art” to arrange randomness and thus allow multiple viewpoints to merge through sequencing and proximity. If the possibility of audience participation can add to those narrative nodes of randomness, I hope the work in the end is an empowering or hopeful proposition.
Location: Miami, FL
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Actively, 2013, and indirectly 2009 through the concepts; back to middle school through interests.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Cooper Union for BFA and Hunter College for MFA, both for Studio Art.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Art practice plus teaching 3D animation and drawing at Florida International University this year as a visiting instructor.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Seven on Seven pairs seven artists with seven technologists, asking them to create something new: a prototype, an artwork, an app, or whatever they imagine.
Over nine editions, Seven on Seven has served as a testing ground for leading figures from both fields to try out new ways of working, and of working together. Their collaborations address major contemporary issues, but do so in ways that are free from the usual pressures of success in software development, entrepreneurship, or artistic practice. This allows Seven on Seven projects to take unusual forms; they are cultural hybrids which may not fit easily into an art exhibition or the app store.
This online exhibition brings together recent software-based works that were produced as part of Rhizome’s annual conference Seven on Seven, from a play for bots to an anonymous social network in the style of artist Bunny Rogers.
Tickets are available now for the tenth edition of Seven on Seven on May 19.
Claire L. Evans and Tracy Chou: SVS
Chou and Evans’s play for four bots is set in a workplace where AI entities labor alongside humans. It randomizes the names, genders, and nationalities of its main characters, as well as their voices, which were performed via text-to-speech software. The action is always the same each time the play is run, allowing users to experience it in multiple ways and, serving as a kind of bias test. Originally written as a Python script, the play will be available online to coincide with this exhibition.
Bunny Rogers and Nozlee Samadzadeh: Collectable.art
Collectable.art is “a social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.” This anonymous publishing platform, available as an iOS app, allows users to create their own web pages based on Rogers’s websites, which feature hand-coded HTML pages dedicated to topics such as lamb-shaped graves and awareness ribbons.
Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka: Big Glitter
Three works by Lialina and Tyka mine the social network Blingee, which allows users to create collages from GIF animations and stamps. Lialina has researched the platform for a number of years, drawn in particular to the digital folklore practice of one especially talented user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova (IVK). In *Once again to IVK*, a script follows the usage of animations through compositions made by IVK and others. In *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling*, users are asked to answer captcha-style quizzes in which half of the compositions were created by bots. And for *Treasure Trove* (all 2017), hundreds of individual animations were “liberated” from the locked-down Blingee platform and collaged into a composition that’s surely one of the world’s most beautiful web pages.
DIS and Rachel Haot: Polimbo
“How can we convert Tinder users into active voters?” asks the team behind Polimbo. Developed with designer Pat Shiu and researcher Ethan Chiel, the app allows users to swipe right or left on a series of speculative scenarios tied to real-world public policy, ultimately “matching” them with like-minded politicians and offering a visceral glimpse into possible outcomes of seemingly abstract issues.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti: Blockedt
Blockedt is a social network available on iOS and Android (pending app store approval) that boasts no other visible users, no visible content, and an invasive end user license agreement. Founded by Musson’s billionaire CEO alter ego “Guy White,” Blockedt’s only function is to allow users to scroll endlessly on an empty screen.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, GIPHY, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
Additional support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Seven on Seven 2018 is made possible by the generous support of GIPHY; founding partner Wieden+Kennedy, New York; and Deutsche Bank.
Seven on Seven's 10th Edition After Party will be cohosted by Rhizome and Impossible Foods at Spring Place.
Ace Hotel is Seven on Seven's exclusive hotel partner.
Additional support is provided by Kickstarter and Phillips.
My recent work focuses on identifying and highlighting contributions from women in technology history, making sure these people are remembered before the paint dries, essentially, so that women and girls can understand themselves as central, rather than incidental, to the development of the most important forces of our age.
What I admire about Tracy Chou is that she does that in the present—her GitHub repository is a living history of women in tech, for example, and she highlights women while there’s still an opportunity for the tech establishment to react to our presence in the present without the filter of nostalgia, or the loss of context that the passing of time creates, and to make actionable changes in the here and now.
When we first talked about what we would do for Seven on Seven in 2016, I had the impression that between us, we spanned past and present. It quickly became apparent that we wanted to tackle the future. We talked about the ways gender plays out in technology—not just in the workplace, but in the tools that emerge from working environments that are still so predominantly male. One touchstone for us both was gender in AI, and the predominance of female gendering and voicing in artificially intelligent agents like Cortana, Siri, and Amazon Alexa, as well as in GPS navigation, public-address, and customer-service bots. We talked about how a generation of children, growing up with these tools, were becoming accustomed to barking commands to pliant, subservient lady machines. Weird.
SVS, the product of our collaboration, is both a play and a kind of bias test. It’s “written for four bots,” but the names, genders, nationalities, and voices of those bots are randomized. This shifting “casting” helps to tease out the audience’s own biases about what the implicit dynamics are between the characters. The action is always the same, but it feels different every time. The play is short enough that one might play through it more than once, to see what changes. It unfolds in a Silicon Valley work environment, so the changing dynamics on display are additionally imbued with issues of power, authority, and workplace diversity.
Complicating matters, three characters in SVS are written as human, while the fourth is an AI. When the AI is cast as a female, some might interpret that character with a sexualized quality, and its relationship with its keeper as something like the relationship between Theodore and Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her. When it’s cast as male, it can feel more like like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. An audience less steeped in such heteronormative narratives might read it entirely differently. And so forth. The assumptions we make reveal a great deal about how we expect gender to be performed by machines, and are often influenced by films and by the very tools in our pockets. In reality, it’s all assumptions, cultural biases, and projection. The bot is just a bot, and it’s running through the story as written.
A corny little detail: the play is a workplace drama, and although “SVS” is ostensibly an acronym for “Sentient Voice Systems,” the Valley company where the story unfolds, it’s also an allusion to Karel Capek’s RUR, the Czech play from which we get the word “robot.” RUR takes place in a factory—Rossum’s Universal Robots—and its action unfolds along a similar arc, over which the illusion of human mastery over machines is slowly revealed to be impractical, if not immoral. SVS is made up of letters adjacent to RUR, just as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HALis one alphabetical step away from IBM. An IBM 704 was programmed to sing “Daisy Bell” in 1961, seven years before HAL did the same in the film. Truth is stranger than fiction, although it’s never truly unentangled with it.
Tracy’s program is so beautiful, and full of these thoughtful details, like how she handled pauses and beats in the dialogue to make it flow more naturally. Once we had a working program, it was fun to manipulate the text to see how we could force human-like cues into the voices using low-tech tricks, like punctuation. I found that placing periods in between words made the bots enunciate more clearly, which we ended up using for emphasis in a few places. Making such concessions to the bots was an unintended consequence of building this infinite-variation play. I imagine playwrights do this for actors too—writing with performance in mind. It was one my favorite surprises of this collaboration.
Finally, I can’t remember if this was a reference for me while we were working on SVS, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about the play in relation to Brenda Laurel’s wonderful book Computers as Theater, which argues for a dramatics of interface design. Every software session is like a play, with a beginning, middle, and end. Just as a play exists as both a script and a performance, software has both a static existence as code and a fluid expression in every user session. The more deftly programmers and interface designers can conceal the rigging—the beams and rafters and the stagecraft of it all—the more transformative the experience is for the audience, or the user. That’s just to say that there’s an elemental similarity between plays and programs, and there’s something very right-feeling, to me, about a software experience that’s never the same twice, where the user fills in so much of the associative and emotional context from personal experience and subjective bias. It’s just what we do. Hopefully SVS makes that clear.
SVS was adapted for the web by Rhizome developer Mark Beasley with software curator Lydnsey Moulds. The original code can be found on Tracy Chou’s Github repository.
It wasn’t long into my collaboration with Bunny Rogers for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference in 2017 when we realized our similarities might outnumber our perceived differences. In our early, wide-ranging conversations, we discovered a shared interest in online anonymity, early internet communities, personal data archives, and certain books we’d both read as kids, to name a few topics.
But the differences remain: I’m an engineer at Vox Media, where I write code for the internal software that writers and editors use to write and publish articles. My job involves balancing the needs of the company at large along with individual workflows, making decisions bolstered by user testing and data. I’m also a seamstress, which I use to experiment with process, automation, and efficiency as much as to make clothing.
Bunny is a multimedia artist and poet whose most recent solo exhibit is up at the Whitney Museum. Her work explores her past and present using a variety of media, from stained glass panels to video art. On her extensive website, she also maintains a variety of hand-coded, single-topic sub-sites: an archive of awareness ribbons; poetry about a Neopets character; a database of lamb headstones, traditionally used for the graves of children.
A social network for one
The first sketches of what would become the Collectable.art app
I suggested that we create a tool to allow Bunny (or anyone else) to create, maintain, and display these single-topic sites. The idea appealed to Bunny, who had spoken before about the idea of creating work with a single person in mind. It would be both a far cry from the decision-making consensus of my day job and an automated step beyond Bunny’s hand-coded work.
So instead of thinking about an imaginary generalist user, the app only needed to make sense to Bunny, its intended audience. While sketching our ideas for this tool, Bunny came upon a name—Collectable—and I came upon a tagline: “an anonymized social network in the style of Bunny Rogers.”
Like any social network from Facebook to Twitter, we needed a “private” setting where work is done and a “public” place where work is displayed; I wanted the private view to be limited to your phone to keep it all the more personal. The .ART administrator, which sponsored the 2017 Seven on Seven, generously helped us out with a domain, and so our project was born: Collectable.art is a platform for collecting and sharing text and images via an iOS app and website.
Building the app
The representation of the app’s interface in Xcode
With only a few weeks in which to work, I had to make decisions about what tools to use in order to complete our project in time. I leaned heavily on Google’s Firebase tools for the app’s database and user authentication, which freed up time to customize the app’s user interface to match the early sketches Bunny and I worked on.
Apple has a lot of opinions about how iOS apps should look and feel—opinions that were not shared by Bunny, whose online work is formatted with Web 1.0 styles like Times New Roman and default blue-and-purple-colored links. Replacing the modern gradients and icons of a 2017-era mobile app was a funny and refreshing challenge; I found myself occasionally going against what I had been taught was “right” for an app, although of course user experience has no objectively correct answers.
We replaced the idea of a user profile with Bunny’s “adoptable” awareness ribbons, which allow unique identification without having an identity connected to the real world. She also created the icons and assets used throughout the app, as well as the web page templates that the user’s collected data slots into.
Both the Swift OS app and the Node.js web app are open source and publicly accessible on Github.
Adding an image to a collect using the app
Using the app, you can create and store “collects,” which are sets of text-and-image pairs. These images can be taken with a phone camera or downloaded from an external source, so the app can be used anywhere. Public collects—it felt useful to provide a way to “hide” work if desired—can be seen on the website. There are nine templates, created by Bunny, that you can choose from to format your data. (Because not everyone can be Bunny Rogers, the app itself also contains help instructions.)
Currently on Collectable.art you can view Bunny’s lamb graves, photos of incorrectly formatted social media icons that I have collected over the years, and more—I even used Collectable.art used to document the Seven on Seven conference as it was happening. More recently, students at PS 317 in Queens have been working on their own collects, including slime/squishy things and noods.
To make your own anonymized collects the style of Bunny Rogers, get started at collectable.art/app.
The FCC has announced that net neutrality will expire in the US on June 11. This Wednesday, the US Senate will vote on a measure that would reinstate it; this measure is currently one vote short of passage. Email or call your Senator today.
Polimbo (the name is a portmanteau of “Policy” and “Limbo”) is a policy education tool presented in the form of a quiz. The app presents player with a number of scenarios which connect back in one way or another to net neutrality. Some of those scenarios are more science fictional than others — a world where video conferencing calls almost never freeze is probably closer at hand than one where “Data Police track data obesity and waste” — but all have to do with the flow of data and how much control corporate and government entities, real or imagined, have over that data.
For each scenario the player swipes left or right, indicating disapproval or approval. After twenty swipes the player is given their result: either their choices indicate they’d prefer a world with net neutrality rules in place, or the reverse. Each result also comes with a list of politicians and civil servants who feel similarly.
The app was conceived of by members of the DIS collective and Rachel Haot for Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference last spring as an experiment in familiarizing people with sometimes difficult-to-grasp public policy. Policy is often complex and abstract, even when it has very real and material consequences, and the point of Polimbo was to offer a slightly tongue-in-cheek way to clearly and simply connect policy to those consequences. I can tell you that with some certainty because in the run-up to Seven on Seven last year, I helped DIS and Haot with research on what eventually became the net neutrality scenarios presented by Polimbo.
Like its swipe-based forebears, dating apps such as Tinder and Bumble, Polimbo’s decision tree doesn’t have a neutral option. The player has to choose whether they like the scenario the app confronts them with or not. The idea was that throwing some uncertainty into the mix and muddying the waters of what’s good policy and what’s bad policy and then forcing players to choose might make them better think through and better analyze the reasons for and consequences of their positions.
Assessing the game frankly, we probably didn’t do a very good job of muddying the waters. If the speculative prompt “your content is flagged as a low-level national security risk, and your site is subject to broadband speed penalties” didn’t give away where those of us in the room when the game was made stand, one of other nineteen probably did: we were broadly in favor of net neutrality. Many of the prompts on Polimbo were tweaked to make them less dystopian, and others were tossed in production because the stories they told were too obviously sinister, but our own thoughts and opinions are clearly present. That isn’t to say there wasn’t a genuine attempt made to allow for the ser to find themselves on either side of the net neutrality debate. However, in practice, all but the most zealously devoted Verizon shareholders and/or libertarians were probably presented with the result “You are for Net Neutrality” and photos of the beaming faces of Barack Obama and erstwhile FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.
By intimating (even jokingly) that Polimbo was a neutral platform, we weren’t necessarily forthright about the opinions and intentions that we held about net neutrality, except in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of way. Thus, the app was less a way for player to determine their opinions on policy than an effort to persuade–an effort to prompt players to think through some of the possible consequences of net neutrality’s rollback.
Winking and nudging is fine, even ideal, for art, but it’s a little too subtle for policy, especially so for a policy debate over something as poorly named, deeply complex, and politically contested as net neutrality. And so, if we could do it all over I would give the player have more information, to show them that these scenarios aren’t just stories or jokes. Tell them everything, or at least everything that occurs to you as designer, researcher, artist, wonk, whatever. If Polimbo’s net neutrality quiz felt like a speculative dystopian experiment in May, now it feels urgent and real, with looming consequences for the player. They’re just a person trying to make their way in a world of often complex policy, and it behooves us to be forthright with them. It’ll be the best way, when it comes to that policy, to allow them to play without being played.
Blockedt! by Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti is part of First Look: Real Artists Ship, a selection of works from recent editions of Seven on Seven. The Blockedt! iOS app, developed by Noah Keating, is currently under review for inclusion in the app store.
Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti have created what some would call an anti-social social networking app and, as part of their collaboration for Seven on Seven, produced an introductory pitch video explaining its functionality. The network, aptly named Blockedt!, may well be the first application that has no visible features, no distinct content, and no other visible users, despite its invasive end user license agreement.
It’s not uncommon to come across an advertisement that urges us to take a step back from our devices—to take a deep breath, and embrace the richness of our surroundings, without the need to document, record, or share them. When we look at contemporary life, it is evident that our experiences are frequently punctuated by technology. No one is free from the magnetic pull of social networking. On the feed, companies and users unite in endlessly reciprocal adoration. We’re expected to wake up to our twitterverse, “like” our former boss’s vacation photos, and comment on our distant cousin’s newborn, all the while feeding our every digital motion into an ominous sea of marketable data.
For their Seven on Seven project in 2018, Jayson Musson and Jonah Peretti decided to take a closer look at the imminent digital fatigue that results from social media, albeit from a humorous perspective. The two produced Blockedt, a fully functional application that invites its users to participate in the soothing, meditative gesture of scrolling, while freeing them from the obligation of sharing, viewing, or re-posting any content whatsoever. The app is, essentially, just a blank white screen. Its impractical nature reveals an uncomfortable dichotomy between our basic need for deep human connection, and the basic gesture of touching glass that we habitually engage in on impulse.
Musson and Perretti introduced Blockedt in a stylistically familiar pitch video, aimed at potential shareholders for the app. In the video, Musson takes on the persona of a fictional, buttoned-up CEO named Guy White, who is described only as “Visionary, Not Poor.” Smiling at an office desk, fingers tented, he proclaims, “Technology has had a profound impact upon all of our lives with its immediate interconnectedness. We've become shackled to our timelines. Indentured servants to our smart devices.” He then introduces what he, jokingly, calls an American-sized solution: Blockedt. Blockedt is arguably the world’s first app to openly acknowledge our technology’s addictive qualities. But on Blockedt, the unique experience of social navigation has been reduced to the singular activity of the platform: scrolling.
In some sense, Blockedt is a satirical response to the way that social media has capitalized on our natural need to share content, preying on our human impulses. The app is pending approval by the App Store, but in the meantime users can get scrolling on the web-native app. Because as they say at Blockedt, “to lose the scroll, is to lose your soul.”
As part of their contribution to Seven on Seven 2017, Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka took a closer look at a modern digital folklore legend: Blingee.com. The collaboration resulted in a collection of three works, presented as part of First Look, the ongoing series of digital projects co-curated and co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
In a 2010 blog post titled All That Glitters, Olia Lialina discusses the transition from the early animated GIF to the glittering GIF of the new millennium:
No matter how funny and unprofessional early animated GIFs appeared, they were animated. The figures or objects were in constant action—running, dancing, rotating around the sun, or working on an endless construction. With the new millennium came new GIFs, glittering and blinging graphics created with new tools called glitter graphics generators. The principle of these was to take a static image—photo or graphic—and decorate it with all sorts of glittering-sparkling “stamps,” from stardust to rotating necklaces.
Lialina has long credited the popular graphics generator, Blingee.com, as an important piece of modern digital folklore. As an avid Blingee adopter, she has explored the site as a tool, subject, and community base. The web service allows users to create animated GIFs by compiling and layering “stamps” into collages, adding to the website’s massive collection of clipart, icons, and digital stickers. The site does offer limited communication through comments, voting, and forums, but its most distinctive attribute by far is its navigation system. Users can endlessly surf from one image to another through stamps and Blingees, much like you would use a series of text links, or back and forward buttons, to browse the early web.
For their Seven on Seven collaboration, Lialina and Tyka aimed to survey the data and the philosophy behind Blingee. *Once again to IVK* (2017) uses an automated tool they’ve created to mirror the process of surfing through Blingee by identifying the corresponding stamps that lead to each composition, and surfacing other Blingees created with these stamps. In one iteration of the piece, called staying with IVK, they use the tool to trace the animations of Lialina’s favorite Blingee user, Irina Vladimirovna Kuleshova. Another version (away from IVK) follows various compositions throughout the network.
Tyka also used machine learning to replicate the Blingee creation process itself. In an attempt to influence the machine to create political images, he began feeding the system images of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, along with popular sets of Blingee stickers. Using these images, the system reproduced its own—very convincing—political Blingees. We see Obama donning a glittering chain and baseball cap, or devil horns, and McCain signage overlaid with flower blooms and flashing dancers.
The bot-generated political Blingees are comical, amateur, and deceptive. What is alarming, though, is our own inability to distinguish between human and automated cultural production. *Turing Test, reversed and sparkling* (2017) measures exactly that, tasking users to respond to captcha-style quizzes, and determine which compositions were created by bots.
For their final collaboration, *Treasure Trove* (2017), Lialina and Tyka expropriated 440 individual jewel animations from the Blingee platform. Lialina created a colorful multi-layered composition using hundreds of glittering images that dance, flicker, and rotate across the page. Visitors to the site can click, drag, and reorder the sparkling GIFs as they please, freed from the restrictions of Blingee’s own interface.
The gaps among these three works highlight the parameters of the Blingee interface, as well as the role of the user in interacting with and perhaps manipulating it. A single flashing stamp on a transparent background can serve as source material for dozens of user generated images. A page of “Southern Belle” Blingees can lead to a series of Saved by the Bell Blingees. The format offers millions of animations, and each one can be thought of as a singular, shining, static composition. Alternatively, they can be thought of in terms of their fluidity—their connection to, or departure from, the images uploaded before and after. Whatever the case may be, it would seem worrisome, to say the least, that in an age of the “post-factual,” this vernacular can be performed and produced by machines.
Watch Lialina and Tyka’s full presentation for more on the theory and practice of Blingee:
Header image: Screenshot from *Treasure Trove*, 2017 by Olia Lialina and Mike Tyka.
Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian at Seven on Seven 2018 (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
The historic tenth edition of Seven on Seven took place before a sold-out audience on May 19 at the New Museum, with an afterparty co-hosted by Impossible Foods at Spring Place. The participating duos revealed seven new art-tech projects, ranging from a Photoshop add-on to a make-up tutorial to a decentralized religion. The event also featured a presentation of digital art projects by third and fifth graders from PS317 in Queens (thanks to the support of Deutsche Bank) and a print publication on the state of culture and tech, created by Rhizome and Wieden+Kennedy NY.
At the close of the day, Rhizome revealed that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be presented in Beijing in October 2018 as part of the EAST Conference at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).
Video of the full event will be online shortly. Photos from the dinner and afterparty, co-hosted by Impossible at Spring Place, can be seen on Rhizome’s Facebook page.
WHAT’S TO BE DONE: A Seven on Seven Magazine
Photo: Aria Dean
Marking ten editions of Seven on Seven, What’s to Be Done? takes stock of art and tech as seen by Seven on Seven alumni—Mike Krieger, Tracy Chou, Miranda July, Paul Ford, Kate Ray, Martine Syms, and Claire L. Evens—other luminaries—such as Paul Chan and Fred Turner—and, via an open call survey, the Rhizome community. The publication was edited by Nora Khan, Rhizome's Special Project's Editor, and designed under the direction of Richard Turley, Global Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy New York. A limited number of magazines are avaiable by request to Rhizome members (contribute!)
Art & Technology Residency at PS 317 Waterside Children's Studio School
With funding from Deutsche Bank, Rhizome held a six-week residency led by arts educator Diwa Tamrong in Queens public school PS 317, the Waterside Children’s Studio School.
Students made online artworks inspired by past works from Seven on Seven, including a quiz inspired by DIS and Rachel Haot’s Polimbo (from Seven on Seven 2017). Polimbo was designed to help users understand the potential consequences of policy decisions; the students’ version focused on the issue of whether phones should be allowed in schools. Students also made blingeesinspired by Olia Lialina & Mike Tyka’s Blingee research from last year's Seven on Seven.
Artist Petra Cortright & Carl Tashian, Engineer and Entrepreneur
Cortright and Tashian’s project was the culmination of a friendship that stemmed from one of the technologist’s earlier projects, “Lost in translation,” which the artist had used to title many of her works. Their collaborative project was a new set of scripts for Photoshop which produced randomized interventions into Cortright's celebrated digital paintings, made on the app, which often comprise hundreds of layers of individual brushstrokes. Cortright usually exports the paintings from Photoshop at a “decisive moment” to a more finite form, on silk, aluminum, acrylic, linen, or paper, but this new set of scripts allows them to live on in a variable, ever-changing state.
Artist Sara Cwynar & Cierra Sherwin, Director of Color Product Development, Glossier
Cwynar and Sherwin premiered a new performative lecture and video derived from '80s-era VHS and contemporary Youtube-based make-up tutorials, intertwining the histories of color and representation in image-making tools and cosmetics. Shayna Gold oversaw make-up and designer Tracy Ma starred in their video. (Read more at Garage.)
Artist Dena Yago & Yalda Mousavinia, Co-Founder, Space Cooperative
The pair premiered chapter one of a new sci-fi book, Cardboard Friction, which explores the development of a distributed autonomous organization (DAO) against a tyrannical e-commerce company. Chapter one is available at http://cardboardfriction.com/, and was accompanied by a book trailer by culturesport.tv.
Artist and Nonfood Co-Founder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
Raspet and Tseng began their project exploring potential to arbitrage phosphorous as a way to impact global energy consumption. When this project faced unexpected issues, they pivoted to cell.farm, which seeks to use blockchain technology to collectively model a ribosome, en route to one day modeling a full cell. Their white paper can be downloaded at http://cell.farm.
Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green presenting at Seven on Seven (Photo: Ryan Duffin)
Artist Mika Tajima & Yasmin Green, R&D Director, Jigsaw
Tajima and Green explored the toxicity of Twitter speech by developing a series of bots generated from the accounts of celebrities and bigots. They then visualized the toxicitiy of various genres of online speech speech through an analogue sculptural kaleidoscope.
Artist Avery Singer & Matt Liston, Founding Member & Ambassador, Gnosis
The pair premiered "0xOmega," a new consensus-based crypto-religion that aims to foster collective consciousness on the blockchain. The religion will launch with the future release of Omega, a token which empowers their followers’ participation in the faith. The pair additionally premiered the religion’s white paper—described by the duo as a “flame paper”—and its first sacred object — the Dogewhal — in the form of a 3D-printed totem and video created by Singer.
Artist Tabita Rezaire & Kenric McDowell, Director, Google Artists and Machine Intelligence
Rezaire and McDowell closed the event with a meditative session on the sonic origins of the universe, a means of communication, and a method of finding healing. McDowell performed musical compositions, while Rezaire narrated a guided meditation and philosophical reflection. Rezaire’s narration drew on vulnerable forms of knowledge held by cultures that are generally excluded from narratives of technological progress.
The event closed with the ringing of a gong, as participants slowly came back to themselves.
Seven on Seven Beijing
Rhizome's Executive Director Zachary Kaplan and, via video, Qiu Zhijie, Director of EAST (Education, Art, Science, and Technology) and Dean of the School of Experimental Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, announced that the next edition of Seven on Seven will be held at the school in October as part of their 2018 EAST conference. This program is jointly organized by Rhizome's curatorial team and Baoyang Chen, organizer of the EAST conference. Details to be announced in the coming months!
We thank our 2018 Partners
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Meriem Bennani grew up in Rabat, Morocco, and Paris and has lived in New York for the past decade. Her multimedia practice engages identity as related to femininity, feminism, and the intersection of religious and secular pop culture in her native Morocco, New York, and globally. Bennani’s practice encompasses video works that appear in expansive and immersive spaces, from a farcical advertisement for festive holiday hijabs that screened on the giant oculus screen of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (Your Year by Fardaous Funjab, 2017), to whimsical interactive viewing stations that presented playful portraits of Moroccan women at the Art Dubai fair in the United Arab Emirates (Ghariba/Stranger, 2017). She both celebrates and exposes the private lives of women—from her own family members, to those on the street, in popular media, and in her digitally tuned-in world. Straddling these oft-disparate cultural interstices, her clever, socially pertinent works resist simple categorization.
Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017)
Simone Krug: Your delightful video Fardaous Funjab (2015–2017) is a mock-reality show that follows the life of a fictional hijab designer who creates futuristic, campy, almost ludicrous designs using a tennis ball basket, a multi-tiered wedding cake, and so on. This piece troubles the way Muslim women are portrayed in the media, where the hijab becomes a fun, silly fashion accessory. Do you see works like this one as narratives? Of course, you apply the imaginative potential of the digital to animating and creating comical anecdotes. With this in mind, how do you engage with or consider the idea of storytelling?
Meriem Bennani: Most of my work is about stories and how to tell them best. I believe so much in the super stickiness of the emotional continuity that defines storytelling that I don’t ever treat it with care. I like to submerge it and hit kick lick it implode it in any way possible … in a very organized fashion, though!! I don’t care for a single way of telling the story throughout. I think that if each segment can be told in the language most adapted to it, why not?
So you know the love scene can be from a soap, the argument, reality t.v., and the party scene, wedding footage. The storyline pierces through, and it holds all the experiments together. It is like playing Jenga super dangerously, but really, you’re using superglue in between. At the end, the tower looks like never before. Hopefully in a good way ...
SK: Video pieces like Fardaous Funjab delve into the cultural import of the traditional Islamic women’s head covering and seem to both glorify and critique the image of the hijab in both Moroccan but also in global visual culture today. Could you expand on your interest in this subject and the themes it evokes for you?
MB: These works are mostly from 2015. You know, I age like a dog or a pop song, seven years at a time. I lost some interest in the subject in some ways. Although absurd and surreal, these works are descriptive. For a woman who wears the hijab every day, or in places where most women cover themselves, I don’t think that the veil is seen as a religious object every single time it is put on. On a daily basis, fashion also plays an important role. If you look at all the Modest Fashion bloggers, it’s very clear that the hijab has established on its own an existence in the fashion world. Fardaous Funjab can be about reality television, success, money, and fashion in general, not only in the Middle East. I want to depict and reimagine these ideas, without having to establish them in an occidental setting to reach universality.
Ghariba / Stranger (2017)
SK: More recent examples of your work think about womanhood differently and take on a more documentary style. You've exhibited the multichannel video and installation Sifam & Hafida (2017) at The Kitchen in New York City; in it, you explore a generational rivalry between two women who sing traditional Moroccan prose poetry known as aita. You’ve also presented the multichannel video and outdoor installation Ghariba/Stranger (2017) at Art Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a piece which depicts a personalized perspective into the lives of four Moroccan women as they go about their day. Considering these more recent pieces, could you speak more about how your work has changed?
MB: I guess from Fardaous Funjab to these pieces, the biggest shift happens in my process in choosing the starting point for the piece. Fardaous came after mostly making drawings and animations, which means constantly making work that is some sort of invention of a fictional setting, or through a heavy filtering of reality. Fardaous was almost fully scripted. When I shot it, though, I realized my favorite scenes were when my mother (in the role of Fardaous) would improvise and word things in ways I could never have written alone because I’m not a screenwriter. I don’t have that (very impressive) skill which makes writers come up with voices outside of their bodies! In Ghariba and Siham & Hafida, I adopted a more collaborative approach and tried to use the moment of shooting like an opportunity to bring these outside voices into my work, which is more collaborative and scary for me. I moved the invention part to post-production, in the edit, where I recreate an artificial and amplified version of the narrative and characters through editing and digital manipulation.
SK: Shifting gears a bit, I want to ask about your interest in digital culture. You've made pieces in which you comically elongate iPhones or animate the Apple logo such that it's a shimmying, jiggling icon, as in your work iButt (2015). These slight tweaks are comical in that we still recognize the commonly used objects and universal logos you're playing with. On your Instagram last year you posted a hilarious, if not disquieting, animated clip of Donald Trump staring up at the August 2017 solar eclipse, wearing sunglasses with lenses that both resemble and then transform into hooded KKK figures in the sky. Could you elaborate on what draws you to manipulation and distortion as an approach to making? Further, what's appealing about using these mainstream images, commodities, and brands?
MB: Those short clips and Instagram videos are disposable ideas more than full pieces, much like the products or events they are referencing. It’s funny to reference things that are very time sensitive and then watch them sink into obsolescence at a high speed. When I watch the video from my show FLY from 2016 and hear Rihanna’s Kiss It Better in the soundtrack which featured in this piece, I feel nostalgic for that summer. It feels dated. I remember choosing that song as a time experiment because it was a hit then, and it would act as a chronological marker. Using popular songs and mainstream or iconic references is just a tool, the fastest shortcut to some type of universal signifier that will land a joke or idea in a heartbeat. I only find it useful or interesting when it’s made for a specific format that needs to be efficient immediately, almost like a cartoon or a meme. I care less about this when it comes to other longer term projects.
SK: Pivoting from this discussion of the internet, I want to ask about the way you’ve discussed your work in terms of its “frantic internet pace” in the past. This jerky, speedy momentum is notably present throughout your immersive multimedia work FLY which you just mentioned; FLY showed at PS1 in 2016, featuring a buzzing animated fruit fly flitting around diaristic footage of a day in the life Rabat, from the open stalls of an outdoor marketplace to a wide boulevard where locals congregate around a tiled fountain. Presented on multiple, sculpturally stacked monitors, this colorful, mesmeric piece emanated a convulsive, fast-paced cadence. What’s appealing to you about this pace? Do you ever think about slowing down?
MB: My work would only slow down if I did, which seems difficult these days. I’ve been thinking more and more about how production schedules and budgets end up shaping art and its frequencies. This is not the sexiest idea and most of us don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. I sometimes think about that fruit fly, a digital character I created for FLY, and how she would probably collapse if she stopped moving, almost as if her robotic body was powered kinetically. This way of rushing through the world and ideas shapes the speed of my edits. A lot of the movements are most likely inspired by the experience of browsing, so in a way my fast pace mimics the pace of the first steps of online research, and at the end the research itself becomes the exposé: it compiles content from different sources, all served in their original containers.
Siham & Hafida (2017)
SK: Let’s move on to discuss the physical environments you create for your videos, which are often projected onto multidimensional screens, as in Siham & Hafida, 2017. How do you think about the idea of using surfaces as mediums for conveying larger concepts? Does that idea hold any significance for you as you create?
MB: The word surface makes me think of projectors. Something feels very old school about projecting, a two-part apparatus (the projector and the screen) circulating the moving image. I wish I could get an image on a full wall or sculpture without projection mapping, but from within. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be able to turn any three-dimensional object into an LCD screen? It reminds me of the use of gold in Russian miniatures as a divine light being produced by the object, rather than depicted as an idea of itself. When the light comes to the surface from within, the object feels like it has a mysterious origin. Not to get too spiritual! With projectors, you trace back the light source and it’s ... a projector! And that machine becomes part of the work. Many artists who work with video and installation are trying to stretch the poetics and aesthetics of projectors and their hanging, and expose the devices inside the installations, but their position outside of the screens is always a reminder of the surface.
SK: What is the significance of creating immersive spaces with whimsically shaped screens and seating for your video pieces (as with Siham and Hafida, and many other pieces)? Is there something about the act of viewing that necessitates this type of space? Do you see yourself as an artist who works in installation? How do you see the body interacting with your works in space
MB: I see my installations as experiments around new viewing solutions. The single channel option was inherited by cinema from art and photo history, and it feels like our relationship with screens today should help update the way moving image is presented. We got so good at navigating multiple devices, yet the single channel prevails as a default. Initially, the immersive space is not necessary to the viewing but as I work on the videos and the 3D drawings of the installation simultaneously, and inside the same laptop screen, they develop a relationship. They make the jump from my harddrive to the world together, are shown for the first time as a pair, and become necessary to each other through that process. It’s kind of emotional. I started making installations and sculptures to host moving image. In this way, caring so much about the viewing of the video tricked me into becoming someone who works in installation and sculpture. I never thought I would think in those terms.
