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Articles on this Page
- 11/29/17--08:29: _Eat Algae for Net Art
- 11/30/17--06:35: _Artist Profile: Rya...
- 12/01/17--09:50: _The Rum Diary
- 12/05/17--11:00: _Artist Profile: Jef...
- 12/07/17--12:00: _Design Updates on R...
- 12/08/17--05:00: _Rozendaal: The Path...
- 12/12/17--10:54: _The Scam of the Int...
- 12/13/17--10:34: _Being Content
- 12/15/17--09:42: _Growing Up Google: ...
- 12/19/17--10:01: _Morehshin Allahyari...
- 12/19/17--12:35: _Rhizome is Hiring a...
- 12/20/17--11:49: _New Black Portraitu...
- 12/20/17--21:51: _Christmas as a Service
- 12/22/17--06:12: _Watch: Jordan Wolfs...
- 12/28/17--07:09: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/29/17--07:00: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/29/17--14:29: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/30/17--00:00: _The Year in the Int...
- 12/31/17--08:50: _The Year in the Int...
- 01/02/18--09:12: _Left.gallery: Downl...
- 01/03/18--07:43: _Reinventing the Art...
- 01/04/18--10:00: _Towards a Postinter...
- 01/08/18--11:03: _Against the Suprema...
- 01/11/18--11:05: _Andrew W. Mellon Fo...
- 01/12/18--11:46: _“What Up Internet”
- 01/18/18--10:21: _School is an Alien ...
- 01/19/18--08:32: _Coming to America
- 01/23/18--07:21: _PST: Sound, Video, ...
- 01/29/18--13:32: _The Download #7: In...
- 01/31/18--07:27: _The Life Aquatic
- 02/01/18--06:54: _Artist Profile: Tab...
- 02/06/18--08:57: _An Open Call for In...
- 02/08/18--09:48: _Artist Profile: Nic...
- 11/27/17--08:47: _Report from the Sec...
- 02/09/18--12:51: _A Goodbye and a Hel...
- 10/17/17--06:33: _Welcome to Banana I...
- 10/24/17--11:34: _Open Call: National...
- 10/26/17--10:12: _An introduction to ...
- 11/01/17--07:27: _Digital Social Memo...
- 11/03/17--09:37: _Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: _Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: _Du Bois Machine
- 11/20/17--07:20: _Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: _Reconsider the Oyster
- 02/16/18--08:19: _YouTube, 2008: A Q&...
- 02/23/18--07:55: _Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: _On the “We” of Tran...
- 03/01/18--10:16: _The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: _“kick ascii acid”: ...
- 03/08/18--11:57: _Internet Yami-Ichi ...
- 11/29/17--08:29: Eat Algae for Net Art
- 11/30/17--06:35: Artist Profile: Ryan Kuo
- 12/01/17--09:50: The Rum Diary
- 12/05/17--11:00: Artist Profile: Jeffrey Alan Scudder (Jeffrey Heart)
- 12/07/17--12:00: Design Updates on Rhizome.org
- 12/08/17--05:00: Rozendaal: The Path to Abstraction
- 12/12/17--10:54: The Scam of the Internet Hustle
- 12/13/17--10:34: Being Content
- 12/15/17--09:42: Growing Up Google: An Interview with Martine Syms
- 12/19/17--10:01: Morehshin Allahyari to receive Rhizome Commission
- 12/19/17--12:35: Rhizome is Hiring a Senior Backend Developer (Full-Time)
- 12/20/17--11:49: New Black Portraitures: A Roundtable
- 12/20/17--21:51: Christmas as a Service
- 12/22/17--06:12: Watch: Jordan Wolfson in Conversation
- 12/28/17--07:09: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 1
- 12/29/17--07:00: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 2
- 12/29/17--14:29: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 3
- 12/30/17--00:00: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 4
- 12/31/17--08:50: The Year in the Internet 2017, Part 5
- 01/02/18--09:12: Left.gallery: Downloadable Objects, Blockchain, Bitcoin
- 01/03/18--07:43: Reinventing the Art Lab on the Blockchain
- 01/04/18--10:00: Towards a Postinternet Sublime
- 01/08/18--11:03: Against the Supremacy of Thought
- REANALYZING THE THOUGHT FETISH
- THE CONTEMPORARY
- THE END OF ART
- THE CONCEPTUALIST GAMBIT
- AN OAK TREE (1973)
- CARTESIAN DUALISM AND ANTIBLACK ANIMALIZATION
- THE VIOLENCE OF MODERNISM
- LAROCHE’S POST-ART
- BLACK RECLAMATION OF CRITICALITY
- 01/12/18--11:46: “What Up Internet”
- 01/18/18--10:21: School is an Alien Culture
- 01/19/18--08:32: Coming to America
- 01/23/18--07:21: PST: Sound, Video, and Copy Art
- 01/31/18--07:27: The Life Aquatic
- 02/01/18--06:54: Artist Profile: Tabita Rezaire
- 02/06/18--08:57: An Open Call for Internet Objects
- 02/08/18--09:48: Artist Profile: Nick Zhu / bod [包家巷]
- Socioeconomic precarity is foundational to my existence
- Urban-creative labor thrives on the socioeconomic precarity of myself and those like me
- 11/27/17--08:47: Report from the Second Annual Open Fields Conference
- Kate Crawford "Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem," The New York Times, June 25, 2016, found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/opinion/sunday/artificial-intelligences-white-guy-problem.html
- Open Fields 2017 Conference Website: http://festival2017.rixc.org
- 02/09/18--12:51: A Goodbye and a Hello from Rhizome HQ
- 10/17/17--06:33: Welcome to Banana Island!
- 10/24/17--11:34: Open Call: National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web
- 10/26/17--10:12: An introduction to New Black Portraitures
- 11/01/17--07:27: Digital Social Memory, Revisited
- 11/03/17--09:37: Warm Data
- 11/15/17--07:27: Utopian Mining
- 11/16/17--09:59: Du Bois Machine
- 11/20/17--07:20: Bostrom's Basilisk
- 11/22/17--10:46: Reconsider the Oyster
- 02/16/18--08:19: YouTube, 2008: A Q&A on the “Scandalishious” Restoration
- 02/23/18--07:55: Who is Jack?
- 02/27/18--10:42: On the “We” of Transmediale
- 03/01/18--10:16: The Ephemera Mine
- 03/02/18--09:47: “kick ascii acid”: A Q&A on the restoration of “VVEBCAM”
- 03/08/18--11:57: Internet Yami-Ichi at NADA Art Fair
Rhizome has teamed up with nonfood–a collaborative artistic platform-cum-futurefood outfit–to create a year-end artists’ multiple.
Working in New York this fall at the Food-X accelerator, the nonfood team–Sean Raspet, Lucy Chinen, Dennis Oliver Schroer, and Mariliis Holm–developed an algae-based, carbon-neutral nutrition bar, the nonbar, which launches today.
Make a donation of $16or more to Rhizome between now and December 31 to receive a special edition of nonbar, shipped for free anywhere in the US. (Or, renew your membership!) Proceeds will go to the Rhizome Commissions Fund, which supports the production and presentation of new work.
Created by Chinen, the Rhizome edition of nonbar is dedicated to Soviet space dog Laika, who traveled aboard Sputnik 2. Although Laika’s story is a tragedy, the Soviet space program’s research into algae as a food source for space explorers like her was an important source of inspiration for nonfood:
Algae – a food source originally developed for space flight – is now something that can help re-balance the human impact on earth. Algae uses a only the fraction of the resources of any other food: algae can use one one-hundredth of the amount of resources of plant products and one one-thousandth of animal products. It’s extremely fast growing, but also densely nutritious: high in protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and omega-3s to name a few.
When algae goes from non-food to food we will live on a healthier, cleaner, and more interesting planet.
The Rhizome nonbar will also be on sale in the New Museum Store beginning Saturday, December 2.
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.
Ryan Kuo, Tables of Content, excerpts from HTML iframe, 2017.
Celine Katzman: Much of your work is engaged with diagram and table making, visual mapping of ideological structures. Your essay in Art Journal Open, “In Submission,” begins a three-part series that addresses the broader ways in which publishing content online requires submitting to the politics inherent to its design protocol. What compels you to build tables and develop content in a medium that you already know can only frame it incorrectly?
Ryan Kuo: This is my basic experience of America. It has framed me incorrectly, and more importantly, has done so with a particular insistence. I think I'm responding to the absoluteness of the American frame. I'm not bothered by the act of framing, because it's necessary. I am always framing and reframing myself with endless micro-variations on the same terms. It's the cultural drive for the frame to be correct, whether by design or through belief, that I am pushing against. Like needing to close a deal so hard that it becomes a vacuum of possibility. Being here, in America, means being overwhelmed by this white elephant that takes up almost all the space in the room and says, "Well, I don't want to step on your toes."
I have a process of diagramming momentary thought patterns in my notebook and then forgetting them. The act of getting down the arrangements is more important to me than the use value they are meant to have. I feel very apathetic toward archives and systems, for the reason I just described. When it comes to software, I'm more invested in the approach than in any sense of finality. My foundations are in music and video, so once I understand how the basic actions of a program can allow me to develop a sequence, I'm into it. At the same time, I'm struck by how arbitrary and slightly desperate it feels when a software program is trying to empower you. The operations are so removed from the creation. I find this motivating and truthful. I usually learn the software just well enough to see how the thing can begin to take form, but not so well that I forget to let the form break down. I guess I've been developing an aesthetic out of the inevitability of discarding a given construct.
I had no interest in tables when I started planning Tables of Content. It was supposed to be the "practice" portion of a three-part series for Art Journal Open, bookended by two pieces of writing. I didn't have an idea for the series until my editor told me that it could be "anything, as long as it works in WordPress." I thought that was an amazingly self-defeating statement that resonated with my personal life. At the time, I was mapping out my frustrations with the post-election discourse happening on my feed, which was kind of like a balloon party where each balloon held one earth-shattering line about America or empathy or freedom that would be discarded as soon as the balloon was popped. I decided to build the whole project out of HTML tables, because tables are perfect for manipulating ideas about containerization and white space, and because HTML tables are a very unfriendly format. The code for an HTML table doesn't look anything like a table, and it feels horrible to write the definition of a table one line at a time. But I needed to go through an extremely slow process. Copying and pasting the HTML tags into nonsensical yet coherent arrangements didn't feel dissimilar from the way we rearrange and reject our own stated positions in public and in private.
Ryan Kuo, Family Maker, screenshot of macOS application, 2017.
CK: Watching you demo your in-progress Mac OS Application, Family Maker, really moved me. The juxtaposition of the too-familiar Apple UX patterns with such emotionally vulnerable content was jarring. Has building Family Maker been a therapeutic or anxiety-inducing experience? Have you learned anything new about family structures and relations by building and playing with Family Maker? Have you shared it with your family and if so, how did they react?
RK: Thank you. I have no conscious intention of moving anyone, but I'm glad that I did. I was trying to think about why, and realized that I indirectly revealed personal things to you without offering specifics. Maybe that is obvious to anyone who sees a screenshot of the program, but it wasn't clear to me until now. Family Maker is a Mac application about my family, but it's objectively just a working idea of a family, populated by windows, albeit with names like Ego and Trauma that can't help but prompt association-making. The names had to be big because the UI elements inside the windows are working on pixel scale. Maybe the work seems personal because I outlined the shapes, but didn't fill them with details. Maybe you reflexively filled in a vivid backstory, drawing on your own memory. That is what I would like this work to do for people.
The process of building the work is more therapeutic than the work itself. I have to triangulate these themes through a medium that is drained of affect, like Mac windows, because they are hard for me to look at directly. There is so much gray in the Mac interface. I also love wearing gray clothes, and I recently saw an article about how gray has been appearing in fashion as a reaction to uncertain times. I think I'm going for increasingly cold and technical formats in my recent work because I want to express deeper feelings than before, when the works were closer to resembling extended tantrums. It's by playing and unfolding against such unfeeling structures that the feelings begin to approach their real intensity.
Because the tool I'm using to build Family Maker is a runtime editor, meaning that I build the application as I use it, I've experienced it as a way of diagramming family dynamics while also tentatively playing them out. I have to be careful not to accidentally write an infinite loop or delete a line of code, because this breaks the application and there's no undo. It's not unlike how I approach my family, which can feel like a tightly coiled routine. Where it becomes meaningful for me is when the program feeds back an unexpected order of events. I script the behaviors as I go along, and don't think as much about the entire network. So when I name a window Love, I immediately think to connect it to Mother. But Mother becomes connected to Guilt, which Son can affect through Control. When Son exerts too much Control, Mother will go away, leaving Guilt behind, and Love has also changed. I keep layering these simple mechanics, and because they are so limited, I can only read the outcome in a poetic way. I don't learn anything from it, because the knowledge is emergent and not secure. It's always being made. Anyway, I doubt I can share this with my family.
CK: You work remotely as a technical writer and much of your practice involves working on a laptop. Do you long for physical workspace or do you prefer having a mobile studio? What is fascinating about the office to you?
RK: I do have a physical workspace. It takes up a corner of a coworking facility, and I go there with my laptop. I like having a dedicated space, but there is a pallor of authenticity in coworking that I will never live up to. Everyone there has chosen specifically to cowork for a particular intersection of their own reasons. I don't know what my reasons are. I don't think of it as an office, because to me an office has a copier and typing sounds and a carpet. In the coworking space, I can hear a 3D printer and the crickets that my neighbor has been farming.