SK: Do you consider the way that distraction and attention function today in creating spaces like this?
MB: I think about it a lot! I always think: how do I make people want to be in this space for the full time of the video loop? And this challenge is getting harder as I move towards longer video formats with a storyline that requires one to watch the video in a linear way. First, I always make sure it’s comfortable, kinda like the installation where you can take a nap and end up watching the whole thing. Here again, the storyline is great glue: for your body to stay, I mean! There is a constant push and pull between the story or characters allowing you to engage, and the sculptures or special effects pushing you out. But in this way, the distraction remains within the piece. You are in and out of the core of the story but still inside the space of the video and its installation. And even if you take a phone break, you are inside the video, another character negotiating your life on and offline, along with the ones on camera.
SK: Can you talk about new themes you're working on now?
MB: I am working on a science fiction project that has to do with immigration in a teleportation era, with a focus on the African diaspora.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? When I was a teenager. I used Photoshop and made music on the demo version of this software I got in a cereal box.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris for animation and then Cooper Union here in NYC.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I do a lot of animation and after effects for production companies.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
It’s very simple :
This article accompanies the inclusion of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 and b.a.n.g. labs' Transborder Immigrant Tool in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool, developed by the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab at UC San Diego between 2007 and 2012, is a straightforward app: it’s simple, equal parts code and poetry integrated into cheap Motorola burner phones that are meant to provide border-crossers, at any given border but particularly the Sonora-Arizona desert, with direction and sustenance in the form of locations of nearby water caches, first aid kits or law enforcement. The water caches are placed there by various volunteer organizations, and anyone can adapt the open source code with coordinates applicable to their own hellscape border-localities, but the artists, theorist and poets behind the tool collaborated directly with Border Angels, a non-profit organization based in San Diego working for migrant rights and prevention of immigrant deaths at the border.
Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab, Transborder Immigrant Tool (2007; photo courtesy 319 Scholes)
The Border Angels have a lot of work, and it seems like it increases daily. Deaths peaked in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration flooded the INS and the Border Patrol with cash to aggressively expand their Prevention Through Deterrence strategy, “boosting its effectiveness with state-of-the-art technologies, upgrading its fleet of vehicles and aircraft, and installing better fencing, lighting, and passive sensors.”1 The idea was to militarize the urban border areas with the highest traffic. For Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego they deployed 1,500 agents at a time; for Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, 750; and for Operation Safeguard an increased number of agents were assigned to the Tucson urban area, effectively siphoning immigration to isolated, extremely dangerous areas.
As archaeologist and author Jason De León puts it, the Prevention Through Deterrence policy meant funneling people trying to reach the United States into the Sonora desert of Arizona and the backwoods of Texas so that they’d get hurt or die. The hope was that if enough people died, perhaps that would deter and stop others from trying.2 A 1997 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited in De León’s book includes a graph that lists different metrics by which to measure the effectiveness of Prevention Through Deterrence, and one of them is the increase of migrant deaths: The numbers are apparently read as more deaths equal more deterrence.3 This policy is still in place; the U.S. Government knowingly corrals immigrants into harm’s way, deserts, rivers, steep mountains and canyons, in hopes that their very-possible death or injury will serve as deterrence to their fellow would-be border-crossers, and it has not worked.
De León and the Border Angels believe that the official number of deaths, 2,000, is vastly underestimated, and consider it to be closer to 10,000. The weaponization of wilderness turns the landscape into the “unsung hero of the border patrol”,4 a fixer that both kills and gets rid of the mess. As Amy Sara Carroll, a member of the EDT 2.0/B.A.N.G. Lab and the author of the poems in the Transborder Immigrant Tool, writes: “Ecology holds trauma and promise simultaneously, [it] becomes part of a larger built environment that regulates the policing and disciplining of ungrammatical bodies.”5 The TBT directly addresses this, the poems are read out loud by the phone to the travelers and they provide survival guidance to overcome some of the harshest circumstances. The Tool is meant as a last-stretch resource for the user to turn on once they’re in desperate straits, likely because the GPS and audio features drain the battery in an hour.
image courtesy of Ricardo Dominguez
The poems want to be welcoming rather than distracting, “to enact a place of hospitality”.6 They try to alleviate some of the hostility surrounding the traveler by conveying information with a tone that is both encouraging and soothing: “The desert catches water in unlikely places that it resists divulging. Do not expend all your energies searching for its secret stashes, but likewise do not assume that its pockets of moisture are nonexistent.” The poems offer advice on water sources (“Walk in the footprints of coyote or fox to the freshest water available”), desert storms (“Sand becomes sandpaper against the skin. Turn your back to the wind.”), rattlesnakes (“Diamondbacks, too, are creatures of habit, returning to rest stops.”) and edible cacti (“Consume the fruit of prickly pear, saguaro, organ pipe, yucca, or cholla for their mosure alone.”)7; useful and possibly life-saving words sprinkled with lyrical and kind gestures. They exist mid-way between the aesthetics of instruction manuals and folk knowledge,8 the kind of tips that only long-time desert-commuters like the people indigenous to those areas would have. The Tool is meant to be both effective and affective, an aesthetic intervention into the political and material realities of the border.
As deadly as the journey they are willing to embark on is, the mostly Mexican and Central American would-be border-crossers have it worse at their places of origin. Mexico and many other localities in Central and South America are immersed in what Sayak Valencia has defined as Gore Capitalism, for a few decades now. Invoking “gore” as in graphic violence, the term refers to the “explicit and unjustified spilling of blood, the high percentages of entrails and dismemberings frequently mixed with economic precarity, organized crime, the binary construction of gender and the predatory uses of bodies, all through the most explicit violence as a tool of necro-empowering.”9 Valencia paints this picture of life in Mexico to make clear the consequences of a detonated nation-state that mutated into a narco-state, a description that can also apply to nearby countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Necro-empowering indicates “the processes that transform contexts or situations of vulnerability and subalternity into the possibility of action and self-power, reconfigured in dystopian practices and perverse self-affirmation achieved through a type of violence that is profitable within the logic of capitalism.”10
This results in entire countries that, under the grinding pressure of “global hyper-consumerism, colonial after-effects, binary constructions of gender and despotical exercises of power by corrupt and authoritarian governments,”11 are transformed into narco-states ruled by a necro-politics in which government and organized crime are significantly enmeshed. The role the United States’ interventionist and extractionist policies play in all this chaos is not minor. Its sponsoring of international state-inflicted violence, its preternatural thirst for illegal drugs and weapons, and the feudal-like economic conditions it demands from less powerful and less white populations within it and around it, have created a perfect storm of genocidal proportions.12
So, the United States protects its borders, and people continue to be undeterred from trying to cross them. And yet the Transborder Immigrant Tool was conceived from a place of hope and of “commitment to global citizenship.”13 Its makers describe a world where “GPS technology is ubiquitously available and every border crosser is equipped with not only GPS, but other technological enhancements: night vision, anti-infrared clothing, Bio-Nano HyperHydration fluids or high jumping prostheses.” As the dreams of global citizenship and the “obsolescence of physical borders”14 slip further and further out of the grasp of our reality, it takes a special kind of artivism to imagine a time in which those instruments are readily available to border-crossers and not to those hunting them. Ironically, the TBT itself was never in use by actual immigrants in the desert. Perhaps this was because of the intense backlash it received during its development from people like Glenn Beck,15 or maybe because of how hard it is to make things within an academic or art environment that can ultimately be functional and scalable to the real world, specially if they are not chasing a profit.
As the current president of the United States walks amongst prototypes of the ultimate border wall and coyotes rub their hands together in anticipation of the increased fees they’ll charge for digging under or climbing over it; and as the renegotiations of NAFTA point at even worse terms for Mexico’s workers; and as the U.S. Attorney General promises more punitive measures against migrants, they are still coming. And they will keep coming, until the necessary, radical change comes that gives them back their basic human rights.
1. Attorney General of the United States. “1995 ANNUAL REPORT OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES.” Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/annualreports/ar95/chapter3.htm.
2. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018.https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
3. Jason De León. The Land of Open Graves : Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015, 34.
4. Radiolab. Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line | Radiolab | WNYC Studios. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/border-trilogy-part-2-hold-line/.
5. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014, 2.Accessed May 7, 2018. https://dspace.library.uvic.ca/bitstream/handle/1828/7136/ElectronicDisturbanceTheater_TransborderImmigrantTool_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
6. Micha Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Domínguez, and Brett Stalbaum. “The Transborder Immigrant Tool: Violence, Solidarity and Hope in Post-NAFTA Circuits of Bodies Electr(on)/Ic.” MobileHCI ’09 Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, 2009.Accessed May 7, 2018. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.561.1854&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
7. The Transborder Immigrant Tool. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan, 2014.
8. Marino, Mark C. “Code as Ritualized Poetry: The Tactics of the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 007, no. 1 (July 1, 2013). Accessed May 7, 2018. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000157/000157.html.
9. Triana, Sayak Valencia. “Capitalismo Gore y necropolítica en México contemporáneo.” Relaciones Internacionales, no. 19 (2012): 84. Accessed May 7, 2018. https://revistas.uam.es/index.php/relacionesinternacionales/article/viewFile/5115/5568
11. Ibid., 25
12. The number of deaths in Mexico that are a consequence of President Felipe Calderón starting a Guerra Contra el Narco (War on Narcos) in 2007, is around 250,000. The Mérida Initiative, discussed under George W. Bush’s presidency and signed into law under Obama, had allocated US$2.5 billion to Mexico’s politicians for this conflict by 2015. The initiative also funds similar measures in Central America, and has led to the militarization of entire countries, and the rampant abuse of power and unquestioned immunity for military and law-enforcement that it entails.
13. Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0/b.a.n.g. lab. “Border Research and the Transborder Immigrant Tool.” Media Fields Journal, no. 12 (2017), 4 http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/707453/27403322/1483769740987/Dominguez-Formatted+1.pdf?token=P5QUtZIB945fHA%2FWqqzZV0tWlXY%3D.
15. “Fox Beck Indoctrination.” Video, 2010.http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/markcmarino/clips/fox_beck_indoctrination_100902a.flv.
Rhizome is very excited to announce today’s release of an updated and expanded version of Webrecorder. As with earlier versions, users can capture web pages, including interactive features, and share their collections. Webrecorder now has gained a robust new set of tools for organizing and sharing pages in a web archive. We have also refreshed the platform’s look and feel. See our steadily growing user guide for instructions and educational resources.
List creation: Drag and drop pages to fill out your lists
Head to Webrecorder.io to try out these new tools and features!
Behind the scenes improvements in this release include the separation of Webrecorder’s user interface (front end, using React) and technical architecture (backend, relying on Python and Docker). This new API-based framework will improve performance, make more rapid development possible over time, and open up ways for other tools to interact with Webrecorder.
With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we look forward to further growing Webrecorder and its suite of services. In particular, keep an eye out for news about automation and professional tools.
Add annotations to items within your list
Led by Ilya Kreymer, our development and design team—Mark Beasley, Pat Shiu, and the newly joined backend developer John Berlin and summer developer fellow Aarati Akkapeddi—have done an incredible job bringing this new release into being. Dragan Espenschied and Anna Perricci have led product and partnership development as use of Webrecorder has steadily grown, particularly in libraries, archives, and museums, both in terms of number of users and levels of engagement.
If you have any questions or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a free, open-source platform offered by Rhizome, Webrecorder is advancing our mission to make web archiving available to all. The generosity and knowledge of our user community, including testers for this new release, contributed immeasurably to the improvements you will see in this new version of Webrecorder, so we would like to especially thank:
Hélène Brousseau (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
Sumitra Duncan (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Anisa Hawes (Victoria and Albert Museum/Posters Network)
Stefanie Hew (New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC))
Jasmine Mulliken (Stanford University Press)
Lelland Reed (NSCAD University Library)
Léa Trudel (Artexte Information Centre (Montreal, Canada))
The artist duo exonemo, formed by Sembo Kensuke and Yae Akaiwa in 1996, work with media in a humorous and experimental way to promote “explorations of the paradoxes of digital and analog computer networked and actual environments in our lives.” Their 2004 work, Natural Process, is an “installation hack,” consisting of a hand-painted recreation of Google’s homepage (at the time) displayed in a gallery and then livestreamed into an online exhibition. Today, the work is on loan and online for the first time since 2004 as part of “Open Space 2017: Re-Envisioning the Future” at ICC in Tokyo, and on view as part of Net Art Anthology.
To begin, how did the two of you begin collaborating as exonemo? What was the community of artists working with the internet and technologies in Japan like at the time?
Everything was chaotic, so what we were creating was not categorized as art at the very beginning. At that time in Japan, there was no artist mainly working with the internet, except us. In the late 1990s, some collaborative projects with artists, such as “Sensorium” or “Postpet” had come on the internet. And a big anonymous BBS “2ch” had a big influence on Japanese underground communities. In 1999, we met JODI at a restaurant in Tokyo. It was the first encounter with the internet artist in actual space.
How was Natural Process conceived? What was the reasoning for choosing Google’s homepage as the source material of the “landscape painting”?
The idea came up when we had an opportunity to participate in a“contemporary art” group exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. Most of exhibits were painting, photograph, sculpture or installation which could be construed in the context of contemporary art. Therefore, as an alien from the internet, from outside of contemporary art world, we tried to install new reality of the internet era into the museum. Then we decided using a traditional analog media (painting) in combination with a symbolic image of the internet (Google's homepage). At that time in 2004, we had frequently accessed the “Google front page” when searching something. We thought it was a new landscape seen through our virtual “windows.”
In Natural Process, there’s a strong focus on transitions between the digital and analog presence of the landscape of the digital––an “installation hack,” in your words. For you, what occurred in the spaces between these different representations of the webpage?
In the process of continuous transition between digital and analog, we made a situation which would be able to slip some sort of noise or human error. (ex. a painting by painter who was unfamiliar with the Google’s homepage. visitors at the museum had been captured by a webcam set in front of the painting, and a visitor tried to hack it...)
This faulty (we dare say it “natural”) process had revealed gaps between nonphysical and physical media/space clearly.
What differences in reception occurred when the work was viewed online versus in the exhibition space (at the Mori Art Museum)?
People online accessed individually to the digital image from their personal space, but people at the museum met the painting in a public space with many other people.
A digital image had been copied and spreaded on the internet. It brought a personal experiences for people online. On the other hand at the museum, physical painting is one and only, hence people gathered and related to each other in the public space. That was one of big differences between two different spaces.
The artwork is now in Google’s collection–– how did this happen? Do you still see the work as being complete as only a physical object, not livestreamed?
We contacted with Google after opening the exhibition. Then we got a feedback that a founder of the Google saw the livestream and he liked it. Therefore we asked Google Japan if they would like to own the work. They wanted to have it but without a webcam. We wanted to installed the whole system including livestreaming, but it still seemed to have meanings to install even only the painting. In fact, meanings of the painting have been changing along with Google’s growth; thus, the process is still underway. We are glad to be able to present with original installation again after many years.
Since Natural Process was exhibited in 2004, Google’s place in the digital hierarchy has radically changed alongside general human interaction with the internet and its associated technologies. Have you noticed your practice adapting to these shifts?
No. But we chose Google's front page because we usually started "net surfing" from that page and it was necessary for us. In 2004, Google search was the simplest, fastest and had a potential to change the internet (actually not only the internet), and they still has been expanding their influence. However, their front page will not be chosen as a landscape of 2018, because today we all see different landscapes through individual social media windows.
This report about Ed Fornieles’ recent workshop What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? is published in partnership with DAOWO, a series that brings together artists, musicians, technologists, engineers, and theorists to consider how blockchains might be used to enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture. The series is organized by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others.
Imagine an island not far off the coast of French Polynesia, floating quietly while it absorbs hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in crypto capital. Idyllic animatronic palms made of stainless steel manufactured in Germany and coated in organic coconut husk waft gently in the breeze, while an underwater generator noiselessly converts salt water to a drinkable resource. A backdrop of impossibly green hills glimmer with solar panels coated in a thin layer of hyper-absorbent algae, courtesy of a Swedish start-up whose CEO lives in a villa nestled into the landscape. Welcome to the future of Seasteading.
A few years ago, when British artist Ed Fornieles began researching the social dynamics of the blockchain and cryptocurrency, this sort of scene was an ecstatic fantasy conjured up by what’s generally perceived as the delirious imagination of the rich and bored; of opportunistic Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and a pack of wily investors on the hunt for the next lucrative buzz. “Now it’s become our present reality, and it’s not so funny,” says Fornieles of the burgeoning crypto society. We’re gathered in the Goethe-Institut London on a drizzling afternoon in March, and Fornieles, embodying the role of a digital coach and dramaturge, is introducing the concept of live action role play, LARPing for short,to a motley group of around two dozen participants including students, artists, techies, architects, and–unbeknownst to all–IRL Seasteaders in disguise.
Convened in collaboration with Ruth Catlow, co-founder of online research platform and gallery Furtherfield and Ben Vickers, CTO of the Serpentine Galleries, the workshop, titled What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)?, is the fifth installment of DAOWO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization With Others): a series bringing together artists, writers, curators, technologists, and engineers to investigate the production of new blockchain technologies and their socio-political implications. It’s also an effort “explore the hazards of formalizing the idea of ‘doing good on the blockchain’,” according to Fornieles.
Participants are sorted into four groups, or islands, adopting the personas of crypto-millionaires and billionaires in order to configure a speculative society upon the Seasteading frontier. The LARP is organized into four sessions, including a period of self-actualization, where the committee members of each island settle upon an operating structure for their crypto-community; a four-year throwback, where the group reflects upon the success of their fledgling island’s socio-political structure and makes any necessary adjustments, and finally a fifty-year “truth and reconciliation” process followed immediately by a super convention, where each island proudly presents its success story – or laments its struggles – to the broader international Seasteading community.
In order to introduce different practical challenges and ethical quandaries, Fornieles throws two Seasteading communities on artificial islands and two pre-existent (and potentially already inhabited) islands into the mix. While Seasteading technically excludes such “organic” islands, the idea of “mining cryptocurrency in paradise” has mutated into colonizing real communities ravaged by natural disaster, as many critics including Naomi Klein and Nellie Bowles of the New York Times have noted about Puerto Rico. He’s also established a dozen roles for participants to assign themselves: from Ministers of Religion and Education, to Island Architect, Mayor, and Chief Technology Officers, in order to jump-start the camaraderie (or anarchy). “For first time role players, there’s a tendency to be the sociopath you always wanted to be,” cautions Vickers in the warm-up introduction. “Please try to suppress this desire.” Otherwise, it’s game on, and immediately after we separate into groups, all kinds of strategic and ideological questions emerge: Do we want a central government, or is it best to leave politics to algorithms? Should we convene a Church of Something, or are we all too woke for religion? Do we need a justice system, a formal corrective center, or a Sims-like human rating system to self-regulate behaviour? Maybe we can just vote people on and off the island?
I’m relieved to be sorted into an artificial island established by Paypal founder Peter Thiel, therefore bypassing what plenty of cultural theorists, including Klein,1 have pointed out as the immediate and unmistakable stench of neocolonialism. We’re given a name, “The Pilgrims,” and a socio-political disposition: as “Modern Libertarians,” we’re supposed to be a “free-thinking community that believes the only way to create an honest, new, distinct way of living is to set sail and create a new network.” Filled with neoliberal buzzwords like innovation, entrepreneurialism, and disruption, Pilgrim Island is the paragon of Seasteading ideology. Oh, and we’re really into wearing all-black hi-tech athleisure. Seriously–it’s the stuff of neoliberal dreams.
But without a pre-existing ethical quandary to mediate, the need to immediately establish an ideological commons stays airborne. The island’s socio-political landscape ricochets between one participant’s idealized utopia and another. Still, whether by defaulting to their actual areas of expertise or diving head-first into a full-fledged crytpo-billionaire alter persona (I suspect the former), the founding committee of my island quickly jumps on their self-assigned roles. I note with interest as the player to my right, a small, sassy woman sporting a bowler hat, a markedly “business casual” blazer, and big, blinged-out hoop earrings, promptly elects herself mayor without much resistance from the rest of the group. Almost as if by reflex, she launches into a compelling speech that touts the glory of the hands-off and unregulated economy of Seasteading; the imminent intellectual and financial capital to be gleaned from the “limitless potential of high-tech islands based on real life values.”
Things quickly slip off the deep end. Less than twenty minutes in, the island’s architect has gone on a minimalist-inspired rampage, apparently inspired by a very jovial spiritual pilgrimage with his “good friend” Elon Musk to Vegas. Conjuring a Panopticon2-like self-corrective facility-cum-worship center in the middle of the island known as the PayPal Meditation Center, the architect introduces an elaborate system of self-enacted punishment for residents involving a penny-by-penny payment for one’s sins fulfilled by the obsolete performance of extracting Real Money from an ATM (the horror!). Meanwhile, the Minister of Religion is busy ordaining a Thiel-inspired sect that ties spirituality to physical health, brandishing a harsh, zero-tolerance approach to dissenters.
She colludes with the Minister of Agriculture to debut an all-seeing pineapple that simultaneously provides sustenance to Pilgrim Island’s speculative inhabitants while also monitoring their spiritual commitment. The Minister of Education crafts a secret p2p anarchist boot camp on the Northwestern coast of the island, for the self-conscious younger generation eager to find deeper meaning in this brave new digital world. For a reason that still escapes me, Peter Thiel is then involved in a tragic water-taxi accident that ends in the ultimate demise of he and his partner. A referendum is held for a new leader amidst the for-profit utopian soul-searching…
As for myself? In order to preserve proper journalistic objectivity (obviously), I’ve self-identified as a ghost (more specifically, the ghost of reason). This works great at first, but when we hit the four-year benchmark, I learn the Minister of Religion has been voted off the island, a movement initiated by the Energy Manager and Local Representative. As the spiritual attachment, I also get the boot; we’re shipped off to a neighbouring island called Blue Frontiers that’s likewise self-fabricated, and also exhibits the same weakness of a spiritual void. With an algorithmic overlord, the (not-so) speculative island is situated after the unfortunate ravaging of French Polynesia by an unavoidable natural disaster: A narrative that oddly parallels that of Puerto Rico. Fast forward 50 years into the future, I am welcomed to join them in a painful process of reflection.
We quickly learn that an existential ennui due to lack of faith and purpose amongst the island’s population has led to a mass suicide. “There have been lots of residents killing themselves, but our technology is so good, can it really be that bad?” asks the island’s hands-off Mayor, who apparently doesn’t believe in building. Having fired the Architect early on (“We’ve all enjoyed the beach, why pollute it with architecture?”), whose algorithmic approval rating sits at a measly 32%, the Mayor proceeds to gloat over his 90% approval rating, while the Chief Technology Officer also curiously boasts a sky-high rating of 96%. Suddenly, Pioneer Island’s schizophrenic governance starts to look pretty good.
Minutes later I find myself at the mid-century International Seasteading Convention, where I am exposed to the triumphs and tribulations of our near-present Seasteading future. Alt-right acceleration gives way to a hyper-libertarian group named Sol declaring allegiance to a new religion steered by Crypto-Christ that touts a new hedonistic world order, completed by furnishing its children with sex robots. An Anarcho-communist community has catapulted its Mayor and Minister of Education to a new planet, and tout the great success of introducing an emotional currency to the island’s residents while skirting around the issue of a veganism-inspired massacre. “We’re leaving a very beautiful piece of archaeology for other nations to learn from,” the Mayor proudly asserts from her new life across the galaxy.
An animatronic tear rolls down my cheek as I hear the recent struggles of Pioneer Island. With their reputation system based on the blockchain overloaded by a sea of new residents, their dwindling natural resources (“We have plenty of crypto, but no food or water”) leads to an appeal from the rest of the bitcoin billionaires to lend a helping digital hand. Still, the Mayor remains unshaken, once again delivering a solid speech that praises the blockchain mantra of “pioneering small, self-organized projects that lead to independence,”; of “never aiming for total cohesion and never following democracy,” but instead “generating local, self-sufficient systems” in order to achieve success.
Curiosity takes over, and I approach the brilliant spokeswoman after the workshop winds up in order to uncover her background. Turns out she’s none other than Nathalie Mezza-Garcia, the self-termed “Seavangelesse” and research strong-arm of Blue Frontiers. Currently pursuing a PhD that investigates the politics and sociology of Seasteading at the University of Warwick, Mezza-Garcia was recruited by the Blue Frontiers team in 2017. Now, with the company just months from unveiling to the public its island off the coast of French Polynesia [after this report was filed, the island nation pulled out of the deal–Ed.], she’s keen to spread the message amongst the masses and change some minds. Naturally, we go for a drink.
“If someone like me who basically lives and breathes Seasteading 24/7 can get so much wrong, it’s no wonder the general conception of Seasteading is so far from the truth,” says Mezza-Garcia. “The biggest mistake people make is laminating the ‘evil billionaire’ narrative onto the whole enterprise.” Still in the midst of her research, Mezza-Garcia has nothing but admiration for the wealthy patrons of Seasteading. Rather than using the enterprise merely as a tool to acquire more capital, Seasteading companies like Blue Frontiers are more interested in the limitless social, political, and ideological benefits awaiting this post-human frontier, she argues. “It’s a step into a world where we all have more decisions.”
As for the regular members of society who can’t afford their own slice of animatronic paradise on the enlightened blockchain, hotel accommodation will soon be available on Blue Frontiers’ islands. For now, role-playing is a valuable exercise for warming up a heterogeneous batch of the general public to the idea, so they can form their own opinions. For Mezza-Garcia, What Will It Be Like When We Buy An Island (on the blockchain)? is the first time she’s seen artists – “instead of libertarians or blockchain people” – engage with the principle ideas of Seasteading in a direct, open, and low-stakes way; many attendants of the workshop voiced a similar sentiment (but thought another round or two of role-playing would help them with the trickier bits–like avoiding vegan anarchy, or summoning a Bitcoin Jesus).
As the once-distant dream of Seasteading is eclipsed by its imminent reality, the potential of role playing as an educational strategy emerges on both ends of the chain – but the takeaway is by no means consistent. Eager to make the operations of Blue Frontiers accessible to a broader audience, Mezza-Garcia celebrates activities like this as a potential source of new recruits. She even intends integrate LARPing into Blue Frontiers board meetings to encourage a top-down empathy with non-billionaires of the blockchain. Yet the results of the workshop–in which speculative future Seasteading communities are ravaged by a despairing lack of faith, suicides, and massacres–paints an entirely different story: One that becomes increasingly problematic when one considers the flawless criminal, mental, and physical health records Blue Frontiers’ selection process requires, alongside the obvious economic factors.
For a community keen to “enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity,” according to Blue Frontiers’ co-founder Joe Quirk, their operating logic seems to reinforce many of the social stigmas and power structures already responsible for much of the suffering and inequality within contemporary society. Rather than offering any single narrative or conclusion, LARPing underscores these divergent visions of Seasteading’s (failed) utopia just before the ship sets sail.
All illustrations by Maz Hemming.
 In a piece published on The Intercept on March 20, Klein blasted Bitcoin as “the most wasteful possible use of energy”, characterizing leading cryptocurrency figures as opportunistic “Puertotopians” keen to capitalize on the hurricane-ravaged island of Puerto Rico. Klein also equates the “wealthy libertarian manifesto” of Seasteading to the colonizing powers of the new world that seized once-free nations and converted their indigenous inhabitants into slaves.
 Though conceived by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, the idea of the panopticon was popularized by the French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Says Foucault of the Panopticon’s unlucky captive: “He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.” Remote island or bustling city center, the Panopticon’s relevance has resurfaced in the realm of the digital; see Thomas McMullan’s 2016 piece in The Guardian about the relevance of Panopticonism amid the cross-fire of data capture and digital surveillance.
This interview is taken from What's to be Done?, a publication produced by Rhizome and Wieden + Kennedy New York for the 10th edition of Seven on Seven. The magazine was edited by Rhizome special projects editor Nora Khan, and designed by Richard Turley, global creative director at Wieden + Kennedy. With a donation of $30 or more to Rhizome, we'll send you a copy of the full publication, which features texts and interviews by Paul Chan, Fred Turner, Claire L Evans, and more.
We watched Tracy Chou's collaboration with Claire Evans with admiration: bots with randomized genders and voices played out a tense, tight drama about a plausible Silicon Valley office. Chou, a software engineer, entrepreneur, and tireless diversity advocate, has a clear and intuitive understanding of programming and systems, which she passionately applies to engineering of equitable frameworks to counterbalance gender discrimination and bias.
We thought Chou's focus on systemic institutional issues would intersect will with Kate Ray's interests. Ray, a programmer, engineer, and journalist, deploys her accessible, allow amateurs to replicate media giant website designs in an hour, and address gender violence and sexual harassment through both low-tech mediums and open-source design processes.
On a Saturday at NEW INC., the discussed their mutual interest in systems and representation, Silicon Valley's blind spots, neoliberalism, what an ethical design of systems might look like, and the present and future of women in tech.
Nora Khan, Rhizome: I’d like to start with both of your collaborations – Kate, yours with Holly Herndon and Tracy, yours with Claire Evans. What did you learn from the experience?
Kate Ray:I had a really good collaboration. I do most of my projects solo, aside from work, which has to be collaborative. I remember being really nervous ahead of time that I would have to work on something with somebody, especially in a high-pressure situation. I was really happy with how our conversations went, and that we were really building on each other. I don't know if I've worked so well with someone in that intense way. Maybe it just shows that you're really good at picking; I think you guys paired us really well.
The project was SPYKE, which was like an old chat app where you had to enable your video camera in order to start talking with somebody. But here, you wouldn't see a video anywhere. You would just see the chat box. You could take a picture of them at any point along the way, and they wouldn't know that it was happening. You'd sort of be spying on them even though you've authorized them to do it. I have been thinking about this a lot this week with all the Facebook revelations. I feel like we were sort of just exploring stuff, and it was really abstract. In the conversation we got into some of the ideas around surveillance; what if you give someone permission to watch, but it still doesn't feel like they're actually surveilling you? The project feels much more concrete when you think about what Facebook has been doing. It started out in this really abstract and emotional place, but certain aspects of it feel more relevant right now.
Tracy Chou:It was great, my project with Claire. So, Claire is a very multi-talented person. She is a singer and songwriter, and a writer. She recently released a book too [Broad Band: The Untold History of the Women of the Internet.] I had a little bit of anxiety because I just didn't know what we were supposed to do. I think in contrast with you, Kate, most of my projects are in collaboration. I've mostly worked on teams with other people. The collaboration part wasn't scary to me. In most cases, I have relatively well-defined output goals: I'm trying to build this project, or product. I'm the engineer on the project, and there is a product manager and designer, and it is very clear. In this case, the goal was just to produce something cool. We didn't know each other before, so there was a bit of mutual discovery around the different perspectives, skills, and experiences that we wanted to bring.
Pretty quickly, we found some common ground around gender issues relating to technology. I thought because she was a singer, she'd want to do some musical. She said, "No, I'm actually in a band with my partner, and I don't feel whole making music without him." That's interesting. I'm not artistic at all. I guess that was the point, pairing a technologist and an artist. She asked, "How about we do a play? And I will write the play." I don't know anybody's who's ever written a play. It's just so far out of my domain. Then she started a Google Doc, and just started writing. I was watching her type out the play in real time. It was kind of amazing. I had never seen that happen before. I had never really spent time with writers in real time.
NK:It seems like it had been labored over much longer. Watching that construction of artificial language was fascinating. Artificial languages demand care and creativity and thought, because the bot- writer thinks long and hard on how a person will respond, on what will make a person feel warm or responsive.
TC: Claire just kind of knocked it out. I was watching her compose it, and then I wrote the Python script to read it out loud in all different permutations. I was amazed by her writing process. Similarly, she watched me do the technical side and was like, "Wow, how did you make the computer read these things aloud in different voices?" She was writing a play script, and I was writing a Python script, and they came together so well. That was cool, to be able to jam together. I started playing with different things, like how long we should pause in between the different characters, how we should slow it down for the robotic voice. She got to test the voice out as well, adding different punctuation based on how the voice would read it differently.
NK: You both talk about or work on redesigning systems through your work, to either reveal or address the unseen. Kate, you have your map where people can mark places they have cried throughout New York and elsewhere. Spyke gives us intimate glimpses of people alone. Bots, maps, language trees. How do you imagine systems revealing the hidden, whether they're biases, microaggressions, or, say, emotional nuances flattened out by sterile, impersonal environments, like work?
TC: The first thing that comes to mind is a discussion I was having with one of my professors from school, who's leading in the AI field. We were talking about this issue of bias in models built from data that is biased. One very promising thing is once you've identified that bias, you can, in some cases, remove it. There was one study that's been floating around about gendered language. If you are training your models over a corpus of general human language data, they'll often pick up gender affiliations between male and doctor, female and nurse. You could say in that case, that the model's working really well. It picks up exactly what it was being fed, which is, unfortunately, biased data. But then we can actually choose to go zero out those biases if we think that there shouldn't be a male correlation to doctor and a female, to nurse.
What's promising there is once we've identified the bias, we can remove it, which is not the same with humans. If you talk to a human, and identify that they have some sort of bias, whether it's sexist or racist or some other form – it's very hard to behave in a way that's not biased. With the machine learning model – with the right types of models – you can just go and manually zero out those parameters. It's not the case for all models. There's a lot of work being done right now in the AI field, especially around deep learning, to make the models interpretable. So, there's been a little bit of a trade-off, where the models that are easiest to interpret are often not the most performant ones. You could imagine, pretty easily, a decision tree. What it is doing is it is walking down a tree of yes, no. Does it cross a threshold or not? You just go down the tree. It is pretty easy to understand how the model made a decision.
But those models don't perform as well as the black box neural networks. There are a bunch of researchers working now on how to understand what those black boxes are doing inside. So, if a decision is made that is not ideal, we can go in and examine why it happened. A lot of times these systems are just training on things you don't understand. When you look at the data, you have some intuition for the domain. You can figure out what it is. In other cases, it's about finding some smart thing in the data. We can't figure out what it is when we're just presented with all of the numbers that are the parameters.
NK: Playing devil's advocate, one might say that this is a road to creating politically correct AI and “politically correct systems.” Meaning, we’re creating data that is equitable when people themselves are not. The flip side of that is, what would a trans-feminist data set look like? An anti-capitalist dataset?