I guess I like offices because the alienation is built in. I know that they are traumatic spaces. I've had office jobs where all kinds of psychic violence was being conducted over Outlook chimes. But I'm comforted that everyone in an office knows they are performing, and that our own selves are kept somewhere else.
Ryan Kuo, File, hypertext and software box, 2016 - ongoing.
CK: File is an ongoing process-based work consisting of a hypertext essay that provides technical documentation of your artistic process, along with a collaborative wiki for problem resolution. The user maneuvers through the wiki by performing actions on the File, navigating its structure, and completing tasks. Further, File is an edition of 100. Each edition may produce a unique set of user interactions, a singular performance over time.
What sort of data or input are you collecting from File’s users? How are the actions performed by its users shaping the evolution of File over time? What do you hope users will gain from their continued experience interacting with File?
RK: At this time, the File does not collect user data. Although it is written as a technical document, and presented as a service, File is an imaginary rather than data-driven project. I've taken this carefully objective style of writing, which comes directly from my day job, in order to decenter myself from my process. It's not a literary act, more an extremely long piece of notation that I maintain online.
File began as a record of my thinking process, which spilled out of a wordplay on “file,” which is a noun and a verb. You file a file (in a file). Each page documents one idea that is cut off from the whole. Hyperlinking these pages produces a circular, iterative movement of ideas that erase and regenerate each other, frame by frame. I would like to think that this movement is an autonomous entity that no longer embodies my process. But because it moves on clicks, it means that the user has to be somehow absent. I reach something like this state when I'm blindly clicking on Amazon and App Store links. The user experience must be about absenting oneself into the logic of the File. It needs a lot more work. Iin terms of data, one planned update will add new functionality that captures and prints out a user's filing history, to help substantiate what I just wrote.
CK: File is its own documentation, but it is also an unfixed, living document with multiple timelines of interactions existing simultaneously with respect to each edition, making it difficult to file by design. Are you archiving past versions of File as you update it and expand its capabilities? If so, how?
RK: The File lives on a GitHub repository where each of my updates is archived with a timestamp. Because I use Twine to write and compile the File, the updates are totally nonsensical to me. When I look at the source, it's just an undifferentiated wall of script. This is probably disappointing to the couple of coders and net artists who own the File and recognize that I don't know what I'm looking at.
As you say, the File is meant to be hard to file, and this also applies on my end. I don't care about the version history, only what I can see in the present. I think of versioning as it occurs in dancehall music: endless variations on a theme that is heard in passing as one version becomes another. When I write in vertical formats like this profile, I feel pressure to funnel my ideas into a hierarchy, even though the links between statements don't necessarily make sense. I feel I can be more honest about this when I write laterally across a network, where the structure emerges from redirecting rather than directing the connections.
Name: Ryan Kuo
Location: New York, NY and Cambridge, MA
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Probably age five when I'd use the family computer to compose rhymes about dogs and cats. Otherwise I gave a lot of time to hitting things with sticks until the sticks broke.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? I studied art history and learned photography at Harvard, was briefly in medical school, and finished a graduate program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT in 2014.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I've been an editor in different contexts. I'm always just fixing sentences. I used to write about video games for different publications, and I was the editor at KILL SCREEN for a few years. Now I do API documentation for a cloud platform. I don't know.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots, please!)
This interview accompanies the presentation of Hell in Lamb UC as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Pedro Vélez, Hell in Lamb UC, 2003-2007
Simone Krug: How did Hell in Lamb UC start? What was the impetus?
Pedro Vélez: I wanted to use MySpace as a platform to create a narrative about Hunter S. Thompson's book, The Rum Diary. I also took characters from the other stuff that I was making in 2001-2003 and applied these characters and ideas in a freeform narrative about the book.
I've always been interested in journalism, so it had to do with whether the facts presented in the book were facts or not. The MySpace piece was a way to debunk the idea that Hunter S. Thompson spent more than six months in Puerto Rico. It was also about the idea of the colonizer exploiting the island and its resources to write his own book of fantasies and how he could get away with it.
SK: Hell in Lamb UC was both the name of the broader project and also the name of one of the four fictional characters in the MySpace work. You had four different accounts and you created this narrative in which different individuals would communicate with one another so that it became a theatrical, almost staged play taking place on the internet. Could you expand on how the project worked?
PV: I tried to have these four fictional characters on MySpace talk to each other via each other's walls. When you read the text they were like riddles. You had to figure out what they were trying to say.I had four different email accounts with different pictures to produce each profile. I had to log into one account, post whatever I needed to post, close that email, go to the next email, and then post other information.
SK: What was appealing to you about MySpace as a platform compared to what else was available, like Livejournal or Facebook (accessed only by users with an @edu account at the time)? Was it MySpace’s ubiquity and popularity?
PV: It was easy to use. You could post any type of image or video. I was making photographs and posters that had a specific look that MySpace’s aesthetic was close to. It was also very gossipy. People wouldn’t write on a wall, it was just a journal where you wrote personal stuff. I found that idea of a personal journal that everybody could look at interesting. I was interested in the voyeuristic interface.
I had previously worked online in collaboration with other people during the very slow dial-up era. You would send an email or you would write on a message board, and somebody would send me an image to post on our fan zine online, and it would take three hours to upload. And then the text took another day. I used MySpace as a tool because it was really fast. I liked the immediacy. Within journalism, you knew it was going to change the idea of writing. I thought about how those platforms could develop, or how they could be useful for what I was trying to do as an artist.
SK: Did Hell in Lamb UC belong to a larger body of work that you were making at the time? Or ideas about social media performance that you were thinking about then or think about today as an artist?
PV: Around 1997-1999 I made fake TV shows I called Fake Shows. There were invitations for events that only existed on a postcard with an email, no address. But that was limited and I wanted to reach a wider audience. Then things like MySpace came along and then I was looking for free access to a platform to exploit those ideas in a larger context. It was all related. In 2001 I also curated an online show for Gerald Davis hosted on GeoCities. These were drawings made for this one particular show, which took a week to set up because it was still dial-up. I had somebody writing the code because I'm not a computer whiz. We would also go to this message board page for criticism in Chicago called the FGA. As technology got better and you could upload stuff faster, it evolved rather quickly. It was a natural progression. I also distributed soundtracks and sound shows through the internet.
Postcard for “Drawings,” online exhibition hosted on Geocities (2000).
Postcard for a Fake Show, 1999. Limited edition of 3,000 distributed freely in 1999 with the economic support of John T. Belk
SK: Like the flyers for the fake art shows and the performances, the idea of fiction—playing with ideas that are real and not real, seems instrumental in your work. You’ve also called Hell in Lamb UC a “faux over faux” multimedia piece. Could you tell me more about the main characters—Hell in Lamb UC, Ann Lee, Staged Metal Party, and Hunter S. Thompson (sometimes called "Hunter God FS").
PV: Hunter Thompson was the writer but instead of Thompson it's just God. It's a joke but it also comes from Godfuck. I think I heard that in a movie. The whole idea of Ann Lee as a character was in response to Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huygue’s Ann Lee project. I came up with Staged Metal Party because I did this party at my place in Condado in San Juan every Friday where I would ask guests if they would allow me to take photographs. We would make flyers, but the idea was to photograph people having fun and partying, not wasted.
SK: There was this particular party aesthetic in the mid and early 2000s when digital cameras became smaller and people were able to photograph the party scene. I’m familiar with these images from New York and Los Angeles. Were you working along those lines within the same aesthetic?
PV: Yes, but in my work this wasn’t straightforward, there was a lot of sarcasm. So when you look at the Staged Metal Party page, you'll see that I adjusted the colors of the MySpace page to the colors in the photograph. And at the time I used this tiny Sony camera. The Staged Metal Party character also had to do with glam metal band Ratt member Robin Crosby, who died of an overdose but also had AIDS. I tried to portray the hangover of the party as a guilt trip about his death. Heavy metal was over. It was a different era. I tried to depict that washed out feeling of those ’80s bands and the excess and decadence but then also the feeling of sadness. My parties were never really about having a perfectly good time. I tried to include politics in that character.
SK: What about Hell in Lamb UC? Where does that name come from?
PV: In my cultural context on the island of Puerto Rico, the lamb represents us as a people, colonized by the Spaniards and then by the Americans. The idea of innocence, Catholicism, ritual, and the lamb of god. Lamb UC also references college party culture. I've always used the UC or a font which looks like university. I did a show in Miami in 2003 with Hell in Lamb UC as the title. That's also when I used the character Ann Lee for the first time, when I make the comparison to college party culture. And to me the blabber used by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe to justify their purchase and exploitation of the Ann Lee character was easy to deconstruct, which was accepted in the art world like a fact or a fashionable justification for the project. I'm glad I stuck with it because now people have condemned their work.
SK: Many of the images of women in this project are disturbing. What did you use to make these women look like they've been abused and what is the reference?
PV: It's acrylic paint. In Hell in Lamb UC, it refers to Chenault, one of the main characters from The Rum Diary who is raped and abducted by a guy from the island. The protagonist, who I'll guess is Hunter, suffers for a few pages but doesn't really care or try to find her. For him she was a hassle. Chenault is the alter ego or the subconscious voice of Ann Lee within those two characters on the MySpace page.
SK: How does this work exactly?
PV: One character already has the experience of being abducted and exploited and she tries to tell Ann Lee. The way I see it, she's almost like a therapist. But we're speaking about art. I cannot give you a clear, concise idea of what I was trying to do because I'm pretty sure I wasn't even aware of what we were trying to do half of the time.
SK: Did you get feedback in which people had specific issues with these pieces? Obviously these images of abuse are disturbing. Did people push back against them?
PV: I saw this image of the beat up woman as critique of commercial advertisement and society and their standards of beauty. I understand now and accept that some of it was problematic in the beginning. I did not get much pushback at that time. But also it was because at that time the people who would review my work were mostly men. Those are still the images of straight male desire. It was later on that I was criticized and people asked me questions about this work. Not at the time, though.
SK: But you see them differently with the perspective and distance of time now?
PV: Oh yeah. And I have taken some out of circulation, I have destroyed work of that time which I don't think fit the idea or the critique that I was trying to make. I have removed the ones that are more exposed. Or if the model asked me to not show those images again.
SK: How were these works shown? There's the Hell in Lamb UC poster from 2005 that was a physical, tangible object, but did most people see them from home on MySpace or did you print them out and exhibit them in gallery spaces?
PV: Online it was mostly a gossipy thing. The photographs are from real people who knew other people who posed for the photographs. But a lot of the comments and a lot of the riddles actually led to events or facts. I was commenting on the scene in New York or Puerto Rico so it wasn't all fictional. You have to figure out the riddle.
SK: That's so inscrutable and enigmatic. It's interesting that some of the narratives here reference real events or real things happening in the art world.
PV: I would send announcements every month whenever I would change the content and I worked really hard to have people look at it constantly, to make it go viral.
SK: How would you get people to come to the site?
PV: Send emails, post photographs, send flyers, the basic thing one does to promote a show. But instead of giving you all the information, people would see a photograph of this art dealer sleeping on a bed almost naked. And then you would see that image on one of the characters’ pages, and then things spread like fire. In galleries, I would show the posters. When you see each image on the MySpace page, it’s an actual photo file piece that's not just online. I would make banners, fan zines, and flyers for the exhibitions. We tried to have a computer at the space, but it wasn't personal so I opted to announce the project on a simple flyer on the wall as an art piece and then have people go to the MySpace page instead of setting up the computer in the gallery. That's not the experience that I wanted. I wanted people to interact as if it was gossip.
SK: Could you speak more about being a male in your thirties, an older demographic and age group to be using MySpace at a time when so many people on the platform were teenagers. Was there ever a moment where you felt this age gap or difference and did that have any effect on your work?
PV: I was not on MySpace to produce a personal journal or to cry to the camera. I also needed to adjust certain looks and certain colors and certain ways of speaking to that type of demographic. I wouldn't be able to make a sarcastic or ironic Staged Metal Party profile or persona anymore. I didn't know all the people at the party at the time, but I couldn't do that today. Technology has changed so quickly that I wouldn't have the time to study the aesthetic of new platforms. Right now, I'm interested mostly in politics and the economic downfall of Puerto Rico.
SK: Let's transition and speak more about Ann Lee, the Japanese Anime Ann Lee character which Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno bought the rights to, retired, and then killed. You've made works that argue for her life. This quote is apt: "You cannot kill Ann Lee, she is alive in Puerto Rico. Go fuck yourselves." How did you get involved with that particular narrative?
PV: It had to do with Elián González, the young child who was brought over to the US by his mother who later died and he was abducted by the US government to be returned to Cuba. At the same time these two European artists bought the rights to another child, Ann Lee. These were two children that were put in the public eye, where people made decisions about them. To me that was exploitative, it was also tied to colonization and to race because the macho men are the ones from Latin America, not the European guys. Likewise with Elián González, they are Cuban. His dad wanted him back but this rich Cuban philanthropist living in the US wanted to keep Elián in the US. It was trouble over children between those two different worlds. It was troublesome to me that our politics could determine the lives of certain people, especially in the case of Elián.
I know I'm speaking about Ann Lee as if she is a real person like Elián, although she’s a character. But the art world was invested in it. The issue had to do with morality. As an artist, you participate in society. When I go to my studio, I don't become neutral. I'm always the same person I am in my studio or outside of the studio. So I just simply don’t agree with the fact that artists live in this separate world which is devoid of morality or value or politics. So I would make that connection between those two children.
SK: Honing in on Ann Lee, Heather Warren-Crow writes that you critique the Eurocentrism and neo-colonialism of Huygue and Parreno’s works. And there's obviously the stereotype that she also discusses of white French men buying, animating, and then killing this Japanese Manga girl character, which is a way of silencing her. How did you play with or try to subvert that idea in making her a character in the Hell in Lamb UC MySpace piece? Or do you reject that idea?
PV: When I made the original image of Ann Lee in the poster, I was essentially saying she's on this island in the Caribbean, she's fine. I was creating psychological space for her for people who would look at the piece. I didn't have and I still don't have the economic power to liberate her. But I did have a moral voice back then and I still do. In the end, though I become part of the problem.
That poster, that image will never be sold. For the Whitney piece, it was a reminder going back to my original work, saying Ann Lee is alive and well in Puerto Rico. Now she has a family and here she is. I think the critical discussion about Ann Lee that finally happened a couple years ago that comes from women in the field changes the perspective. At that time it was mostly guys writing in the main media and art magazines. Things have changed and now we have more writers of color, more access, more gender diversity. I think that the battle is going to be won. Not in terms of liberating the idea of Ann Lee or the concept, or taking back those rights. There's a discussion that exists, which didn't have the same visibility ten years ago.
SK: Why do you transform this manga cartoon into a real girl? What's real here and what's supposed to be fake
PV: It's hard to gather. The Ann Lee in the MySpace is not the same Ann Lee from the original photograph of Ann Lee. That's why she might look younger. That was my artistic freedom. That was a decision I had to make because, at that time, the original photograph of Ann Lee was my girlfriend.
SK: Which Ann Lee is which? There’s the Ann Lee Lives picture from 2003, which is a photograph with the text for Huygue and Parreno. And then there's also the Ann Lee character within the Hell in Lamb UC MySpace project, right? And they're different.
PV: They're both supposed to be Ann Lee, but in terms of aesthetic decisions when I made the MySpace piece I couldn’t ask her for permission to use her photograph on the MySpace page. And then the Ann Lee from the Whitney, which is the same Ann Lee from the original photograph, I encountered again about ten years later and then I had permission to photograph her again.
SK: By implicating this character into your work, what were you trying to save her from? And why were you compelled to insert her into the social media, social networking, site of MySpace specifically?
PV:. All these online projects came about because I either wasn't allowed to publish certain writings or because there just wasn’t enough space for me to talk about these things in a magazine. How could people be saying that this Ann Lee was a conceptual masterpiece when there's all these ethical problems with the piece? How come nobody sees that these are two grown men buying a girl, a child? And for people to be claiming that it’s a conceptual masterpiece. MySpace was great to send out signals and S.O.S. For me, it was about justice.
SK: Heather Warren-Crow both praises your Ann Lee work and is critical of it. She writes that for you as well as for Huygue, Parreno, and their collaborators, Ann Lee is understood as a void that is receptive to new narratives. So these two white European men take this character and kill her, but then at the same time you go back and try to save her. What do you make of Warren-Crow’s critique?
PV: I wasn't surprised. Those photographs were stereotypes of certain imagery even though I was trying to be critical. I was trying to critique societal standards, morality and the economics behind the production of propaganda. I don't feel Warren-Crow was unfair, either. I think she made very important observations regarding patriarchy and gender which I couldn’t fully see from my privileged position, that of a young artist, back then, and I have applied and even corrected some of that ignorance in my practice. It was great criticism on her part. But also I think when she wrote the book she didn't get to see its completion in the Whitney and she never experienced my Twitter projects which came after that.
SK: Why did you move away from internet-based work and was Hell in Lamb UC your only foray into what one might call a net-based piece?
PV: I don't stick to one medium. At one point I made conceptual art, and in the beginning I made paintings and did printed ephemera, and then I was a critic for a long time. With the 2014 Whitney show I shut down that chapter of posters and photographs. Now I'm back into painting. And there's different reasons for that, but they have to do with this moment in my career. They have to do with the market. Or what can I produce so I can sell so I can pay the bills. It’s not that I don't love painting,but what I need to say now, in Trump’s era, is better digested with painting.
At the moment I’m working on a series of large paintings that also incorporate photography, dealing with the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of the 1920s) which is a regulation imposing punitive fees and taxes to any foreign ships entering our waters and ports. This regulation has been one of the many ills affecting our economic development and was the source of renewed controversy during Trump’s tragic visit to Puerto Rico after María. It is worth noting that my original name in Twitter when it began was Jones District, so we’ve come full circle.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.9.8.18.25, 2017.
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.
Simone Krug: So much of your work is concerned with the idea of the infinite or its opposite, the finite space of the limited, the never-ending picture plane, the canvas you can zoom into continuously, where you're sent deeper and deeper into the pixel. You've talked about coming to terms with the limits of the system and using it as if it's an instrument. In some works, you hide the edges so you can draw across a single drawing as if it were many. How do these ideas inform your work?
Jeffrey Alan Scudder: In my work, I consider three ways of making a picture. They're related to the scale of the viewer and maker in relationship to the scale and quantity of their media. We can give them each a name: the arrangement, the mark, and the scan.
Imagine that you’re on a beach. You collect some small rocks. You can place these on the ground to create a picture of a smiley face or “X marks the spot” or something like that. You can reset the rocks into as many configurations as you like. This is the level of the arrangement. Graphic and interior designers often prefer to work this way. Here we get the idea of something being done, undone, and redone.
Find a dry area of coarse sand. You can make marks in the sand with your finger. This is the level of the mark. We use this level of picture making for everything from handwriting to mathematics and architectural planning. It is at this level that we get the idea that something can be erased.
Walk along the water where the sand is wet and smooth. Look down by your bare feet. Do you see the impressions they make? Not only can you make out your toes in detail, but you didn’t even decide to make a picture in the first place. It happens automatically. This is picture making at the level of the scan. It’s here that we obtain the idea of surveillance and deletion. We use this level for everything from photography to fingerprinting.
Just Another System, AMS Resolution Diagram, RISD.
Regardless of the universe being finite or infinite, the higher the density of your media, the more you are able to scan. The lower the density, the more you are able to arrange. Note here that scanning is biased towards recording existing things, and arrangement is biased towards inventing new things. Mark making sits somewhere in between.
Arrangements are very portable. For example, I can say: “Collect ten rocks, this one goes here, this one goes there, this one goes next to that one…” The instructions can persist over time as a score or a recipe. But with a scan or photograph, there's so much information, I can't conveniently give you all the instructions on how to reproduce that thing. Instead, the information must be stored on some recordable medium, like soft clay or hard disk. The scan can be deleted and never retrieved! It is a fragile thing. Whereas the arrangement approaches infinity in its durability, the scan approaches infinity in its resolution or fidelity.
SK: Are there specific works where you think about that idea of the infinite more broadly?
JAS: Computers are actually very limited in their capability, but they are great at illustrating the infinite. The Dot, this one piece of software that I've been performing with, is all about this.
Dot Demo & Tumpin Trailer: July 2017 (https://tumpin.left.gallery).
In most creative software, you have sliders and controls; there's a range between a minimum and a maximum. For example, we often pick RGB values by sliding virtual handles from 0 to 255. In Photoshop, you can pan across an image, but then you can shift the image off the screen so you don't see it anymore. There is a keyboard shortcut to get it back into your view. You can zoom in and out, but only so far in each direction. And further you can only go in one direction, until you can’t any longer. Then you have to go backwards. With the Dot, I avoid this interface pattern entirely. I turn every control into a circular loop, so that you can slide in one direction continuously and eventually return to where you started. It's a visual trick, but I think it's an important trick because it creates a more fluid, user-friendly idea of navigating an image. Computers are great at looping! The Dot was also used to record my recent picture Tumpin, a continuously cycling system of 128 dot arrangements.
Screenshot from tumpin.org.
In my digital paintings, I like to define some spatial and durational limits before drafting. A digital painting is a record of interactions, stored in a visual frame.
SK: Let’s talk about recording. You've noted in the past that you see drawing as a form of documentation. Can you elaborate on your interest in the idea of your pictures as a record, or of your paintings as a recording?
JAS: I recently read this book Painting Beyond Itself. It opens with a short essay by David Joselit, “Marking, Scoring, Storing and Speculating on Time,” about artists whose practices hold responses to the question of painting as record. He says that “At least five formats may be identified for scoring painting’s circulation, each with roots in the history of modernism.” One is that series or ensembles of works may eclipse the individual or unique painting. Another is that the delegation of mark making is done through various technological apparatuses. A third, that painting is made performative. The fourth, that images are made to ebb and flow in and out of pictures, which is what occurs in animation or visual software. Lastly, that painting might be staged as a souvenir of life, where the picture becomes a piece of evidence for some primary event. For example, Joseph Beuys gave chalk talk lectures and those blackboards are now hanging in museums.
Something a bit more radical to consider is that painting is just one genre in the vast field of visual documents. In other words, what makes somebody look at an image file and think of it as a painting (or digital painting) as opposed to something else like a screenshot, photograph, or render? To think radically about painting today is to be acutely aware of how a painting may be identified as such in the set of all possible images. One identifier is visible evidence of mark making.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 126.96.36.199.59, 2016.
SK: So much of the history of painting throughout art history is about hiding that. About not really showing marks.
JAS: The game of hiding labor is still being played in other fields like computer graphics, video games, and virtual reality. If a Hollywood movie switches from a live actor to a computer-generated one in the same scene, that's where they're still trying to hide things. That’s where they're trying to hide their labor by making the transition seamless and passable.
I look at the iPhone and I think, where’s the work that went into this thing? Which part was made by machine and which part was hand-assembled? The labor is invisible. Even on the software side, when I call for a car or when I post something online, I don't know exactly what the servers are working on. It's a black box scenario. My phone uses the energy in its battery, but it also uses energy from the wireless network and from the software companies who provide me with their services. Today we have this whole global ecosystem that works to hide evidence of labor in its products and processes. Painting is a device that shows labor.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.11.25.11.06, 2017.
SK: In contrast to painting with paint, you have infinite material when you work with a screen or when you work on a digital painting. How do you think about quality control with that in mind?
JAS: Digital painting comes with its own set of material limitations, usually in the form of environmental constraints like the programmed capabilities of the software you are using (a big one for me, obviously!), the number of representable colors in your output, the amount of memory or processing power available in your system, its battery life or portability. In practice, you have an infinite amount of “paint,” but a limited amount of time. I would say that you should keep everything, regardless of quality, because it is your time that's the most limited, and secure storage space, even for large work, is very cheap when compared to canvas.
SK: It seems you're more of a Marxist than you realize.
The PRBAT Start Screen.
SK: The Polygon Replicating Bitmap Authoring (PRBAT) tool was meant exclusively for your use. In other software, you think about others or a remote public use mode. How do you engage with the idea of user friendliness and how do you think about who your users might be?
JAS: When I did the PRBAT project I was also learning programming and I wanted to make my own tool for myself. I was not thinking on the level of having other users. Design-wise, when you're only thinking about yourself, you might make something really unusable for others, that nobody else wants or needs. You may even forget how to use it as time goes on, but maybe you can do interesting things with it that you couldn’t do if you were thinking of others first. The drawings that I've made with the PRBAT have been enjoyed by those who viewed them, and a good number of people have been inspired by the software, even though they don't use it. The PRBAT was certainly meant for me, but there's also an instruction manual built in.
User-friendliness is interesting because it’s a moving target in relation to programming literacy. More and more people are learning programming today. As literacy increases in the population over time, our software should become less “user-friendly” in today’s terms. If everyone’s a programmer, then our idea of user-friendliness changes. For example, we’d probably expect most software to expose a programmable interface by default. Regardless, when you design for other people you have to think of their needs. Sometimes you have to simplify things to make them more communicable.
SK: Is there a specific work that comes to mind when you talk about this? Maybe the first work you made for other people?
SK:How does that one work?
JAS: You use the phone to point at things in space and then you draw a mark to reveal or freeze part of the camera frame. You can collage with it. Because the phone’s interface is very limited, the tool only does one thing, whereas most of the work that I made prior to that had a lot of keyboard shortcuts and was a little more tailored to my specific interests. Usually the software I make will explore all the facets of an idea, and I try to stuff in as many features as I can. Shrub is different, because “Apps” are all about reduction. It’s a “do one thing, and do it well” mode of thinking.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder and Linked by Air, Shrub, 2014.
SK: Your works often relate back to play and games. Making a drawing can be seen as an act of playing a non-competitive game like catch or patty cake. Some works use the controllers for various consoles, like PlayStation. What's interesting to you about the idea of games? How do you see your work as a way of playing?
JAS: I’m mainly interested in video games as they relate to the process of changing an image while viewing it. If you're playing a Mario game, you can make Mario move left and right with your controller; you can jump on mushrooms and do all the normal Mario things. If thought of as an image editor, Mario is very limited. One could use Microsoft Paint to make the same images that Mario generates, but it would take much longer to plot all those pixels. Like Mario, I try to create tools for making certain kinds of images in certain kinds of ways, which often makes them fun and playful to use. When I draw marks, I do it playfully.
Explained Pictures with Jeffrey Scudder, The New School, 2016.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 188.8.131.52.12, 2016.
SK: Does a specific work come to mind here?
JAS: Most of my software is designed this way. Media theorist Lev Manovich writes about Photoshop as being like a cathedral where the ultimate goal is to perform every possible function related to still imagery, as they keep tacking on additional features on over the years. The end game for Photoshop is to be able to do everything, regardless of convenience, whereas the endgame for one of my painting tools is to be able to explore certain kinds of image spaces with ease. Finger Quilt is a good example of this.
Finger Quilt iOS App Launch Trailer (Dark Version).
So many of your works also are related in specific ways and seem like they quote from one another. Does that idea resonate with you?