TC: I think it's hard to say what something should be. You can say, let's devise the system, but what does a non-biased system look like, and what does it mean to create an optimal system? There's still a lot of human editorialization, and as you pointed out, what we accept to be good also changes very quickly. Our norms change very quickly. Do we also update all of the models that we're building to map to the new versions of what is correct?
NK:And our positions change based on emotional context, too. Kate, what I really appreciate about SPYKE, is the unearned intimacy with these people front of their computer scrolling through their feeds. It is voyeuristic, seeing these private moments, faces morphing from happy to glum within minutes. Could you talk about your projects as they frame our relationships with technology as extremely human and emotional?
KR: I would say my projects are all very intentionally anti-technology. In general, they have required humans to do human work to make them even a little bit interesting. The only time I have thought of using machine learning was if I could use it in an artistic way, as opposed to creating utility out of it.
A project that I made last year, for Ingrid [Burrington]’s conference about science and speculative fiction, was a really simple bookshelf app. You could use it to make a set of book mixtapes that you could like. You could just name a bunch of books and put them together into a list, and give the list a weird name. Being the opposite of Goodreads is what I was going for. There's no action that you're doing that is creating data. The app is just you, the person deciding what data you want it to make, and then creating it. The same goes for the Cry in Public app. There is nothing interesting there, except for the human's personality being funneled in a very particular way.
I would rather work on projects that use technology but are kind of anti-technology in ethic. I want to investigate the limits around what technology is doing to your data, and find some interesting things going on there. I'm not even using it to make something happen.
NK:It’s a mode of turning people's attention to alternative possibility. This is why your Scroll Kit was used so heavily. There’s a nice divergence here between creating shifts in perception through software experiments, and creating shifts in perception by revealing institutional inadequacy. Do you both think about the tension between experimentation and professionalization within tech, especially as you work with activists now, some of whom worked in Silicon Valley and decide to leave? What types of communities are you able to build within institutions versus outside?
KR:I've struggled a lot with this in the last year, because I used to be immersed in tech. I see a lot of solutions there. But in the last year, I've not wanted to work in it at all. I ask myself, okay, what do I do? Work-wise, I've found a job that honestly isn't a tech company; I work at Pilot Works, which helps people start food businesses. We are renting kitchen spaces and getting people to cook, enabling that communing with a bunch of technology. I do all of my side projects just for myself, with no money coming from anyone. That way I can keep it the way that I want it to be.
NK: Is there value in creating your own communities versus working alone? How has that changed for the both of you throughout your careers?
KR:Well, I've been thinking a lot about gender stuff with the #MeToo movement. Once that came through, I started trying to work on something to address it. Even there, I got in over my head. I said, I don't think I should be making anything. So I started volunteering for an assault hotline. That is the lowest tech. It's an ASP app that breaks all the time when you're trying to train. It's actually interesting, because it's like a really pure form of humanness coming through this not-great chat app; sometimes you feel like you're behaving like a robot, because you have all these scripts to say. But the only thing that you are providing is your human empathy and human presence, your being there. I like how this is the lowest tech, that is enabling some humanness to come through.
I don't know if this will be my solution forever, but I feel like I am backed away from a lot of problems that I don't know what to do about anymore.
TC: Yeah. The tension between working with or within problematic institutions, versus outside of them for a change, is one I see all the time. I personally felt to be more effective to be within institutions or on the inside, because then you understand how those systems work. You know what the leverage points are, and who the right people are to go to. In the end, these are all the people, so you just need to have that human map. From the outside, it's hard to know what drives people to do things or not do them. Obviously, working from within the system has its challenges because then you feel like you are complicit with the bad system, and potentially compromising your values. There is something nice about tracking the totally ideologically pure route, but often, it's not very practical. When you're not following what you believe to be ideologically pure, it can be hard to defend the line in the sand that you've drawn, whatever it is.
I've seen both sides of it. Not intentionally, because I wanted to step out of a major institution, but because I've worked in Pinterest for a number of years and wanted to go on to do other things. I'm no longer at a big-ish tech company, but I've still been operating within the system. I've been working on a few different startup projects. I'm on my third startup idea project since I left Pinterest.
Startups will often participate in incubators as they grow. We had a lot of heated discussions about which programs it was okay for me to participate in, because many have not always had the best record on diversity and inclusion. I still thought it was valuable to go and see these programs from the inside. I have many friends who have gone through these programs and work for them. However being in a cohort was very eye opening. It enabled me to give a lot of concrete feedback. I have no idea if they're going to take my feedback, but there's a lot of daily reminder elements that would only be caught by somebody going through the system.
Take one minor example. When you submit an application, you usually have to indicate your areas of expertise. You check off areas like artificial intelligence, backend engineering, marketing, sales, all these different things. Diversity and inclusion is never one of those things. It's like, wow, no one has thought this would be an important area of expertise. And I don’t think this issue is critical, but it's just one symptom of a greater problem.
Another time in a similar context, a presenter spoke about how people view the valuations of their companies like they do the size of their manhood. I was looking around the room, thinking, did nobody else hear that? Why is nobody else upset? There's like hundreds of people, but no one else seems to be upset. There are always a lot of little things. Accumulated, these instances are not intentionally trying to push someone like me out or anything.
One of the other takeaways for me was that, when you’re a startup, most of everything is about growing your company, so even the female founders or under-represented minority founders for the most part are not thinking about the microaggressions they experience, or how to make spaces and places more equitable. They are just trying to focus on growing their companies. I pay a little bit more attention to these things, because I worked so much in diversity and inclusion. I am naturally primed to pick up these little cues. But I acknowledge that the bulk of people's attention is not going towards these issues.
NK:You have spoken about the idea of diversity as a kind of “lowering of the bar,” which is of course a really insidious kind of racist thinking. When you logically deconstruct this language and thinking, there’s a kind of beauty to that. So when person A says, person B was just brought in because of inclusion, you can eye their assumptions. They assumed the working plane was flat to begin with. And what person A is really saying is that, person B, in their mind, doesn’t really have the capacity to do the job. Where does that come from? It comes from centuries of racialized hierarchies in which one group assumes what is in another’s mind. It’s like moving backwards up a messed-up decision tree.
And first-generation immigrants learn the myth of meritocracy the hard way: If I just do my best, then that shields me from being harmed. I wonder about this idea of “just working hard” and “sheer talent alone,” and a pure system. But there’s no pure space without politics. We are all embedded in social reality and history. So when we claim an objective purity, purity for what, and to what end?
KR: It makes me think about a lot of stuff going on in the science fiction and speculative fiction communities. Recently, the prominent award-winning books have been suddenly from women of color writing science fiction. The backlash to those awardees is saying, “Everything is just political now. All the science fiction is all about politics.”
NK: There were the protests around the Hugo and Nebula award nominees.
KR:As if it weren't political, as if you were just writing about the future, and that had nothing at all to do with how the world that you were coming from functioned, or how what you wanted to live in the future wouldn’t relate to politics. That's the most stark, funny example of this purity to me lately.
TC:Also some of the responses are very emotional, and they usually come from people who feel like something is being taken away from them. They don't want to give up their positions of power and their representations as good or superior. It's fundamentally an emotional response, but then couched in rational language. It's like, let's just walk it through. Let's look at the numbers. The graduation rates. But people will find ways to justify their point, and they don’t always make sense. That wasn't really the point. The point was that they felt defensive and didn't want something taken away from them.
KR:Yeah. The friends who have come out strongly on this side have so much more to say to me, than I have to them. I remember after the Google Memo incident, I had older friends from college asking me, "So, what do you think about this?" I would say, well, it's stupid. Then they would just want to talk for 45 minutes about why they thought the Google employee was right, and about the memo and why it was important and why it was good. I had so much less to say, but they had been doing all this reading. Sometimes it felt like the reading and researching was primarily to not face their much more emotional, personal reaction. By reading and listening to podcasts and stuff, they would have an argument that they could present.
One of the more negative projects I planned, that I haven't done, was to take some of these emails that I was getting from friends and just make a bot to generate sentences to mimic them. They would all use the same language. It started to get to the point where if I just saw someone arguing about free speech, well, that plus certain other words, you just knew what someone would argue.
TC:I've actually been happy in some cases when people were not so sophisticated around the packaging of their ideas and straight up said what they were thinking. It gave me insight into what was really going through their minds before they may have found better language. I've talked to people, like Asian male engineers, for instance, who say, this is all we have, this is the only thing we're good at – why take that away from us? I'm like, oh. Our society is really deeply problematic. [laughs]
NK:And that is the precarity of a system that wants us to fight over little parcels of land. I think of the protest against tent cities in California, the growing conservatism of immigrants, and the violence engendered by the model minority myth.
What changes have you seen since 2013, when you started to gather data on women engineer hires in Silicon Valley and place them online?
TC: I think there's been some shifts in the conversation to be less about women and slightly more intersectional, which is positive. It’s less about let's get some data, map out the problem, and more, now we have data, what do we do to fix the problem? There have been some exploratory attempts at solutions, most of which have not been very successful, but you have to start somewhere. We've found some programs that work to mitigate bias. Other programs require a lot of effort. You see a bit of gains from them, but they can't be widely scaled; we haven't found very many successful scalable solutions.
So for example, some companies are doing apprenticeship programs, which are much more intensive on mentoring and onboarding people. It is great to be able to provide those on-ramps for people who aren't coming from the same, traditional feeder backgrounds. But it doesn't work to do that for most of your new employees. You don't have enough bandwidth, practically speaking, to continuing building the business and also onboard new people.
So, there has been some slow progress. One big change is that diversity is now a trendy PR thing for a lot of companies and firms. That can potentially be more damaging, because there are a lot of people who are raising this flag of diversity and inclusion and really aren't doing anything. They are actually counterproductive to the movement. This talking too much – without actually achieving – is also inciting some backlash, like some of the men who think it's all “gone too far.”
I think progress is going to be uneven. We'll make some forward strides, and then some will try to pull back. On the whole, at least the party line is that diversity is important. If that's what people are saying, eventually we'll start pulling in that direction, even if not everyone feels it yet. I think it's better that people say diversity is important than they say it's not important, even if they're not quite yet there with their actions.
NK:The alt- right challenge a shallow form of what identity politics really is, a neoliberal conception of diversity, a flatly marketed idea used as protection by many companies. Ignore our drones; look at our staff. Diversity is not just one different person in a room; it's also diversity of thought, engaging in other’s difference.
TC:What that's demonstrating right now though is, that that same group of people co-opting a lot of this language, even “diversity of thought,” they will also say, well, you're also saying you want biases, but not our biases. I think it falls into the paradox of intolerance. I forget the exact wording. Something like, “we cannot be tolerant of intolerance.”
KR:That's good. I'm going to write that down.
NK:So you create different paths of access, like creating an onboarding process when the resources aren't there. Kate, you put up simple, beautiful, and accessible tutorials for coding. You tell people that coding is difficult, acknowledge what that they might be afraid to ask in a classroom. Early programmers championed being an autodidact. When you didn't have access to a great education, you could teach yourself, tinkering in your room.
KR:That idea of the genius tinkering in his room – that is what the programming community is still attached to. It is the ideal. I got into a good Twitter with some statistician lady who was tweeting a seventh grader's homework assignment. It was a puzzle, about laying out five coins, more than a math problem. I said, oh, here is why I didn't get into advanced math. Then I never got to take calculus. I studied journalism, and then only later did I find myself programming.
When I tell people that learning to code is hard – my idea is that code is not just for people who have math brains, who are able to see the five coins and make a leap of intuition about how they should be arranged. For most of programming there are still certain areas that are highly mathematical, and machine learning is one of them. But most of programming is about being careful and thoughtful, and actually working well with people. Most time gets lost when someone's not paying attention to what someone else thought was happening.
I'm excited for when programming splits into something that's more like the work of biologists and doctors, rather than just being one field. Working at it and just being good at your job are really different from being the math genius sitting in a room who can suddenly make Google.
TC: That there are alternate ways to think of systems and alternate communities. The more diverse perspectives you have, you have more different ideas of what tech can do.
KR:Right. There's alternate ways to judge value in work too. Programming can be something that you can do, if you work hard and gets good grades. This tends to be what a lot more women are doing these days. They are going into higher education. This is better than romanticizing a 16-year-old math genius. The field then opens it up for a lot of people who didn't think that they could do that kind of work.
NK:Which kind of futures do you envision? Are there small moments from the last year or recently even that have made you feel that things are improving?
KR:When things start to go wrong, like with Facebook, we are blaming tech culture and the technology itself. As tech moves into every domain, we'll be able to start looking at the people in power who are making decisions, and how those are having effect on people. This is not a state of affairs specific to tech, even if the decisions are being filtered down through to technology. We will see the effects of their values on things.
“Values” is the kind of word that I use most now. I'm not just looking at a tech company, because that doesn't really describe anything anymore; I'm trying to find out what's shaping the way that they're making. We’ll become more and more able to separate out values, the human role in the making of the tools.
NK:So technical brilliance or ideological purity: these are not enough. You need moral intelligence, you need emotional intelligence.
TC:Yes. I think in the last year or two, we've seen a lot of wake up calls around technology, when it's not designed or implemented well, and those are bad things that have happened to cause us to wake up. I do like that people are starting to have these conversations. There's this one ex-Googler who's written really well how chemists and physicists began to see how their work could be weaponized, made into chemical weapons or nuclear bombs. They had to grapple with ethics. Those practitioners and researchers started thinking about not just what is possible, but whether it should be possible.
Software and tech so far has not really had that same kind of ethical thinking embedded within it. That will become more of a trend in the future. Hopefully more quickly rather than less. On the diversity front, more people are brainstorming and experimenting and committing effort towards increasing inclusion. We still have a long way to go, but there's some positive change.
Above: detail from the cover of Allison Parrish, Articulations (Counterpath Press, 2018).
Like any other no-longer-nascent form hardening under academic and critical gazes, the exact inception point of digital poetry is contested. Florian Cramer postulates that the “oldest permutational text” is “Optatianus Porfyrius’ Carmen XXV from the fourth century A.D.” R.M. Worth’s “Auto-Beatnik” in 1962 is also another oft-mentioned touchstone, as is Max Bense and Theo Lutz’s 1959 remix of bits of Kafka’s The Castle. (The term “digital poetry” is itself a contested term. In his 2007 survey Prehistoric Digital Poetry, C.T. Funkhouser cites 29 potential terms collated by Jorge Luiz Antonio.) Alison Knowles and James Tenney’s 1967 “A House of Dust” has proven, however, to be most integral to cultural memory.
“A House of Dust,” written on Fortran, is an early example of a “slotted work,” one which keeps the grammar of the stanzas intact. This form allowed the titular opening line to repeat occasionally (although not always: early iterations were published under different “A House of --” titles.)
A HOUSE OF WEEDS
AMONG SMALL HILLS
INHABITED BY VERY TALL PEOPLE
An “original” print-out of “A House of Dust” was on display at MoMA’s recent “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age 1959-1989,” and it was the focal point of a 2016 exhibition at The Center for the Humanities’ James Gallery. The various permutations of “A House of Dust” continue to be available on Twitter until such a time as the platform is banned for acceleration of memetic warfare.
So vital is Knowles and Tenney’s contribution that the phrase “Using Electricity” has become the title of a series of computer-generated books published by Counterpath Press. The third entry in “Using Electricity” is, somewhat surprisingly, Allison Parrish’s most recent poetry-programming project, Articulations (January 2018). Parrish’s previous output tended to be screen-only, with the notable exception of a dead-tree copy of her early, extremely successful Twitter bot @everyword (2007). Any potential audience alienation created by her presentation, or the very nature of procedurally-generated text, was typically addressed via user interface, as in 2014’s “A Travel Guide,” and/or by Parrish’s emphasis on reading her poems out loud. Parrish is an excellent public speaker, and reader, and the various processes she uses to create her texts, especially the poems, create highly rhythmic repetition which break down language to great, often comic, effect. For instance, about 31 minutes into this video, she reads Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” rewritten in the framework of synthesia-theory terms “kiki” and “bouba,” sound-shape connections which exist across cultural and linguistic barriers.
Despite or possibly because of its situation within a long history of experimental and generative poetry, Articulations throws the reader, again and again, onto the essential dilemma of the nature of authorship. The most immediate precursor of Parrish’s method is the minimalism of the mid-twentieth century. Knowles was both a student of John Cage, who created “indeterminate music” which could be “performed in substantially different ways,” and an early member of the “Neo-Dada” Fluxus movement. While Fluxus “events” appeared anarchic, they were, especially compared to contemporaneous “happenings,” deeply ordered, with “scores” and strict direction by the movement’s self-appointed founder George Maciunas. George Brecht’s early Fluxus piece “Three Lamp Events” (1961) bears a similarity to the minimalist poetry of Aram Saroyan:
Parrish’s work is deeply inflected by some of the concrete and minimalist poets of the ’60s and ’70s, including Saroyan and Ted Berrigan (whose Sonnets she mentions in the syllabus for her “Reading and Writing Electronic Text” class at NYU’S Interactive Telecommunications Program.)
Jeffrey Perkins’ 2017 documentary George contains footage of several Fluxus events from the early ’60s. Knowles, alongside video-art pioneer Nam June Paik and others, performs similarly simple instructions before the repulsed fascination of onlookers. This is the human body as an input-output device, a flesh module waiting for its punch card. The glee that shines from the Fluxus actors’ faces as they perform the show belie the cheap Skynet-predicting doomsaying which could potentially haunt this realization, that we are so easily rendered mediums for computational-style expression. “We are the tools” can be liberatory, as easily as enforced humanist-art can be cloistering.
Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, Alison Knowles, Emmett Williams, George Maciunas, Benjamin Patterson George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti, 1962. Via MoMA.
Following the Dada spirit, Fluxus sought to divorce human communication and action from sense and intention, a tradition that Parrish’s work moves one step further. In this, Parrish has a new kind of edge: the intelligences she deploys are even more unconcerned with “saying something” than any human agent could be. In the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” Frederic Jameson writes, “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.” Parrish’s work interrupts this formulation. The masks are still there, but they speak, if not of their own accord, then at least not with our lips pressed against their fabric.
The poems which comprise Articulations were composed via “random walks” through, as Parrish writes in her Introduction, “over two million lines of poetry from Project Gutenberg.” Part 1, “Tongues,” is comprised of a single 72-page prose poem whose line vectors were determined by pronunciation, leading to such sections as:
Clatter, spatter, dash and patter, in tattered cloak of army pat-
tern, pit, pat, patter, clatter, in flat patterns scattered in flight.
Together with the archaic source-poems’ vocabulary, this crashing onward rhythm helps “Tongues” feel like an epic poem. Also aiding is the fact that “Tongues” is the result of a single walk through a vector space. The mostly-vanished oral-poet tradition, the kind TheIliad descended from, involved composing, live, a new iteration of the same tale each time. As Albert B. Lord puts it in The Singer of Tales (1960), “every performance is a separate song.” The iteration of “Tongues” into a static form mirrors the historical transcription of epic poems into print.
Unsurprisingly, given the means of its production, “Tongues” does not hold together as a single narrative. Occasional lines tell condensed, if obscure, stories:
In any name, n,n. ni/nu Then an end. N man, n tent, and many slain.
More rare are sections that hold together for more than just a few stanzas. The following is a selection from about an entire page of unbroken semi-sense:
...Behind the hill, behind the sky, behind
the hill, the house behind, -- behind the house the house behind
the tall hill; for all behind the houses lay by my house and thy
house hangs all the world’s fate, on thy house and my house lies
half the world’s hate.
In thy house or my house is half the world’s hoard; drive the
herd towards the household, homeward drive the household
cattle, catch the child up to her heart. His eldest brother, who had
heard he heard her breath, he saw her hand, seize her hat, and
snarl her glossy hair. He sang: As once her hand I had, as once
her hand held mine; in the world His hands had made and his
harvest in her hands.
This certainly doesn’t disqualify “Tongues” for inclusion in any kind of pantheon of narrative or epic poetry. The three-act structure has little to do with traditional epics, which were cobbled together from a plethora of sources generated by semi- or anonymous authors. The Iliad begins in media res and covers only a fairly short section of the Trojan War. Non-scholars encountering The Poetic Edda will be hard pressed to find anything resembling internal cohesion without footnotes and copious additional reading and referential texts.
The “vector representation” of Articulations’ second part, “Trees,” was built around “the structure of the line and its component parts of speech,” and the results bear a close resemblance to cut-up, though Parrish’s lines are not yanked intact from disparate sources. Take the second half of “9.”:
That wrapped her breathless clay.
All give him joyous greeting.
Sure these denote one universal joy!
Wring one repentant moan.
Thinking one serious thought.
Put up superior evidence.
Give up dead beat.”
As Alice Notley explains in her introduction to Berrigan’s Sonnets, in the early ’60s Berrigan began to use “Dadaist cut-up and Cageian chance methods, transforming not-so-good poems into an astonishing and original structure.” Necessarily, incomplete lines were (re)arranged to create new associations and rhythms. See Sonnet “XXX”:
Into the closed air of the slow
Now she guards her chalice in a temple of fear
Each tree stands alone in stillness
to gentle, pleasant strains
Dear Marge, hello. It is 5:15 a.m.
Andy Butt was drunk in the Parthenon
There is, obviously, a significant difference in Berrigan and Parrish’s processes, but, in both cases, juxtaposition is all. Beyond technology used, the central difference seem to be that in the cut-up method, the poet remains composer and often partial-author. Even if the text is found or overheard material, the poet is still transcribing. In Virtual Muse: Experiments in Computer Poetry (1996), Charles Hartman defines composing as placing “together in a meaningful arrangement a number of independent elements.” In Parrish’s process, the poet is neither author nor composer: the poet is the author of the program which composes as well as the selector of the authorial corpus it scrapes for material.
Parrish would disagree with this authorial division of labor. In an interview with Motherboard, she stated, “It’s just my poetry that I wrote in the same way that Jackson Pollock doesn’t attribute his work to Jackson Pollock and Paintbrush.” This reframes our conception of the author based on functionality, and begs the question: when does an algorithm get co-author credit? When it generates the process, or amends it significantly? When it is used by the author but not written by her? When it has self-spawned out of a neural network bath?
There is an inherent humanist pushback to computer-generated work presented as Serious Literature (as opposed to the experimentation with algorithmic limitations), since, despite the Death of the Author, the End of the Novel, the Barbarity of the Continuation of Poetry, and so on, the artist is still seen as one of the few roles which remains immune to automation. “The human” and its various subcategories (artisanal! hygge!) are primarily subsets of a marketing campaign designed to distract from the ongoing computational reorganization of society along the lines of logistics. Does the inhuman feel inhumane, or have we reworked our concept of the latter to reflect the context of the former?
Dehumanization has its place within various algorithmically-generated micro-genres, though it currently reigns supreme in Unconditional Accelerationist circles, which restarts where neo-reactionary thought stalled out in the wake of the 2016 election not ushering in Immediate Genocide and. or, Nuclear Self-Deletion. (Unsurprisingly, u/acc takes aesthetic cues from the Decadents, Modernists, and, um, Cyberpunks.) As the varied horrors of Nick Land’s career have shown, we don’t need algorithms to create the inhuman.
Compared to the usual precooked media diet of the Overdeveloped World, many computationally produced texts do read as inhuman. “Tongues,” after all, has a rigorous internal cohesion, but one so obscure as to be alienating. The reader knows, due to Parrish’s introduction and reputation, that the poem’s source code exists, but outside of repetition and alphabetization, the true order of the text is even more hidden from the reader than in the Great Modernist Metanarrative Texts.
Modernism is another influence on, and prefigurement of, computationally-generated text. Parrish prefaces her Introduction with a Gertrude Stein quote, and Funkhouser observes that modernists and digital poets alike use “the atomization and hybridization of texts to both subvert and reflect” their contemporary “social and artistic fragmentation.” (Or, as Virginia Woolf put it, “all human relations have shifted.") Comparisons between Parrish’s work and modernism will be as a fruitful, or as frustrating, as the narrowness of your definition of modernism. The non-movement was catholic enough to include Ezra Pound’s diktat that poetry be the undogmatic “result of long contemplation,” as well as Stein’s conception of “an excess of consciousness.” It contains both the proto-minimalism of Imagism and the Total Vision of Joyce.
Articulations depends on by the “textual pilfering” which Raphael Rubinstein declares is integral to any definition of modernism. Pound creatively mistranslated huge swaths of Chinese poetry. James Joyce’s nonsense-pinnacle Finnegan’s Wake sucked in a wide variety of cultural detritus, including newspaper headlines, the then-canon, and toilet gags, then spat out Serious Literature, though it was not widely regarded as such at the time. Articulations switches out Joyce’s input, harvesting Gutenberg’s poetic corpus. Some of the better lines of “Tongues” feel extremely Joycean: “A nightingale for its delight while in age sedate I clear sib, related.” “In rank licentious idleness beleaguer yet sadness rise in me like the flood, of course, I just fell asleep where I sat, such eyes.” Thomas Jackson Rice argues that when Ulysses is read, “the individual reader’s response alters the behavior of the ‘system,’ the book, with each ‘iteration.’” Such a feedback-loop seems to prefigure a potential next phase for Parrish, a combination of her longer texts and her textual interfaces (such as “Gutenberg Poetry Autocomplete”).
Arguing about exactly when textual pilfering has gone too far remains a Very Serious Side Project of the contemporary art world. “Postmodernism” is, if anything, an even more nebulous and contentious term than its predecessor, but suffice to say that contemporary poetry’s most virulent strains remain highly conceptual (please see: Flarf).
It is an obnoxiously obvious nostrum that the avant-garde’s name prefigures its eventual recuperation, but it is easier to see this in its history than its future. In a generation or two, if we all manage to survive the ongoing heat death of the political, Parrish’s works will most likely be recorded in the post-canon canon as formal experimentation, rather than acknowledged for the at-times-hilarious, often deeply strange reading experience they offer: one is constantly worrying at her word orderings, wondering from which processing system them came. An annotated edition would, by isolating Articulations’ various inputs, reconstrain them back into their original contexts and, by defeating their new purposes, defeat Parrish’s purpose, just as surely as any scholarly explication of Finnegan’s Wake does Joyce’s.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Constant Dullaart’s The Revolving Internet in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
MC: How did you begin working with the internet?
CD: When I was at art school, around the early 2000s, I realized I could get all this reference material and all these kind of great, very well structured image resources online. I made videos with specific imagery that I found online, on these kind of specific websites and message board. But the whole structure of the art school was still very much related to the professional media, let's say, professional media as in having broadcast-ready video. And these kind of standards were ... I always felt like they were kind of inhibiting to me, and then I felt like the internet wasn't necessarily immediately a place for publication.
I remember I was really frustrated because I missed an episode of Cheers. I wanted to see it and I couldn't find anything related to the show. But I could find these really kind of niche kind of collections of images – a gold mine of really honest content that didn't go through the filter of professionalized media.
MC: How did you incorporate this material into your work?
CD: For example, I made this video that was just a collection of all these people videotaping their stuff that was being sold on a Dutch version of Ebay. And I really liked the fact that it was just functional and unpretentious and very direct. This is what really kind of pulled me in, because I felt like it was such a gold mine of honest material, unpretentious material, perhaps one would say amateur.
I didn't necessarily see it as the “revolution of publishing” til much later when I found out I could even participate in that, and then recontextualize this kind of amateurism I had found – which others were already actively reframing from a commercial perspective.
MC: How did you move from recontextualizing this amateur content, to focusing on the commercial reframing that was taking place with the rise of online platforms? Was The Revolving Internet your first work responding to the Google search interface?
CD: The first web site I did in this way was The Disagreeing Internet because I found out I could just put an entire iframe in a marquee, which I thought was really hilarious. The old marquee html tag that would just animate a piece of text or an image over a page–I could put an iframe in that, and move the entire thing. So that brought The Disagreeing Internet. And then somebody responded, by just changing that around and making The Agreeing Internet. And then I made The Doubting Internet.
Then there was a moment when I had just broken up with a girlfriend, and I was living in this kind of temporary, sublet apartment in Berlin, and I had time on my hands because I couldn't sleep because I was emotional, and I was trying to see if I could use code to spin the entire page around. In video art that was kind of the ultimate thing to do–to have like this 360-degree turn of the camera.
I felt like that would be this ultimate thing. I could make this vision of this new world turn again.
MC: So the choice of “revolving” was a formal decision.
CD: Yep. Yeah, I mean its super formal. I felt there was still room for kind of a formal exploration of these newer media and this newer kind of infrastructures in a way that was akin to earlier formal media studies. Even thinking about like Nam June Paik or other formal explorations of a new medium.
And I felt like that was happening at that time too. For example, I curated the show in Amsterdam called Contemporary Semantics Beta at Arti et Amicitiae. I invited Chris Coy and Marisa Olson, who sadly didn't end up participating in the show, and Pascual Sisto, Ola Vasiljeva – and many more lovely people. We openly had discussions about our interest in formal experiments.
MC: One thing that really stands out about the work, even years after first encountering it, is the experience of using this incredibly difficult interface.
CD: Yeah, it removes the ease. With this really small gesture, it subverts all these really highly developed user interface designs. Yeah, or trying to kind of like give a meta perspective on that infrastructure.
There was a Reddit comment on the work that completely describes how hypnotizing it was to surf Reddit through The Revolving Internet. This particular user said it felt like somebody was watching over their own shoulder and like they were caught in a movie staring into an abyss browsing Reddit. This kind of like, almost like metaphysical experience of becoming aware of the infrastructure of like how we look at information, that was what I tried to do.
MC: Your work since then has often been concerned with digital labor, and surfacing the conditions of digital labor – for example, your works based on the YouTube “loading” screens. Was that question of labor a part of this work?
CD: I do feel like I was making this YouTube stuff as a kind of monument for all these people that were providing content for this kind of ephemeral gratification. I don’t even know if the whole ad revenue thing had started yet, or if at that point it was just about likes and the direct feedback of comments and shares and this kind of social confirmation. I did feel like it was a kind of monument for these people that were providing content for this larger Moloch of the media.
This was on my mind with The Revolving Internet, but I was mostly looking formally at theinfrastructure that these companies were developing, and also highlighting where some of these infrastructures are just faulty. I really never liked the design of YouTube, I never really enjoyed how accessible it was and how it seemed like it was community-driven, but it wasn’t. Even the YouTube logo was a frustration, it was just very pixelated and very lo-fi. In this aggressively corporate platform, there was also this kind of clumsy, human approach.
MC: How did Google’s own evolution affect the project since its launch?
CD: I knew some people at like the Google Creative Labs at that time in New York and we had talked about the work and it was fun and dah dah dah, and then suddenly there was like this "Do a Barrel Roll" thing in 2011.
MC: What was that?
CD: If you typed “do a barrel roll,” the Google page would turn 360 degrees, just like it would do on The Revolving Internet, but then it would just stop. And it was so weird! And then two weeks after that, the iframe, the technique that I was using to embed the entire Google page, was technically disallowed. I guess it’s totally logical, it was just strange that these things coincided to be at the same time.
It was totally logical that it was discontinued, because it was strange that you could actually check your email through The Revolving Internet. There were definitely some security loopholes that I had been enjoying; I didn't ever make use of them, but I enjoyed the fact that it was such an easy hack.
After iframes were disallowed, I was thinking that maybe there was a possibility to have a custom Google search page on your page, but when somebody clicks the advertisements, part of the revenue would go to you. It was really problematic because Google kept changing their codes. We were like reverse engineering the whole infrastructure of their custom search engine to display it as if it was the normal Google search engine. And then after a while, they noticed that and they didn't want that to work. And
Then I found out that I could just run it through a proxy. Together with Jonas Lund, I built a simple dedicated proxy, so there's a private server that is basically just in between the user and the Google page, and it also makes sure that you basically never go to other pages.
I still think I have to write a proposal to Google to see how they would respond to a policy to make sure that works like these can remain in existence, because there were several works that disappeared when the Google iframe was discontinued. There were works by Jan Robert Leegte that were made as a comment to mine, but there were also a lot of works that were made with Google image search.
MC: I know this is an odd question to ask you, but how many visitors did you have at the site’s peak popularity?
CD: Yeah, I'm exactly the right person to ask that to. I think it was up to like one and a half million visits a year.
There was a nice time, a funny time, when the site was that popular that the domain name was worth exponentially more than the work was as an art work. The domain name was worth in itself about 40 to 50 thousand dollars. The work is in a collection now, let's say they got the domain with a good discount : )
The time has come again to submit a Microgrant proposal as part of our annual open call! For this year’s Microgrants, juries will select projects in three categories: net art, VR, and poetry.
Since 2014, the Rhizome Microgrant Program has awarded small grants for the creation of new artworks, online exhibitions, and other web-based projects. This program is run as an open call, and awards range from $500 - $1,500. Past funded projects have included a website critiquing a notorious internet misogynist, an excavation of the emails left behind by one of the largest corporate frauds in history, an exploitation videogame inspired by the Kardashians, and an analysis of the use of language in Egyptian social media during the 2011 revolution. This year, we invite proposals for online artworks and exhibitions in the following categories:
Projects that explore poetry and poetics in the context of the internet. Proposals can engage poetry from a range of approaches, including but not limited to: poetry itself, explorations of the poetics of computation and code, the history of poetry and the internet. Submissions will be evaluated by a jury comprised of Rhizome assistant curator Aria Dean, writer Brendan C. Byrne, and artist and writer manuel arturo abreu.
In-progress 360° mobile virtual reality artwork
Awardees would receive finishing funds to release ongoing work on the First Look: Artists' VR app for iOS and Android, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum on the eevo platform. Submissions will be evaluated by Rhizome executive director Zachary Kaplan and New Museum Associate Curator Helga Christoffersen.
The category where it all began! We’re looking to fund projects that engage the internet as medium in new ways through the production of online exhibitions or browser-based artworks. Submissions in the general net art category will be evaluated by a jury comprised of Rhizome preservation director Dragan Espenschied, curator and writer Celine Katzman, and Rhizome community manager Lauren Studebaker.
Responses will be sent out by early September. Please email email@example.com with any questions.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, American Chai Trust, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Image: Screenshot of page by Jaakko Pallasvuo from Holly White, You Will Get the Map Later (2017 grantee, launching August 2018).
Image: Sean Raspet, Fruit Intersection Average: (Apple ( ) Pear), 2013 - 2014.
Listen to Alexander Iadarola discuss this article and the aesthetics of Juul with Rhizome artistic director Michael Conor on the Rhizome Raw podcast, available on iTunes.
Scent is confoundingly protean. With the exception of extreme instances—Proust with his fabled madeleine, the unexpected stench of burning plastic—its everyday effects are markedly dynamic, drifting: just outside the purview of cognitive recognition, much less considered analysis. G.W.F. Hegel suggested in his lectures from 1835–38 on aesthetics that the olfactory dimension functions as a constantly moving system: “As for smell, it cannot be an organ of artistic enjoyment … because things are only available to smell in so far as they are in process.” Scent is an avatar, too, for contemporary experiences of molecular unease, manifested in widespread anxiety about the body’s violability by dangerous microbiota.
Whole Foods and InfoWars sell endless tinctures catering to this fear, and while their example is easy to dismiss, the biochemical realm is indeed hotly contested by political actors in corporate and governmental spheres. Considering the the recent acquisition of Monsanto by the pharmaceutical and chemical multinational Beyer, as well as the history of population management, biometrics, and necropolitical control, theorist Margarida Mendes describes the ongoing process of “molecular colonialism,” where dominant power structures fine-tune their scope to target the gene and the molecule alongside the individual and the geographic. In the case of this remarkable corporate merger, “it discloses an interrelated ecosystem of products that both create and offer remedies for contamination under the arch of the same company: quality control and environmental fitness assessment of food production, prevention, and healing of diseases, and research into future therapeutics.”
In the exhibition text for his recent show at Bridget Donahue, Receptor-Binding Variations, Sean Raspet notes that the pharmaceutical industry, the medical industry, and the fragrance industry all have a common practice: the design of molecules or mixtures to target specific receptors and induce physiological responses. The exhibition features ten discrete scents designed by the artist, who has worked as a flavorist, wafting out from whirring little diffusers hung along the gallery walls like sculptures. Each has a unique fragrance profile, carefully crafted at the molecular level, but the most memorable smell in the room is their combined mixture. It smells like a gaggle of teens just finished hotboxing a bathroom with Juul smoke, blending sugary nicotine clouds with noxiously “fresh”-smelling sanitation sprays. The olfactory suggestion of bathroom odor eliminators brings with it a conditioned visceral memory of bathroom odors themselves; on some irreducible level, the exhibition evokes a high-tech lavatory.
Once scents begin moving through the air, they are bound to intermingle, and this is especially so in a smaller, almost completely enclosed space like a gallery. The sensation of taking in all these chemicals at once is immediately affecting. The brain feels clogged, or alternatively, like its cognitive faculties have been subtly stunned, temporarily replaced with an enticingly banal screensaver. The gallery visitor’s headspace is over-activated, and there isn’t much mental bandwidth left for thinking. The olfactory sense starts to feel stretched out, like it’s weight training, as all the different scents impinge upon one another and crowd the sensory space. The inside of the nose tingles, and the mind goes haywire a little bit.
Treading along the room’s perimeter, the viewer sticks their face at each work, inspecting, processing, and reflecting. Not all of the diffusers spew their scent at once—one is compelled to let their sense of hearing lead the way to active machines, and scurry over. This guiding sonic component is compounded with the slightly disorienting drone of a loud air filtration device, which is billed as an artwork entitled Negative Air (2018). In the back of the gallery, visitors can try out and purchase a series of consumer goods including lotion, shampoo, and detergent that Raspet also produced for the exhibition. Their scents were created with the help of genetically modified yeast.
Sean Raspet, Negative Air (2018), installation view at Bridget Donahue, NYC. Photo by Gregory Carideo.
The olfactory designs in the main room all smell at least a little familiar; some immediately reveal themselves as old friends, while others feel like more specialized ingredients only previously smelled as part of a greater mixture. OR: 2V2, 2V1 has the unmistakable scent of Taco Bell meat, and OR: 1A2 suggests cherry chapstick. Another scent formation is savory, like glue, while one in the corner most evokes body odor. The gallery text tells us that none of these smells are organic, and that many of them are still under patent; googling “scent piracy” does not yield many informative results.
According to Raspet, Receptor-Binding Variations was designed as a selection of synthetic “primary scents”—intended to be an olfactory version of sight’s primary colors—originally created by the flavor and fragrance industries. The fact, then, that the show’s most overwhelming odor is a generalized haze is interesting given the fact that each of its component scents was crafted with such specificity. They were all designed to activate—or, in Raspet’s words, “target”—individual human olfactory receptors (ORs), which are part of the olfactory epithelium inside the nasal cavity and additionally located throughout the body. Each OR is sensitive to a specific range of chemical stimuli, while individual odorant molecules can activate multiple ORs and individual ORs can be activated by multiple odorants.
In the midst of the ongoing Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, the word “targeting” carries extremely loaded connotations. Data scientists claim to have found effective ways to taxonomize consumers’ polyvalent desires so as to target them ever-more accurately. The former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, once famously said that he possessed “somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every adult in the US.” Here, as in the case of Mendes’ notion of molecular colonialism, the exact contours of the person as such are called into question—who or what is a fluid-yet-contained collection of five thousand data points, exactly? Anxiety regarding these contours’ permeability becomes a dominant affect. Raspet’s 2013 work Phantom Ringtone comes to mind: a fragrance that sets out to evoke a simulation of its eponymous sensory experience.
This notion of targeting is the connective tissue between Raspet's olfactory concerns and the processes understood as “molecular colonialism.” In present day iterations of population monitorization, bodies are no longer “finite unities,” but instead distributed networks of corporate agency. Mendes writes: “As patented GMO genes are absorbed into our bodies in a proprietary relationship of biological subjugation, the body itself becomes an expanded, multiple-infrastructure, where intervention can happen at many different scales. Moving bodies become fluid cartographies that cross different juridical regimes.” It should go without saying that the effects of molecular colonialism are not equally distributed. Working with a pointedly invisible medium, Receptor-Binding Variations offers spectators the occasion to measure the subtle influence of proprietary molecules on mood and thought patterns, prompting reflection on more severe biochemical processes by virtue of the scents’ relative harmlessness.
In Post-Fordist capitalism, as we know, consumers are increasingly drawn to the sphere of the so-called “immaterial”—thoughts, feelings, notifications—as opposed to concrete objects. Generally speaking, it is clear how our faculties of sight, hearing, taste, and touch are catered to, and monitored - and by which apps. For these, there are dedicated platforms such as Spotify, YouTube, Yelp, Tinder, the central hub of Google search, and so on. Smell is significantly harder to quantitatively pin down as a trackable sensation in the computational sphere than the other four senses—because smell is harder to study than vision, for example, there is much more available data what a given person likes to see.
Molecular colonialism, data mining, and the overall receptor-targeting industry all highlight the ways in which personhood contains multitudes of territories, actively contested and fought over outside the boundaries of traditional geopolitical notions of nation-state and individual sovereignty. It is helpful understand the self as containing a plethora of what Metahaven has called “withinscapes.” “Identity is no longer assigned to the whole person,” writes the collective. “Instead it addresses a potentially vast amount of layers—hence, consumer markets—within the person. It addresses the Napalm Death fan inside the investment banker alongside her penchant for art nouveau pottery … In the indefinite ‘withinscapes’ of the post-singular individual resides a folded mental topology; its inconsistencies are only reunited by the physical integrity of the body that brings them together.” For now, smell evades widespread quantification so as to produce gaps in the withinscape cartography, amplifying a certain shade of opacity—however minor—in the process. Indeed, it is still very possible to create new molecules in order to produce new odors; Raspet recently exhibited some of these, produced in collaboration with chemists at Hunter College, at The Artist’s Institute.
Sean Rapet and Christoph Salzmann, Water (Ice v Residue) (2017-2018). Installation view, the The Artist’s Institute.
Raspet argued in a 2016 essay for the necessity of an English language system specifically designed for describing the unique characteristics of smell. This system would be attuned to the abstract qualities of odor in itself, and decisively break from the Western legacy of discussing scent in mimetic terms by referencing fixed objects in the world (“this scent smells like a rose.”) Raspet raises an interesting point: of the five senses, it is remarkable that smell is the only one that does not have its own substantive, abstract sense-specific terminology. While fragrance experts will speak of a scent’s “low notes” and “high notes,” and a sommelier can skillfully describe a wine’s “body” based on a quick whiff, the language they use is still premised on an operation of simile; the olfactory dimension has no strict equivalent of a glissando, gradient, or rhyme.
It is not easy to explain the absence of a language system specifically dedicated to smell, but it can be traced back in part to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Western thinkers decided that sight was the most “civilized” sense and scent the least. Another likely contributing factor is the fact that scent is the least scientifically understood of the five senses: 1% of human genes code for olfaction, and it is not known why. It is possible to know in advance how a color or sound will be perceived by able-bodied people based on its underlying wavelength or frequency, but the same is not true of scent. Put simply, scientists do not know with certainty why things smell the way they do; scents waft across and between withinscapes.
The olfactory dimension’s figurative inconsistency is intensified by the classificatory problems it poses. A chemical structure’s scent cannot be deduced purely from a graphic delineation of its internal makeup: something must be smelled to actually be smelled. Furthermore, while humans have 400 olfactory receptors, it is not clear that all of them are necessarily functional. “For more than 85 percent of [ORs] we don't even know a single molecule that activates the receptor,” said Joel Mainland, an olfactory neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, in a phone interview. “Then, for the ones we do know the molecule activates, we have a handful of odors that activate it. We don't usually have more than 20 or 30 odors that activate a given receptor. Why is it that we can do everything in color vision with three receptors but we need 400 in olfaction? That still is very unclear.” To make matters even more complicated, the operations of the olfactory system exceed smell alone: they include pheromones and olfactory receptors in other parts of the body besides the nose.
Personal computing devices are highly effective at directly targeting the other senses, but smell generally does not receive the same treatment. “There is data on smell, but it’s not nearly as fine-grained as the other senses,” said Mainland. “It’s much harder to capture and turn into a number. It’s easy for me to buy a computer monitor that does extremely accurate visual stimulus, but there are very few off-the-shelf olfactometers that will deliver whatever odor stimulus you want reliably.” Mainland is nonetheless confident that olfaction will be effectively datamined before long. Researching this space, one learns about the Palo Alto-based Aromyx Corporation, which claims to have “built a solution for the digital capture of scent and taste – the EssenceChip™”; Aromyx’s early technology was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and their media relations representative did not return a request for comment.
The most compelling of the ten Receptor-Binding Variations elude conventional description along the lines Raspet describes in his essay. In any instance of smelling, the sensation of odor is never a singular, cohesive event—it is always in motion. Because there is no expansive, specialized language to describe the function of odor, the internal bodily effects of these ambiguously defined scents have an additional dimension of slipperiness. Once they are smelled, sensations come and go according to unpredictable morphological patterns, ungrounded by viscerally felt vagueness that operates beyond the reach of everyday cognitive processes; something similar happens with works involving scent by Anicka Yi, Amalia Ulman, Raja’a Khalid, and others. The knowability of scent is not only thrown into question, but also—when we consider the molecular realm traversing, modifying, and interfacing with the inside of the body—the knowability of the “self,” on however small a scale. This provides an occasion to consider the ways in which the constitution of a person is always already imbricated with other people, the physical environment, and other species.
If smell is compelling because of its position outside of foregrounded awareness, navigating and activating internal space according to procedures that defy easy explanation, then it’s of particular interest that Raspet figures Receptor-Binding Variations as a selection of highly-focused “primary scents.” While Mainland found this premise of Raspet’s dubious on a technical level—as one can imagine, these are not literally the primary scents, as those are not yet conclusively known—the notion of a basic synthetic olfactory typology is still a compelling concept. The move resonates with his insistence on the benefits of effective olfactory taxonomization, and faintly echoes the business plan of an odd, inescapable pop-cultural phenomenon whose scent this exhibition immediately recalls: the Juul vaporizer. For a long time, e-cigarette culture was defined by an emphasis on long tail marketing: endless flavor options, intensive vape modding culture (still popular in 2014, at the time of Rhizome’s “This is the ENDD: The E-Cigarette in Context” program), and an intensely niche status overall. It was only with the Juul that vaping truly went mainstream, and as of the time of posting, the company only sells eight flavors that form something of a “primary flavor” cross-section in their own field.
Part of the appeal of a synthetic primary scent model is its capacity to be re-engineered through an anti-naturalist paradigm. It is easy to speculate that the same thing holds true for Juul consumers. The campfire-tinged “Classic Tobacco” tastes nothing like its namesake, and more like disconcertingly refreshing poison mist—a car air freshener redesigned for the lungs. Likewise, “Fruit Medley” tastes like food coloring and “Mango” tastes like caprese salad, and teens love it. Contrary to standards of scientific rigor, the structure of feeling that animates Receptor-Binding Variations is intertwined with the fact that the exhibition does not present the definitive scent palate. Making their way through the gallery, the visitor gets the sense that there could be a couple more, or a couple less. There’s something strangely pleasant—albeit, nothing like relief—about knowing that whatever inductive process one uses to discern the defining parameters of either typology, the process of putting it into motion will inevitably be hazy, vaporous.
New Dark Age
304 pp. Verso, July 17, 2018. $26.95.
As I began James Bridle’s debut book New Dark Age, I took a pause and stared at a batch of headlines generated by the Google Now algorithm on my phone’s homepage. The headlines are rarely particularly useful, though I read them anyways, in spite of myself. As The Outlinereported last year, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has disclosed precious little about what’s required of publications in order for them to be featured in its Google News results. The company sources stories from tens of thousands of publications, big and small, showing little desire to remove untrustworthy or non-newsworthy results.
I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I hit this surreal headline from Fox News: “Google AI can predict when you’ll die with 95 percent accuracy, researchers say.” The piece described the report of a study in which the company’s researchers conducted an analysis of data from more than 216,000 adults in order to predict patients’ potential lifespans, chances of readmission, and likely discharge dates. Their results supposedly eclipsed existing predictive models by ten percent.
Such a strange story provoked any number of questions. What does Google get from examining patient data? How is the AI system analyzing what it’s given, and what are the consequences of its errors, at least in relation to those made by actual doctors? What would you do if Google’s computers told you your death was imminent? Even scarier – what would your doctor do, particularly in our inhumane, profit-above-everything healthcare system?
The article felt uncanny, a perfect synecdoche for the anxieties Bridle explores in New Dark Age. As an artist and author whose work explores the contested intersections of capitalism, surveillance, and computer intelligence, Bridle unravels these vexing issues across his new book. Even as he plunges deeper into the kinds of nightmarish scenarios exemplified by corporate-owned algorithmic death predictors, his mission is to stir people from a technological torpor and chart a radical reassessment of how these tools control our lives. While the book is often unsettling, and rightly so, Bridle's grim prophesies lack a clear diagnosis for forward action. It’s an outcome that's unsurprising given the enormity of what's being explored, but it still comes as a disappointment.
Bridle’s central argument is that “Computational thinking has triumphed because it has first seduced us with its power, then befuddled us with its complexity, and finally settled into our cortexes as self-evident” (44). It's an elegant description of a trend that’s increasingly apparent: We're trapped by the limited control we have over digital tools that govern our livelihoods, while those at the top flourish thanks to their mastery over the computational forces that regulate our social and political economy. Elites have a vested self-interest in keeping these tools opaque, and as they creep further into our lives, it’s both more urgent and seemingly less possible to confront their impact, even as it feels that they allow us to know more about everything around us. “Our vision is increasingly universal, but our agency is ever more reduced,” Bridle suggests (186).
But if the information floodgates curtail our ability to resist, Bridle still overdetermines that impact by erasing meaningful political possibilities capable of reining in networked tools run amok. In a chapter exploring stock market “flash crashes,” Bridle argues that “digitisation made the markets both more opaque to noninitiates, and radically visible to those in the know.” As Bridle describes it, we’re inevitably descending towards DeutscheBank trying to increase the speed of light to make trades faster, as Hito Steyerl suggests in Factory of the Sun.
Yet Bridle ignores the possibility of a financial transaction tax, a measure that would hobble the low-margin, high-frequency trades that skim value off of the market, pennies at a time. By refusing this practical solution, Bridle sinks into the kind of all-consuming dread he elsewhere rejects, minimizing collective agency and overplaying the strength of a network that’s still of our own hand, even as it gains its own strange liveliness.
If our machines are increasingly autonomous, how should humans respond in a way that maximizes our virtues while channeling what’s useful about tools that escape our understanding? In an intriguing but underdeveloped argument, Bridle calls on people to accept a level of “practical unknowing,” asking us to recognize the network as “the best representation of [the] reality we have built, precisely because it too is so difficult to think” (76). Elsewhere, Bridle describes a similar mindset, a space he calls the “gray zone,” which “allows us to make peace with the otherwise-irreconcilable, conflicting worldviews that prevent us from taking meaningful action in the present” (214). Both thoughts grasp at something valuable, a recognition of agency within a degraded climate of misinformation, overabundance, and distractedness. But they’re not fully articulated, even as they seemingly define the pursuit of political action within Bridle’s dystopic imagination.
These concepts are better articulated by media scholar Patrick Jagoda, who names “network ambivalence” as a practical route through our indeterminate world. Jagoda suggests a way of living within a network totality “without yielding to apathy, cynicism, disengagement, or hopelessness.” His proposed method entails “a deliberate intensity, patience, and willingness to forgo quick resolution or any finality at all.” Jagoda urges us to accept discomfort and contradiction, while instantiating change through critical reflection and creation that embraces a compromised environment as a reality that must be accepted before it can be transformed.
It's a stance that finds echoes throughout New Dark Age, especially when Bridle argues, “Technology is and can be a guide and helpmate in this thinking, providing we do not privilege its output.” Learning to appreciate the virtues of technologies at our disposal, without expecting too much of their capacities, or too little of our own, is a useful approach that straddles the twin perils of neo-Luddism or accelerationism.
Much of what's most successful in New Dark Age comes as Bridle tries to enact this thinking-through-technology, offering a network psychoanalysis that reflects back the all-too-human flaws we continue to suppress elsewhere. Technology enacts “a particular set of beliefs and desires: the congruent, often unconscious dispositions of its creators,” (142) burying a vast legacy of oppression beneath a smooth, high-resolution sheen. If we follow Bridle’s advice, treating technological outputs as a starting point without diminishing our capacity for conscious intervention, we can probe and prod the algorithms that think beyond our comprehension with a desire to learn what these unsettling artifacts say about our worldviews.
Bridle does this work beautifully in his artistic output. One such work is Render Search, in which the artist sought to find people that appeared in architectural rendering photographs, a space in between the digital and physical that instantiates development, growth, and displacement. Playfully adopting the missing person poster (“Have You Seen These People?”), the work pokes at a virtual world-in-actualization, subtly reminding us that those displaced by construction are made to disappear from their homes and communities, victims of an unrecognized pursuit of capital accumulation at all costs.
James Bridle, Render Search London (2017). Photo of billboards installed on Great Eastern Street, London. Courtesy of the artist.
If the New Dark Age is one of our own making, the product of unconscious and conscious desires, enacted in the networks we’ve brought to life, it’s too early to give into a hopelessness that sees no way out. Bridle has offered a grim prognosis, one that hits too close to home at many points in the text. He wants to offer hope, and a sense that if we attune ourselves to the strange frequencies of our computational world, we can once more find our bearings. But if Bridle wants readers to snap out of some computer-induced fever dream and awaken themselves to the undeniable need for immediate collective action, it seems like he might need to look in the mirror to convince himself such change is still possible before demanding the same of others.
Lead photo courtesy the author.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Paper Rad’s Paperrad.org (2001-2008) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Image: Ben Jones covered in zines, courtesy of Jacob Ciocci.
Lauren Studebaker: When Paper Rad came together you were in Boston, working on a project called Paper Radio. How did Paper Rad emerge from your other DIY projects, or the DIY scene that you were working in at the time?
Ben Jones: Paper Rad came from the community centered around a publication called Paper Radio. This was definitely before the word “zine” became a Portlandia sketch. Paper Radio was a project that came from being in art school and looking up to people like Raymond Pettibon, but also coming from what was then the Massachusetts underground punk rock and hardcore scene.
Jacob Ciocci: Jessica went to Wellesley College, in Boston. And I was at Oberlin College. We had heard about the Boston and Providence noise and comics scene.
Jessica Ciocci: Jacob and I were looking at zines a lot at that time, like homemade comics, and that was really inspiring to us. Jacob had always been more into comics than I was, but I would send him stuff from Boston that people had made that I would find since I was living in that area–looking for whatever was like a dollar or like clearly homemade and weird. There was a group of people at Mass Art, which is one of the art schools in Boston.
Jacob: After Oberlin, I moved in with Jessica, and we immediately tried to become friends with people that were already really active in that scene. It was then we met Joe Grillo, who was in Paper Rad at the beginning.
Through Joe we met Christopher Forgues, who works under the name CF. Christopher and Ben [Jones] had been doing a project in Boston called Paper Radio, which was a zine project. Free zines, usually probably stolen Xeroxes.
Paper Radio #7, 1999.
The zines that they were making already were really forward-thinking, in my opinion. They weren't typical diary-based zines about feelings, or vegan politics. They were really messy, they looked kind of just closer to avant garde collage, or literally some pages just looked like trash. I mean, they still kind of had a comic bend, but they were more experimental than your typical comics or zines.
Jessica: Ben was also making videos at the time and we were like, “Oh, my God. We have to see his videos. That's amazing.”
I think both of us were really into that multimedia possibility. Jacob had studied computer stuff college, and Ben was also working at some sort of computer job at the time. The internet was just, kind of, this goofy realm at the time, and we were like, “Well, oh, my God. We have to make a website and put this stuff online.” Because, you know, a lot of the other kids were doing something more handmade, not so technological.
Jacob and I saw Ben’s animations at some point, and we're big fans.
Jacob: We started hanging out with Joe and Christopher and Ben. And we started collaborating immediately, one of those types of friendships where it was work friendship. It wasn't just, let's hang out and drink beer. It was always, let's draw, or let's make a zine. A lot of that is Ben, too. Ben is very ambitious, and pretty much all of his friendships revolved around art projects.
Jessica: I didn't know anything about Flash, but eventually learned how to use it rudimentarily. We started making video mixtapes. The first Paper Rad video mix we made was in Boston and that was very homemade style, but it included animation and edited on a VCR VHS tape, like found video and weird home recordings.
Jacob: Everybody was in bands, too, but bands meant anything. Jessica and I had this band called Pracky Pranky, which was basically just us doing prank phone calls, and recording them. I think we performed one time. A band was a really loose term at the time.
Ben: In weird way, back then, a music show was, I think, as much about the visual nature of it, the flier, the experience, the whole experiential performative nature of it.
Jacob: There was this sort of lo-fi, 8-bit movement happening––what Cory Arcangel, Paul Davis, and 8-Bit Construction Set on Beige Records were doing–– and I think we were all really interested in what they were doing. Ben had already made a website for his own stuff. I forget what the URL was, but even that already had some things that would become known on Paper Rad, like using table art, which is basically HTML tables to make shapes or images out of just sort of blocky rectangles.
I was super into lo-fi web design, or what Cory [Arcangel] was calling “Dirtstyle.” Jessica also was into that. She took an HTML class like me in college, and the pages that we made were intentionally shitty looking. You know? They were meant to look like the vernacular web that we were excited about, not the sort of high-end design web, which is what artists were supposed to be doing at the time. Artists were supposed to be making these websites that looked really fancy, or, in some ways, showed expertise, or showed how you were separate or different from GeoCities.
I think, end of 2000, beginning of 2001, is when we started actually publishing the website. Ben had already been making his own Flash animations. There was already a lot of energy and steam underneath Paper Rad coming from Ben and other collaborators in Boston.
Jessica and I, we’re brother and sister. So, there was this kind of family dynamic that I think combined with Ben really created this sort of sense of an internal logic for all of the work, which was an informal, sort of outsider art family that had grown up on computers and cartoons, and were making all these things for each other, rather than for the rest of the world.
When the website was published, it felt like, oh, we're looking at this bizarre little community of people that have been kind of percolating and influencing each other.
Andrew Warren, who I mentioned earlier, was a collaborator on the website early on. And so was Joe Grillo, Laura Grant, and Billy Grant, who were also brother and sister. And they splintered off and formed Dearraindrop.
Ben: There was like 15 people that we knew. And I think all those people were like, “Oh fuck. This is genius. Can you show me how to do this?” Then I think that probably blew up in a way that I’ve never been a part of something that blew up so fast through the internet and through amazing places like Eyebeam or Rhizome or Oberlin and curators and New Museum and Lauren Cornell. I think Jacob and Jessica came from totally different, but a similar product of, at least DIY computing and certainly film making, in the sense of popular culture and media and music.
Lauren: A lot of the content produced by Paper Rad seems like a celebration of a youth culture––I would go as far as saying it’s a very specific young, positive psychedelic sort of tween culture from the 80s and 90s. What were the main influences visually, sonically? Where there other kind of collectives that were kind of inspiring your work?
Jessica: Maybe what was different for us was including more weird pop culture or the found stuff. And having a reaction to stuff that seemed, sort of culturally not cool. At the time, there was more of a leftover hipster thing from the late '90s, which was not embracing of cute stuff or '80s aesthetics.The bright colors were really gross to people, I think.
Jacob: In terms of influences, a huge one would have been Fort Thunder, which was a DIY space and collective from Providence. An online influence was JODI. I think all three of us had seen JODI in college. jodi.org was the site that seemed to be the most exciting to us because it had the same kind of confusion that we tried to embrace.
It wasn't, oh, this is an art project. It was, what the fuck is this? Is this a mistake? Is this broken? It existed outside of the sort of rigid context of art school, or the definition of art. And we weren't trying to do that, we didn't sit around and have conversations saying we want to try and do that, but that's what we naturally gravitated towards, that kind of space outside of art, but that was still was clearly artistic, or creative.
That idea of being outside of art was the other big influence. Jessica was really into finding and archiving little notes or pieces, ephemera from kids, or tweens, or teens. Anything that she could find that was handwriting, she was obsessed with, because handwriting sort of has this quality of revealing somebody's personality. It is creative. Handwriting is creative. But it's not high art, and so it's outside of that idea of fine art, even though it is art.
Jessica was making these zines that were filled with a combination of found handwriting, and her own. And you hit on it when you said tween culture. She was doing this handwriting that was based off of the handwriting she had when she was, whatever, nine, or ten, I don't know what age. But it was totally this stylized way of writing that, in zines and online, was really confusing to figure out if it was found, or if it was something that she did. It also made the website maybe feel like it was made by a 10-year old. A genius 10-year old. I remember thinking at the time that kid’s art was the last undiscovered genre of “outsider art.”
That was one of the most brilliant and fun things about our site, or Paper Rad period, was this confusion over what we made versus what we found. And in particular that it was about people that were outsiders, or we were trying to tap into this kind of more wild of version of creativity that exists outside of art school, exists outside of this idea of fine art, that can exist at a punk show, or but even more so exists just in people's lives.
Lauren: That to me seems very disparate from the existing Boston hardcore scene at the time.
Ben: Let's just even reduce it to color. Paper Radio was like brown and punk rock colors. Like rusty orange. And I think the first time I saw Jacob and Jessica, they were dressed in neon.
What Jacob and Jessica were doing, I think is, I don't think it was a reaction. Honestly, I think they were truly just tapping into who they were. You could say that we were reverting to literally how we dressed as children, but in a weird way. I think, seeing how things like Odd Future and Tyler, The Creator can completely change the visual language by the way they dress and the colors they embrace. It didn’t and doesn't seem contrived to me.
Growing up, part of my identity was rooted in neon colors and BMX, and even I consider video games and RGB. It's like, all these bright saturated colors. And I think if anything, when Jacob and Jessica came into this space, I realized all this punk rock bullshit was this artifice that I was co-opting to fit in based on an older generation’s expression, but it was kind of bullshit for me. So I saw it and I was like, “Oh fuck. This is real. I can speak to this.” But, I'm also not a dummy. I was like, “This is totally different and this will certainly …” and probably this is what prompted us to do a name change to Paper Rad, because it was something totally needed and different and would be disruptive.
Lauren: I think you can say also, let me know if you disagree, but looking at the work, there's definitely kind of this ethos of a new age positivity. Why? Was this an embrace or a criticism of this style?
Jacob:It was both. And also it was that me and Jessica's parents, kind of had a new age moment. Ben's mom, especially, had one. I think hers was a little more long-lasting than our parents'. But, I think in interviews in the past, I've said the three of us grew up in new age households, kind of surrounded by crystals, and these magazines that would be selling new age merchandise.
The magazine, for example, is a great sort of distillation of the approach we took to it, which was, on the one hand, the stuff is super fascinating and fun, but on the other hand, it's clearly consumerism. Cartoons and comics are consumerism. So, we embraced all of it with a sense of positivity, but I think we also knew that it was trash. I think part of why named our first major release DVD, Trash Talking.
Related to that was this idea of just being non-judgmental about the pros and cons of everything, but that includes spirituality in particular, and new age spirituality, and this sort of post-hippie embrace of Eastern gurus in the United States, and all of the merchandising that came out of that.
In addition, the positivity was a reaction against what was happening in the underground in the 90s. Indie rock, emo, these things were dark, and so serious. I remember being really inspired by Andrew W.K., who, when I first heard his music, and saw this persona that he'd created, I wished that I had come up with that idea. He sort of did a pop-metal positivity, and I think what I was trying to do was more of a young, new age boy who's into fantasy art positivity, like, you can use this crystal necklace as a way out of sadness or suffering.
And the peace symbols, yin yang symbols, all this stuff was sort of, on the one hand, really important magical messages, and on the other hand this kind of shit that you find at dollar stores and stuff that's, like, at beach ... We would go down to Myrtle Beach, I can tell you more about that later, but there was this store at Myrtle Beach called The Gay Dolphin, which was just basically a three-story, massive gift shop in Myrtle Beach. And it had so many dolphins, and so many peace symbols, and yin yang symbols, and it was an oasis, a utopia, and a nightmare at the same time. You know?
Jessica Ciocci: We're all from a generation of where our parents were hippies, so we were exposed to the new age, like the potentials of all of it. In the late '60s-early '70s, there was all this potential of peace and art being revolutionary. I don't know. I guess in the '70s, people were kind of disillusioned, and in the '80s, everyone forgot about it. I don't know what happened.
It just became like a materialistic realm, and maybe that's part of why we were drawn to the shallowness of some of that imagery, but we were also trying to reinvigorate some of it––put some heart back into some of the cheesy ideas of the new age or the hippy movement. Some of that is just genuinely appealing aesthetically, or also weirdly contrasting, like you were saying, to the more serious, or hardcore intellectual scene in Boston.
Lauren: Paper rad emerged during the “dark ages” of the social web––that period after the dot-com crash and before Web 2.0 platforms like Youtube and Facebook were founded in 2005–2006. How do you think the work reflects era of the internet? Do you think this web landscape influenced the work?
Ben: A way to investigate this is through personal computing. And I know it’s crazy, but until Apple and Atari came on the scene, people weren’t allowed to touch computers. So that generation that said, “No. Computers is this DIY thing that everyone should have in their house,” is a huge influential thing. And I think that’s what my dad was a part of and that was kind of what we were doing, not in a way to be disruptive or revolutionary, but we were the, not culmination, but we realized, with these computers, we can start to make our versions of television shows, the internet is just a point of distribution, like a zine.
You look at an invention like the steadicam or a handheld camera. And you see how different filmmakers use that. And you get things like Easy Rider which changes everything. Or you get Stanley Kubrick using his steadicam in The Shining. And that just reinvents how we experience film.
To us, I think we were just really good at using the tool of computer programming. And even at that time, HTML and registering a URL, those were pretty rare. So we had that skill set, where we could make websites. Which, now, we take for granted, but back then, that in itself was amazing. We could get, Jacob and I could just get any job we wanted, because we could lie and say we could build websites. So we used that, again to tap into this authentic expression, like any artist does, of exploring their childhood and their hopes and dreams and influences.
So I think what was more interesting about pre-YouTube, post dot com crash, was that we were using the tool, not to examine the tool itself. We were just using the tool to really world build, as much as filmmakers with a steadicam.
Jessica: I remember MySpace coming along and then being, like, “Oh, okay. What are we going to do now? We can't have a Paper Rad MySpace.” but I thought it was kind of cool because I could just have like a personal music account and still connect with other people, so it was kind of part of Paper Rad. Yeah, it definitely felt weird.
YouTube, when that came out, I remember being like, “Oh, this is going to change everything.” Just like free, really easy to find, weird videos, like now you don't have to go look for VHS tapes on the street, or in thrift stores. It sort of made us feel like it made some of the stuff we did easier or, like, unappreciated. I don't know how to put it. I think Jacob, kind of adapted to that well by using YouTube stuff early on in his videos that were still Paper Rad.
Jacob: Once YouTube happened, Paper Rad started to mean something really different. Because a lot of the DVDs, and the VHS tapes, and the video that we made, was based off of sort obscure found footage from children's entertainment, or bizarre tapes that you would find at a thrift store. And we would contextualize our own animations within that.
And then, once YouTube happened, it became really easy for everybody to watch those sort of weird things. So, what we were doing pre-YouTube was distributing as well as packaging our own work within these DVD or VHS compilations that we would make. And that was because it didn't exist online at all. And we didn't even publish those DVDs, or VHS tapes online, because there was no streaming. There wasn't really the infrastructure for it.
I think our site seemed like a beacon for weird or strange graphics and animation. It was also pre-Tumblr, so this idea of collecting or archiving bizarre images from the past, from particularly the 80s and early 90s, was not something that a lot of other people were doing online. I'm sure there were nerdy sites for people collecting comics, or comic books advertisements, or weird images. But they didn't have the sort of confusing interface that we had. Our interface was intentionally really hard to navigate, as well as, I guess… the easiest way to put it is just that it was confusing, or junky.
The stuff that we were finding, scanning, and uploading was all within that maze-like context, rather than an easily organized archive. There’s this whole generation of art students that were in art school in the early 2000s, that always come up to me and tell me that they would look at Paper Rad every day. And I think it's because there were very few other people that were delivering this style of content which is now all over social media.
But we were one of the few people to do it for a browser, at the time. Other “net-art” sites had this kind of serious air to them, and I think Paper Rad was basically just a mysterious sort of, “fuck you” to all of that. This was also pre-Adult Swim, but if you were into skater stuff, or punk stuff, or psychedelic art and also happened to like computers…. and I think a lot of kids that were into drugs–you would probably look at Paper Rad late at night.