Yes. The tools that I make inspire new kinds of drawing practices in other media. When I draw with pencil, I often think about processes that I've developed on the computer and try to simplify them or represent them. If you build a hammer, then you have a useful tool. If you draw that hammer or give it a name, then you have an idea that begins and ends somewhere. I think quoting something that you've already made is how you begin to create your own language.
I want to ask you about your interest in poetry, and using text as drawing. You draw out letters in messages and insert your own hand into text that is so often standardized in typefaces. How do you see text as part of your drawing practice?
Sometimes in my digital paintings I've used computer generated text, but mostly I prefer writing it out by hand. It goes back to the idea of how you differentiate a drawing or a painting from all the other images out there in the world. Signatures are really cheesy and some claim you're not supposed to put one in the corner of a painting because it makes you seem egotistical. In many ways, it’s a backwards thing to do. Contemporary painters usually obtain attribution in their work via its initial appearance in an exhibition. All the associated metadata surrounding the exhibition is what authenticates the work. Digital painting doesn’t have this as its default mode, and if we want to bypass the exhibition, regardless of media, then we need to resort to less subtle methods of authentication. I do this by inscribing the necessary information directly into the picture.
Jeffrey Alan Scudder, 2017.11.26.01.42, 2017.
SK: The signature is a mode of inserting the personal into a space that is so often thought of as anonymous. It also reminds me of the way you put your picture, a photograph of you, on both your websites and in your drawings.
JAS: That's a really good point. It makes things more personal. The goal of my digital paintings is to invite you into my visual line of thought. I sign and date them visibly. In Ten Minute Painting, I write that “A painting is just a kind of picture message.” These days, especially when we see images in all different media, it's important that the digital painting can be recognized easily. I like to think of them as containing all the information needed for you to get into a concentrated mode of viewing.
SK: Many of your pieces also take the notion of chance and circumstance into consideration. How do you work with this idea? What's so exciting about the stochastic for you?
JAS: There's a big history of chance and improvisation in the arts. John Cage once had Merce Cunningham's company flip coins for him while they were sitting around in order to help him score a piece. In computer art, a generative idea is where you set some parameters and then you randomize the variables so that different kinds of results come out and surprise you. Video games usually have this to a certain degree. I did some work for a while where I played multiple copies of the same game simultaneously in order to highlight the stochastic elements.
Kirby's Dreamlaaand – Stage 1 (Gameplay), 2015.
In general, stochastic work has become a bit boring. I think that for a while we all believed that one could generate true novelty, but you can only roll a dice so many times and be surprised at the results. Ten Minute Painting remarks on this: “Like a deck of cards, [this work] is the same no matter how it is shuffled.”
Ten Minute Painting (semver 1.0.0) (iOS10 Recording)[Ordered Messaging], 2017.
SK: That's nice.
JAS: Yeah. It rearranges itself while showing that it is no big deal to do so. I think that's really interesting because it shows how educated we have become about computers. We have learned the more variability you add to something, the longer it takes before you get bored. Eventually, you are just tired of the whole idea. In video games, we gorge on chance. It’s important to be aware of its eventual banalities. The same thing happens when you look at the latest neural network-generated images and “artificial intelligence” art.
Let’s examine Google’s DeepDream. It's really cool when you first see the effect, but very quickly it becomes so unsurprising. What’s interesting is the process, not the results. But the process isn’t even that complicated. It just requires lots of data. I always found that what’s most interesting about dice is who rolls them, and for what reason? The artist, the dungeon master, Google, a lunatic playing Russian Roulette with a revolver: all employ chance differently. Context in relationship to chance is the most important thing.
SK: This reminds me of Chat Roulette, which seemed infinite. I could look at it for a full half hour and there were enough people to see. I never ran out of people.
JAS: But eventually you stopped looking at it, never to return, right? I'm interested in developing things that I can continuously be involved with.
My mother Tricia is a quilter and she is a member of a guild that meets up every week to talk and work collaboratively. It's a really big part of her life. I think artists have historically been pretty good at defining their own values, yet not many people I know are really doing that in the art world today. I see artists are behaving a lot more like silos, especially as their careers take off. I think that it'd be cool to have more scenes, more spirituality, more disparate value systems and modes of presentation.
SK: The way you talk about performance reminds me of the way that music is performative or collaborative. Your drawing tools like the Dot tool have an instrument-like quality to them. Do you think of your engagement with performance as musical?
JAS: Definitely. I think my performances are musical in the sense that I divide and organize space and time while playing with my inventions. Certain strains of modern and contemporary composition interest me and I’m especially inspired by the work of Goodiepal, a Danish computer musician whose band GP&PLS I spent the better part of this past summer travelling and performing with in Europe. I have also invented an instrument for live sound manipulation, called Cricket.
Cricket Tutorial, 2017.
SK: What have you been up to lately?
JAS Team at Harvard (Julia Yerger, Artur Erman, Jeffrey Heart).
JAS: Along with some friends I’ve recently formed a digital painting team called Just Another System. I've been modifying some of my drawing tools and instruments to be better used by my teammates, and making some new ones as well. Rather than focusing on just my needs, or those of an anonymous user base, I’m now concentrated on providing tools for specific individuals in a group dynamic. We just finished our first tour in the northeast where we did 10 events and presented at several schools: Parsons, Rutgers, RISD, UMASS, Harvard, Temple University, and Yale in that order. The team consists of myself, Julia Yerger, Artur Erman, and Mark Fingerhut with musical guest Chase Underwood Ceglie. We had so much fun!
Just Another System's RPD @ Parson's School of Design: November 2nd, 2017.
JAS Cricket Karaoke & Pull Workshop at Victoria Sobel's.
JAS Team at RISD (Julia Yerger).
A recent Github issue by Dragan Espenschied.
Here at Rhizome HQ, we’ve been working with designer Lukas Eigler-Harding on some changes to our website. In particular, we’ve moved away from our unique upper-left nav bar to a flat, persistent nav at the top of the viewport, and introduced a new article layout, implemented with the support of our senior front-end developer for Webrecorder, Mark Beasley.
In the way of most web design updates, our apparently simple changes opened up long sequences of new questions, culminating in “who are we? why are we here?” Rhizome’s program has grown, and our new nav is an effort to communicate it in a more simple way to visitors: we have a blog, we have an artistic program, and we make software, as part of our digital preservation research. Our nav bar was glossolalic, and now it is gnomic.
Discussion rages on at Rhizome HQ, and there are many tweaks still to come, but your feedback is always welcome. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This text accompanies the presentation of into time .com as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The sites appear to have resisted the flow of time.
But seen as a collection, Rozendaal’s browser-based works also reveal the passage of time on the web. Together, they read like a 21st century timeline of interaction design. Early sites like mister nice hands .com (2001) and why was he sad .com (2002) use representational graphics to deliver jokey gags; they present the browser as a canvas for play, in keeping with the Neen movement, which Rozendaal participated in. Many of his sites from this time feel like video game stage sets, stripped down to pure color, sound, and movement. Goals are clearly understood. Just as the iPhone appears, a skeuomorphic page-turn peels away from the surface (color flip .com, 2008), a kind of portrait of the touch screen. These early works are interactive snapshots of object-scenes, each one easily reduced to (or expanding into) a noun—“kiss,” “mosquito,” “popcorn.”
Several years into Rozendaal’s career, one website stands out as a turning point: into time .com (2010). A non-representational work, the site takes shape as the user interacts with it, without referring to any narrative outside of itself. The code acts as a set of instructions, newly performed each time it’s loaded into the browser. While the script is clearly predictable—each click (or tap, on a mobile device) dividing the gradient color space in half, either horizontally or vertically—the final product isn’t. It’s not apparent if a finished state is even a goal of the work. The user may also decide to opt out, refusing to produce even a single click, leaving the canvas in a singular state of pulsing color; this too is a deliberate act. There is no joke, no completed state, no narrative—except for the user’s own gestures, and the traces they leave in the form of a digital painting. Rozendaal goes on to create other action-based sites like into time .org (2011) and into time .us (2012) as a basis for generating abstract form. Later, Rozendaal uses these sites as a form-making tool set, a framework for generating static images that circulate as artworks themselves, in physical space.
Into time .com bears a strong resemblance to we will attack .com, a site produced by Rozendaal in 2002 that appears to be the first of his action studies. It’s an image-making tool where the generated form is the browser canvas itself, simply painted from edge-to-edge with a color gradient that is directed by the user. Rozendaal says that the earlier site is a portrait of the Photoshop gradient tool, and is therefore representational.
If Rozendaal’s early works were nouns, into time .com is his first verb. It forms in the accumulation of the user’s actions on the viewport—a portrait of a gesture. Looking ahead to later works like his lenticular paintings (2013) and Abstract Browsing tapestries (2016), intotime.com seems to be an acute pivot point in Rozendaal’s career, a sharp moment when he put conventional narrative aside (the gag, the tool, the one-liner)—in favor of image-making tools and the user’s own agency. From that point forward, his work expands into a deep investigation of the fluid canvas, gesture, and formal abstraction.
Image: Josh Kline for DIS Images.
The imminent rollback of net neutrality in the United States signals the end of an important, consumer-oriented sort of internet freedom. No longer will companies be prohibited from blocking certain services or websites (so they can then sell access piecemeal in increasingly exorbitant packages), thus solidifying the internet as a privatized, highly classed space.
This is contrary to the ideal of the internet as a great equalizer for all voices, and represents a chilling omen for the so-called “Information Revolution”–the kind of sinister corporate entrenchment the cyberpunks tried in their goofy way to warn us about. But any user who not only shops, but works primarily online has also felt the looming specter of net privatization for a long time—at least as far back as the inception of Web 2.0, when the internet largely took on the shape and character that we recognize today.
As early as 1996 (before the advent of Google), R. U. Sirius, co-founder and former editor-in-chief of cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000, lamented presciently to journalist Jon Lebkowsky the emptiness of the myth of the internet as some great equalizer, saying:
You’ve basically got the breakdown of nation states into global economies simultaneous with the atomization of individuals or their balkanization into disconnected sub-groups, because digital technology conflates space while decentralizing communication and attention. The result is a clear playing field for a mutating corporate oligarchy, which is what we have. I mean, people think it’s really liberating because the old industrial ruling class has been liquefied and it’s possible for young players to amass extraordinary instant dynasties. But it’s savage and inhuman.
Beneath a small cadre of very well-paid columnists and other assorted nepotism cases exists an overflowing morass of labor supply–writers, editors, artists and so on who are trying to make use of the internet for professional purposes, but who in many cases lack both the capital and networking ability to springboard their small online hustles into sustainable careers. Meanwhile, large sections of the internet have been carved out and wholly controlled by major corporations and crowdsourcing and marketplace platforms. The virtual land is farmed for content, from which platform holders skim off profit in exchange for use of the platform. Of course, this results in a general funnelling of profit upward, away from the people actually creating most of the content.
Outside of a shrinking elite, this class of artisans and intellectuals has only become more proletarianized over time. This will only get worse the more endowments and other forms of public arts funding dry up, the more austerity and gentrification immiserate people’s living conditions, and the more companies are able to get away with exploiting the labor of online workers for laughably small payouts. It has always been difficult for people outside the more privileged classes to hack it as artists and intellectuals, but the break with tradition that the internet was originally believed to represent has now given way to a form of virtual feudalism.
These circumstances have set the table for sites like Patreon to brand themselves as a savior-like market solution for independent, often struggling artists. Before I go any further, I must admit that I use it. In fact, at this moment it accounts for most of my income (the rest is supplemented by contract gigs such like the one that produced this article.) Many friends and peers also have Patreon pages, sometimes as a complement to profiles on other platforms like Etsy or Redbubble. Maybe they’ve run the odd Indiegogo campaign to get their independent film project off the ground. Maybe all that wasn’t enough, especially in an emergency, so bereft of savings they were forced to use GoFundMe or YouCaring to help them pay for amenities or take the edge off a steep medical bill. The main distinction between Patreon and other sites resides in the fact that Patreon is designed to offer a regular subscription service, meaning it offers an appealing consistency compared to other sites.
Like many people, I have a love-hate (increasingly, just hate) relationship with Patreon. I know exactly how I’m being exploited and yet, without this platform I have no idea how I’d manage a steady, monthly income in my line of work. I make a middling but comfortable amount thanks to Patreon subscriptions that allows me to maintain my personal site, and gives me the stability to seek out other work at a more reasonable pace. Contract gigs like writing for Rhizome only go so far and are replete with exploitative practices all their own; not to mention, of course, the inevitable dry spells. At least Patreon always pays out on the first of the month, just in time for rent. Patreon, much like other crowdfunding-style sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, is relatively easy to use, and offers sellers the opportunity to connect with many more people directly. By bypassing traditional gatekeepers and their usurious percentages, one can (at least in theory) make more money and be subjected to less egregious exploitation.
A few power users have managed to propel themselves to riches and success thanks to Patreon, but these lucky few are in the extreme minority. Many are more likely to bring in a couple hundred bucks a month making games, $60 per piece to make videos or perhaps considerably less–a minimal but still significant sum for people struggling to find any reliable, stable income. In many cases, patrons are also creators, meaning that lower-level earners often use Patreon as a sort of mutual aid service, circulating a small pool of capital from one user to another. This felt like a worthy trade-off with tolerating Patreon’s profit-skimming and its steadily degenerating user interface, but hostile new policy changes threaten to overturn that balance.