Lauren: Despite the DIY energy of Paper Rad, you’ve most definitely become a part of the contemporary art canon––the first time I came in contact with your work, or even Cory Arcangel’s work for that matter, was seeing Super Mario Movie in an intro to media arts class in college. You all also had group and solo exhibitions at New York galleries like Foxy Production at the time. As a DIY collective focusing on “low-brow”content, how did things change when you started to be accepted, or brought into the contemporary art world?
Jacob: Well, the main thing I want to say is that the scene was so strong, the community was so strong at the time, that we were really buffered from taking the art world too seriously. Which actually had its benefits and its curses. But what I mean by that is that, we took it with a grain of salt. So when we would do a show, it would be kind of, like, okay, here's this weird thing I'm going to do, it's important, but it's not as important as my friends, and the community that we had in Providence, or Pittsburgh, or Western Mass or Baltimore.
So, it allowed us to kind of just do what we were already doing and not really worry about making money. But there was a downside to that. We didn't realize in a way how, well, I'll just speak for myself, and say, I didn't realize how special it was that we were getting invited to do this stuff. And when I say special, of course, at the time I would have said, it's not that special, it's not as special as Fort Thunder, that's for sure.
And that's true. It's still not as special to me as Fort Thunder was. But there's something to be said for art history, and, in particular, this dialogue that's been going on for a hundred, two hundred years. There's a lot of gatekeepers; there's a lot of people that don't want to have weird stuff like this in that dialogue, and we did have that opportunity. I think when you're younger, you don't really think about the long-term as much, and so I was like, it doesn't matter. Art history doesn't matter. What matters is me and my friends.
And now, friends are moving on, everything's changing, and art history sort of matters again to me. Art, for the first time.
I think we didn't really change what we were doing that much. Ben kind of realized that we needed to, or that we should figure out some strategies for making things make more sense in the gallery. And we figured that out sometimes better than others. But it really was a weird sort of family getting plopped into a gallery, or an art space for two weeks, or a month, and having to figure out what we were going to do, and arguing about it, and then just making a mess, and hoping that it would sort itself out. That's how it felt.
And it usually worked pretty well, for the kids especially. The shows would be big hits for young kids, and not as big hits for collectors. Some of the things really worked well for collectors, I think. Or for the press. But other things were really, like, oh shit, this is a cool art show for young 20-year-olds. This is rare. This isn't something that usually gets to happen, that a kind of art that speaks to 20-year-olds is allowed to be at a museum, or at ... a big space. Deitch had been doing that for years but they had yet to figure out that computers were about to become a big part of what being cool and young was about .
In terms of that, the show we did with Cory Arcangel at Deitch was a big hit, because it was easy to digest. It was just one piece, the Mario movie. And it was able to kind of both work within the art world context, and our context. Cory's context as well. I was in grad school. I loved art, you know? Art history, even then. Paper Rad had already started, and I was like, uh, I'm going to go to grad school, and I moved to Pittsburgh.
So, I clearly already had staked my claim as, this is going to be my life, this whole idea of fine art, however flawed it is. By the time my show at Foxy happened, that was my thesis show from my grad program. It's so funny, because at the time I thought I'd figured it all out, how I was going to handle that context. And now I look back on that show and I just think how naïve I was, and how little I'd figured out.
I think Jessica's show at Foxy was actually the best of the three. Maybe because it was the last, but also because her work worked the best in that space at that time. It just seemed like the most mature, or whatever, of all three of the shows that we did. I think there's some really good pieces from the solo show that all three of Paper Rad did together. Our first Foxy show, there's this piece called the video comic which I think is really good. I think Ben probably came up with that idea, but we all three kind of made comics for video monitors, moving Flash comics, and all three of them are really good, I think. That piece, it needs to be shown again.
Paper Rad at Foxy Production, 2004.
There's really big hits that I think will resonate within art history, that have just been totally lost, because people are just like, oh yeah, Paper Rad, they were that youth art thing that faded away. But, I think, as a collective, we did a lot of things that will continue to resonate, and make sense within art history.
Jessica: It was all a wild experiment. I definitely felt like to get into the fine art world maybe wasn't necessarily ever a goal. I guess it did feel like a conflict in a way, or like having your feet in two different worlds. Something like that. I think it did––I'm not going to lie––definitely produce a lot of inner conflict or turmoil and a weird questioning of what are we doing?
But, it was fun. I was really happy to do those shows, like the solo show at Foxy [Production]. Maybe that's something I find particularly unique was that we were doing gallery shows and stepping into that world a little bit, but also still, to warehouse spaces and playing some weird show and handing out $5.00 merchandise.
I never really wanted to be exclusively involved in galleries. I think a lot of it evolved from connections with friends, but now that I think of it, it's probably very specifically from Jacob knowing Cory from college. I know that Cory organized some show at Foxy Production when they were still in Brooklyn and we were invited to be a part of that. That's how it came to be. Around the same time, Foxy asked us to do a show as Paper Rad. It was then like, “well, how do we market this?” Since we were a collective, it's difficult. People didn’t want to buy something like that. It's too confusing.
They suggested doing solo shows, trying to have each of us have a show to see if it could be sellable that way. I mean, I sold a few things. I actually think my show did better than Jacob or Ben's. That's a little point of pride for me, I guess.
Ben: So, the fact that we were incorporated into the art world in any given way, that was on the art world's terms. I think they very quickly saw that we didn't really serve them––look, it could have gone either way. No, I don't think it could have gone either way. I think I was never interested in hacking that system. And the fact that we were both in the same gallery in 2000 whatever, was kind of the genius of that gallery owner and less about our response to the art world or the art world itself.
Lauren: Was archiving a concern while Paper Rad was going on?
Lauren: Do you think a lot of things were lost?
Jacob: Fuck yeah! It's tragic. A lot of it is digital; a lot of incredible files are sitting on computers that have been thrown away, or decayed. I think the zines have been documented okay. There's a lot of actual painting and drawing that's been lost.
It's like an old relationship. Do you really want to go through all of your old love letters, and scan them, and organize them, after you've been heartbroken over that relationship? You don't, you know?
People ask, “Why didn't these artists archive their stuff better?” It's because it’s painful. And that's even true if you're just an individual artist, because there are all of these projects that are unfinished, or half-documented; they have an emotional weight to them that is hard to face.
Lauren: Do you see remnants from your time in Paper Rad enter into the work you’re making now?
Jacob: Totally, yeah. I went to grad school, but my real grad program was Paper Rad. I feel like it was a school that I went to and I learned all of these techniques and methods through Ben and Jessica that I now use every day when I make art. They're kind of like my teachers. Ben and Jessica were my main two professors, and then Joe Grillo was a professor, and then people at Fort Thunder, and Cory, and David Wightman, others were professors, too.
This whole idea of that family, that community, I sadly don't really feel any of that anymore, but I'm still using all of that methodology within what I do now. It almost seems like this post-apocalyptic landscape. So, if that was a more utopian era, this is a dystopian era, but I'm still doing that same practice, in a weird way.
I think the thing that carries over the most, the reason I'm still doing that, is because with Paper Rad, and Fort Thunder, and other things of around that time, there was just this ethos of, you can't rely on anyone to do anything for you, and you have to make it happen all by yourself, no matter what. And that still feels true to me. I love deadlines, external deadlines really help me a lot. But, at the end of the day, I have to want to do things because I want to do them for myself, rather than as a product for someone else, or something.
The art world is so ephemeral, and it can come and go with its amount of support for you, or its amount of care for what you do. And that's true for the commercial world, too. The only thing that you can really count on is yourself, and your own productivity.
And so, Jessica's doing that. She's totally independent. I think that sense of, you make art because that's what you do, regardless of who's looking at it, who's watching it, is key. And it also relates to what we're inspired by, like I was saying, outsider artists, or people that are totally creative outside of the regime of art. That's what they do. They're just making things because they have to.
Ben:. Great art in the Hollywood sphere and in the art world, is just work that’s really true to itself. Even if you're Jerry Seinfeld or Garry Shandling, you just need to tell your story. What happened to you today, how did that make you feel? So in that sense you need to go back to your parents and your experience and your own voice and who you are, to that point. That was a large part of Paper Rad, who we were and why it was that optimism and that non-cynical approach to the content and the color.
And I don't think I'm trying to leverage those superficial qualities in Hollywood, but I think I am trying to tap into characters and stories that are true to myself and that do reflect that tone.
Jessica: I think like the energy is continuing in the stuff I make now and of course, that is very DIY because I'm not in the art world where I have resources necessarily at the moment. I don't have a studio with assistants. What I'm doing now is very DIY. It’s just on my own, you know? The other aspects of Paper Rad are very important to me too, like homemade art, and making within whatever means you have.
There's something about that I believe in. The things that I'm inspired by, outside of my work and in the world share that. Like going to see new weird bands in the noise scene, or experimental music. That's still going on, and that's probably where I find the more collective aspect of whatever was inspiring Paper Rad in the beginning. So it's still there. It's maybe not as formalized or official.
Maybe that's why Paper Rad was such a strange thing. It was like, “Hey, here are all these things that are, kind of, in the air, but we're going to call it an organization, or a group, and present it to you in a funny way. Sort of, like, a colorful, goofy, loud, and (hopefully) fun way.”
This article accompanies the inclusion of Devin Kenny’s Untitled/Clefa (2013) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology
Aria Dean: Can you start from the beginning and describe the project Untitled/Clefa? What year was it?
Devin Kenny: 2013. I was working on that piece while I was in Mexico City. I was doing a program there called SOMA, and I was thinking a lot about the death of Malcolm Latif Shabazz, and the George Zimmerman trial, which was happening at the time, and also just having different experiences within Mexico City.
I should say that the name of the piece is a reference to this drug called clefa. It’s a painkiller, but also you don’t feel hunger and a variety of other pesky things about being a person. I was also responding to this, I guess, visual cultural trend that I was seeing on Tumblr called “Trayvoning.” It was maybe a twist on planking, except done by cruel assholes.
People would imitate the way that they imagined Trayvon Martin looking after being struck by George Zimmerman, and oftentimes they would also be wearing a hooded sweatshirt and they would have a package of Skittles in their hands as well. There was already this talk going around like, “What if planking is actually a reference to the way Africans made slaves were stored in the Middle Passage?” So I was already in a weird zone about planking itself. Then when I saw these images of “Trayvoning,” which was so much more directly anti-black and callous, I was like, “Wow, this is really intense.”
What you can’t tell from the documentation that I have is that it was a performance which started by me collapsing onto the floor. I had these two items in my hands, a big Arizona iced tea and a package of Skittles while wearing a sweatshirt, and I was frozen, not totally flat against the ground– I froze myself in a particular position. I fell, but I didn’t fall into a relaxed state, in other words. I was tense. My muscles were tensed for the duration of the performance, a centimeter or so above the floor for about 12 minutes, which corresponded with the duration of “Versace” by Migos feat. Drake. That song played three times.
Devin Kenny, Untitled/clefa, 2013
I chose that particular song because there was a section of Drake’s verse which I thought eerily echoed some of the attitudes that were held by Zimmerman. There’s a line where he’s like, “This is a gated community, please get the fuck off the property.” When I heard that, I was like, “Wow.” Firstly, it’s interesting because that is something that someone in a gated community or a neighborhood watchman might say to a person. Secondly, it’s so far from earlier subject positions in hip-hop historically, that it stuck out to me.
There had always been these kinds of self-aggrandizing moments or moments where you’re talking about great shows of wealth and things like that that you ostensibly don’t actually have, but in the current era it’s a bit different. I think some of that difference is exemplified in that line.
Anyway, so yeah, I created this performance where I wanted to take an image-creating practice which was circulating online, and a) slow it down, and b) charge it differently by having it happen in real time.
AD: Did you perform it just the one time?
DK: Yes. I only performed it the one time. Weirdly, during that same evening, I had done this other piece where I was serving these water cocktails to people called How to Become Invisible. So I went from behind the table to in front of it.
AD: Do you have any new feelings about the work, looking back on it from 2018, in terms of both the politics of circulating images of black death, and in terms of memes and viral phenomena at large?
DK: When I think about it now, I also think about the fate of Zimmerman, who basically was able to get away with this really egregious act, but who also used some of the strategies that people used for viral media to not only gather support but also to survive financially.
He was selling these weird paintings on eBay and putting out all these different statements etc.—controversial figures using the publicity machine that is facilitated through social media as a way to make their livelihood.
That’s all in addition to the fact that these kinds of, I guess what I would call a-legal killings haven’t stopped since that time. It wasn’t like, “Whoa, this is something we really need to address and change.” The same thing has been occurring hundreds and hundreds of times since then.
AD: Something that I think about a lot is the re-performance of those incidents. I think that in 2013 or so people were like, “We have to share these videos because we’ve got to get the word out there that this is happening.”
Then there was a shift, and now we’re pretty squarely located in this widespread mentality of, “No, actually, don’t circulate that.” “It’s re-traumatizing.” There is some recognition of those images as fetishistic, with people comparing them to lynching postcards, for example.
DK: Oh, the postcards, yeah. It’s strange, because it’s related to that, but also the emotional timbre is different, because ostensibly people are sharing the videos because they’re like, “Oh, this is terrible,” versus the postcards being like, “Well, we sure showed them.” You know what I’m saying?
DK: Back in the day, people were a lot more jovial about ...
AD: Killing black people.
AD: I remember reading this thing about how during the Civil War, and in the Antebellum period, white abolitionists would do these plays in town squares where an all-white cast would act out the horrors of slavery as an appeal to the white public to get on board with the abolitionist cause.
I always thought this was an interesting correlate to the emotional timbre of sharing police brutality videos. Like, “I’m sharing this because I care and this is terrible.” Of course, it is different in that it’s not replacing a black body with a white body and making it symbolic. It’s just the actual thing now.
DK: Before we go on: there’s one other thing that’s a super crucial part of the piece that I didn’t address.
The performance was done in Mexico City, and I wasn’t seeing articles about the George Zimmerman trial in Mexican newspapers. It wasn’t a big news story there.
But there was an experience I had while riding on a train to an art opening during rush hour where there was this kid who was just collapsed onto the ground on the floor of the train. I was like, “Okay, this kid doesn’t seem to be moving.” We went one stop. Then another stop passed, and then tons of people started getting on the train as they were leaving work, and I was like, “Yo, am I going to need to pick up this kid and take him off the train to try to find help, try to find a doctor or a police officer or something?” I was about to do that, and before I got a chance, these two businessmen almost stepped on him, and then one of them nudged the kid with his wingtip, and then the kid got up. He was totally still for five minutes. You couldn’t see his chest rising and lowering like he was breathing. He was either breathing very little or he wasn’t at all. I was like, “Is this kid just dead or something? What the hell?"
I asked my friend, who had been living in Mexico City for a few years. I was like, “What’s up with this kid? What the hell was that?” She was like, “Oh, he was probably using this drug. A lot of poor kids use this drug.” They huff this particular drug, (she didn’t mention the name) and you can pass out like that.
Yeah, so when doing the performance, I was like, “Non-American people are not going to get that it’s a reference to Trayvon Martin, but they might see it as a reference to people just being strung out on particular drugs or other kinds of prostrate or vulnerable persons on the street, which is a more common occurrence.” Undoubtedly, everyone has had some kind of experience seeing something like that.
One could ask “why are you talking about these American issues in Mexico City? The world isn’t your internet, Devin.” In making this I was like, “Okay, if they don’t get it from this angle, maybe they’ll get it from another angle.”
AD: So much work that tries to comment on blackness, anti-blackness, police brutality, et cetera, is modeled as critique, including Untitled/Clefa. But rather than making a piece that says, “Hey, this is bad, don’t do this,” you’ve chosen to embody the object of critique. Revisiting the work this time, it reminded me of this photo series called Heroic Symbols that documented a performance series (Occupations) by Anselm Kiefer. It appeared in this magazine, Interfunktionen, that came out in the ‘60s. Kiefer did these performances where he took photos of himself doing a Nazi salute in various locations as a critique of the lack of visual acknowledgment of Germany’s recent Nazi history in the decades following de-nazification. It was sort of this fuck you/criticism of German artists’ rush toward abstraction after the war as well as the somewhat unquestioned presence of former Nazis in regular society. Basically, Kiefer–along with students, leftist groups, and like, the Frankfurt School–were pissed at how the country was not-quite-dealing-with its own terrible stuff.
DK: That’s super hardcore.
AD: Yeah, it was really hardcore, and people were really mad and pulled their contributions from the magazine and stuff. I’m not saying that the “Trayvoning” thing is the same, but it got me thinking about works that aim to critique a social or political phenomenon through an embodiment of the thing. I think in your case, I think it’s quite successful. To me, it’s maybe more powerful than, say, writing a think-piece about how it’s bad to kill black people.
Do you have any thoughts on that sort of embodiment of the object of critique as a tactic?
DK: Yeah. I need to learn a little bit more about that piece that you’re referring to.
AD: I’ll look it up and send it to you, yeah.
DK: Yeah, that’d be rad. The first thing that comes to mind with it is that I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to show any direct, pro-Nazi gestures, flags, garments, things like that, in Germany, (not in Namibia though!) so to take on that kind of personal risk while also being ostensibly a beneficiary of that history or those politics.
So taking on that kind of personal risk while also ostensibly being the face of that kind of violence, too, is a weird twist. Whereas, I guess, in my case it was primarily white-passing or white-appearing subjects “Trayvoning.”
Untitled/Clefa is a performance that’s responding to a piece of static media, and then it’s returned back to static media in the documentation. I didn’t have video documentation of it, and I decided that having this photograph would be a more potent way of trying to inform people about the piece than had I just had a video recording, which I think actually would be a little bit grotesque, the more I think about it.
Anyway, reflection as critique thing is something that I have been thinking about and working through for a little while now. I’m interested in this notion of implicated critique, where the critic tries to understand their place within the thing that is being looked at or analyzed rather than seeing themselves as being an entirely separate, objective entity.
AD: Yeah, I’m interested in that sort of thing as well. Maybe there’s some way in which also contemporary media culture rewards positioning yourself–as a critic–outside of the thing and being like, “I’m an ethical and good person, and these things are bad,” versus really acknowledging your own situatedness within a system or something.
It’s also interesting that you mention that these people doing this Trayvoning thing were white. Re-inserting a black body into the image or event that it retraces is an intriguing concept. It’s sort of testing what it looks like or the meaning that it carries when it’s returned to that original configuration or something.
DK: Yeah. It also makes me think about choreography. 10 different people can do the same choreography, but they have different bodies, and presences, so it may feel different.
AD: Another thing that the work brings up is the “semiotics of the hoodie.” The hoodie became such an emblem of the Trayvon Martin murder, and has taken on an over-determined position in relationship to blackness. Okay, sure, semiotically, hoodies have taken on some relationship, obviously, to black culture or something like that, but I think that they became, in the years following Trayvon Martin, this weird thing where hoodies and blackness and anti-blackness got really, really sutured together in this very strange way.
DK: Rocky wore a hoodie. I feel like it started to become iconic from there–like from boxing culture. Then someone like LL Cool J, brought it into hip-hop, because he had that song “Mama Said Knock You Out,” and he’s wearing a hoodie throughout the video.
Then it goes into the hoodie being worn to obscure your face, like if you’re going to rob someone. I think that’s brought up in Wu-Tang videos. But at the same time, it’s also just straight-up a garment that keeps your head warm. It’s weird that wearing athletic apparel becomes a signifier of potential criminality if you’re black or brown, you know? It’s like, “Oh, you’re not really training."
AD: Yeah. “Where’s your gear?"
DK: “Why do you need to run so fast, huh?"
AD: Yeah, it’s also funny thinking about post-American Apparel. I associate hoodies with the American Apparel hipster moment too.
DK: Oh, yeah. People wearing hoodies is just a college thing, too. You wear a hoodie and some shorts and some flip-flops or something.
AD: Yeah, or Silicon Valley Mark Zuckerberg vibes.
DK: Yeah, so it’s like the garment itself means so many things, but obviously it, like many objects, means something different when accompanied by a black body.
AD: Yeah, it’s a really great example or great object lesson for how blackness sticks to things or things can stick to blackness or something and create another semiotic charge.
DK: I wonder what the hoodie meant when David Hammons used it for that sculpture. It’s hard for me to imagine what that particular thing meant then and how that piece felt then, you know?
In the Hood, David Hammons, 1993
AD: Yeah, that’s true. That’s interesting. Yeah, that’s such a great piece, and I think it was 1993 that he made that.
DK: Okay, so I guess that’s hip-hop, it’s in the hip-hop era, I mean. Maybe I think that because he had the Jesse Jackson “how ya like me now?” piece, which I associate with Kool Moe Dee, so it doesn’t seem farfetched.
AD: LA riots, just post-riots moment.
AD: Even the superficial language thing of the ‘hood, neighborhood the ‘hood, the hoodie, this weird ...superficial link.
DK: Totally. Shoutout to Hoodie Allen haha.
AD: Yeah. Oh my god, Hoodie Allen.
DK: Lucky, lucky boy...
Below is a transcription from the National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web––organized by Rhizome (in collaboration with the University of California at Riverside Library, the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, and the Documenting the Now project)––which took place in March of this year. See full information and the video archive for the event here. This conversation between Jarrett Drake, advisory archivist of A People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, and a doctoral student at Harvard University's department of anthropology; and Stacie Williams, the team leader of digital learning and scholarship at Case Western Reserve University Library, focuses on the People's Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland's conception and development, lessons learned from the process, and its potential as a post-custodial model for other grassroots organizations protesting various forms of state violence.
Stacie Williams: I'm Stacie Williams, and I manage the digital scholarship program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jarrett Drake: I'm Jarrett Drake. I am now a doctoral student in Social Anthropology, and befallen archivist, but this is like the fourth or fifth time I've seen a bunch of archivists since I quit, so maybe I really didn't quit after all.
SW: Every time you try to leave….
JD: ...something keeps pulling me back.
SW: What do you remember about how you got involved with the People's Archive, and what was the situation, or conversation, that drew you in?
JD: I think that in the immediate event, obviously was in May 2015 when Michael Brelo, who was a Cleveland Police Officer, fired--I've actually forgotten the number of shots it was that he fired––
SW: 137, I think.
JD:––bullets into the car that had Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell in it. That incident, I believe, happened in 2012. His acquittal on all charges in May 2015 was the breaking moment for me, and this followed so many other non-indictments. Obviously, less than a year before then, Michael Brown had been killed. So, you just keep getting image after image, story after story, of law enforcement killing black folks, and walking away, getting paid leave, getting literally “away with murder” to quote Shonda Rhimes' television show.
That was it for me. I was in New York when I saw the news of it on Twitter. We didn't even know it was going to be a project at that point. It was just people being mad on the internet together, and honestly, the ability to find other people to be mad with, and move that anger into action was what drew me into it.
After that, all of these events cascaded. It all started on Twitter. So, Stacie responded to this tweet asking if archivists who were going to Cleveland for the annual meeting wanted to do something, and Stacie was one of the first people to say, "I'm in."
So, my question to you is, did you think that we'd wind up collaborating to create this, and what were some of your minimal hopes or expectations when you replied that you're in?
SW: I think, I would say that for me, it was very much the same. People were mad on the internet together, and it felt especially acute for me because almost every day, there was this period of time where, there was autoplay, dead black person after dead black person. I had compared it to essentially having snuff films in your live stream, which I refused to watch. To this day, I have watched none of those videos. I really could not because maybe three weeks after my first son was born, Michael Brown was killed.
My feelings in that moment were of frustration, and of anger, and feeling not just that I wanted to do something, but that I wanted to do something for my son, and all of the other sons, and all of the other mothers. That feels important and meaningful. I don't even think that I knew that it would become this. I hoped that whatever we were able to do would provide the ability for other people to speak their truth and be heard in a way that we were not being heard through the justice system.
So, then I'd ask, how did you feel during this act of memory creation? When we were out on the streets doing oral histories with Cleveland residents, and then, on the back end, helping transcribe, or helping set up the frame work for us to have the website, and working with the developers, and talking to Amazon, and just all of those things?
JD: This might sound a little dramatic, but honestly, as soon as I started to really get involved, especially as we got close to the launch day, we did all this stuff over Google Docs and conference calls. It didn't yet feel real. It seemed like we were just trying to gather ourselves enough just to get there.
I went to Walmart. I hate to say that I went to Walmart. Trash, right? Dammit. I was broke. So, I went to Walmart to get some cheap digital recorders, and I think it was the Saturday before. I was like, dang. I think we're about to do something that's gonna transform us individually and hopefully, transform other groups of people collectively.
When we started putting the website together, the first draft was not what we wanted it to be, and we deleted it. Through that whole process, I just felt that chains were falling off of me. I felt like chains were falling off of the way I thought about problems. I knew probably then, I was gonna quit my job. When we were out there in the streets, and it was hotter than a mug, I remember cramping up and I was just like, this is it. This is not the climate-controlled reading room, or the stacks, or the staff meeting. This was the reason I had decided to be an archivist in the first place. It was completely seismic, and I don't even think I've had the time to honestly reflect on how much those kinds of moments really impacted me.
The next question I have for you that builds off of that is, what's one part of this project, or one story that will stick with you the most and be impossible, for better or worse, for you to erase from your memory?
SW: I think, there was a point after the archive had gone live, and it had been up for several months at that point. We were having a conference call with the other advisory board archivist, and I had just given birth to another child, and we're waiting to close on our house in Cleveland. I would have never thought that less than a year later, that I would be a citizen of Cleveland, and therefore, feeling like I had an even larger stake in these stories and how they were being told.
During that conference call, we were staying at my in-laws house, and I was trying to nurse, and trying to find privacy, and one of the kids was fussing, another one was hungry. But I felt like it was really, really important to still be on that call, and still have a voice, and still continue to see things through as well as we could for the activists involved.
But literally, sitting in my hands was this other really, really large responsibility, and someone to whom I also owed a great deal of my time and energy. Here are these two very important things, and they aren't separate. They're a part of what this life looks like, and there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other people doing that same thing: trying to really integrate the activism that they do with their real lives, and taking care of people.
JD: Can I ask a follow up to that? Which is that, we spent a lot of time organizing this project, on our own time, and own dimes, and also on some of our employers time, and our employers’ dime. It wasn't always readily apparent to those people in our lives, whether they are family members, or partners, or co-workers what the hell we were doing, and why we were doing it. How did you explain to those people who all need and depend on us in different ways what you were doing and why it was taking up so much time? Were you able to explain it easily? Did it come with difficulty?
SW: That's a really great question. I think, because we started while I still lived in Kentucky, and I didn't have family in Kentucky outside of my immediate family that I built with my husband and my children, I really was just explaining it to him. And he's a journalist, so I think he understood pretty well what the stakes were and why it was important.
I didn't feel like there was an issue there in trying to explain that I wanted to be involved in this. I think, really though, I was a lot harder on myself in those moments where it felt like, wow, this is a lot to balance, and maybe I'm doing a really, really bad job.
There were conference calls that we took where I had to mute myself half the time because someone was screaming in the background, or someone always wants to say hi, and it's like, no, this isn't your call. So, yeah. Feeling it, explaining it, and making it okay for myself. That's also something I got from a lot of other people who are engaged in organizing work, is that you tend to really be the hardest on yourself, in terms of trying to juggle those things. You might have people in your life who are extraordinarily understanding of the work that you're doing, and they're super supportive, and it's you sometimes. Looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what's enough. How did you explain this work to your partners, your friends, your family?
JD: Honestly, I didn't really explain it that well, because I didn't know what we were doing. In retrospect, it seems clearer now than it did going into it. May 2015, I couldn't have told you what September 2015 was going to look like. I couldn't have told you that that fall, I was going to be spending a lot of time learning from a lot of people about how to pull apart the PHP website. Thank you, Ruth [Tillman], filling in for that. The generous amount of time she gave.
These are the things that I just couldn't see, so my partner definitely asked me a couple of times, "You got another call to get on? You got another email to send?" One time in particular, I was visiting her, because we've been more or less long distance for a while, and Trella called me. Trella Gardener is one of the folks in Cleveland who got involved with our project very early on. Very lively, lovely, beautiful black woman. One of the ways you're gonna understand Trella: her Twitter handle is @1noseygrandma. That's her Twitter handle, so she's that nosey grandma.
I love her, but she called me one time, and I had to pick up the phone. I was with my partner, and she could hear Trella's voice and intonation, and she started busting up. She's like, "Oh. That's what you been doing this whole time?" She understood so much just by seeing, well in this case, hearing the voice of someone who has been involved in this.
In terms of explaining, I don't know if I necessarily did that very well either. I think for the longest time, I was trying to act like I wasn't doing it. I had a shared office at the time, so I'd be on these phone calls, or doing a whole bunch of emails, trying to act like I wasn't [working on this project]... After a while, I just started being upfront about what I was doing, and what mattered to me.
I started putting up post-it notes on the outside of my door, which faced the reading room. Post-it notes that were memorializing and marking that black women and girls were being killed by the state, and by intimate partner violence. I was tired of acting like I wasn't aware that black people were being slaughtered by police and by other black people on a regular basis. I put these post-it notes on my door, and one day the University Archivist walks in, probably to ask me about picking up the digital records at the Dean's office, and he was like, "What are those post-it notes on your door?" I was like, "Oh. Those are black women and girls who've been killed by police and through domestic violence and they've been mostly erased from the mainstream media."
He just wanted to get the latest update from BitCurator. He wasn't ready for all that. I think those are two moments that allowed me to be a fuller version of myself, and not try to segregate professional archivist, like Jarrett from Uncle Pookie. These are the same people. I can't act like the work that we're doing at this institution is irrelevant from that.
SW: I didn't necessarily feel that I had to hide it from work. And not only that, but one of the presidents of the Oral History Association, Doug Boyd, worked right down the hall at that time, and was very helpful in helping me work through considering an ethical framework for a consent form that allowed us to provide as much safety as we possibly could for the people who were participating. And he helped envision different ways in which the people could document and be on the record, but with a degree of anonymity, either with that recording, or with the metadata. You could have a back end of things, but the front end would allow them to remain anonymous.
Let's talk about the process of documenting what we did, because this was the other part of it. We had written an article for the special issue of Journal of Critical Archival Studies. This article detailed this process of documenting the project, and not just the manner in which we documented what we had done, but [how we] documented other people's memories during the project, and also our process of remembering the collective racial history and collective memories of terror in the research that we had to do for this project. How was that for you?
JD: That was one of the harder things about this that I don't think I was really prepared to handle. Because in my job, when I was a Digital Archivist at Princeton, more than anything, my main responsibility as a digital archivist was to document what I did. I actually can't even remember what I used to do on a day to day basis. I know a big part of what I did was create manuals and workflow documents. I became really good at that.
When we were doing this in Cleveland, I wasn't thinking that we were going to eventually need to explicate our process, and that took way more time, the initial setup of everything. I would say the nuts and bolts of everything was in place by September-ish. There were other things that needed to happen, but a lot of that initial labor was from May 2015-September 2015, and once that ended, I thought, “okay, now we can move on with our lives?” I don't know what I thought was going to happen, but what actually happened was we spent a lot of time writing this article, doing research about it, trying to be reflexive about our own process, and not romanticize. Not give in to meta narratives, because we got a couple questions about things we would've done differently.
I don't think many people are able to go about that process in a way that creates genuine guidance, or just transparency for other people. We took a lot of time with that article because we wanted to do it right. We wanted to have our story, collectively, on the record, on our own terms, about creating an archive for people to be on the record, on their own terms. It seemed pretty meta, but it was so critical, and I'm glad we did it. I don't know if you had similar or different thoughts about that process.
SW: One of the hardest things that I had had to do was finishing that article on deadline. I can remember that point at which we had missed deadlines. We missed deadlines on deadlines for that article. Shout out to Rickey and TK for being so patient. But I can remember in that process, calling and being like, are we still going to be able to do this? We had this Google Doc that was a couple paragraphs and the Trello boards, and we phone in.
This was the act of remembering while there was also still so much stuff happening in the present. I'd start out the morning fully intending to write some things, and then there'd be another autoplay black death video making the rounds, and that would shut down my entire day. Or I'd try to save what little I had left at night for my family.
I remember calling like, how can we do this? Are we gonna be able to finish this? And then having it turn into this really collective, caring example of how to really finish a project. We called each other once a week for an hour, and we would sit on the phone, and literally type out the paragraphs sentence by sentence. This sentence goes here. What do you think about this sentence? I've added this chapter. So really, just taking hands and saying we're gonna do this. We're going to get it done, and do it together. I think that really exemplified the whole process as this really massive effort on behalf of so many people, and perhaps we were fortunate in that we were offered platforms to be able to talk about it with other people But the act of getting there and having to discuss that with people all the time in that way was super challenging. With that, is there anything that you might've wanted to do differently?
JD: Yes. Lots of things. I'll just say one that seems basic, but I think it illustrates so many larger points. We go out to Cleveland to create this collection of oral histories, right in the streets. We were at a recreation center; we were at a public library; we were outside a women's shelter; we were outside a home. We were in the mist of Cleveland. One of the things I wish we had done was provided food to people who were in those spaces. That may seem basic for people in this room who have food security, but for people who have food insecurity, I think it would've added much more ... met a basic need.
Some of our recording stations did have bottles of water, and there were some people who literally just wanted something to drink... it was hot as hell! Like, can I get something to drink and leave? I wish that we would've put more of an emphasis on meeting basic needs, and that could've happened differently. Partly, we had no money. Eventually we did a CrowdRise campaign that some people in this room, and people watching on the live stream contributed to, but that was just to keep the lights on. That wasn't to put food on the table. We could have thought about snacks, or just something to help sustain people. If they didn't want to give us a story, maybe they just wanted to get something to eat, and chop it up otherwise.
I think that often times, as documentarians, we can go in and think about what we need, what our agenda is. We could have more actively centered the needs of the people who were going to be in the space, whether they wanted to talk to us or not.What do those people legitimately need? Food insecurity is such a big problem in so many parts of this world, and certain parts of Cleveland especially, so that's one thing that I think I would do differently. What about you?
SW: Now that I know Cleveland a bit better, and if we had had more people, maybe we would have been able to mobilize and get out to the suburbs. So, so many black people from the city have migrated to the inner ring and outer ring suburbs. Those stories are every bit as potentially terrifying as what has happened in the city, or things that we had heard about in the city.