Last week, Patreon announced on its blog that it plans to roll out a new payment structure that it promises will allow users to take home a greater share of their earnings–“exactly 95%,” the post claims. What became immediately clear, however, was that this new structure—essentially a regressive tax that passes the “interchange” of processing fees onto patrons, as lawyer, writer and Patreon user Matt Bruenig pointed out–actually only really benefits Patreon itself and a handful of users, while severely undercutting its less successful users.
In general, these platforms turn a profit by charging users a processing fee in exchange for use of the site to sell their wares or receive donations, much like how rentiers charge tenants for use of a physical property. Donation site GoFundMe takes a five per cent cut plus another three per cent in processing fees, while YouCaring only charges for processing. Print-on-demand sites like Redbubble and Society6 set a base price for different items, leaving vendors to set their own markup percentage.
Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, and up until recently, Patreon charge a hefty five per cent (plus credit processing fees) per payment cycle. With this change, however, Patreon still takes its five per cent cut, but instead of pulling a two to ten per cent transaction fee out of the payout total at the end of each payment cycle, now the service plans to take a “2.9% + $0.35” cut out of every individual pledge. This essentially eliminates low-level pledge amounts as viable for many patrons, who often support multiple creators with small pledges, and hits people relying on one dollar pledges especially hard. Even the relatively popular leftist podcast, Delete Your Account, tweeted out a screenshot of all the patrons they have lost since the change, as did short story writer Kameron Hurley.
In an update to the post, Patreon insists that this is not a money-grab for Patreon, and instead argues that it was simply the best way to balance third-party fees with their desire to get their patrons the best payout percentage possible. (One of their examples includes a person complaining that 1K was taken out of their 11K lump sum–an already unthinkably high payout for most people actually using the site.) Self-appointed mediator and popular Patreon creator Jeph Jacques quoted CEO Jack Conte as admitting that they “absolutely fucked up that rollout,” suggesting to many that Conte thinks the problem is how the change was framed, rather than any fundamental issue with the change itself. However, a June 2017 post by tech CEO Brian Balfour that was widely disseminated on Twitter reveals something much more sinister than simple precious ignorance. The piece, entitled “Inside the 6 Hypotheses that Doubled Patreon’s Activation Success,” is mostly business mumbo-jumbo, but a telling quote from product manager Tal Raviv stands out:
"We'd rather have our GMV be made up of fewer, but truly life-changed creators rather than a lot of creators making a few dollars."
In other words, Patreon is actually very comfortable undermining lower earners on a practical and ideological level, even if a few bucks for rent or bills may actually be life-changing to some people. One would think, given its past reliance on a vast pool of content creators for income, that the decision to cull the smaller earners would be out of step with its own profit motive–but to Patreon and its investors, these accounts appear to merely represent a blemish and a hassle.
The payment restructuring policy is a testament to Silicon Valley greed and callous, ignorant flippancy toward the misery of others, all in an effort to disempower a massive and unruly labor pool. And it isn’t only the low earners who face uncertain futures on the platform.
Up until recently, Daniel Cooper wrote for Engadget, Patreon “offered a broad latitude for projects that contained erotic content.” Patreon has also, albeit inconsistently, publicly defended the right of adult creators to make money, going so far as to win a legal battle against PayPal over its refusal to accept transactions for pornographic material. For many online sex workers, this meant that Patreon represented an important, relatively safe niche outside the restrictive and deeply exploitative confines of the billion-dollar porn industry. As sex worker Liara Roux told Samantha Cole for Motherboard, “Yes, we can post on Pornhub, which runs mostly off content stolen from us... Where are our rights? Why should we have to be kicked off every platform again and again?"
They may be kicked off again, though Patreon remains vague on actual policy enforcement. The amended terms of service—which Cooper explains was ostensibly meant to crack down on hate speech and illegal content in light of Patreon’s suspension of far-right “journalist” Lauren Southern’s account—is viewed as a slap in the face by many sex workers, who published an open letter and petition addressed to the site’s CEO. It’s also deeply hypocritical, considering up until recently the platform has historically had no compunction about skimming profit off of published works that directly violate its own TOS, created by people who have in the past attempted to sabotage the livelihoods of other users, most notably during the height of Gamergate.
Yet Conte denies that this will lead to any mass shutdown of accounts. Indeed, Patreon still refuses to actually define what they mean by “pornography” or “adult content”, and remain cagey about how these rules will be enforced in the future. Patreon’s waffling over the years on pornography seems to suggest that it wants to have its cake and eat it too—as part of its new program to protect its image, it wants to appear saintly without taking a real position one way or another. This logic follows the same pattern as the payment restructuring changes. Patreon doesn’t want to lose high-volume creators, but it’s also gambling on the likelihood that it can sacrifice a few—or even many—smaller-time users if it means the site can maintain a positive relationship with investors and influence-peddlers. This means sacrificing sex workers and poorer users while simultaneously attempting to avoid conflict with noncommittal reassurances. This is the logic of a gentrifier.
All of this serves to reveal the great lie at the center of the “gig economy.” The Silicon Valley ideology behind sites like Patreon insists that the “gig economy” is a boon to young creators, where anyone and everyone could be a successful entrepreneur if they just have enough drive and gumption. Supposedly, this is meant to free us from the shackles of traditional employment.
In reality, sites like Patreon thrive off of other people’s work exactly because companies that could employ them opt instead for contracting and outsourcing, which atomizes workers by turning them into direct competitors and rendering them much more exploitable. They generate brand recognition as rebel alternatives by making lots of tempting promises and ensuring ease of use, until ultimately metastasizing into yet another tech monopoly that suddenly needs to gate out the undesirables. And as much as they claim to operate as alternatives, they still need to interact with credit card companies and other payment services, all of which siphon money off of online transactions. These same conditions–the continuing accumulation of power and capital by the few at the expense of the many– are what beckoned the end of net neutrality even as the corporate web was still taking shape. It’s also what explains the backlash against Gothamist and Fusion writers who attempted to organize their workplaces.
The same forces dictate how print-on-demand sites like Society6 can get away with repackaging artists’ work into calendars without ever paying those creators a dime. Meanwhile, numerous craftspeople who use these sites to sell their designs have accused major fashion retailers like Zara and H&M of stealing their work. This isn’t much different from sex workers or journalists seeking alternatives to going underpaid, getting plagiarized or robbed of compensation, or being denied opportunities, only to have the sites offering those opportunities squeeze profit out of them.
At their most sordid, online funding platforms have found a profitable niche in healthcare funding—or to pay for other essentials like rent or groceries. Money-raising sites in general rely on power users who can go viral, but donation sites take that logic to its cruelest conclusion. “Virality” is hard to achieve for a sex worker or a podcaster, but it’s an inhumane demand on the sick and poor that could only exist in an inhumane society. As Anne Helen Peterson wrote in “The Real Peril of Crowdfunding Health Care,” “That doesn’t mean we should stop giving. But it does mean we should stop mistaking stopping a leak for fixing the plumbing.”
Yes, sites like Patreon can buoy up individuals who otherwise might have to risk destitution or quit their craft, but the entire economic apparatus that enables their existence also guarantees that they will earn less over time, on platforms that offer none of the guarantees or benefits that real employment can. The same old gatekeepers are still very much in place, and Patreon relies on the same old meritocratic fantasy that we could all be in that place too, with hard work and the power of positivity.
The only response to the problem of charity crowdfunding is socialized healthcare, much like the only solution to the end of net neutrality is to nationalize the internet and treat it like a public utility. Likewise, “content creation” workers are forced to rediscover the power of organizing, while recognizing a shared struggle not just with other exploited “gig economy” workers like Uber and Amazon drivers, but with workers writ large. Where this can’t manifest in traditional workplace organizing, genuine mutual aid and cooperative, creator-owned funding tools could represent an actual alternative. Patreon, like every other feudal lordship on the internet, is filling a void in society that was put there by design. By design, we can also get rid of it.
Hannah Black, The Situation (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
Be careful not to step on the tiny ceramic sculptures, they are on the floor and at times partially obscured by the shredded paper.
This, along with the unspoken tacit permission to steal books, were the viewing instructions given for Hannah Black’s “Some Context” at Chisenhale Gallery in London. The books stacked in the center of the room provide the bulk of the exhibition’s content, both materially and conceptually. They exist individually as books able to be read on their own, and collectively as a stacked sculpture. They were also presented in shredded form as filler, both covering the floor of the gallery, almost concealing the small ceramic sculptures as noted above, while also filling, or waiting to fill, the teddy bears strewn about or propped up next to the paper shredders. Perhaps more acutely, these books exist as a potentiality; they await to be read or to be shredded, or photographed or stolen. But “Some Context” was not an exhibition with an accompanying book; the book itself, in its myriad of real and potential forms, is the artwork. Its “content” is comprised of conceptions of several social selves: that of Black herself, as well as those of the book’s various contributors. The book’s authors are only listed once in the table of contents. Some are obscured completely and thus their texts remain anonymous. By redacting the names and disrupting the ability for the reader to easily locate each author’s name to their corresponding text, Black provided different terms for speaking. In some cases, she perhaps made space for freer voices, as the author could feel more open, without their every word traceable back to them. Here, the ideas on offer in the show began to meld and activate for the viewer.
Hannah Black, “Some Context” (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2017. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
This exhibition seems appropriate and timely following Black’s Open Letter to the Whitney . It provides a space for discussion by framing ideas from the artist herself as well as those from the invited participants. Additionally, the work seems to respond to the immediate aftermath of the Open Letter’s circulation, where it seemed that the discussion of Black as a person overshadowed the articulation of her artistic and written work. In effect, she seemed to become the position she (and all of the accompanying signatories) advocated for in the letter. It is this very ontology of “being content” that the show seems to both unpack and complicate, where the written voices and the contributors to the lecture program were both the content and form. Michel Feher in “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” discusses this process through which the productivity of a person living within neoliberalism is not only measured through their labor but also gauged by what they say or do, stand for, look like, and dream about.1 Together, these elements become their unique selling proposition, their USP, providing a surplus or deficit commodity value. He refers to this as one’s human capital , writing that “the things that I inherit, the things that happen to me, and the things I do all contribute to the maintenance or the deterioration of my human capital […] my human capital is me, as a set of skills and capabilities that is modified by all that affects me and all that I effect.”
You can’t lean on the white walls, you’ll leave smudges.
This was the instruction given to me by the museum guard when I leaned for too long against the wall in “Small Room,” Black’s recent show at Mumok. A sheet of Perspex secured copies of Life, a book by Black and Juliana Huxtable published adjacent to the exhibition (not a central work to it, like The Situation would be) onto the wall, installed after the opening to prevent the remaining copies from being stolen. There are conceptual threads to follow from “Small Room” into “Some Context.” The work of “Small Room” explored cells, and by extension, thresholds: the outer ring, the edge, the absolutely impermeable or at times semi-permeable membrane that separates a thing from everything it is not. The viewer was asked to consider w hat is contained within and what constitutes separation, by the wall, the fence, the shackle.
If we follow this cellular logic into “Some Context,” here too we can find some semi-permeable edges and barriers. The covers of The Situation hold a collection of voices, contained within the skin and bodies of the contributors that keeps all of themselves contained, defining their positions against being part of everything else in the world. The “situation” articulated in the book and in the exhibition seems to reference the predetermined limits of the subjectivized self. “Subjectivized” here refers to the state after one becomes a subject, after an external force deems you a subject within a Foucauldian power relation. From this situation of being subjectivized, it is difficult to speak or make from outside the position you are registered as, and thus expected to inhabit. The self, like the book, is the vessel which holds our content, just as the teddy bear pelts hold their shredded filling.
1. Michael Feher, “Self-Appreciation; or, The Aspirations of Human Capital,” Public Culture 21, no. 1 (2009): 21-41.
Hannah Black, “Some Context” (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, 2017. Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery.
Hannah Black, Creatures (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
Hannah Black, Transitional Object 7 (2017). Commissioned and produced by Chisenhale Gallery. Photo: Andy Keate.
This interview accompanies the presentation of EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
AD: Can you start by walking me through the project more generally? What was the impetus for it? The process?
MS: EverythingIveAlwaysWantedtoKnow.com was kind of my thesis project at School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I was interested in automatic writing, writing under constraints, very influenced by OuLiPo. I was using found language to think about American ideologies. So I had been collecting all of my Google searches for two or three years–there was no saved search at the time. I was doing in a document as I was in school, as a kind of a diary. I liked the idea of coming of age and “persona.” I wanted to explore the the creation of a persona as well through this coming of age story. I wondered if I could do it through what I was searching on Google, what, or who, would it reveal?
I wanted it to be a very simple presentation only using a few lines of codes. There’s nothing to it; it’s just a drop-down menu. I didn't want the terms to link anywhere. I made it so that if anything was selected, it would go back to the index. This was a kind of refusal. You could see what I was interested in, but you wouldn't get to see anything more.
AD: Looking back on the work today, it definitely seems to relate to the way people's subjectivities are arranged online. Maybe it wasn't as glaringly the case back then in 2007, but consciously or not it seems to foreshadow the way that search queries and consumer patterns are purported to actually make up who you are. Were you thinking about that at the time?
MS: This was 2007. I was interested in how little this data actually said. You can infer some things from it: there's a lot of stuff about me trying to break a lease, for instance. I was searching tons and tons of stuff like: “tenant's rights organization,” “breaking lease,” “how to get out of lease in Chicago.”
I was always thinking about it more about the way I was talking to search engines, rather than looking at what was actually going on in my life. Today, I often get coded incorrectly in advertising stuff because of Twitter. I recently downloaded my Twitter data and because I tweet about sports, cars, and business a lot, it thinks that I'm an affluent white man. I'm interested in that mis-reading. There's some stuff I'm searching that is coded in other ways. There’s a lot of stuff about art, being a young artist, then there's also a lot of stuff that's about being a young black woman.
So in EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com I was interested in how these multiple subjectivities were rendered and kind of flattened out through the search query itself.
AD: How do you think that this work and your early internet-based work informs the work that you’ve made in more recent years? Have your concerns shifted? Do you have any comments on the relationship between the old work and the new work?
MS: I see a lot of parallels. There are a lot of similarities in terms of both what I'm thinking about and how. Maybe what's become pronounced is my interest in creating an identity–how you're formed by external forces, and the performance that’s tied to that. Because at first I was writing down what I was doing, but then once I knew that I was going to write it down, there was this hesitation “should I search that?” I committed to putting down everything I search. So if I search something weird, people are gonna like know this about me or think this about me. At that time a few people actually did say, “oh your searches are so tame.”
I like the idea of how this type of publicness, which is really private in one sense–you know these boundaries in being what’s public and what’s private are blurred online and how that becomes really performative. I’ve always thought about the internet as a cinematic space, but I think the increase of online video in advertising, social media, and as entertainment makes this very apparent.
In 2018, Rhizome will commission Morehshin Allahyari to expand her in-progress body of work, She Who Sees The Unknown, which takes a position of resistance against digital colonialism and explores re-figuring as a feminist and activist practice.
“Researching dark goddesses, monstrous, and djinn female figures of Middle Eastern origin, I want to explore the symbolic meanings behind traditions and myths and speculate on the effects of colonialism and other forms of contemporary oppression,” Allahyari wrote in her proposal. ”I will devise a narrative through practices of magic and poetic-speculative storytelling, re-appropriation of traditional mythologies, collaging, meshing, 3D scanning/3D Printing, and archiving.”
For her Rhizome commission, Allahyari will focus on two mythical figures, developing a research archive, a video narrative, and a “Ha’m-Neshini” sitting event for each. Upon finishing all twelve parts of the work, Allahyari intends to deposit the full digital archive with an institution in the Middle East.
Allahyari’s is the latest addition to a cycle of commissioned works for 2017-18 that include a new spate of Microgrants, the expansion of Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain’s enron.email, and N-Prolenta’s Banana Island–and there’s still more to come.
Please consider supporting Rhizome’s Commissions Fund as part of your end-of-year giving. If you make a donation of $16, we'll send you our year-end artists’ multiple–an algae-based nutrition bar by Lucy Chinen and Nonfood, dedicated to space dog Laika–to any US address.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and individual donors.
Come work with us!
Rhizome is looking for a committed and passionate coder to work on backend infrastructure for Webrecorder, an innovative, open source web application that allows users to create high-fidelity, interactive, contextual archives of social media and other dynamic web content.
This is a full-time position for a mid-to-senior-level developer to take responsibility for a key aspect of Webrecorder’s core systems. An ideal candidate would possess a passion for making a difference combined with strong technical expertise.
Read the full listing here.
N-Prolenta, Banana Island: Hublots (2017).
Production still from online performance.
Artists discuss the politics and aesthetics of black portraiture after the internet. Published alongside the online exhibition First Look: New Black Portraitures, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
What is the future of the black image?
Pastiche Lumumba: The future of the black image is generative, autonomous, ephemeral.
Rindon Johnson: I can’t be sure. In relation to this idea of future, I have been thinking a lot recently about the entertainment value of blackness. Like this implication of mobility through entertainment, furthered by the using of things that might be considered stereotypically black to sell an idea about blackness or to sell something… How does the entertainer fit into this painful puzzle of systemic oppression manifest everywhere from the very language we speak to police killings. I’m going to guess that the future of the black image is directly related to the future of capitalism as the black american identity exists and is maintained by capitalism, like every other identity, I mean like everything else. So if capitalism is reoriented, what are we left with?
I was watching this house show recently like a reno build show and this renegade white architect painted the entire house black and in that classic reality tv way the producers really focused on it, this was “black interior guy” and of course you know the house comes out totally beautiful, just extraordinary, reflexive and incredible. They toured the house and kept saying how warm the black felt. Then he said this thing that was like, “I am not afraid of black” and I just had this flashback to Get Out where this old white guy tells the main character “Black is in!”, and I just thought “is this what is next for black?”
manuel arturo abreu: The white cube's lifelong denial of modernist violence, ongoing blackface, and the continued violent circulation of Black subjectivities separate from Black people means the future of the Black image is similar to its past -- non-image (or not totally image), fugitive, caught between abstraction and figuration, between being inherently networked and inherently phantasmic. The most important work will happen and has always happened outside the confines of a notion like 'art' or 'image.'
N-Prolenta: There's a point of maximum density and minimum complexity, where things are so hot that they feel cold. We're doing more of that. And it's more of a condition than a direction. Can there ever be a true future in that, as it is? I find that Black images often deal in multiplicities, and across striations. There will be more tension, and we will witness the dramas coming from that.
Pastiche Lumumba, Community Standard (a poortrait across platforms) (2017). Screenshot from social media performance.
Aria Dean: In this moment, culturally and aesthetically, how do you feel black portraiture is situated? I’m thinking about the art world as one specific world of image, but also in the public sphere at large - online and off.
Pastiche Lumumba: Black portraiture is situated editorially and in archives as an educational tool to prove that we exist and are indeed human. For black people, at this moment, portraiture allows us to revel in the joy and beauty of being black, in ourselves and each other, at irl and on the internet.
Rindon Johnson: I’m from California and the way that voting works there is that there are propositions for bills and laws etc. With propositions you vote yes or no. Sometimes a proposition can be worded in such a way that it will trick people to say yes to something that they would normally say no to. Meanwhile, I came to the realization the other day that a painting is proposition for a plane. Sometimes I wonder if American Blackness is the amalgam of these 2 types of propositions, a sort of grouping together of propositions, a tying together of people who are stratified by class, location, beliefs. The Black American proposition is slippery and we are all in weird ways saying yes or no to one part or another part of one proposition or another proposition. When I try and put the idea all the way through its paces I ask: Is American Blackness a proposition for a people? Since the proposition does not exist in a vacuum, power is still distributed based around education, class, access etc. So, can’t those that have the means to assume more control over the proposition, take it as their own exploit it for some kind of gain? What does that exploitation look like? What do we say about all of that? I guess none of that answers the question. It seems like black portraiture is benefiting from new outlets but is still fighting the same usual demons.
manuel arturo abreu: It's likely situated in a lesser position in relation to selfies, which are easier to circulate and extract value from. A platform like IG would be much less profitable without the daily outpour of selfies from Black women in particular and Black folks in general. I imagine “portrait” generally is now taken to mean a page orientation where the page is taller than it is wide (vs landscape). Does the conversation regarding payment for Black selfie labor involve the portrait vs selfie tension?
N-Prolenta: We're saturated in it.
Rindon Johnson, Away With You, (2016). VR video.
Aria Dean: How does your practice relate to the rich history of black artists exploring portraiture and representation, using the black figurative image? Do you consider yourself an inheritor of this tradition? Do you feel any tension or opposition?
Pastiche Lumumba: My practice relates specifically with how black artists, black people are exploring our representation on the internet. My identity as one whole being with a diverse array of thoughts and feelings and ways of presenting them and myself is subject to the rules of any site in which it exists. This generation of artists and black people inherited sensibilities but are using them to navigate an entirely different information landscape. I feel that tension most acutely when I want to show internet artists in physical gallery spaces. A lot is lost when we translate digital practices into traditional physical presentations for exhibition purposes.
Rindon Johnson: My mother is an art dealer and in my teens she started showing Roy DeCarava, James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks all three dealing very particularly, and differently in black portraiture. I got to spend a lot of time with these images because the gallery is a family business, so I know their lines and angles by heart. Then I went to NYU and studied with Dr. Deborah Willis who, in addition to her own gorgeous images, has created some of the most magnificent and thorough archives in book form of black lives. As I get more into other mediums, I got really into Julie Dash, Howardina Pindell, Sun Ra, Barbara McCullough, Elizabeth Catlett and Senga Negundi, among others. All these deep dives into other people’s work they’re all related somehow to my work, and I inherit them happily, and I think any tension or opposition is maybe just a necessary act of questioning.
manuel arturo abreu: I don't make figurative work, but I find it quite beautiful -- recent figuration by Cheyenne Julien, Eden Seifu, Simphiwe Ndzube, Hamishi Farah, and many others has touched me and shows that this rich history of Black representational work lives on.
Pastiche Lumumba, Community Standard (a poortrait across platforms) (2017). Screenshot from social media performance.
Aria Dean: Are images true?
Pastiche Lumumba: Images have never been true, not even mine.
Rindon Johnson: Well today it was raining but lightly. Walking home I noticed that there was a puddle of milk on the street perfectly nestled into a shallow amoeba hole in the sidewalk. As I got closer the light moved and the milk somehow turned to water. I suppose the milk was always water but if I first saw it as milk was it not also milk?
manuel arturo abreu: No, they just are (and to some, even that is up for debate, somehow). That whole BS of art “lying like the truth” is another means of concealing its market operation. Somewhere between a social constructivist position where images are mirrors of the world that makes them, and the Stravinsky position that art is powerless to represent anything but itself, is where we'll find an accurate understanding of how images function in relation to truth... maybe.
N-Prolenta: Yes, if you're asking questions.
The modern browser has, for the most part, dispensed with UI ornament. There is a URL bar, a handful of icons for extensions, and maybe a bookmarks bar: that’s it. Even Internet Explorer’s spinning globe has been deprecated in favor of Microsoft Edge’s flat-color toolbar.
Firefox and Chrome still allow the user to customize the look of their browsers through installable “themes,” and these might be the last few relics of a time when browser interfaces could be as loud, colorful, or bizarre as the user desired.
Christmas browsers, a phenomenon of the late 90s, are examples of these custom interfaces, full of colorful excess and holiday cheer.
In the mid-90s, users could choose from a variety of specialized standalone browsers, including browsers featuring tools for maintaining e-commerce sites, children’s browsers, and a browser built for Russian-speaking audiences with built-in translation tools. Instead of adhering to a standard look and feel, many of these browsers had interfaces that differed highly from one browser to the next.
However, a handful of specialized browsers survived into the late 90s, due in part to a short-lived Windows software component that allowed custom browser interfaces to be built on top of Internet Explorer 3 and 4. Two surviving Christmas browsers — Santa’s Browser and Christmas Browser 99 — were built using this approach.
Although these browsers were built on top of Internet Explorer, they eschewed the professional aesthetics of the Microsoft or Netscape browser in favor of homemade, Geocities-esque collage. Christmas Browser 99 abstracts forward and backward buttons into a string of lights, with each blinking section representing a previously visited webpage. Santa’s Browser’s refresh button is a festive wreath shaped like an arrow.
Both Christmas Browser 99 and Santa’s Browser can be successfully run in an emulator, but with limited functionality. The READMEs for these browsers document extensive lists of features, few of which function today. Christmas Browser 99’s greeting card functionality redirects the user to a server that doesn’t respond. In Santa’s Browser, e-commerce links go nowhere. Attempts to create a Christmas wish list send the user to registration on a website that no longer exists.
At this point, it is impossible to know what has been lost. Would any of Santa’s Browser’s “2000 links to Christmas-related web fun” function today? Unfortunately, even a complete copy of the installation files for these browsers is not sufficient for meaningful preservation, as most of the interactive content relies on a dead external server. In 1999, it was unusual for an application to make network calls just to load its main interface — but in 2017, many apps have little to no offline functionality, and the very idea of an “app” is itself not much more than a comforting reference to the self-contained software of the past.
The Christmas browser may seem like an odd choice for preservation, but it illustrates a central challenge facing Rhizome’s software curation program. Preserving an application without the context of its network was not sufficient even in 1999, and the impossibility of fully reconstructing these relatively simple apps in 2017 illustrates the need to consider the multiplicitous relationships that define any digital cultural artefact in a preservation context.
Lyndsey Jane Moulds is software curator at Rhizome.
In June, I curated a screening of video works by artist Jordan Wolfson at the New Museum as a part of the First Look series, an ongoing exhibition and event program co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum, online and off. After the screening, Wolfson and I discussed virtual reality, white masculinity, and violence. Watch video of the conversation below.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
1. The Social Contract
To begin, here’s a nice, pared-down Libertarian bricolage calling into question the foundations of society.
2. Distracted Boyfriend
2017 was a year in which male sleaziness was acknowledged, and punished, as never before, and this change in the popular mood seemed to have been foreshadowed by the most prevalent meme of the year, the “Distracted Boyfriend”.
I particularly liked the Greek mythological version above, and also the Henry VIII variations.
As we’re returning to more irrational, pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking, Greek mythological memes have been in the ascendancy. Sisyphus, for instance, has become something of a hero in recent meme culture, which is often characterized by a sense of hopelessness and futility.
The last panel was already a popular meme, but has now been placed into a larger, more epic narrative.
Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic’s popularity amongst the extremely online makes perfect sense: he rejected the trappings of conventional society, choosing instead to drop out and troll his supposed betters.
This variation, which includes one of its precursors as an inset in the corner, reflects a growing movement towards complexity and meta-narratives, a subect that is discussed in some depth (and with reference to Wassily Kandinsky’s drawings of the dancer Gret Palucca), on the Philosopher’s Meme page.
5. Enlightened Pepe
“Enlightened Pepe” is another template that lends itself to loquacious complexity: here’s a version promoting the kind of leftist transhumanism that friends keep shilling to me at house parties.