Just a few months after moving to Cleveland, my husband, who's in a fraternity, had gone to visit frat brothers, most of whom live in these suburbs of these other cities that are not Cleveland. He'd been out late which wasn't anything in and of itself, but as he was leaving he called me and was like, there's a cop behind me. I guess, because they were so deep in the suburbs, it was super, super conspicuous that all of these black people were living this house at two or three in the morning.
At that point, I had gone to sleep because it was so late. I was very tired. I put the phone on my desk, so I did not hear it ringing, and he had been calling me. This was so, so soon after Tamir Rice and the Brelo acquittal. I woke up in the morning after seeing the missed calls and the news I was just terrified, cause I didn't even know where some of those suburbs were.
I think had we had even more people, or more engagement, or a chance to do it again, I would absolutely have said, "Yo. Let's make sure we have somebody in Garfield Heights. Let's make sure we're talking to people in Solon. Let's make sure that we're talking to people who live in Akron, even, or Canton." Just because the scope of it is so vast.
That was the bulk of the questions we had for each other, so we'd love to open it up if anyone in the audience has questions.
Image Credit: Caroline Sinders. To watch the full video of this conversation, visit the Rhizome Vimeo.
Audience: Hi. Thanks very much for all this work, and all the love you put in this. I was wondering if there was anything you could share, either anecdotally or statistically about the folks who are using this archive, and how it's empowering communities, how it's being used by researchers, and how you feel about all that use?
JD: One usage of it, actually has been as an educational resource in different LIS programs that have asked different groupings of us to speak to their classroom. So talking to librarians and archivist-in-training about this has been something that all of us have shared in doing. People have, in those grad classes, been looking at this in advance.
One time, it was really awkward. A historian was teaching the class, and wanted to point her students towards the website, and all of the files were offline. She sent me a message, and she was like, "Where's y'all’s archive?" I was panicking. But it was just a small glitch...
In terms of other types of usage, we have a Google Analytics running on the site. I will confess, I have not looked at them, so I don't know where our hits are coming from, or how long people are staying there. I work in a brick and mortar institution, and we would think of usage as people that walk in through the front doors, and check out something, or request something to be viewed in the reading room. But if we think of it more in terms of the people who would get something from this being created, I would say that one usage, that I do hope is a usage, is that a lot of people got something from this at the moment of creation. If we think of usage and access in those broader terms, who's getting something from this, and what are they getting?
I definitely heard stories and saw, as other people were interviewing folks, that people were getting something out of that act of just telling their stories. You took part in even more of those events after you moved there, especially with going to the youth jail.
Going to the jail, we had done a training exercise of it at the juvenile detention center. The young men in there, once they started seeing how it worked, and interviewing each other, they were so open and so wanting to share. It seemed to be so very meaningful for them. I think the uses could be really vast, but we're not necessarily counting that in the same way that we typically would in an academic institution.
Audience: I want to ask a little bit about something that we've touched on a lot here, which is the surveillance state. There was a really great remark that someone made in one of the panels this morning about when you're archiving the stories of people who are marginalized or who are potentially victims of state violence. There's a line between wanting to protect their privacy, wanting to make sure that the presence of their stories on the internet isn't potentially re-victimizing them and being paternalistic. How do you respect their agency in possibly wanting their story to be out there? How do you think about your archive in those terms?
SW: Well, one of the reasons we were so specific about how we tried to set up that consent form was that it wasn't just that we were setting it up in ways that we felt like would protect people, we also considered our communication with participants as a critical piece of what we were doing. It wasn't just here's the form and sign. It was, okay, we have this form so we can tell you what some of these things mean on the form, and that for every possible category that you could check, here are potential repercussions of that. Some could be good and some could be bad, but we wanted people to feel informed, and that it wasn't just that we were giving them a thing to sign. I think, we tried to avoid feeling or acting very paternalistically in that way, by just simply making sure that people were informed about what the forms actually meant.
Audience: I was really deeply moved, Jarrett, by what you said about not being able to be yourself and be an archivist at the same time. This concerns me deeply as an educator, and I'm wondering if either of you could comment a little bit on what can we do to make established institutions much more hospitable to people like yourself, who are motivated by wanting to change the world? You said, once I did this project, I knew this was why I wanted to be an archivist, but I can't be an archivist doing this project. I have a great deal of empathy for that. I'd love to hear your insight on what we could do about that.
JD: I think way more institutions need to be explicitly anti-racist, black feminist institutions, which is hard, because lots of institutions are either explicitly or implicitly fine enabling and supporting white supremacy and massaging a war on a daily basis. I think that we need to have more of those conversations in archival meetings, and listservs, and all of those spaces where professionalism gets codified. Lots of talks about diversity that happen within libraries and archives end up being this very liberalist conversation. We are actually in need of social, political transformation.
I don't know how anyone could be, especially under this U.S. President, convinced that we are in need of just a little tweak. We have some structural problems and institutions are either going to be a part of that social transformation process, or they'll become agents of fascist propaganda, which honestly, the American Library Association is deeply... that kind of stuff, that's why I left. I think we have to have more of those explicit actions by institutions or organizations and they have to be willing to risk something.
Truth is, most of these institutions, especially the ones that have predominantly white people, they can withstand those risks. If a white person gets killed by the state or by a citizen, usually, there's consequences. When black people put ourselves out there professionally, we aren't really as protected. I need more of those institutions to take more of those institutional risks.
SW: I would definitely say that within those institutions, there have to be more people of color brought to the decision making tables. Diversity gets thrown around. We have all the fellowships and the things. Both of us are spectrum scholars, for instance.
What happens is we are largely placed in institutions where we have very little administrative power. It's not that everybody ends up going on to become a supervisor or something. That's not even necessarily everybody's desire in life. But to the extent that our input is sought, and engaged seriously, and that we have the opportunity to really make real decisions, or be brought to the table to make real decisions in an institution...that's the only way you really see change. They’re not necessarily set up in a way that your average processing archivist gets to come in and make those types of changes. Sometimes, even make those types of suggestions. Making room for a lot more people to have a seat at that table.
JD: End it with a Solange reference. Damn. This is great.
SW: Not totally by accident.
Many definitions of continents rely on the distribution of tectonic plates. Geographers agree that there are no more than 8 continents and no fewer than 4.
Patty Chang, Shangri-La, 2005, 40 minutes , single channel video installation.
1: Where Asia Ends
You, reader, may be good at tests: where is the capital of Asia? Shangri-La is one answer—the setting of a mediocre novel/disastrous film, a chain of luxury resorts, an opportunistically-renamed Tibetan district of Yunnan, and a video artwork by the great Patty Chang. Like Shangri-La, Asia is less a real place than an idea of escape. Though political theorist Wang Hui is wrong to excuse Han colonialism in Tibet, he is right to insist “imagining Asia is a political project.”  Asia is always a matter of imagining, and as art workers, that makes it our business. The concept of Asia is too vague to use and too big to fail.
2: From One Asian To Another
The difference between “Asian” and “Asia,” between the biopolitical concept of race and the geopolitical concept of place, is a difference we have to carry. After all, most people—recalling that most people in the world are Asian—don’t discover that they are until they leave.
You can only be Asian outside of Asia. I write in America, where the bait-and-switch of race for place is accomplished every day by the sovereignly boring question, “Where are you from?” This question requires a tree version of human history where each person’s meaning depends on their origin. Bad geology naturalizes the concept of Asia—a quasi-continent nonsensically divided from Europe at its widest point—and bad biology naturalizes the political concept of Asian—a group that’s some 70% of the world population. The imagination of that which is Asian—in the double sense I described—relies on the scientific armature of natural selection or continental shift. However, this is a bad-faith reliance, since both geological and biological time are too slow to affect the rhythm of the histories to which we are bound.
Such histories are, instead, matters of the politics of culture. As the New York-based collective Eastern Standard Time puts it in a recent curatorial statement: “While overly expansive, orientalist definitions make it impossible to ascribe cultural, political, or geographical unity to Asia, EST is interested in its potential as a call to organize across a spectrum of experience.” To put it in historical context, for historian Prasenjit Duara, it begins primarily as an early 20th century cultural project, driven by elite intellectuals like Tenshin Okakura, Rabindranath Tagore, and Zhang Taiyan . Culture is already political, but just wait until imperial states get involved: first Japanese militarism’s appropriation of anticolonial discourse (the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere), then American neoimperialism’s backyarding of the Pacific and containment of the USSR (Asia-Pacific), and even the left-leaning Non Aligned Movement’s attempt to build a non-Soviet socialist bloc (Afro-Asia), to name a few. In each of these contexts, the idea of the continent of Asia is mobilized to coordinate national ideas and serve state interests; so when Chen Kuan-hsing proposes “Asia as method,” we need to ask, which Asia?
Try this find-and-replace for size. For Asian as identifier, use “yellow,” as Yellow Jackets Collective does. For Asian as geotag, substitute “Eastern.” These old-fashioned words are problematic, but the problematics they addressed got grandfathered in—a proper noun doesn't fix improper behavior. Yellower than what? White supremacy. East of where? Western hegemony. To work a phrase of Yoko Tawada’s, Asia ends where Europe begins.
3: Asian Futurism is a Bad Idea
Sinofuturism Bingo, by Gabriele de Seta, circulated on Facebook in 2017.
Ironically, I’m late to the debate on Asian Futurism.  To recap recent discussions on Asian Futurism, Dawn Chan’s ambivalent formulation on Asian Futurism in a 2016 issue of Artforum called attention to the use of techno-orientalist tropes in contemporary art. For Chan, the association of futuristic imagery with Asian racialization exiled Asian Americans from the real present into a hypothetical future. In e-flux journal in 2017, Xin Wang responded to Chan’s question “is it possible to be othered across time?” by resisting the “implication that otherness necessarily operates from a place of deficiency.” Instead, otherness is radically heterogeneous, and perhaps not assimilable to a pre-existing hierarchy. Wang evinces a mistrust of identity-political projects that determine an artwork’s content based on the subject position of the artist.
Art-world internationalism thrusts subjects with different IDs and itineraries into the same suspended space; in this encounter, the uses of Asia are contradictory and overlapping. While it’s not fair to read authors as representatives, the forms of identity politics of these two authors seem to me to respond to different kinds of overdetermination, different ways that cultural different gets called on in the process of political subjection. I’ll be more direct. Whereas the Asian-American is overdetermined in biopolitical terms as a racial minority, the Chinese subject is overdetermined in geopolitical terms as a non-Westerner. This fragile distinction doesn’t account for the experiences of repatriates, migrants, or minorities, but it does bring into view the contrast between the diasporic desire for naturalization—the security of rights guaranteed by belonging (Chan)—and the cosmopolitan drive towards mobility—the freedom not to be from any one place (Wang).
As Chan notes, Asian Futurism is inspired by Afrofuturism. But temporal speculation works in an opposite way here. Whereas the latter resists a racist primitivism, the former accedes to the futurity of the yellow peril. After all, every cyberpunk plot, ever, goes like this: the future will be Asian, even though the heroes won’t be. As far as I can tell, the attempts to articulate Asian Futurism disaggregate into yellow futurism and Eastern futurism. Can they exceed the racial myths of model minority, on the one hand, and national projects of great-power status, on the other? Perhaps this either-or is too nicely drawn, but it seems to me that this split—a split that a term like diaspora can’t do justice to—is exactly the reason this question seemed important and interesting for a moment that isn’t quite over.
4: Self-Orientalism and Other Orientalisms
Fatima Al-Qadiri, Asiatisch, EP, 2016
Asian Futurism is inseparable from the divisions that cultural appropriation arouses along diasporic lines (think Ghost in the Shell or #kimonowednesdays). At stake is the relationship between representation and power—in other words, Orientalism.
Said’s critique of Orientalismleaves us with a Kantian formula: you can never really know Asia, but at least you can know that you can’t know it.In The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant squared the circle of idealism (which held that we could know reality as it really was) and empiricism (which held that we could only know what we experienced) by reasoning that though we couldn’t know the thing-in-itself, we could know our inability to know it. Similarly, if the critique of orientalism shows that our knowledge of the orient is in fact a product of the desire to dominate the subject of orientalism, then how do we account for the really existing Orient outside of our ideological drives? One way of short-circuiting this question is through self-Orientalism, and to equate the knowing subject and the known object are the same body. An infinite loop might crash the OS (Orientalism by Said). 
For example, Kuwaiti producer Fatima Al-Qadiri’s debut album Asiatisch pastiches the phonics of an imagined China, including vocal tracks in invented Mandarin. It dramatizes the difference between East and West Asia and stretches the “self” in self-Orientalizing to breaking point. By aestheticizing non-understanding, and even aestheticizing the awareness that one doesn’t understand, Asiatisch deepens the Kantian impasse.
In Larissa Pham’s erotic novel Fantasian, an East Asian woman at an elite college meets and starts an affair with her exact doppelganger, whose partner also has an identical twin—this begins a ménage-à-3-or-4 that ends in a mass suicide leaving behind only one. This love triangle and semiotic square literalizes and eroticizes “all Asians look the same,” while also allegorizing the homogenizing process of sexual objectification. Since difference is an epistemological problem, Pham’s kink is to simply destroy it.
“Asian” is a fetish category. Asiatisch invents an imaginary Asian language, and Fantasian an imaginary Asian body. They also imagine the disappearance of these other Asians, through distortion of immolation. If the labyrinthine logic of Orientalism creates insuperable distance between self and other, self-Orientalism should short-circuit this logic by collapsing self and other. Instead, it either preserves an absolute other (Al-Qadiri) or obliterates it (Pham). We never get to a relationship among ourselves, among each other.
5: Asian Solidarity Is a Good Idea
BUFU and Yellow Jackets Collective, Process/Mourn/Activate, a post-election gathering at the Brooklyn Museum, November 2016.
I’m suggesting that most Asian art today—which is not to say art by Asians, or art in Asia, but rather art that prioritizes the concept of Asia—is bad art with bad politics. I think that the conditions for abstracting a concept of Asia from the concrete experiences of Asians today are absent. At best, contemporary art that identifies as Asian is just a start.
Asian as an identity marker is “racial, racialized, but lacking the certainty of racial formations,” as Colleen Lye says, and as a political area, “an imperial region that exists uncomfortably with national subregions,” as Prasenjit Duara says. This looseness of an already-split concept means it’s lousy for analysis, but great for activism. (Incidentally and inversely, it also facilitates the cultural-capital opportunism of white creeps and rich East Asians.)
And because there is no shared Asian experience, even as a negatively felt one of oppression, such politics must assume intersection and coalition. Intersectionality, as Kimberlé Crenshaw theorizes it, centers multiply marginalized experiences and recognizes them as irreducible to their constitutive oppressions. For example, I suspect that Asian women share much more in experience than Asians “in general,” as the title of the now defunct project Sad Asian Girls (later Sad Asian Femmes) suggests, eulogized here.
Coalition must happen without analogy. Lye writes of how Asian racialization has an “analogical dependency” on the relationship between white supremacy and antiblackness. Frank Wilderson, in a different context, insists on the importance of refusing analogy (“my struggle is just like your struggle”) as the basis for the solidarity that it’s supposed to produce. For both writers, analogy erases the specificity of racialization. BUFU, a living archive of Afro-Asian solidarity, are modelling methods of documenting and experiencing the a complicated and interconnected history without equating black and yellow experiences.
If there’s a place for Asian art as I described it, it must be collective in process, focused on action, and oriented to the margins. Don’t settle for a futurism when we could have the future.
 Wang, Hui. The politics of imagining Asia. Harvard University Press, 2011.
 Tenshin Okakura, who wrote a book on tea, and begins Ideals of the East with “Asia is one.” And here's Rabindranath Tagore: "the central ideas of the messages of the great minds of Asia all through the ages was to make our world a little more beautiful.” And then, closer to home, are American art entrepreneurs like Ernest Fenollosa, who helped establish “Asian art as a legitimate and viable domain of high art, fit for museums and the art market.” (Why is it that the Asia Society is in New York?) Duara’s discussion is found in "Asia redux: Conceptualizing a region for our times," The Journal of Asian Studies 69.4 (2010): 963-983.
 The interest in futurisms is part of a decade-plus speculative flare-up. In the cyberpunk tradition, we also see silkpunk and oilpunk, for example—-the use of materials as synecdoches for regions is an indirect comment on racialized commodity capitalism. There are also finer-grained variants of ethnic futurisms we can look at: Gulf Futurism has already been thoroughly deconstructed by Mostafa Heddaya, whose dogmatic insistence on returning the analysis to power is always welcome. Sinofuturism, as Lawrence Lek proposes it, is another example that is hard to disentangle from state power and diasporic nostalgia.
 Because of its personal importance to my thinking on the subject, I should also mention another strategy for the escape from Orientalism: Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, whichis best read as an attempt to crack Said using Deleuze and Guattari. This book bury the problem of representation of cultural difference within geovitalism; in other words, what matters isn’t so much what people see, so much as what things want.
This article could not have happened without conversations with—among others—Hera Chan, Celine Katzman, Devin Kenny, Nora Khan, Son Kit, and Anayvelyse Allen-Mossman. Misinterpretations and misjudgments remain the author’s own.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Amalia Ulman's Ethira(2013) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Image: Amalia Ulman, Ethira website, 2013
Michael Connor: How did you come to this idea of making an app as part of your artistic practice?
Amalia Ulman: I didn’t think about the app on those terms, I simply wanted the app to exist so I, and those with similar needs, could use it. It was 2013, and even though the term selfie hadn’t been adopted by the mainstream and there weren’t a thousand think pieces about social media yet, art under capitalism rewarded those who could become entities with recognizable aesthetics, classifiable patterns of behaviour, who could brand themselves in a fashion easy to pin down, with a solid identity. Those who could be both influencers and artists.
In the midst of it all, I just wanted to not be. I wanted to challenge those expectations, to fluctuate between identities, step away from labels set on stone. Metamorphosis became apparent in Excellences & Perfections and then Privilege. Disappearance on the other hand, took place in Ethira.
Twitter seemed the go-to app for those with mental health issues, especially depression, as a form of release. The problem with that though, is that Twitter functions on the same accumulative way as other social media platforms, your problems become inseparable from your handle and your issues the only reason for your followers to like your tweets. It is a vicious circle where any impulse toward well-being suddenly turns counterproductive.
I wasn’t happy with that structure of archived confessions, I always thought that as long posts were archived, quantified and graded through likes and retweets, words would calcify and turn heavy. I wanted these thoughts to be released into the internet, yes, but I also wanted them to disappear and never come back -instead of being transformed into cultural capital.
Ethira had no archive. Your post would erase itself and the platform wouldn't keep track of anything. It was like screaming into a void, and having that feeling of relief afterwards.
MC: So you could post a message, and it would be anonymous, and disappear after a certain time?
AU: It would disappear before your eyes, like water evaporating on a hot stone.
MC: Would anyone else see it?
AU: Yes, anyone. In the main page, you could see what people were posting. They appeared in the same order they were typed. Ideally a mess of different alphabets and languages from all over the world would show up. Then, if you wanted to reduce the scope of what you were looking at, you could turn the map on and see what's been posted near you.
MC: The location part of it was added in the second version, which was released a bit later?
AU: Yes, and you could decide if you wanted your location to show up underneath your message or not. But I really liked the idea that there was a chance of actually meeting somebody through the app, like in an old message board.
I know it sounds nostalgic but I really miss that kind of anonymity online. I also find communication more attractive when the channels for doing so are challenging... I find TMI boring.
MC: When you exhibited the work in 2013, at Arcadia Missa, the press release announces that there were contributions from a number of different artists and writers. What form did those take?
AU: The app had just been released, so I wanted to showcase it by using examples. I invited those whose twitter I enjoyed, like Gerardo Contreras from Preteen Gallery or artists with a writing practice.
We actually had to do two presentations, one in 2013 and one in 2014. It was in 2014 that I managed to get more funding to finally get a better graphic design (by Krzysztof Pyda), a new website and to re-develop the app to get rid of bugs. From the very beginning I envisioned the app to be done professionally and in a detached manner, but the process ended up being dirtier, more DIY due to the lack of institutional support. That’s why It took so long to make and took so many attempts to finally do it.
MC: And how did you get it built without that support?
AU: Well, Arcadia Missa helped me the most during the first attempt. But it mostly happened through favors from people we knew who were developers.
But I truly resent how long the process was, I actually started working on it in 2012. I was always sad that it couldn’t be released before, when nothing like it existed. It was frustrating to lose momentum.
If I had had the additional funding it would have been coded correctly from the get go, with more international support, people downloading the app in larger numbers…
MC: Did the people who helped you expect that it would be commercially successful?
AU: The app was anti-capitalist in its core, so it was never meant to be commercially successful. There would never be any revenue from advertisement or from data licensing, as nothing was measured.
It is hard selling an idea when its main characteristic is its immateriality.
I always expected the app to be boosted by initial funding (from a museum for example) and then die.
MC: Can you talk about who began to use and what it was like when it started to circulate in the world? Was it mainly through the gallery exhibition or what kind of life did it have as an app?
AU: It had more life when we received the help of the Moving Museum and galleries from different countries, which did their own presentations and invited locals. But it never left the realm of the art world. The app looked forward to be used by sad teenagers but I don’t know if it ever happened. But maybe it did while I wasn’t watching. Who knows, that was the beauty of the app.
I had very romantic ideas for the app, a vision that I shared with other introverts. But it could have had many other uses, of course. Once a professional scammer told me the app was exciting because it couldn’t “tapped” and could be use to arrange meetings in undisclosed locations.
What I had in mind for depressed adolescents might have become a platform for terrorists.
MC: You said that people were using it for mental health reasons.
AU: A close friend of mine told me “I wish Ethira had happened, if she had been able to use it, it would have helped her” referring to a friend who had taken her life.
Regular social media exerts a lot of pressure and takes a toll on mental health. Not only because one is always being held accountable for every word, but also because awaiting the feedback of likes and retweets generates anxiety. If your tweets disappeared though, you’d have no reactions to wait for.
MC: So, what brought about the demise of Ethira?
AU: In between the two releases of Ethira, I got into an accident that turned my life upside down. I had to learn to walk again while attending to all the obligations that had been set before the crash. Talks for 89+, solo shows at galleries etc. It was a very hard time. I had no home before, as I was young and always traveling between shows in different countries, so later, disabled, I had to crash at someone else’s home, becoming a bleeding burden in Los Angeles.
Due to my lack of power, new disability and the painkillers I had to take, I politely stayed quiet and silently worked on Excellences & Perfections and Ethira 2.0.
It was during this time, at one dinner meeting I attended with my then-housemates, I had to listen to one of them presenting his app to a rich collector, an app which sounded ridiculously similar to Ethira.
Whenever I brought it up, it was said to me that I was crazy, egocentric. It had nothing to do with me, that it was completely different. That I was delusional.Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I couldn’t fight back. On oxycodone and in excruciating pain, I wasn’t sure of myself anymore. Also, he had managed to get funding from a millionaire at DLD, get covered by Wired magazine…
So basically when version 2.0 of Ethira came out, I had already given up, but I wanted to give it a decent demise, with a nice looking design and more recognition.
MC: How long were you working on it?
AU: Since 2012 till the end of 2014.
MC: So this person that took the app was taking your idea–which was meant to be unmarketable and non-profitable–and trying to do it as a business, right?
AU: Yes, that’s the only thing that helped me keep a sense of humor… I knew he would fail. It was the stupidest idea to try to make the app profitable. Also, by the time he stole it, platforms like Whisper already existed.
It was only a few months ago that one of the developers reached out to me to apologise. He told me that at some point my housemate/“ceo” had confessed he had taken the idea from me. The developer was really sorry, and said he had tried to take the app from him to give it to me, but that unfortunately the “ceo” had gotten sued by his own investor and it was all very tricky…
But by the time I got this message I didn’t really care anymore… although it was hard coming to terms with the fact that everyone knew and I had been gaslighted.
MC: The developer knew that it was taken directly from your project?
AU: Yes, but he only knew at the very end. He barely knew me when he originally worked on the app. Maybe it would had been different now, if I had been stronger I could have done my research, talked to the developers, etc. But at the time I was too weak.
MC: Having been through this experience, what do you think about the idea of artist-made platforms or tools for communication? Does it still seem like an urgent area of practice? You mentioned that there are other things that have filled that gap, but looking back, do you see possibilities in the tradition of what you were doing, or does that appear to be closed off now?
AU: I don’t see urgency in something that’s inherent to human nature like communication, but I’m particularly interested in language because I’m bad at it (I have difficulties, especially when it comes to verbalise my thoughts through speech) and because I speak two tongues English and Spanish, which makes my brain juggle between imaginary dictionaries all the time.
I’ve always paid attention to how people communicate due to my lack of skills but recently I’ve become fascinated by linguistics because I started learning languages with different alphabets–so far, Mandarin and Russian. I like how different accents, sounds and grammar help to understand different nations and their philosophy, also how different languages can alter facial features through the use or misuse of certain muscles.
There are so many words and expressions that cannot be translated to English and vice versa… I really like that. I think misunderstandings are inevitable and valuable. Everyone is obsessed with the bridging of cultures and understanding (which generally means westernizing everything) but I personally think that respecting misunderstandings is better.
All of this is reflected in my practice. I'm not particularly interested in apps or the mix between art and technology. Sometimes my works requires new media but some other times a piece of wire or a live pigeon, like Bob. Whatever makes sense to me, I use. For example now I'm working on a feature film and a book.
MC: Going back to artists working in technology, you had an extremely negative experience - possibly even a cautionary tale - as an artist trying to engage with technology.
AU: It depends. If you are an educated blue-eyed white guy from Somerset England, you will probably do fine with the discourse utilized in those circles. If you are from an oppressed minority it might be hard to keep a smileand engage with the people who inflict direct harm on your families and communities.
In my particular case, it’d be hard to attend a forum where a panel discussion might include someone from Bayer while I know Monsanto’s fumigations of transgenic soya in rural northern Argentina are making some of my relatives go blind, the rest of the population die from cancer at alarming rates, and babies be born with lethal deformities.
Many artists talk the talk required by that system, are comfortable when in the midst of that kind of power–because they crave it or because they already have it and feel completely at ease with it.
That being said, not all technology, science, and medicine belong in this bubble, but I fear it is harder to keep your research afloat when you are trying to fight a monster with global dimensions and you are constantly being pushed down.
My life has been affected negatively by those using the authority of legal, corporate speech, and medical jargon. So how could I possibly believe in it? How could I possibly reinforce the immunity and power of these entities?
MC: When you said you had an issue with the discourse of technology, I thought you meant almost like an aesthetic disagreement, but your issue is really about the way the language is an instrument of power.
AU: I find it to be a very uniform language which happens to be also a very western and gendered one. I find it problematic that for one to be taken seriously one has to surrender to it.
MC: Have you ever made work about this kind of language?
AU:Yes, I mostly like twisting it, like in The Future Ahead - Improvements for the further masculinization of prepubescent boys. I’m extremely familiar with medical jargon because I don’t fully trust the doctors I can afford in the USA, especially when it comes to prescription drugs. So I read a lot of medical papers and spend hours looking at forums where people talk about their symptoms and compare results. This is especially important for conditions that are taken lightly by the medical establishment.
MC: And in spite of all of this, you managed to give the app a decent demise.. You can’t use it in any way, right?
AU: Yeah, Ethira is dead. Rest in Peace Ethira. She was written in water over hot stone and disappeared.
This fall at the New Museum, Rhizome presents three public events highlighting new art and addressing urgent topics in contemporary digital culture. Tickets are available through the links below (and Rhizome members can get a discount by messaging firstname.lastname@example.org) — please join one or all!
DIS: A Good Crisis
Thursday, October 4th, 7pm
Rhizome and the New Museum present a preview of DIS's new series of political advertisements that considers the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. "DIS: A Good Crisis" will be on view in October 2018 as part of the online exhibition series First Look: New Art Online.
(Image above: DIS, A Good Crisis, 2018. Digital image. Courtesy the artists.)
True Lies, Deep Fakes: Platforms, Knowledge, and Alternative Communities
Saturday, November 3rd, 3pm
In a time when the search for truth online seems futile, this conversation brings together a group of artists, writers, and practitioners who explore platforms, the social dynamics they engender, and alternative models for community building and artistic production.
(Image above: Josh Kline, Crying Games, 2015 (still). HD video, sound, color. Courtesy the artist.)
Comp USA Live: Season 2 Premiere
Thursday, December 6th, 7pm
The "original live desktop theater internet television show" comes to the New Museum for a one-night engagement. This event is presented alongside an online exhibition of Comp USA Live as part of the series First Look.
(Image above: Brad Birkenstock hosts Comp USA Live: Pop Spectacular, 2018 (still). Courtesy the artists.)
New Museum and Rhizome public programs are made possible, in part, through the support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Image: Background detail from Raiders of the Lost ArtBase blog, http://archive.rhizome.org/exhibition/raiders/.
Building on the survey with ArtBase archive users we conducted earlier this year, we are organizing a follow-up hands-on workshop session for Rhizome community members based in/around NYC. This practical research session, led by our PhD researcher Lozana Rossenova, continues the commitment of our digital preservation program to consider the needs and requirements of our users and to factor them into the on-going process of re-developing our archive of net art.
This 3-hour workshop session will feature presentations on the current state of the archive, as well as demos of work-in-progress new interface prototypes. Through practical exercises, participants will be encouraged to think together through issues around the context, description and presentation of artworks in the archive. Participants will be able to learn more about how Rhizome is exploring the potential of linked data to support digital preservation for complex digital artworks, and will be able to test some of the archival interface tools we’re currently developing.
GIF by Ben Fino-Radin, source: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/sep/20/artbase-update/
The workshop will take place on Monday, Sept. 24th from 10am-1pm. Breakfast and tea/coffee will be provided. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer compensation for travel expenses.
This workshop is aimed at anyone familiar with Rhizome’s archive and preservation programme, but anyone interested in digital art preservation in general, particularly artists, preservation professionals, or students are all welcome to attend. Places are limited, so if you’d like to attend please fill in this short form and we’ll get back to you to confirm your attendance.
This workshop is part of an ongoing joint research project between Rhizome and London South Bank University. Feel free to contact Lozana at email@example.com with any questions or concerns regarding user studies in the archive.
at Foxy Production
2 E Broadway #200, New York, NY 10038
On Tuesday, October 23, join Rhizome at Foxy Production to celebrate and support the 2018-2019 program of commissions, exhibitions, and preservation activities. Beyond drinks and a good time, this party will feature a set of works for sale in benefit of Rhizome's program and the launch of a new Crepe de Chine edition by Bogosi Sekhukuni, selected by assistant curator Aria Dean.
Purchase tickets for the benefit on Eventbrite. All tickets include admission to the event, Rhizome membership, and a copy of “What's to be Done?”, a magazine produced by Rhizome (edited by Nora Khan) and Wieden + Kennedy as part of our Seven on Seven 10th edition program.
At long last! The time has come to announce the recipients of this year’s Microgrants. Just as we did in 2017, we invited applicants to submit proposals in three different categories. This year’s categories were Net Art, Virtual Reality, and Poetry. Three separate juries led by Rhizome staff members deliberated painstakingly for weeks and their selections are as follows. Congratulations to all the awardees and our gratitude to everyone in the Rhizome community for their great care in putting together proposals this year.
Jury: Rhizome Community Manager Lauren Studebaker, Rhizome Preservation Director Dragan Espenschied, writer and curator Celine Katzman, and Rhizome Software Curator Lyndsey Moulds.
“Black Room is a browser-based, narrative game about an insomniac falling asleep on their computer, on the internet. It’s meant to played late at night. Progression through the game happens by resizing the browser it’s played in—which transforms the browser into a controller. Only through making the browser very small or oddly elongated can hidden secrets and doors to other rooms be found. The url is a string of 28+ random letters, an unmemorable URL. This requires it to be passed from person to person, copied and pasted directly, like an intimate secret, a response to SEO, ‘whisper networks,’ looking for safe places under the web’s public eye and the experience of being a woman online. It’s a feminist dungeon crawler that features a cast of vintage video game sprites, ripped directly from their arcade/console cards, and seeks to bring them together to form new, resilient narratives, as an antithesis to the hyper-sexualization/glorified sexual violence originally imposed on them.”
“I’m applying for a grant in support of my ongoing website, dioramas.space, about seeing and being seen by the non-human world and connecting my emotional landscape to the exigencies of climate disaster. I made this platform to facilitate quick generation of pages (dioramas) and am continually developing it.
The impetus is threefold:
- Post-Newhive I wanted to secure a net art venue;
- I visited Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and, bothered by its geological machismo, I became interested in the feminist practice of maintenance. I want my work to embody the act of tending;
- A diorama contextualizes the browser as a container to depict the observed world. I like aesthetic containment. Natural history museums, though problematic, inspire me. A GIF recapitulates the cycles of the Earth and its ecosystems. It’s degraded but flexible. It implies a timeline with infinite ends. (An earlier iteration of my dioramas is here.)”
“Into is an experimental browser game in which the player engages with the code itself via the developer tools. Meant to reward inspection (literally), Into starts small and grows from fantasy text RPG to postmodern interactive artwork. The game references top-down RPG & interactive fiction predecessors like Zelda, Candybox, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy within a sparse minimal aesthetic.
In my past work with web-based ARGs I was thrilled to realize that players were immediately viewing the source code in their exploration. Since then I’ve been fascinated by the idea of using intentionally viewable code as a medium for artworks. My Web Poems series has explored this on a small scale. With Into I want to go further by integrating interactivity and narrative.
The element inspector is a ubiquitous tool for so many, yet is rarely seen a creative platform. I think this work will be exciting for the coding community to engage with and I am excited to continue to develop it.”
Studio Visit 360
“Studio Visit 360 is a site specific mixed reality installation that premiered at Meredith Rosen Gallery in NY on April 2018. In this new body of work, the gallery space is reimagined as the artist’s own virtual studio. He embodies an Ork avatar, who uses digital tools to create 3D forms, a process that is recorded through DIY Motion Capture. The Rhizome microgrant would be used as a good excuse to document the virtual scene and present it to a broader audience through the First Look app as a standalone piece.”
Tough Guy Mountain
“Guided Meditation is narrative about contemporary labour, disguised as a VR mindfulness application… The game is an ongoing project of the collective practice of Tough Guy Mountain, post-secondary instructors teaching from the intersections of art, labour, and emerging technologies, developing games as immersive critical commentary.”