6. Dancing Hot Dog
Bleak, defeated existentialism was the order of the day in 2017. Here, in a rare example of an augmented reality meme, we have a cartoon hot dog that speaks like Søren Kierkegaard.
On the subject of sad dogs, a special mention must also go to this Piano-playing Beagle.
7. Bannon of Arabia
I love this video, and have watched it so many times. I love how the repetition of the video, combined with the building intensity of the music, keeps heightening and heightening the dramatic tension.
8. Bert & Ernie
A beautiful tale of friendship, stoicism, and perhaps also repressed sexuality, which, nonetheless, has a depressing message: the apocalypse is coming and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. It’s too late.
Bert and Ernie’s silence, their retreat into bland pop and intoxication, represents our collective denial. Every meme is a self-portrait of the networked society.
9. This Man Dispenses the Cubes
Like all the best surreal humor, this speaks to an underlying reality: a fear of our own redundancy in the age of automation.
My grandmother lives alone in Yokohama and has a talking sink. Because I never learnt to speak Japanese, I have never had a proper conversation with her. Compared to her sink, I am nothing.
It’s a rush of pure emotion. It’s how we see ourselves, and how we cling to our pasts. It’s Gatsby’s green light across the shimmering water, and all our hopes and dreams for the future, as we move, once again, into another year.
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
2017 has oftentimes felt like being in a holding pattern over choleric lava; each rocketing incendiary force keening to fuck us down to hell with the disappointment that our last moments will smell like the sulphurous farts of an elderly dog. Last night some friends and I took shelter in an underground Edinburgh bar in the last country that has not gone insane and suggested that America and England’s daily life is now like walking down a long corridor of endless doors and trying to multitask to agonizing screams; when you open a door a Silicon Valley algorithm firebombs everything you hold precious in front of you while you try not to cry and drop coffee on your shoes.
2017 was also quite funny, if you ignore everything I just wrote.
CORBS AND CANS
For example, the last politician in England who has (for the most part) held steadfast and admirable values for most of his life (despite the New Labour policy of steamrolling every non-neoliberal in town) went out in the 2017 weather to get some Special Brew tins & coffee in something that can only be described as the robbed shell suit of a nineties swamp monster. The overall effect is of a man who has dedicated his life to politics and poor people but has no idea about PR: the exact opposite of Satan’s cheese puff, Trump, and therefore, one of the most soothing men to read news and smile about.
Scotland’s been doing okay despite England forcing it to leave the EU, membership to the EU being the only thing that assured we did not vote for an independent country, which I assume we now deeply, deeply regret with the power of a thousand suns. But something that stern English Daily Mail readers like to whine about is that when Scottish tennis winner Sir Andy Murray is Going About Winning Tennis Things around the world he better be smiling about it, he better be happy to be trotted out the athletic pet of the dead British Empire. Sir Andy Murray (not a fashion model) has been told to smile so often it’s like he’s permanently a pretty teenage girl walking past a building site. But in 2017, Sir Andy Murray proved the frown is his super power: when he tells this complacent reporter that Sam Querrey was the first male US player to reach a semi-final since 2009, it was like the scowl had X-Men-like qualities and it lit up the reporter: if you listen carefully you can hear the man’s flesh sizzling in the background as Murray basks in the simultaneous arousal of thousands of heterosexual women around the country who can’t help but be impressed by baseline male respect. As if you could forget Serena Williams and be a sports journalist.
This year my friend Megan Farokhmanesh noticed that on the 20th anniversary of the best worst Batman movie, Batman And Robin, (which I still maintain has a tie-in novel that is dynamite, a much better rendering if you ask me) Joel Schumacher was talking about nipples on the batsuit again. Megan correctly surmised that this is the most important thing about the film: the objectifying of the male form that the film seemed comfortable with. Schumacher himself said that he hadn’t realised what a firestorm he’d cooked up by erect male headlamp inclusion. The reveal is that when objectification is reflected at men themselves, we start to ask if Batman would be sexualizing his own suit: if yes, that says something very interesting about Bruce Wayne, possibly one of the most interesting things any writer might have said about him. If no, then we must ask exactly why it is most female superheroes in films always create impractical sexualised outfits for themselves without fail and without the audience immediately rupturing with questions about the believability of her character. I guess some might live in a fantasy land where dressing that way does not interrupt the ‘rescue small children from a burning building’ plot with mundane sexual harassment or some dude pestering for a date, but I suspect this world is not like Gotham City. In Batman and Robin, Alfred made his niece a Batgirl suit that in Terry Pratchett’s words might be "six weeks work for an experienced panel beater." But don’t let’s look at Hollywood too closely; we might find a gaping maw of rotten garbage.
Tula Lotay, Wonder Woman, poster drawn for @MondoNews. Source: https://twitter.com/tulalotay/status/870724076062609410
This year the artist Tula Lotay has been tapping her boots and then solidly knocking balls out of the park. Best known for her work in comics, Tula Lotay is someone whose feathery lines, hard-jawed men and voluptuous-lipped femme fatales remind me of the creatures on the front of old golden age Black Mask magazines (only when I look those up, they pale in comparison). Her colors, especially, are the most vibrant palettes and pop art joys to look at, but my favourite scenes of hers are the romantic clinch, or when her characters look meaningfully at each other. There’s something electric in the art she produces, like she vibrates a wild abandon or ecstasy into her characters. Probably the greatest compliment I could give her is that she draws like she is in love with people, and what better reason to wake up in the morning than to see love like that on a page. I have given her all my money.
FOOTBALL-THEMED INTERACTIVE FICTION
Welcome to the section of the article where I tell you that you are in love with Jon Bois. It’s true; I am in love with Jon Bois too. I have never met Jon Bois. But his interactive fiction masterpiece 17776 is one of the most important pieces of internet art I’ve ever been exposed to. He would probably laugh derisively at this; this is why I am in love with Jon Bois. That, and I too love American football as romantically as he does. Please read this. It is wonderful. It is hilarious, exuberant, and it is also as beautifully paced as any TV show you will watch.
FRANKIE BOYLE ON CONSERVATIVES
The fact that Frankie Boyle can make me laugh about the terrible political situation we are in, and still preserve the anger I need to get things done, is probably the only thing making me feel generally jovial any more:
BIG NEV'S TWITTER
Him and Big Nev Southall, the gentle giant of Twitter, who looks down sternly upon racists and bigots, and succinctly inquires as to why they might be such twats to strangers, and who listens intently to when he is given new information about how to be kinder:
CLIFFE LIVES ON
Since The Toast died I’ve been bereft, but Nicole Cliffe is still around to teach me things. For example, the phrase “cum gutters” is now firmly a part of my vocabulary, and Joe Mangianello’s golden retriever-like insistence on wolfing down blocks of cheese is now something I’m aware of thanks to her:
CLIMB OVER THEM
Where I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, is a place beset by climbing and bouldering walls - we have Europe’s largest indoor climbing wall, situated in an old quarry, as well as a wealth of actual massive motherfucking mountains surrounding us. There was much laughing and rejoicing at my local bouldering wall when this rebuttal of a GQ mess about climbing was published, which sees women climbers pictured in their natural state: actually climbing. With clothes on.
I read Carrie Fisher’s Princess Diarist this year, and it broke my heart in two. Harrison Ford treated her very cruelly, and it occurred to me that he probably didn’t know that he was abusing his power - it is common of men to think that because women have ‘power’ over them sexually that that somehow puts mouthy nineteen year old girls on an equal footing with married male co-stars 14 years older than them. Perhaps male sexuality is invisible to male heterosexuals. But she also knew that she was in love with him and he wasn’t in love with her (I assume, from his actions), and it’s always hard to read about that sort of thing. I loved this interview with Mark Hamill, where he says that he and Carrie made out and gambolled around like teenagers more on an equal footing, and I think it shows an extraordinary amount of respect and fondness for her, something I think her memory deserves. Though I don’t believe Mark Hamill is a good kisser, so, there is perhaps one false claim to be considered.
I assume that many people will recommend this read on millennials to be worth your time, but I consider this next article the most valuable Serious piece of 2017: Brit Marling on the Economics of Consent. A woman may say nothing and a powerful monied man has still decided whether he will give her work based on how likely it is she will say yes to him on any subject. If she starts to say no, even to sex (one of the worst abuses of power) it is no longer a disagreement on professional values. He wrongly interprets her as her rejecting him as a person. And sometimes the woman said yes once, and then has used up her ‘professional’ value after that: she deserves no politeness or courtesy any more. And this has egregious effects on the ability of men and women to work together, to co-exist together. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fixed.
If 2018 doesn’t continue to hit the “enable all disasters” button on its SimCity 2000 game, I’ll see you next year for more ways you can prevent yourself from doing any work. Until then, death to the bum rag The Daily Mail.
Cara Ellison is a writer and narrative designer for videogames. She is currently working on the game Dreams for PS4. She has made a corner of the utopian internet here: http://caraellison.co.uk/
Rhizome asked writers and artists to help us count down the final hours of the year by sharing internet things to remember from 2017, because those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
How do you summarize the hellfire of a year that was 2017? There’s so much to cover! Where to start? Rather than let this list get very dark, very quickly, I wanted to focus on some of the Internet Things that made me pause, made me smile, and gave me some hope.
1. Chelsea Manning’s Emoji Use
Chelsea Manning’s use of emoticons and emojis to express joy, make jokes, offer support and send up dumb motherfuckers on Twitter. She is bringing a joy to the Internet that is equal parts earnestness and snark, backed by a foundational leftist activism, and I 👏 am 👏 here 👏 for 👏 it. 👏
#MeToo was important for so many reasons: the movement was started by a woman of color (crucial given that the dominant conversation already excludes so many WOC voices). The hashtag is potentially causing a real sea change. Of course, it is not without its problems, and it is yet to be determined whether we’re in the midst of actual cultural change, a flash in the pan zeitgeist, or a fade, but for now, #MeToo is creating much-needed dialogue around sexual harassment.
3. Slicey Bois
I’d call this a burgeoning meme as it is not widely used. Ben Gullard, an artist and classmate from my master’s program, posted this celebration of guillotines, newly called “slicey bois,” on Facebook. Perhaps it’s the happenstance of discovery, since it appeared in my timeline right after the Republican Senate voted for the largest overhaul of the US tax code in 30 years, one that enable drilling in the Arctic, attacks core components of the Affordable Care Act, and treats corporations better than people. So, I loved the idea of the slicey boi, as well as the timing of when it appeared in my feed. Why not have more guillotine memes shared by teens, just as US Republicans are having very much a “let them eat cake” moment?
4. Expanding Brain/Whomst
Generally, I love all expanding brain memes, but this one and its variations, especially. Grammar correction is deployed as a petty tool in digital conversations. It’s fascinating to watch used in debates, because the move is both incredibly disarming, and it is designed to be that way. Seeing a meme that then uses made up formal grammar to mock this pettiness is hilarious.
5. Astro Poets Twitter
The Astro poets Twitter account is devoted to take downs, send ups, poetry, emotions and humor. Astro poets, who write an astrology column for W Magazine, strike a perfect balance between activism, humor, and hope, between reminding us that words can’t be banned because poets exist, beautifully written horoscope tweets, and calling out star sign bullshit.
6. Bail Bloc
Bail Bloc is one of my favorite activism and art projects of the year. It can be incredibly effective; it was incredibly well researched and executed, and it is the best use of a cryptocurrency I’ve seen out there.
7. Twitter’s Redemption
This. Thread. Right. Here. It reminded me of why I love(d) Twitter, which is harder now with the continuing harassment and the Nazis. Sometimes there’s magic on Twitter, a very broken product with broken leadership that doesn’t seem to care about community.
8. RIP Vine, RIP AIM
This year saw the death of Vine and AIM, too. Rest in Peace. RIP. We will miss you, for forever. You were too good for us, and we didn’t deserve you, but we will remember you. A/S/L and seven second videos 4ever.
9. Wendy’s Social Media
I briefly worked in advertising and was allowed to write tweets for Mastercard (why would anyone let me do that is beyond me) but I learned just how much copywriting and approval goes into managing a brand’s social accounts. These clapbacks from Wendy’s areonpoint and fucking savage, because either Wendy’s HQ DGAF or they are super on board with being assholes. Either way, it’s amazing.
10. Congressional Edit Tracking
Consider CongressEdits, a bot that tracks all of the edits made from the IP address of the US Congress. You can see things like the Sean Hannity article or human feces or the legend of Zelda videogame being edited. You know, really important political stuff.
⭐️ Slime Vids
If you were born after 2000 you already know that slime vids are the shiiiiiiiiit. They constitute a mostly unrecognized fetish, in the same vein (and often in tandem with) ASMR and other physical deformation vids, like press-crushing, sand-slicing, and so on. Slime vids are a culmination of so many satisfying elements into one gooey, bubbly, and probably highly toxic paste. They remind me of wanting to eat screen printing ink, a desire I can't say I've grown out of.
Slime vids have also been cited as a cause of glue shortages in stores, which is fun. You can find them easily online, whether on Instagram or Youtube. For whatever reason, I've stuck with @theslimeyhoe, who in addition to being a child with brilliant branding sense, is more or less an aggregator account, posting other peoples' work but adding small notes about their day, or integrating back and forth conversations with other slime accounts, like some sort of embedded slime-diary.