Jury: Rhizome Assistant Curator Aria Dean, artist and writer manuel arturo abreu, writer Brendan C. Byrne
(Display Distribute) Ming Lin and Alexandra Tatarsky
“Shanzhai Lyric is an ongoing inquiry into global logistics and linguistics taking inspiration from the experimental english of shanzhai T-shirts to pursue a larger aesthetic strategy of apparent nonsense as a way to disrupt the relentless forces of commodification and make space for hybrid, liminal and illegible futures.”
Barrett White & Miriam Karraker, editors
“Since 2014, Tagvverk has sought to publish innovative poetry, art, and other textual/digital experiments. We are seeking financial support to launch a new website, and transfer our archive of almost 100 posts from an incredibly limiting and user-unfriendly Wordpress site. We would ideally work with an independent web designer who can incorporate their creative vision in the new site. Additional funds would help continue the Torf microgrant project, which was paid for out of pocket by the editors in its previous incarnation. With this monetary assistance, we will continue to invest in important contemporary poetic voices, including forthcoming works from Valerie Hsiung, a conversation between Saretta Morgan and Benjamin Krusling, and a new series of curated editions involving interactive content.”
So You Want to Make a Secret War
Bryan Thao Worra
“I wish to create an interdisciplinary, interactive pop-up poetry exhibit probing the poorly understood Laotian Secret War (1954-1975) incorporating original experimental art by elder traditional masters, archival photographs, and modified Southeast Asian shadow puppetry with my verse to expand how we express our journey 45 years later. Laos is still 30% contaminated by Vietnam War bombs and fewer than 15% of Lao refugees in the US graduate college. Many cope with multigenerational PTSD and poverty. Held in a community & handicapped-accessible space in MN (3rd largest Lao refugee population in the US) this breaks new ground bringing our stories back to ourselves over 3 days so my audience can at last take their own pace and time to engage with their memories of the conflict and its aftermath. As a low-income poet with disabilities, this is vital to me that they can read, hear, feel, or watch the poems in a variety of ways, even across language barriers to explore our diaspora.”
We’re excited to announce that “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics,” an exhibition based on our Net Art Anthology program, will open in the New Museum’s Lobby Gallery in January before touring internationally. Since 2016, the Anthology has been an ongoing research initiative and online exhibition restoring, contextualizing, and presenting one hundred works that sketch a possible canon for net art.
On view at the New Museum from January 22 through May 26, 2019, “The Art Happens Here” will reflect on the process of narrating archives and histories of online artistic practice. Drawing its name from Simple Net Art Diagram by MTAA (M. River and T. Whid), the exhibition features sixteen works from throughout net art history, showcasing a wide range of forms—websites, software, sculpture, graphics, books, and merchandise—while offering a space for considering the internet as social process, material infrastructure, and lived experience. The exhibition will be accompanied by a major catalogue featuring critical and historical essays by artists, curators, and theorists alongside hundreds of archival images from the history of net art.
This exhibition is curated by Michael Connor, Artistic Director, Rhizome, with Aria Dean, Assistant Curator. We'll be announcing further details in the coming months. Stay tuned!
Major support for “The Art Happens Here” is provided by the Carl & Marilyn Thoma Art Foundation.
Special thanks to the Producers Council of the New Museum.
Want to support this exhibition and other Rhizome projects? Attend our members party and art sale, happening October 23 at Foxy Production. Tickets are $30 and up; buy yours before they sell out!
In late September, The Verge reported that development studio Telltale Games laid off nearly 400 employees, leaving only a small group of 25 to finish pending projects. The workers were given little notice of this decision, and those who were fired were not granted severance. That same month, CBC reported that Capcom Vancouver, the developer responsible for the Dead Rising games, finally closed its doors, leaving 158 people without jobs. This latter closure wasn’t too much of a surprise—Gamesindustry.biz reported layoffs totalling 30% of the staff last February—as the developer restructured to focus more on its studio headquarters in Japan.
In the videogame industry, this is hardly remarkable: studio closures and downsizing are extremely common, so much so that they have historically not garnered an overwhelming amount of attention. The industry is full of other examples: Microsoft cut 1,400 jobs in 2009, including significant cuts to its games division; Irrational Games, the makers of the BioShock series, closed its doors in 2014; 2017 saw its share of layoffs and shutterings at EA, and mobile studios Storm8, Goodgame Studios, and Popcap. Montreal-based mobile studio Hibernum reportedly laid off the majority of its staff. That same year Kotaku reported that Activision had mass layoffs despite reporting a “better-than-expected and record fourth-quarter.”
Those who work in the games industry have known for years that mass layoffs not just frequent but cyclical. A 2012 Wired piece by Andrew Groen titled “‘Routine’ Game Industry Layoffs Kill Creativity,” laments that “business as usual” layoffs result in broken bonds between creative team members—writers, level designers—who spend months or years together working on a game, only to be separated when the studio no longer has any work for them, and has made no plans to retain their talent. Jessica Price, a writer and producer, recently warned former Telltale employees looking for a new job that many new listings are being placed by companies that have themselves recently gone through a cycle of layoffs. In a Twitter thread, Price details the reasons layoffs, concluding that“[...] More often, it’s mismanagement. And it’s seeing game industry talent as disposable.”
Price, who was recently fired from ArenaNet after a dispute with fans over dialogue boiled over into a harassment campaign that successfully pressured the company into cutting her loose, knows all too well that game companies are extraordinarily unlikely to stand behind their employees under even the slightest strain. She explains in the thread that most of these disposable jobs go to young workers who can be paid less, and that there is little chance that most companies will be held accountable for their malpractice.
This is all true to various degrees, but we can dig a little bit deeper here. The games industry uses an arsenal of tactics to suppress and exploit its workers, above and beyond general mismanagement. These tactics include industry blacklisting, outsourcing, precarious contracts, wage theft, and various internal forms of abuse and harassment, especially to more vulnerable employees (women, LGBTQIA+ people, non-white workers). That word, “mismanagement,” might be used to let the industry off the hook, but if anything its commonality should be even more of an indictment. It’s a result of, as Price points out, not valuing workers in the first place, and like mass layoffs or unpaid overtime, is typically deployed and then discussed with a sort of casual callousness. These practices and attitudes that are so prevalent at the managerial level happen to fit hand in glove with the infamously poisonous behaviour of many gamers, who as a group have earned a reputation for their harassment of critics, dissident employees and anyone else they can target for blame for real or imagined slights. Harmful company practices, from crunch to mass layoffs, are so common as to be considered routine in the industry, whereas the incandescent rage that became so apparent during the height of Gamergate, is treated more like an embarrassing indiscretion of consumers that isn’t sanctioned by respectable corporate figures in the industry. But that’s a lie that has only become more obvious over time, especially as workers and marginalized people in the subculture have made their voices louder. Angry gamers can easily be understood as a pool of reactionary scabs that serve as a resource for videogame companies that prefer it when its workforce is afraid, quiet, and deprived of the leverage it needs.
The successive occurrences of Gamergate, the 2016-17 SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike, and the burgeoning Game Workers Unite movement have forced suppressed, but widespread labor issues into the mainstream. This is a reflection of the larger leftward political response to resurgent fascism and failing neoliberalism has also brought with it a renewed interest in unions, which have generally been depleted of their power over the last 30 years. This interest is now finding voice in an industry that grew up firmly within the confines of neoliberalism and echoes that ideology.
What’s become clear from these events is that while reactionary voices are persistent, they don’t speak for many or even most actual game workers or even consumers. Telltale received a tremendous amount of backlash for its decisions, and the overwhelming response to the class-action lawsuit being brought against the company by a former employee seems to be in favor of the workers. That said, reactionary and anti-worker attitudes are still persistent and trickle down from the managerial class in the industry, pervading everything. As pro-union sentiment grows, these attitudes are likely to become more aggressive and their relationship to persistently bad working conditions more obvious.
The SAG-AFTRA voice actors strike—the longest in the union’s history, lasting 340 days—began in October 2016 and lasted until September of 2017, and culminated in a deal between the union and 11 videogame companies through Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm representing them. The union demanded, among other things, better safety standards for voice strain and risks associated with stunt coordination (for motion capture), an improved structure for bonus payments, transparency and employment mobility. The 11 companies in question, including Activision, WB Games,Insomniac, Take 2 Interactive, Electronic Arts and Disney Character Voices, for their part, claimed that the union was being “undemocratic” in its move to strike, and uncompromising despite fair counter-offers made during the last 18-month negotiating phase put forward by the companies. After mass strikes and walkouts, including a rally at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles that drew a crowd of 500 strikers, the companies invited the union back to the negotiating table, and they eventually reached a deal that some workers felt was compromised. This was particularly the case regarding the hotly-debated new “bonus structure” the companies introduced to address concerns about unfair compensation for voice actors, and especially for those who worked on games that generated profits vastly out of proportion with what they were getting paid.
Part of the reason for consternation over the mixed results of the negotiation can be linked to statements made by the companies, their legal representation and their online defenders that sought to conflate the “bonus structure” with the concept of “residuals”. The two concepts are similar, with the slight distinction that a bonus refers to a gratuity on top of the actor’s regular fee that scales up per sessions worked, while “residuals” would refer to a secondary fee paid, in this case, per units sold. These words got tossed around as did the term “royalties,” but the nuances between them are less important than the purpose of using them to compromise the union in the eyes of gamers, and especially other game workers. These comments seemed designed to paint voice actors as greedy, and seemed to work to some extent. The issue divided not just gamers and game workers, but game workers amongst themselves.
Most notably, public statements made by the companies through their lawyer, Scott Witlin, successfully drove a wedge between organized and unorganized workers. As SAG-AFTRA’s Interactive Committee Keythe Farley told me in January of last year, while the strike was ongoing, the union had actually demanded a proposal for secondary compensation on games selling over 2 million copies, rather than on sessions worked. The companies were the ones who counter-offered with the bonus-per-session structure, as Farley explained, “doesn't pay anything to an actor on the first session that they work.” Nonetheless, the companies essentially accused the union of greed and arrogance, and many gamers and game workers expressed resentment that voice actors were demanding additional, unearned benefits that they could not share in.
While these voices were far more prolific at the time, and included plenty of programmers and designers alongside overzealous fans, a few records of this narrative still exist: this Reddit thread, for example, contains a spirited discussion on the topic. While many users side with the voice actors, the thread also features such commentary as, “Voice actors deserve better safety standards, but they don't deserve residuals. It's not like regular programmers get royalties either, and they'd be just as laughed at for demanding them.” and “Just because they add something doesn't make them special snowflakes deserving royalties.”
A regular refrain among the anti-union set is that the industry is fundamentally fair, as long as one keeps their nose to the grindstone. These ideas are certainly more popular among those who continue to benefit from things as they are: consumers, but also plenty of industry insiders and even (generally more socioeconomically privileged) workers who see themselves as future bosses. The implication here is that unions are undesirable because they reward the undeserving, and videogames are a “meritocracy” that recognizes individual talent.
Speaking to me over Skype, writer and independent developer Liz Ryerson recounted a conversation with an acquaintance in the game industry, someone who “has pretty progressive politics,” expressing frustration with the voice actors: “[they were] basically just like, ‘Fuck the voice actors. they get paid way more than us. I don't give a shit about them. They're entitled.’” Ryerson continued, “Maybe it's because the voice actors are coming from Hollywood, where there's unions. People who work in the game industry expect these things to not be unionized and expect to waive a lot of their rights, so they view a lot of these voice actors as entitled instead of recognizing a mutual territory...a lot of people in the games industry just don't have the vocabulary for it.”
The fact that workers themselves may fall for some of the more pernicious propaganda may seem like a separate issue from gamer rage, but they’re deeply linked, not least because many gamers will not only gladly police workers on behalf of their bosses, but aspire themselves to work in the industry. Though it pains me to revisit the topic, this sort of policing is reflected in the Gamergate saga, a very stupid and seemingly pointless tantrum thrown by gaming’s conventional audience against everyone they perceived to be “outsiders” from the culture: women, non-white people, LGBTQIA+ people, and anybody who supported their inclusion. These conflicts ranged from the benign to downright dangerous, such as groups of self-identified “Gamergaters” attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to get their opponents fired for dubious reasons, stalking, violent threats to their opponents and their families, and SWATting (falsely reporting their opponent to the police in an attempt to get them killed).
The conflict began with a baseless attack on developer Zoe Quinn started by a jilted ex and centered on a claim that she had traded sex for positive reviews of a free-to-play game. This was a ridiculous lie, one of many that circulated during a campaign putatively about “ethics in games journalism,” but it exploded like a pustule over the face of the industry and was never really washed away.
Alison Rapp, a former mid-level marketing employee for Nintendo, was fired from the company shortly after becoming the target of a Gamergate smear campaign. The story, covered extensively by journalist Patrick Klepek, involves a controversy in which Rapp was blamed for changes made during the localization process of Japanese games, despite the fact that Rapp worked in public relations, not localization, for the development division of Nintendo called Treehouse. When Rapp became the target of their ire for changes Treehouse localizers made to games Fire Emblem Fate and Xenoblade Chronicles X, she became the central figure in a niche dispute over translation accuracy that had already been going on for years.
Detractors accused Rapp of being a pedophile and an advocate for child porn on the basis of a college paper entitled “Speech We Hate: An Argument for the Cessation of International Pressure on Japan to Strengthen Its Anti-Child Pornography Laws,” in which she argues that Japan ought to have the autonomy to legislate free speech with regard to the fictionalized sexualization of children, in accordance with its own cultural standards and without pressure from large imperial powers like the United States. (It’s worth mentioning that while some of this may be unsavory and worthy of scrutiny, Rapp at no point advocates for the sexual exploitation of children, referring to it it as a “social ill” in the paper.) When that wasn’t enough to get her fired, her detractors attacked her for provocative modeling photos and began circulating rumors that she was a sex worker, insisting this made her unfit for her job.
During the spring of 2016 when this all went down, Nintendo said nothing—that is, until The Daily Stormer weighed in, blaming Rapp and her apparent misdeeds on“the impact of Jews and feminism on our society.” Commenting on this article, Andrew “weev” Aurenheimer, the neo-nazi black hat hacker who went to federal prison in 2013 for his apparent involvement in an AT&T data breach—and who also helped bully designer Kathy Sierra out of a job over a decade ago—called for people to leave phone and email complaints to Nintendo executives en masse in the hopes of getting Rapp fired. Ultimately, all of these strikes against Rapp converged, and she was ultimately fired from Nintendo while she and her new husband were honeymooning in Japan. (Her husband, who worked as a barista at Nintendo’s coffee shop, later quit following an overwhelming amount of abuse and hectoring he received from angry gamers. Neither received severance.)
Nintendo’s official explanation for the firing was summed up as “conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture,” but Rapp told me that nothing her detractors dredged up had been hidden from the public or presented a problem before the Gamergate campaign. Nintendo denied that harassment had anything to do with the decision and claimed Rapp had been “moonlighting” at an unnamed second job, which was against policy. While Rapp received support, although it fractured and wavered over time, this took place entirely in a disembodied sphere of public opinion with no actual direct, organized power. While Gamergaters sometimes referred to their opponents as “Anti-Gamergate”—some of whom adopted the moniker in an attempt to brand themselves as a sort of official resistance—there was never really an ideologically-committed, organized countermovement. Most Gamergate detractors still engaged with it on its terms as a kind of “consumer revolt,” rather than an attack on workers, and so there was never any throughline that connected what was going on with broader labor struggles either in the media or in the general discussion.
There was no institutional apparatus to take a second look at Nintendo’s reason for Rapp’s firing, and no realistic way for Rapp to individually sue the company for wrongful termination. Rapp describes the termination as just the “nail in the coffin” following a series of “major problems” that had been ongoing before she became the subject of a coordinated harassment campaign. She explained to me that in nearly three years working at Nintendo, she had gone to HR “several times” over what she perceived as an unfair enforcement of company policy. In one instance, she complained that men in Treehouse were allowed to have personal Twitch streams but she was not; she was also told not to tweet about rape culture because “then it would become a news story, that someone from Nintendo was talking about rape culture.” She also says that “several male colleagues” from Nintendo of America had made inappropriate sexual comments towards her, which she claims began barely a month into her tenure there.
By December 2015, following, as Rapp claims, a largely positive fall performance review, she had become a target for harassment. The rumor that she had been a sex worker began to circulate. Around this time, she claims that the company had begun to harass her internally: “HR sat me down and railed on me about the weirdest stuff—the fact that I'd gone to the in-office holiday party instead of working straight through it, the fact that I'd texted a coworker (a coworker we were supposed to text if we were worried about a deadline... A management-mandated practice).” HR later revoked her spokesperson privileges, and accused her of “inciting her own harassment.”
“The reality is, really suspicious stuff had been happening for a long time, and the sex worker stuff was just a convenient way for Nintendo to get rid of someone who had become a PR liability to them without raising too many legal red flags,” Rapp tells me, expressing her belief that the company used her character assassination as a way to dispose of an employee who had become a liability on legitimate-seeming grounds while her public credibility was compromised. The company, she claims, had ulterior motives for wanting to get rid of her, and the campaign against her gave them an easy out.
After putting out an open call on social media, I spoke to many workers in the games industry, from all sorts of backgrounds and specializations—from quality control to sound design to programming—who expressed fear they would suffer the same fate if they spoke out. Some spoke to me in person, others over Skype, and many over e-mail exchange. Many of the respondents who reported feeling vulnerable in this way were women, many of whom also reported instances of inappropriate behaviour, including touching, from their male colleagues and superiors followed by very little sympathy from HR. One anonymous respondent who reported her harassment at the hands of a fellow employee told me, “This is basically how HR at my former employer worked. If the image of the company was in any way harmed, their mission was to turn the blame on the victim as to keep denying that anything was wrong with the company.”
Most of the workers who reached out to me were from North America and Europe, and while labor laws and enforcement vary from nation to nation, there were certain obvious consistencies. I spoke to nearly 20 workers who all expressed a desire for a union but did not feel secure creating one, felt alienated from their peers, and antagonized and suppressed by their bosses. Many expressed difficulty envisioning the shape a labor union for games might take, or who it might include (or exclude). They all described tactics that their bosses deliberately use to coerce behaviour—such as agreeing to unpaid overtime, or staying quiet about abusive superiors—but also subtle social pressures to express enthusiasm, passion, and a self-destructive drive to work.
I don’t mean to suggest that game companies and gamers knowingly conspired to silence and bully workers, but there is evidence that, as long as gamers direct their grievances at individual workers, videogame companies understand that they can use that dynamic to shield themselves from community criticism while using it as leverage in internal conflicts with employees. This has, for a long time, represented a win-win for companies, ensuring not just the PR victory with their fans, but also deeply suppressed and compliant workforce, and an opaque shroud over the industry’s internal workings. That shroud, however, seems to be starting to clear.
These fears that workers have are founded, but a critical mass of solidarity may be forming to overcome individual anxieties. A majority of workers actually do long for unionization—56% according to widely-cited 2014 IGDA survey—but fear sabotage and reprisal from their bosses, fans, and even peers. Most who spoke to me asked for anonymity, and many described an undercurrent of intense paranoia that contributed to a desire to stay quiet, keep to the grind, and be grateful for their continued employment. (I refer to these sources with an anonymized first name to protect their privacy.)
“There’s still a fear of being replaced,” Gwen, a former Ubisoft Montreal employee told me after we had moved away from our original meeting location, where too many recognizable faces were enjoying their lunch break. She confirmed a general desire for some form of unionization, but feared that a union representative would find little success at Ubisoft. A lot of the struggle, Gwen said, could be chalked up to ignorance or fear, but she also described a work culture that rewarded people who offered themselves up willingly for additional work. She mentioned management pressures to overperform were part of the issue, but that many people also viewed themselves as future bosses. Why handicap their own future prospects by advocating for their peers now?
A developer working in systems design, told me: “These libertarian tech companies haven’t ever had to deal with any labor they couldn’t bully around. They prey on the young and idealistic; give them mediocre pay while asking for a ridiculous amount of work hours and providing completely unhealthy fast food to do it. [...] Once the project is done, terminate anyone to maximize profits. It’s depressing because we’ve kind of just accepted that this is how it is and how it has to be. Many people leave this industry because they want to have stable personal lives; and making video games, even thirty-forty years later, does not cater to it.”
Many respondents described a “revolving door” churning out a young, inexperienced workforce, under pressure to perform with time and resource constraints generally caused by poor management, lack of benefits, poor pay, and a culture demanding their fealty to the brand. The abuses that take place within slick studios stocked with free kombucha and beanbags are by now well-documented—Ian Williams’s essay “You Can Sleep Here All Night”: Video Games and Labor is one example—but an important aspect is how these practices are reinforced ideologically.
“Passion is always a big part of it all,” an anonymous respondent who used to work at EA DICE wrote to me in an email. “Hell, DICE even has it in their bloody core values: Quality, Innovation, Passion (which was a bit ironic at the time BF4 shipped broken). Passion means you’re so lucky to be there, you’re so lucky to be working on this, don’t ruin it by complaining. Passion means you’re so lucky, then why are you up at 3AM crying and feeling dead inside every day?”
The question of “passion” and toleration of abuses is by no means a settled issue. As recently as October 14th, Variety reported that workers at Rockstar Games involved with the upcoming Red Dead Redemption sequel were working “100-hour weeks,” following provocative statements made by company co-founder Dan Houser who later clarified that only he and a handful of people actually did this. A statement Rockstar sent to Kotaku and which has been attributed to Houser, claims that nobody at the company is ever “forced to work hard,” and that rather, some senior employees will do this entirely by choice, “purely because they’re passionate about a project.”
The latter argument—that crunch is a sign of passion and commitment—is the more pervasive one, having been embraced by nerds who not only play games but make them for years (Erin Hoffman detailed the effects of this practice on her husband in 2004 on Livejournal, in her infamous “EA Spouse” post). This idea of “passion” fuels the idea that workers should feel grateful to be able to work in the industry regardless of the conditions, and that this state of affairs constitutes a meritocracy where the best developers always rise to the top, rather than burn out and leave development altogether. Any complaint can then be handwaved as laziness, greed or ingratitude on the part of a “bad apple” employee, usually some disposable woman. As Steven T. Wright points out in his piece, “Despite Resistance, Crunch Continues to Define the Video Game Industry,” the crunch-as-commitment narrative gained traction exactly because the industry has always been extremely volatile, and employment extremely precarious.
Poor working conditions—especially crunch and mass layoffs—are treated as measures of a worker’s passion, but the irony is that none of this “grinding” or “passion” is necessarily resulting in better-crafted or more creative games. Poor project management practices and lack of team-building may result in broken or lackluster products, but more vulnerable workers who are easier to isolate are the ones who end up bearing the brunt of pissed-off gamers.
These attitudes and practices pervade the industry, from major studios to mid-level indies to freelance contractors. Despite the rosy arthouse reputations many mid-level studios enjoy, many of their workers are contending with the “small business tyrants” of the industry, where they may or may not have the luxury of an HR department to ignore them.
Anne, a contractor, spoke to me about her 5-month stint for a well-known Montreal-based indie games company. She told me that she experienced routine mismanagement and internal reprisal for speaking up about misbehaviour and unfair practices she experienced in the workplace. “My time there was really fraught, and looking back on it now it just feels like some surreal, bizarre kind of nightmare,” she told me over coffee.
She told me that this company, despite projecting an outward image of dedication to social justice, touting its diverse staff and games focused on social and moral issues, such as bullying, suffered from a multitude of poor internal practices. Anne, who worked as a community manager, described being expected to pull 16-hour days in her first week and was told to “get over it” when she refused. She described male colleagues finding excuses to give her unwanted massages or make lascivious remarks to her on the job, only to have her bosses ask her to sympathize with her harassers. She explained that she got on the bad side of influential figures in the company for refusing to do extra work, for calling out racism and sexism in the workplace and in the company’s products, and for sticking up for another employee who was being made to man two virtual reality booths at an industry conference by themselves. The experience left her feeling bitter about the industry and disillusioned with soi-disant “progressive” rockstar indie brands. While theoretically in favor of unions, she fears that many people are still willing to go along with the status quo out of fear, or exhaustion, or basic alienation from the condition of other workers and the companies they work for.
As Carolyn Jong, a Montreal-based researcher and organizer with the grassroots union advocacy group Game Workers Unite told me, the fact that there’s no real labor organization in games means that things are generally framed in terms of the consumers’ interests and demands, rather than in terms of the workers’ needs. Even those who seek a more progressive vision of games generally engage with that vision on very superficial, neoliberal terms. This usually finds expression in companies pandering to reactionary elements of their fanbase, but pandering to progressives without a class consciousness is just as easy for game companies as it is for Whole Foods. This is how a company with such shoddy internal practices can maintain a squeaky-clean public image while totally evading scrutiny.
“It is very obvious, the way that a lot of the harassment in games happens is connected to this consumer-producer divide; people defining themselves in terms of consumerism and what they purchase, and that being the only legitimate source of power that they can imagine,” Jong said.“I think Gamergate served the industry, obviously—the industry being the bosses, the multinationals—because it scared their employees, it got rid of a lot of their critics. It basically served this pacification purpose. I think that polarization is very real, and I think it's a result of the mushy status quo being unsustainable. You cannot just keep reproducing what exists because it's breaking down all around us.”
The International Games Developers Association, or IGDA, is emblematic of the kind of “mushy status quo” that Jong describes. The association is a non-profit primarily known as an advocacy group that produces a lot of labor surveys and headhunts on behalf of companies. It is not, as former IGDA board member Darius Kazemi made clear to me over Skype, functionally capable of acting as a union. This is because the organization is classified as a 501(c)6 tax-exempt professional association, rather than as a 501(c)5, which renders it unable to do things like collectively bargain for employees. The IGDA board of directors is composed largely of individuals with management or executive profiles, leans heavily white, cis and male, and maintains relationships with a procession of corporate sponsors. Kazemi, a programmer and founding member of tech co-op Feel Train, who officially left IGDA in 2013, told me that while the IGDA maintains an outward impression of being pro-worker, the organization’s main concern is “its own continued existence,” and the maintenance of a balance of power that benefits it.
The new advocacy group Game Workers Unite, on the other hand, may be a viable engine for worker interests that the IGDA is structurally incapable of being. The international group, which has chapters in cities across the globe, has been busy this past year fanning the flames of union sentiment in the games industry. Last spring, in fact, the two groups faced off head to head at the gaming world’s biggest annual conference, the Game Developers Conference (or GDC).
On March 21st, 2018, IGDA ran a roundtable entitled “Pros, Cons and Consequences of Unionization.” The discussion was hosted by IGDA president Jen Maclean, former CEO of the now-defunct 38 Studios. As reporter Ian Williams described it, Maclean’s amicable and even-keeled tone quickly degenerated into thinly-veiled hostility as game workers who filled the room loudly pushed back on anti-union rhetoric. As Williams points out in his article “After Destroying Lives For Decades, Gaming Is Finally Talking Unionization,” when Maclean posed theoretical questions like “How do you see unions helping protect marginalized people?,” she encountered an audience willing to answer them with force and moral clarity. Williams writes,
“The question had already been answered prior, when the speaker brought up equal pay, and further answered when they mentioned their grad student union helping trans bathroom rights at their university, but MacLean’s question wasn’t looking for an answer. It was a wedge, designed to create an imaginary rift between the class concerns typically associated with union questions and the cultural questions of identity. As the evening wore on, her interruptions became more frequent, the politeness more forced. The audience began to become more restive, as well. It was tense because it mattered.”
The anti-union tone of the roundtable wasn’t lost on many pro-union voices within the industry, who organized in secret channels weeks in advance to distribute pro-union material at the conference and push back on Maclean’s anti-union disposition, filling the room with pro-union talk in a way that Maclean and the IGDA clearly didn’t expect. Like the eleven videogame companies named in the SAG-AFTRA strike, like Nintendo in the case of Alison Rapp, Maclean began her gambit with every reason to believe that the those in the crowd who could not be pacified with bromides could be intimidated by fear-mongering. Instead, the workers talked, sometimes shouted back. The pro-consumer, anti-union tenor that still pervades much of gamer culture hasn’t proven as stable as people like Maclean or even most workers once thought. That is an extraordinary change.
Still, much work remains to be done. One anonymous Game Workers Unite organizer told me that they felt optimistic, and most of the people they encountered at GDC expressed enthusiasm about the prospect of a union. But they admit that an attitude still persists whereby “people in games are groomed to see themselves as future management rather than workers, and thus see poor working conditions as ‘paying one's dues’ before ‘working their way to the top.’”
In a sense, the naked exposure of angry gamer backlash against workers is a good thing. It reveals that workers are now more united than previously thought, and that companies and the ornery nerds who love them are beginning to loosen their stranglehold. The backlash has always been there—it was the very same backlash that pushed legendary developer Kathy Sierra out of the industry in 2004, and then descended on Mass Effect writer Jessica Hepler in 2012. It is the same force that was deployed against Jessica Price, Zoe Quinn, Alison Rapp, and countless others who became a liability to the industry.
Now, workers themselves are beginning to form an opposing force that will hopefully expand, encompassing not just artists and programmers but exploited industry workers of the Global South, including rare earth mineral miners, factory workers and “e-waste” workers. Nerd rage has been a powerful tool for the industry to use against its workers, and until recently it has been allowed to rampage unopposed. Game culture stands as a perfect, miniature example of the ways in which neoliberal economics beget reactionary shock troops to defend its institutions whenever it falls into crisis, and so it’s no surprise that such a volatile industry has harbored such a volatile community. Hopefully, though, international solidarity and the energy for change will prove to be the antidote.
Together with the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), we're delighted to announce Seven on Seven Beijing, the first China-based edition of the celebrated platform that pairs visionaries from the fields of art and technology, inviting them to create new projects through short-term, one-on-one collaborations.
On November 20, 2018, this daylong event will be the culmination of the weeklong Education, Arts, Science, and Technology festival (EAST), directed by Professor Qiu Zhijie, dean of the School of Experimental Arts at CAFA. Seven on Seven Beijing debuts a new format, which reteams exceptional past participants to further develop their projects and presents an additional pairs selected from an open call by Rhizome Executive Director Zachary Kaplan and Baoyang Chen, Faculty of CAFA.
All projects will premiere with public presentations at Riverside Museum, dedicated partner and distinguished sponsor of EAST and Seven on Seven Beijing. Tickets for Seven on Seven Beijing are free and will be available starting November 12. Please check back for those and other details.
The pairs revisiting their past collaborations are as follows:
Artist and Nonfood Cofounder Sean Raspet & Francis Tseng, Designer and Developer
The new pairs were selected in relation to innovative research taking place among Beijing-based technology firms and will focus on four fields of inquiry: artificial intelligence, blockchain, liquid metal technology, and augmented reality. The following four pairs have been chosen by Kaplan and Chen:
Liquid Metal: CAFA EAST Group & Liu Jing, Professor and Lead Scientist, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University
Blockchain: Gao Peng, Director, Today Art Museum & Jia Yinghao, CEO, Hashworld
AR: Artist Ye Zhicong & Zhang Zhen, CEO, Ice Stream
Of this collaboration with CAFA, Rhizome Executive Director Zachary Kaplan said: "We are thrilled to have found a visionary partner in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, which has worked with us to adapt Seven on Seven for Beijing, bringing established collaborations to China and uncovering the future of art and tech through local research."
Qiu Zhijie, speaking on behalf of CAFA, added: "With Rhizome and the New Museum, we want to build on Seven on Seven's past successes and create an entirely new mode of art-tech production that brings local art and tech communities to a more global context. I sincerely invite friends and colleagues to join us for Seven on Seven Beijing, this year's EAST conference, and beyond."
ABOUT THE CENTRAL ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS
The Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the only art academy of higher learning directly under the Ministry of Education, was founded in 1918 in Beijing. An academy where culture, history, and art flourish, CAFA enjoys the best art resources in the world. CAFA is a leading institution for modern art education in China and has nurtured many preeminent artists in the past hundred years. CAFA comprises eight discipline-based schools with over one thousand faculty, nearly five thousand undergraduates and postgraduates, and three hundred international students. The campus occupies 330,000 square meters for teaching and research.
The long-term objective of Education, Arts, Science, and Technology (EAST) is to create a global alliance of art and technology institutions, research centers, and other educational entities to spread and exchange new ideas, thereby making room for new theoretical frames, mindsets, systems, and ideas to take shape. Such a union would also facilitate the use of new technologies, materials, and mediums; the acquisition and promotion of new working patterns; and active cooperation among art theorists, artists, art institutions, and innovative enterprises. EAST hopes that this worldwide convergence of creativity and responsibility will accelerate the transfer of knowledge and thus benefit the lives of individuals across the world.
ABOUT RIVERSIDE MUSEUM
Riverside Art Museum is a private art museum founded by the Riverside Group. It aims at international cultural exchanges. With its global vision, the museum collects, preserves, and interprets contemporary Eastern and Western Art, focuses on building long term partnership with universities and research institutions. Riverside is dedicated partner and distinguish sponsor of EAST and Seven on Seven Beijing.
Launched during the 2000 US Presidential election, Vote-Auction claimed to connect people who wished to sell their vote with potential buyers.
Michael Connor: How did the project begin?
UBERMORGEN: James Baumgartner invented the whole thing. He was from RPI, and he had this idea to do this Vote-Auction thing as a political statement. He did that and ran into serious troubles immediately with the New York City Election Committee. Soon after, the FBI was poking around. One of The Yes Men was teaching up at RPI. They got together and came to the understanding that this was not a project that could be done from the US. And then we took it over.
There was a Wired article, and from this moment on it was a complete danger in America. So, basically, we firewalled them off. And UBERMORGEN had a different strategy: we are experimental; we're not political artists. We don't have any message. We don't care. We were just interested in experimental approaches and pushing the project to the absolute limit and over the edge. So that's what we did.
We started to do a new version of the website with an algorithm that would, every time someone would interact and offer a vote, interact with all the other votes and organically grow the whole system. We started to get traction. And, after a short while, we got so many threats. FBI, NSA, CIA, Austrian Secret Service, German Secret Service. Everybody was basically coming after us. Thirteen states were sending us injunctions. We had to legally protect ourselves. We stayed in Europe for ten years because of this project, never went to the US.
Our domains got killed, but we were flexible. We used a network of people. We worked with press releases, so every time something happened we sent out a press release which generated hundreds of articles or news features in media. Interestingly, it was all mass media—newspapers, video, TV. It was basically the last manifestation of this old mass media system that was still very much in place and had no idea what was going on.
MC: So on the new version of the site, you would sign up to sell your vote, but there was no money exchanged?
UM: No, that would have been highly illegal. Already in certain states, the solicitation of buying and selling a vote is an illegal act. In California, it's a felony. It was very important for us that we protect the stupid people who just had no idea how the internet works.
We could not even register any kind of data because the moment we would have done that we would have incriminated not only ourselves, which was okay— we would have incriminated the audience.
The problem legally was that it posed a threat to the integrity of the American electoral system. That's why they spent, we think, about five million dollars in thirteen states and federally to investigate the case. The spooks—the fucking CIA, NSA, FBI, Janet Reno were investigating the case.
They had to take it seriously. It could have been a problem. And afterwards, in Florida, it became obvious that there were problems, big problems, in the voting system. But technically it was nothing. It was just a shitty website.
We didn't show our identity, we didn't do it in a style that we liked, and we didn't do it as a political message. That was all off the table. We never talked about it as an artistic project. We had aliases, and we represented ourselves as Eastern European businesspeople the whole way through.
The art world had no idea that we were behind it. They had no fucking idea. Only after November 7th we would go and show the thing like the 700 kilograms of legal documents, the videos, et cetera, in museums and galleries around the world.
MC: So how do you position the work as within your artistic practice?
UM: We come from a background of Viennese Actionism, like with the body and shitting on each other and ejaculating on each other and hurting each other or yourself as an act of art in the 1960s. We did something very similar in the '90s and 2000, but we put it in a digital space. It felt very physical, and the body was under threat.
It wasn’t digital, it wasn’t abstract; it was as real as if you were threatened on the street by someone with a knife. James Baumgartner had FBI agents sitting in front of his apartment. That's how we learned that the ideological separation of digital and analog space is a fucking lie. It's a Silicon Valley lie, it's a philosophical lie, it's a business and marketing lie. There is no difference.
The long, dark days of early November are here and another American election is upon us. This one, unique as a hotly contested midterm followed around the world. At stake, a Republican agenda fueling the global march towards fascism versus some kind of checks and balances in one of the world's great democracies. Winter is coming!
Trolls, hackers, spyware, internet, wikis, electronic voting, once the coded terminology of a long forgotten digerati, have become common currency on the speculative market of popular public opinion generators. Social media, mobile devices and ubiquitous mainstream media coverage fuel conspiracies and economies now feed a public hungry for constant communication. Just days before citizens were to go to the polls, there were accusations of cybercrime. Americans are more networked than ever. A pity one cannot say the same for informed or empathetic. Today, different kinds of bubbles need bursting.
Rewind back to 2000, when the bubble was the boom-and-bust internet economy, and a couple of European techno-capitalists were out to commodify another hotly contested US election—between Al Gore and GW Bush. UBERMORGEN (lizvlx and Hans Bernhard), fronting as shady East European dot.com entrepreneurs, riffed off of James Baumgartner’s legally challenged website, voteauction.com, by buying it. Suddenly an international start-up was outsourcing Americans’ sacred claim on democracy: the vote. It not only played into, but off of the deeply held fears and values of the population. Their votes could be auctioned off to the highest bidder—or they could cash in on not voting.
In reality, voteauction.com was a highly sophisticated conceptual performance-cum-media hoax-cum-experiment that was acted out on the international stage of the internet, mass media and the American judicial system. The news was real but the auction was a fake—it was a news fake.
Eighteen years ago, the internet was a different thing, in the process of casting off its utopic metallic cast of ’90s cyberspace and entering the popular imaginaries of people around the world (if not their homes). Dial-up modems were still a thing, website design was a viable career, the cool kids were surfing, Europeans were sniping at WIRED, and the whole world had just survived the impending doom of Y2K—the Millennium Bug—when the 20th century computer codes would reset the date to ’00. There wasn't any social media, not a Friendster in sight. East Europe was another dangerous, exciting place (almost a real life second life in the American mind), where money could be made, wars could break out, and anything was possible. The masses mostly experienced this virtually, through the firmly established screen of the 24-hour cable news cycle. Like today, there was a deeply entrenched fear of election rigging, albeit for very different reasons. For the mainstream populations in Western Democracies, and especially in the US, the internet was a fantastical space and networked computers held a sexy, promising, and slightly dangerous allure. An oft-cited new wild west, similar to Eastern Europe, distant places where dreams could be realized—both offered gold, freedom, unlimited space, porn, perverts, and outlaws. Y2K and its attendant fear-mongering had given people some idea of just how networked and omnipresent computers were in the world. Al Gore’s electronic superhighway was also a potential space for a different kind of gerrymandering and vote rigging. Cable news was rife with speculation about how the internet could be used to rig the vote and how computers could be infiltrated by those with bad intentions.
Meanwhile in Europe, the not-so-glittery digerati were busy in smoke-filled independent media labs (later to be anointed hackerspaces) where net.artists, actionists, media activists, and hackers were wildly tapping into a network full of unrealized potential. UBERMORGEN were working on the fringes of an emergent Netzkultur built around conferences like MetaForum, The Next Five Minutes, and Ars Electronica, and practiced in the real and virtual spaces of backspace, bootlab, C3, nettime, the internet, and across East and West Europe. It was a rich context for Viennese Actionism, Situationism, Deleuzian/Guattarian ideas, pirate radio, zines, and net.art to proliferate, and for experimenting and testing the boundaries of what a networked world could be. This zeitgeist also informed how UBERMORGEN could perform virtual election fraud in the real space of media and the abstract space of international law.
Vote-Auction was not only in time, but of its time. And like all great works of art, it can be read through a contemporary lens (or on a screen) as less of a historical artifact and more of an avant garde indicator of the things to come. With a typical low tech dot.com aesthetic and the slogan “Bringing Capitalism and Democracy Closer Together,” it was performed in the public space of mainstream radio, internet, print media, television and evan a half-hour feature on CNN. In a rare moment for performance, it caught the attention of a global audience of over 500 million people and quite a few legal authorities. Vote-Auction was never explained or presented as an art project because UBERMORGEN refused for it to be tamed into some wacky European art action. Like the best net.art, it worked outside the space of art, exploiting the media, not to act as a mere descriptive or symbolic gesture, but to actually operate as a participant in that moment.
Similar to the work of JODI, Vote-Auction played on anxieties about the instability of the interconnectedness of the world and all the dangerous elements that might lurk in the dark corners of the internet. It went further by looking at the the financialization of elections and the operational logic of neo-liberal capital. Weirdly, the website had a built in educational feature, with links to actual credible sources on the candidates, campaign finance and an early user generated content function. Combined, all this exposed the faultlines of the unregulated space of the internet, as injunction after injunction sought to have the site taken offline, the deeply embedded weaknesses of American political campaigns, and what a market-driven democracy might look like.
Nikita Khrushchev once noted, “So in the end your country is ruled by one judge, one American, not even elected.” In 2000, this was proven true when the election ended with a decision by the Supreme Court. In 2018, this particular election begins with a decision about the Supreme Court. It's not that history repeats itself, just that the past is always reminding us of what is going to happen after tomorrow.
It’s almost Thanksgiving which means the holiday season is almost over, by the Contemporary American Consumer Calendar.
To celebrate the season, we’ve partnered with South African artist Bogosi Sekhukhuni––past winner of Prix Net Art prize and friend of the pod org––to produce a very special holiday gift for our extended Rhizome family & friends. Commissioned by assistant curator Aria Dean, Sekhukhuni has designed a limited edition crepe de chine silk scarf, featuring the artist’s unique take on a classic chain-link pattern.
Sekhukhuni is one of sixteen artists included in “The Art Happens Here: Net Art’s Archival Poetics”, opening at the New Museum on January 29, 2019. The exhibition features a selection of works from “Net Art Anthology,” Rhizome’s major online exhibition that tells the history of net art through the archiving, preservation, and presentation of 100 works.
The scarves are an artist edition of 100 and all proceeds will go to supporting Rhizome’s artistic program.
You can order one online now ( $100 = free shipping and a Rhizome membership!) or get yours in the New Museum store beginning on November 28. You can also purchase one at an upcoming Rhizome event, such as Rhizome Presents: CompUSA Live Season Two Premiere On December 6.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
This article accompanies the inclusion of Zach Blas's Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism) (2015) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Zach Blas’s six-minute video Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism) (2015) falls midway between a YouTube tutorial and what became a key trope of artists’ moving image circa 2015: a screen-capture video in which an off-camera user navigates a range of content in real time across various programme windows. The long title belies a remarkable economy of means. Compared with the audio-visual pyrotechnics of, say, Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013) or Yazan Khalili’s more modest exploration of facial recognition technologies in Hiding Our Faces Like a Dancing Wind (2016), Blas’s tools are far more rudimentary: four PDFs, a TextEdit file and a single song played from iTunes. That a generalised, hyperbolic fascination with surfaces, corporate aesthetics and information networks characteristic of so-called ‘postinternet art’ is substituted for such simple instruments seems to be precisely the point.
Like a YouTube tutorial, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 demonstrates how to perform a task with limited means. In this case, Blas offers up an example of how to mobilise against the internet using the pre-installed software on a MacBook. This is done by copying and pasting together a “contra-internet manifesto” from PDFs freely available online. Through this strategy, which updates William Burroughs’s cut-up technique via the writing and “tactical media” art of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), the work demonstrates the value and urgency of plagiarism with intent. As CAE write in their seminal text “Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production”(1994), referenced in Blas’s title: “At present, new conditions have emerged that once again make plagiarism an acceptable, even crucial strategy for textual production. This is the age of the recombinant: recombinant bodies, recombinant gender, recombinant texts, recombinant culture.” Two decades later, it is a comparable faith in the radical potential of recombination that Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 seeks to demonstrate. It asks: how can existing tools and knowledge be recombined in order to begin to resist the creeping totalitarianism of the internet, or otherwise imagine alternatives to the network form?
still from Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism), 2015
Right from the start, the unassuming backdrop of the computer desktop hints at the staging of the work: the only icon is a folder named “contra-internet”, and the background image is all-white apart from the word “internet”, which is struck through in small, black, sans serif font at the centre. A few seconds in, the mouse opens iTunes and plays the first track from the pre-prepared ‘contra-internet’ playlist: Le Tigre’s “Get Off the Internet” from 2001, an upbeat call for activists to close their web browsers, sign out of their computers and return to real life protest. As the upbeat drums and synth start to build momentum, iTunes is minimised and TextEdit opened. Four PDFs are then launched from a subfolder.
The first of these texts is philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s Manifiesto contrasexual (2000), from which the title of the first chapter — “¿Qué es la contrasexualidad?”— is copied and pasted into TextEdit. This is followed by a sadly still prescient quote from political theorist Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983–1998 (1998): “It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” The third and most heavily mined of the four texts is The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996) by economic geographer(s) J. K. Gibson-Graham, from which seven quotes are lifted and slightly reordered. While this is being scrolled through, Le Tigre reach the chorus, in which they emphatically and repeatedly wail, “get off the internet!”
still from Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1: Constituting an Outside (Utopian Plagiarism), 2015
Drawing this sequence of copy and paste to a close, a final quotation is taken from Our World is Our Weapon (2000) by the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. It reads: “In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly more fair than the one in which we now live.” The evocative tone underlines the revolutionary spirit in which these words were first put on paper, and in which they are being re-mobilised here, out of context and for a different purpose. This displacement may seem naïve, amounting merely to an invocation of imagination and dreams as possible forms of resistance to the crushing hegemony of the internet. Yet in a political climate where these capacities are increasingly under threat from liberal apathy, this demand for radical utopianism also seems refreshing, hopeful and necessary.
Back in TextEdit, all these snippets of text are reformatted to Times font, size 18. Then Blas embarks on a lightning-quick process of find and replace: “contrasexualidad’ for “contrainternet’”; “capital,” “capitalism’” and “capitalist” for “internet”; “anti” and “non-” for “contra-”; “economy” and “economic’” for “network”; and so on. Stitching together a clear rallying cry from such eclectic statements, he demonstrates what contra-internet militancy as recombination might look like in practice. Following these preparations, the Le Tigre track is turned down, having been subtly edited into a Muzak-like instrumental from this point on. The whole text is then read aloud by a generic, garbled, American-accented, female-pitched computer voice for the remainder of the video. The delivery and intonation are clumsy but comprehensible, flattening the fervour that originally clung to these words and steamrolling their emphasis. As the video ends, the TextEdit file is saved as “‘utopian_plagiarism” within a subfolder of the “contra-internet” folder, and the video ends as Quicktime Player’s screen recording function is stopped.
Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 is the first of a series of three works, all short, screen-capture videos set to music that use different tactics to abandon or subvert the internet. The second work in the series, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #2: Social Media Exodus (Call and Response) (2015), shows Blas using Adobe Photoshop to erase images of his own, staged social media posts, Google searches and text messages. Done to the tune of The Cars’ 1981 hit “Since You’re Gone”, these images mostly contain declarations that express resistance to the internet as a legal clusterfuck. They both forcefully demand new rights – “I declare myself an anti-web and worker of the anti-web” – and reclaim the rights that we regularly forgo by signing up to the end-user license agreements that often police access to these platforms.
The third and final work in the series, Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #3: Modeling Paranodal Space (2016), is also the most abstract. It shows the modelling, rendering and eventual fracturing of animated, silver segments of “paranodal space” (the spaces that exist in-between the various nodes of a network) in the 3D animation software Maya. The simulation is based on a low-res image of a distributed network downloaded from Google Images at the start of the video. And it takes place to the tune of Joe Meek’s spacey “I Hear a New World” from the 1991 reissue of his 1960 album of the same name, giving the work a psychedelic quality. Just like the other two videos in the series then, this work proposes a speculative site, if not a means, of resistance to the internet as the dominant network form. For this purpose, music turns out to be just as important a tool as literary, visual and technical scripts: Meek’s longing for alien life elsewhere in the universe becomes a pining for different ways of living and interacting in the here and now.
To keep with Blas’s recombinatory aesthetics, perhaps the best user manual for Contra-Internet Inversion Practice #1 would be one lifted from José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia (2009). At the end of the book, Muñoz suggests that his writing on queer utopia“can ultimately be read as an invitation, a performative provocation. Manifesto-like and ardent, it is a call to think about our lives and times differently.” In the same spirit, Blas’s work pitches plagiarism and recombination as necessary forms of collective political action today. It encourages us to begin to imagine, desire and strive for alternative networks that can sustain alternative futures, harnessing the utopianism that is written into the manifesto as a literary form and updating it for the digital age.
On Saturday, December 1, Rhizome will premiere a new installation by legendary Dutch duo JODI at 322A Canal. This project follows their recent work for And/Or Gallery in Pasadena (pictured above) and Upstream Gallery in Amsterdam. Like those it will invite users to explore a unique Cartesian IRL space as well as an invisible URL dataspace. Visitors will traverse a bay on Canal Street, engaging with a bespoke structure and altered WIFI network.
At 12:30PM that day, JODI will discuss the project as part of a free public program at Anthology Film Archives. At 4PM, they will be at the space on Canal welcoming visitors. View the full schedule, along with access hours through December 7.
This project is presented as part of Screen Spaces, a multi-venue exhibition exploring the geography of moving image, organized by Vere van Gool for Rotterdam's Het Nieuwe Instituut. This program is made possible with support by the Consulate General of The Netherlands in New York. 322A Canal is part of ON CANAL by Wallplay. Rhizome's artistic program is directed by Michael Connor, with Aria Dean, assistant curator of net art.
Recently, JODI's Automatic Rain (1995) was presented as part of our Net Art Anthology initiative.
Rhizome would like to thank Vere van Gool, Het Nieuwe Instituut, Robert Kloos and the Consulate General of The Netherlands in New York, Wallplay, and Nick DeMarco.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Jonas Lund's I'm Here and There (2011) in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Eileen Isagon Skyers: Tell me about how you got started with programming and net art.
Jonas Lund: I was completing a bachelor’s degree in photography at the Rietveld in Amsterdam, and started programming websites for friends and classmates, because everybody needs portfolio websites. I realized photography as a medium in itself was very restrictive—like the apparatus of the camera is somehow the terminator for what the work should be.Then I discovered that you can make websites that are somehow works of art too.
I spent a lot of time in front of the computer, and it's a pretty lonely reality. You have social interactions, but it’s not really social if you don’t get to look anyone in the eyes, or get a reaction to what you say and do. So imhereandthere.com was a way to share that sense: I’m here, and you can be with me at the same time.
It was quite early on in the privacy discourse. That discourse continued when I created publicaccess.me, and Selfsurfing, which was an evolution of imhereandthere.com, except it was a Chrome extension. It cloned my router set-up so that you have all my tabs open and get a proper idea of what I am doing. That ran for a bit, and I decided to only activate it once it's exhibited, so it's been dormant.
In a way, it’s somehow the most accurate sensation that you should have while browsing.
EIS: Because everyone is being watched?
JL: Yeah. Our bodily response to the erosion of privacy should be as if someone is sitting on your shoulder or looking over your shoulder all the time. But you don’t feel it, so you don’t actually recognize that it’s horrendous.
EIS: Were there certain browsing behaviors you would avoid because of publicaccess.me?
JL: We all have different facets of ourselves that we want to expose or not. It's interesting to recognize that I didn’t think about the implications beforehand.
EIS: If this work was a criticism of data collection—a self-breaching of your own privacy—were there challenges to making art that critiques this kind of practice, using data itself?
JL: I think it's the only way to do it. Most of my work takes that position. Whether it’s the art world as a system, or an online system, it’s critiquing those power structures.
EIS: You use a lot of your work to bridge gaps between the author and the viewer, using dimensions like time and performance to allow them to sort of unfold in like a very participatory way. Can you talk about some of your motivations behind that?
JL: I think it comes down to agency and power, in some sense. It’s the fascination with, or the desire to understand, how systems function; how the systems are reached; how we form our beliefs. I can orchestrate certain scenarios and situations; not so much for being interested in the results, but rather, the act of participation itself. You can instill, or produce, this state of thinking about how systems function.
EIS: So putting yourself in that position allows you to become the orchestrator of sorts, and to question the system itself.
JL: Yeah something like that. I mean, I think one of the cleanest words in that regard is paintshop.biz. It was a shared canvas that everyone could paint on online. I design the system, set up all the rules. And within that framework there are lots of things performing. Part of the motivation behind a lot of my work is to remove myself from the scenario.
EIS: What do you think our data reveals about us? And then secondly, what do you think we would do if we were able to visualize that data if it was physically manifest in some way?
JL: In the end, it describes everything. That’s the sad nature of it. It takes the implicit and explicit traces you give off simply by participating online on social media. It’s the worst surveillance machinery ever created. Its ability to model your behavior is extremely precise, and it's terrifying.
Header Image: Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 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.
Ben Vickers: Throughout your work there exists an implicit and explicit challenge to assumed notions of the “natural”; whether that be in the entire construction of an existent island from online material, in Primal Tourism or the hybrid synthesis of real-time data flows and photographic textures ported into a simulated environment, in the case of Pando Endo.
Haraway once stated in her now epochal A Cyborg Manifesto“Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum [..] Cyborgs are ether, quintessence.” Could you speak to these “natural” antagonisms in your artworks, both in subject matter and their physical presence as matter in the world?
Jakob Steensen: My primary interest as an artist is how we psychologically and emotionally relate to the climate.
Ether has historically been used to think about everything from radio waves to gods, clouds and chemistry. I like the word because it has a ghost-like ring to it, and it can refer to something that appears both material and immaterial. In comparison, my projects are based on real world organic material, which I digitize with 3D scanners, photogrammetry, satellite terrain data and photos of organic textures I take while immersing myself in environments—often for months at a time. In the studio, I reassemble the virtual source material into new worlds that people experience in my exhibitions.
I show my virtual environments within larger physical installations, which mimic the ambience and material of the digital worlds. I do not see my work as purely digital, but as installations of landscapes where organic materials from the past meet the present, in physical and virtual forms. I am interested in how organic materials and infrastructures weave into our lives, and imaginations of our relationship to the world.
In Pando Endo, for example, I photographed several aspen trees across a mountain in New Mexico. What we perceive as individual trees composing a forest is, from a biological perspective, a single unified organism: the oldest and largest in the world. Aspen trees are clonal, so every tree you see in a given colony has identical DNA, and every tree is connected to a single ancient root system. In my studio I built an algorithm that remixed a number of my photographs of roots, bark, and moss of many aspen trees together into a single new structure shown as video and in virtual reality.
Primal Tourism, the other work you mentioned, is a digital construction of the entire island of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. To make the virtual world I sourced hundreds of images by visitors to the island, and from that material I created sceneries and locations on the island that people can explore through VR. In a sense, I built a reality sourced from tourists’ images of an island. When I show the artwork, the audience enter a physical space with wood, lights, sand, and postcards I made from screenshots of the virtual landscape. I think contrasting the physical and virtual locations makes it more immersive. I also make sure not to hide the technology used to run the art works. I want to emphasize that our perception of ecology today is informed by data and technology.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Pando Endo, 2017.
BV: This hybridization of technology and nature speaks very clearly of a type of synthesis in processes and materials that will only accelerate with the rise of biotechnologies and autonomous vehicles/entities intent on capturing, categorizing, and cataloging the world. I’d love to understand how this process evolved in your subsequent works?
JS:In Aquaphobia, which I made one year ago, I developed a virtual replica of Louis Valentino Park and Pier in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The digital reconstruction is inhabited by past plant and soil types, which were there before it was urbanized. In the piece, you follow a sentient water microbe reciting a poem around the landscape. The poem tells a story about how you, as the viewer in the VR headset, emotionally broke up with the landscape and the sentient water organism. To make the work I used satellite maps of the area, deep sea images of water microbes, and 3D scans of plants, soil, and rocks. As a result, the work appears fantastical and mystical, but it is de-facto composed of real-world digitized organic material.
The last time I exhibited Aquaphobia was in Trondheim for the Art and Technology Biennale. We had two tons of red clay, the same type that also existed historically in Brooklyn, dug up from an island near Trondheim and shipped to the exhibition space, RAKE. Visitors physically enter a space that mimics the virtual landscape of Aquaphobia, and the floor has the same materiality as Red Hook did in the past. It is interesting for me to work with this kind of geological, physical, and virtual displacement with enough room for the audience to feel that they are free to explore the real and digital landscapes.
When you take apart the concept of nature and reassemble it into something “cyborg” (to refer to your comment), then you open freedom to accept and explore new worlds and possibilities. To reference back to Haraway in your first question– I think Haraway gained popularity in contemporary art discourses after A Cyborg Manifesto because of how it abolishes classical dichotomies between nature/culture and technology/humans/emotions. When you move beyond the concept of natural, then you are free to rethink gender, ecology, technology, and these categories’ relationships with us. I’d like to think that I do this by literally collecting organic material, digitizing it, then rearranging it into new constellations. I think that we live in a time where technology and the climate transform at paces quicker than it is possible for the individual to truly perceive, and I hope that my work offers some form of new understanding of what it means to exist in a time where data and biology fluidly interconnect.
BV: In your early works there is a sense of isolation, at times desolation. In more recent work, this feeling seems to have transmuted into an exploration of loss or embodied grief. RE-ANIMATED, your latest work, sets out to answer the question, “How will future generations use virtual worlds to remember and experience species which have ceased to exist?”
How did you come to explore these questions personally, and what do you believe is at stake in answering them? RE-ANIMATED suggests the potential of revitalizing life lost, a resurrection, rather than purely memorializing something lost.
JS:My work started with a wide infrastructural angle and point of view in A Cartography of Fantasia (2015), a project made with the residency AADK in a desert of Spain. I spent two months driving around documenting the plant and animal life of derelict tourist infrastructures. I slept in a tent in ruins of desert resorts, immersing myself in the landscape. The fantasy of the landscape is a tropical climate, but it is, in its ecological reality, a red desert that has more in common with Northern Africa than tourist postcard visions of a beach landscape with a pool.
I realize that I have spent a big part of my life in relative solitude, working digitally, communicating with friends through computers, exploring landscapes through online worlds and so forth. Terratic Animism is a work from 2016 that specifically explores themes of isolation within grander technological and natural histories. To make the work, I spent two months exploring derelict energy infrastructures. My aim was to oscillate between something associative, personal, and discursive modes. I also showed Terratic Animism on video screens in Times Square for “Midnight Moment”. Sometimes something special happens when your solitary self meets with a large public space.
My new work RE-ANIMATED stems from real audio recordings of a bird that became extinct during the late 1980s. As data, the bird’s mating call lives on in a ghost-like condition. I heard the Kauai’O’o’s song two years ago on YouTube, and it has haunted me ever since. In the comments section I read thousands of burial memorials dedicated to the bird. The comments section almost became a form of altar, and with half a million views on YouTube, I started to imagine people sitting––like myself––staring in solitude at their monitor, looking for some sense of connection to a fleeting media world. The bird song also brings forth memories and emotions connected to past natural conditions. I think technological advancements, digital media and the internet, have transformed how we socialize, work and identify our individual relationships with our surroundings. However, the transformations have happened quicker than we can adapt. I wrote an article for Engadgeton this theme back in May.
RE-ANIMATED is my artistic way of adapting to new ecological and technological realities. It explores a new form of existence, where species can live on as data. Memories of the past are digitized and transformed into archives, which are accessible online. Some future generations may only be able to access natural parks through virtual reality.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, RE-ANIMATED, 2018. Installation View: Tranen Contemporary Art Center, 2018. Photo David Stjernholm.
BV: What you describe and capture in this work is intense and illustrative of a process of grief that it feels many have disengaged from. I am myself deeply sceptical of the efforts of de-extinction projects, as an extension of the ethos of techno-solutionism, but I recognize that a process of thinking through and engaging actively with the issue of extinction is a fundamental call in this moment. I wondered in thinking through these subjects whether there are thinkers or theorists that have had a particular influence on your own thinking?
JS: Writer Britt Wray recently visited my studio. She published a well-known book titled Rise of the Necrofauna in which she interviewed many of the leading scientists, organizations, corporations and universities engaged with de-extinction. We circled around the subject of de-extinction ethics, and like you, I am critical of it. However, as an artist I am interested in underlying cultural histories, which motivate preservation and de-extinction both. It is the deeper psychological aspects that interest me. De-extinction is a theme that characterizes the present, I think. We are faced with future techno-utopian scenarios, and dreams, as well as tales of complete species extinction.
Sociologist Anthony Giddens gave a talk titled “Between Immortality and Armaggeddon: Living gin a High Opportunity, High Risk Society” a few years ago, and it has influenced my thinking greatly. Curator Toke Lykkeberg pointed me towards it, and we opened my first institutional solo show at Tranen Center for Contemporary art this November 8. Giddens says that we either face certain future ecological doom, or a new reality unbound by the biological limitations and infrastructures of the past. The catch is, he says, that we have no past historical situation to fully mirror ourselves in and thereby assess the risks of future actions. As a result, we are unable to project into the future, and we currently exist in a kind of hazy middle ground. It is this middle ground that I want to explore with RE-ANIMATED.
Anthropologist Stefan Helmreich is also of interest to me, because of the way he transforms biological studies of deep sea microbes into fresh ways of perceiving how our individual lives are connected to oceanic biomass transformations. Jeff Vandermeer, the author of the Southern ReachTrilogy is also inspiring, primarily for his highly imaginative and wild descriptions of individuals, infrastructures, and ecosystems intertwining.
BV: The scale and ambition of the projects you undertake in your work necessitate the need for a larger team, whilst many artists these days have large studios, these studios are predominantly understood as being composed of workers, rather than a team working together collaboratively to realize a vision. Could explain how your recent projects are realized as a team, and how this practice is informed by your previous experience?
JS: I have worked in creative industries before, as a producer and as a lead 3D developer. Many friends in my network work on AAA games or for agencies and brands. This is an amazing global and vibrant community of people that I love, but I have also seen it lead to burnout.
What sometimes happens is that a director walks in with an idea and a deadline. A producer is hired to execute it, and a team of developers are hired to execute the director’s idea on a tight budget and deadline. When I do commercial projects, I operate within these kinds of structures. But it is a model that limits true creative technological exploration, and you are, occasionally, feeding the ego and brand of someone else. As an artist I am interested in offering an alternative.
When I work with people it is because of something they are already making, something they are experimenting with and would like to share. Right now, I am working with Michael Riesman, Musical Director for the Philip Glass Ensemble. With Philip he had created an algorithmic digital pipe organ that continually evolves. It sounds like classical music, but it is, in fact, never the same and the melody changes all the time. The feedback Michael got from a concert hall was that it was not “musical” enough. Having spoken with him for a few years, I invited him to further explore his technology and have it become part of RE-ANIMATED. As a result, we have a digital algorithmic pipe organ connected to virtual plants and moss which react to his music. He gets to freely unfold his creative vision for the technology, and he is entirely credited for his part.
I also worked with Andy Thomas, a very experiential developer in New Zealand. He travels the world on a small budget recording birds and converting them into stunning fluid simulations. I invited him to make one of the bird calls from the MP3 song of the extinct Kauai O’o. Another friend, Todd Bryant, is making voice and gaze reactive systems, so that in VR your breathing and eyes influence the virtual landscape. Todd is an amazing friendly person, who is a big part of the NYC VR community. Lykkeberg has been a major help to this project, and Jazia Hammoudi, my studio manager, who helps with everything from research to writing and project realization.
As an artist, I try not to be too tightly strapped into specific patterns of production to streamline my work, because I want to be able to develop worlds which appear fresh and imaginative each time. Rarely do I hire someone to simply solve a specific task for me or to execute my vision. I aim to let people who are doing experimental ecology-oriented media projects unfold their passion projects, as part of larger conversations and collaborations I organize through my practice.
For my solo exhibition at Tranen in Denmark, I worked with the Museum of Natural History in NYC and Harvestworks in Manhattan for audio development, as well as Unreal Engine, Houdini VFX, Max MSP and Bidule. I have established relationships with these companies, and my work is shared across developer forums and communities too. I have found an increased interest from commercial 3D companies to support artists. Lykkeberg and I got support from The Danish Arts Council, Bikuben Foundation and Mana Contemporary to realize the work. I was able to pay all involved and my own salary while making the project. I am interested in developing a structure that allows both myself and others to use technology to imagine, conceptualize, and share something that you cannot imagine until it comes into being. Like an infrastructure for radical imaginations expressed through immersive installations.
Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Terratic Animism (still), 2016.
BV: You have said that a key aspect of your work is an experiential slowing down, the development of a slow media. Could you speak to this desire and why you consider it to be important in this moment?
JS: It is not easy to create room for contemplation and appreciation in a digital culture today that structurally (and financially) survives on clicks, likes, and spectacular effects. I have spent the past three years developing a model that allows me to realize large-scale projects, which are imaginative and emphasize intuitive uses of technology. 3D models are handcrafted and hand painted (I digitally paint on 3D models with my own photographs of organic materials), audio is recorded in the field and remixed digitally, and I work with friends to develop experiential technologies. I use sensory tools and methods from first-person computer game worldbuilding. I spend 3-6 months building each world, and every texture and virtual effect is included to evoke sensations of humidity, dryness, cold, warmth, muddyness, and so forth. The ability to evoke memories in your body of different elements is attractive to me, and I prefer to provoke sensory reactions, rather than discursive or interactive ones. Working in a way that is slow, thoughtful, and meticulous has become important to me.
There is something to be said about persistence and depth in our time of speed, hype, and commercialization of everything. When you read a book you enter a form of reflective solitude, where words appear within your own head, but the words are shared by another human. That to me is a beautiful intimate relationship. In many ways, I think literature is the most radical art form of the century. I hope my slow worlds feel intimate to people, and I hope they have sensory dimensions able evoke curiosity and corporal presence.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I started to modify a video game called Unreal Tournament as a teenager. It is essentially the same software I use in my work today (Unreal Engine) in a more updated version.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I studied fine arts at Central St. Martins in London and art history in Copenhagen for my MA. My undergraduate degree is in visual culture and anthropology.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I am fortunate enough to make a living from my art. When I need to work on other things, I work as a level designer, environment artist, and art director for video games and virtual reality productions. Before that, I worked in phone sales and car parking, and I freelanced editing books, curating, and doing small cultural gigs. It is my aim to keep building an infrastructure as a studio, that allows me to collaborate and build imaginative worlds for people to experience.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Today, Rhizome and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) are pleased to announce a growing technical collaboration on Webrecorder's remote browser system to ensure sustained access to important interactive digital films and web-based artworks in the NFB's collection. A federal cultural agency within the portfolio of the Canadian Heritage Department, the NFB is a public producer and distributor of Canadian content. Webrecorder, a project of Rhizome, is an open source web archiving platform used to collect, store and share interactive captures of web pages.
The result of this partnership will be significant enhancements to Webrecorder such that it becomes an ideal tool for meeting the NFB's needs as it works to preserve more than 100 interactive web-based productions in its collection. Through this project, Canada's audiovisual legacy will be better preserved and safeguarded for generations to come, even in the midst of major changes in web technology such as the discontinuation of support for Adobe Flash Player, scheduled to occur in 2020. All users of Webrecorder will be able to benefit from the enhancements made through this collaboration.
Webrecorder remains the only free-to-use, open source web archiving platform of its kind and is hosted online at webrecorder.io. Software development is core to Rhizome's multi-tiered support of born-digital art and culture. Through this partnership, software developers at the NFB and Rhizome will enhance Webrecorder’s capacity to share fully interactive, high-fidelity archival copies of contemporary and legacy websites through emulation of fixed versions of popular web browsers. The NFB's collection of interactive works for the web can be viewed at nfb.ca/interactive.
The NFB will also be integrating web archives created with Webrecorder in its innovative, state-of-the-art Media Asset Management (MAM) system. Custom built in partnership with Atempo Digital Archive, the MAM manages the NFB’s massive digital-assets collection, comprising six Petabytes of content. The NFB/Rhizome collaboration will demonstrate how free, open source tools can be greatly improved through cooperative work and implemented to meet complex institutional needs such as those of the NFB.
The challenge of preserving the experience of the NFB's wide variety of interactive web projects initiated the collaboration between the NFB and Rhizome. Finding a means of archiving and replaying the interactive experience of a project initially conceived for the web is instrumental in the NFB's ongoing quest to push the boundaries of new technologies. The NFB R&D team has been working with Rhizome's Webrecorder team for over a year to achieve its preservation objectives for its entire collection of interactive productions for the web.
We'll look forward to sharing technical updates on this work at the Webrecorder blog. We're excited to develop Webrecorder further, and enhance access to NFB's important collection of born-digital art.
Image Above: Online and app artworks currently on view at nfb.ca