⭐️ Zuckerberg Puerto Rico VR Livestream
In keeping with our society-wide, ever-developing skill of smiling through gritted teeth, here's a “best” live event of the year. I challenge you to name a more illustrative indictment of the state of new media art than Mark Zuckerberg high-five'n in VR, in front of flooded Puerto Rican homes. Here is a gleaming, wide-eyed tech demo of Silicon Valley individualists patting each other on the back with millions of dollars, bundled in hollow platitudes, all the while submerged in a heavy fog of incalculable human sadness that they have little vested interest in correcting.
A better commentary than any art show I’ve been to on how imperfect and absurd the future (regardless of the marvels of its innovations) will be and is, and a spiritual successor to the Boring Dystopia Facebook group, @Shitty_Future is a welcome counterpoint to all the hyperbolic promo-babble that startup bros inundate us with on a daily basis.
⭐️ Surreal drag makeup
A number of artists have been plumbing the depths of drag makeup for some months now, and I’ve probably only just now caught the wave. The medium has transcended hyperreal facial feature embellishment and moved into surrealist mask-making or abstract illustration over, and on, the skull-canvas. Belonging to a mostly Insta-centric world, the artists I've been following closest have included @isshehungry (aside: she was actually hired for the recent Bjork Utopia cover, which was a refreshing change from stylists and editorial directors' using the usual hackneyed and hollow artist copies via their most evil weapons and executors: the moodboard and the sullen studio intern), along with the brilliant @matieresfecales, @suckgenesis, @monar.x, and salvjiia.
⭐️Russians use videogame screenshot as propaganda
The intersection of 3D graphics and propagandistic fakery is always captivating to me, so when the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation’s Facebook page posted a screengrab of the mobile game AC-130 Gunship Simulator: Special Ops Squadron, it seemed like a moment of true comedic confluence.
⭐️ Something Is Wrong On The Internet
As someone who is moving increasingly towards surreal children's animation and Youtuber garbage in my personal practice, and also as someone who genuinely feels unending glee from watching the fascinating proliferation of (seemingly) procedurally-generated 3D kids' vids, the very good article "Something Is Wrong On The Internet" by James Bridle strikes me as maybe slightly alarmist, but a nonetheless vital read. The piece captures a cross section of vids that lie between borderline-fetishy fanfic, democratized 3D animation, and commandeering of search keywords for anonymous Youtube cash schemes, and then discusses the possible health implications for the children that voraciously, and innocently, inhale it all.
⭐️ Weird Mike gets repeatedly and savagely dunked on in his AMA
Not one to make resolutions, but my main move next year is to practice a bit more self-care. So together, let's all pinch and chef kiss our fingertips, mmmm omma nom nom, at this delicacy of soul-restoration that is Pizzagate-peddling, white supremacist shitbag Mike Cernovich getting flogged within an inch of his contrived life in his Reddit AMA.
Ahahahhhhhhhahhhahhhhhhhh ... feels good man.
Here's a small dessert that pairs well: https://twitter.com/CaptainSnoop/status/940790637300998144
⭐️ Unionization of digital media companies
A Truly Good Internet Thing that's begun happening with more frequency this year is a growing push to unionize digital media companies, despite pushback from their supposedly progressive bosses (group negotiation for fairer wages stifles all that innovative disruption, guys!) and just outright assholes submarining the whole thing out of greed. Vox, Vice, Gawker/Gizmodo, Huffington Post, and many others have seen measured successes in organizing for a transparent wage scale, severance, and collective bargaining for workers’ rights.
⭐ Secret Image Macro Poetry
There's a relatively small, cultish subsection of image macro creators on Facebook who have taken the format to a place that rides the line between alt-lit poetry, memes, and self-medicated depression-core journaling. I've found myself following the field passionately this year. I won't post the link for fear of the banhammer (and art communities such as these are so tenuous anyway, that a passing article can easily break their equilibrium) ... but they're People, Umm ... what can I say that doesn't give it away? ... who sometimes ... layer text in simple, deskilled ways over found imagery ... and are also ... oohhhh, IDK. I bet you can find it.
⭐ The Boston Dynamics backflipping robot
Look, you’ve probably already seen this, and maybe upon review an ambient sense of singularity-borne apocalyptic dread is a bit more pronounced, but to come full circle, let’s just marvel at how siiiiiiiiiiiick this robo-backflip is, one more time. Before it’s not cute anymore.
This post contains semi-nudity.
After a year of death and doom, we all started 2017 hoping for it to get better and for things to make sense. So when Beyoncé, peace be unto her, announced her pregnancy via Instagram, on the first day of Black History Month, not only pregnant but with twins, there was joy and hope in the world (and the picture quickly became the most liked image on the platform).
Super Bowl LI
What better event is there to invest all the affective energy of the country’s political strife than a football game? This year’s Super Bowl was more than just football. It was symbolic with precise parallels to the real world: The New England Patriots as Trump, the Atlanta Falcons as the Resistance (their official slogan: “Rise Up!”) and Lady Gaga’s halftime performance as the Women’s March on Washington. The underdog Falcons gained a historic lead, Gaga’s performance was praised for its apolitical feel, and the Falcons blew their lead and lost. Having laughed my black ass off the day after the election, I was sad about the outcome of this stupid game and I was not alone.
Dana Schutz Fake Letter
The whole Open Casket controversy was a mess and grossly mishandled by the curators, the Whitney, the artist, and the powers that be in the community at large. Debates raged on and ultimately, nothing happened. During the media firestorm, an anonymous individual sent a letter to Art.sy, claiming to be Dana Schutz apologizing, which they published—as did many other sites—for a couple of hours, until word got out that it was fake. The art world got duped into believing that the artist had taken accountability, which never happened.
2017 was a great year for music and for rap music, even greater. There was one track, specifically, that exploded in the way a rap song hasn’t in years (no, it wasn’t “Bodak Yellow”). It was a 7-minute diss track by Remy Ma called “SHEther” in which she skewers Nicki Minaj in easily one of the most relentless takedowns ever, creating the most Hip Hop moment of 2017 (sorry, Black Thought). Nicki pretty much failed to effectively respond, which greatly harmed her credibility, similar to Ja Rule's withering away after 50 Cent's evisceration. Nothing was the same.
Speaking of Ja Rule, he came back in to the media spotlight this year, and not for his music, but Fyre Festival, a catastrophically botched music festival that he and venture capitalist Billy McFarland attempted to mount in the Bahamas. People paid hundreds and thousands of dollars, expecting luxurious amenities and headlining acts (red flag: those acts were Rule himself and Blink 182) but were met with tents and lettuce sandwiches. They were also stranded on a beach with stray dogs. The tragicomedy wrote itself.
Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad
Pepsi also took an L in a failed effort to make a politically engaged ad starring Kendall Jenner in which she stops a riot by sharing a soda with one of the cops. It was one of many such tone-deaf advertisements this year, but was special because it was so absurd.
California congresswoman Maxine Waters will not allow Steve Mnuchin or anyone else to waste her time. The sentiment is one that people should and did get behind.
The Oscars was another metaphorical battle between the whiteness of La La Land and the Blackness of Moonlight as frontrunners to win Best Picture. Somehow, an envelope got switched and Warren Beatty mistakenly announced La La Land as the winner, but it was fake news and corrected (after waaayy too long, like minutes). This provided a perfect possible template for inserting more fake news, like Beyoncé winning the Grammy for Best Album, or The Falcons winning the Super Bowl.
If the World Wide Web is an iceberg, its tip is the Surface Web, the Visible Web, the Indexed Web, the Lightnet of detectable cyberspace. This is the 4% through which average internet users navigate each day, while the remaining 96% rests beneath a veneer of public search engines and social media. This vastly uncharted alternate multiverse is colloquially termed The Deep Web. Yet even further within such recesses, lies a Dark Web—through which the Silk Roads of the e-scape wind over, past, and beyond servers, where cryptomarkets offer goods to buyers without the utility of exports, imports, and governments in general—undulating and virtually untraceable. Whereas these darknet zones originally served to sell anything from illicit drugs, pornography, and weapons, to prosaic merchandise, the digital marketplace today has evolved into an arena of legitimized transactions and investments out in the open, involving digital currencies (also known as cryptocurrencies) such as Bitcoin.
Meanwhile, though online art networks have been in existence for quite some time, the art world has often lagged a step behind the breakneck developments of the tech industry. But over the past several years, in what could be considered a “digital media art” vogue, the exhibitions, galleries, and collections of today, such as Dot Dash 3, Vngravity, Daata Editions, and Sedition, have increasingly moved—sometimes entirely—into virtual marketplaces. For better and worse, the fate of these initiatives will be taken as an indication of the answer to a long-standing question: can art display and collection be sustained in the screen-contained expanse of game engines, AR, unsupported plugins, mobile apps, defunct links, and the swelling necropolis of extinct sites?
Harm van den Dorpel, Autobreeder (lite), 2016
Left gallery, based out of Berlin, is a particularly enterprising model, the first to directly employ Bitcoin and blockchain technology, though it does not (yet) operate on the Dark Web. Co-founded in 2015 by artist and programmer Harm van den Dorpel with anthropologist and partner Paloma Rodríguez Carrington, it is perhaps the most organic offering within this space, given its adaptation of cryptographic exchange and computational language. Supported by cleancut content, sleek aesthetic form, and the mission to “produce and sell downloadable objects,” the platform’s matter-of-fact UI—designed in collaboration with Beautiful Company—mimics the feel of an app store that meets contemporary art gallery. All available works and curated exhibitions are viewable via the click of a button and horizontal scroll. Said “downloadable objects” are available for purchase by credit card, PayPal, and Bitcoin in file formats such as, but not limited to, .epub, .mobi, .app, .exe, .saver, .mp4, .html, .gif, .txt, .rtf, and .m3u.
During his studies in artificial intelligence at the Vrije Universiteit and then in time-based arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, van den Dorpel first noticed the art world’s lack of affinity for and indifference towards the curation and preservation of immaterial media. After he attended an event at the Austrian Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts (MAK) in Vienna in 2015, by invitation from Cointemporary, left gallery was born. The museum bought one of van den Dorpel’s works, Event Listeners, which became the first recorded occasion that an artwork was purchased by an institution using Bitcoin, and eventually all one hundred editions of the work sold out. With the hope to fill a gap while extending the precedents set by platforms such as Cointemporary, van den Dorpel and Rodríguez Carrington geared left gallery’s vision toward a generation acclimated to buying smartphone apps, icon packs, and subscriptions to software and streaming services.
This model, centered around “affordability,” translates into a collection of large editions (often in editions of one hundred) made accessible to a wider demographic of collectors, while simultaneously made scarce on the web in order to sell exclusive, largely commissioned work. So far, the gallery’s growing collectorship includes a wide sample set, from graphic designers to startup offices, individual collectors from the tech and business worlds, to speculation-focused art collectors in China purchasing with Bitcoin.
Damon Zucconi, uneel cbggre naq gur fbeprere'f fgbar, 2016
A quick primer here for those unfamiliar with the lingo: cryptocurrency is an electronic currency type for the online market, and Bitcoin is the earliest and most popular decentralized cryptocurrency. Underlying Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies is the technology of blockchain, which helps create and then serve an open consensus of synchronized data that records transactions between two parties efficiently, in a verifiable and permanent way. By design, blockchains are immutable to any data modification without the consensus of a majority of users. Bitcoin is just one of many possible applications of this particular blockchain, and there are many other customized blockchains, each with many possible applications built on top of them.
In an application of ingenuity, left gallery’s platform further authenticates its editions through a platform called ascribe, which facilitates the connection between art world makers and collectors and auctioneers. The platform further registers all works, offering artists a way of selling with a certificate of authenticity attached to the moment of timestamping ownership. Any information can be stored in the blockchain. If ascribe or left gallery cease to exist, that information will remain verifiable as long as the blockchain is around, since ascribe only offers the interface which places the work on the blockchain. Through a seemingly complex technical story, ascribe reveals itself to be quite a basic service. Once collectors understand how their ownership is stored independently, the purchase incentive increases. Perhaps most credibly, ascribe’s system allows the resale of editions independent of the gallery’s interface, as opposed to other digital edition sites that vendor-lock work into their platforms. Left gallery therefore makes it possible for collectors and buyers to take that artwork out of its original context for recirculation in the wider art market.
William Kherbek, Retrodiction, 2017
In a vignette published in Spike Magazine, the gallery’s curatorial vision explores “the quasi-colonial relations that are increasingly being built into the internet’s infrastructure, a mentality left gallery seeks to confront and oppose.” The mobile landscape has undoubtedly been dominated by heavy corporate censorship. The only way to get an app on a smartphone is through an account with Google or Apple which earns 20% of the revenue from purchases. And for every app purchase from any kind of service or shop, there is a further sum deducted just to allow the transaction to take place. Left gallery offers a way of bypassing this system by offering apps otherwise disallowed by Apple or Google (given that there are no categories for “art” in those app stores).
The question of obsolescence is a pressing one.“Digital editions” of works shown by galleries are often limited to video, and do not necessarily take full advantage of the new medium-specific capabilities that software offers. Even software and files are now becoming outdated with the advent of online streaming media. Packaging the works as standalone “files” simplifies some of the issues inherent in browser- and network-dependent works. Left gallery takes a pragmatic stance towards conservation issues, exploring a range of strategies depending on the artist’s project alongside practical considerations. For instance, when macOS does not support a particular screensaver file format anymore, the software will be recompiled in collaboration with the artist.
Jeffrey A. Scudder, JAS 184.108.40.206.3, 2016
In a conversation over Skype, van den Dorpel muses, “left gallery offers software so that the art can be interactive and generative. Not only using decentralized technology for ownership but also for payment, and calling it left gallery, is a political conviction. We have very limited means of opposition or rebellion, but generally, art has a very small but direct force.”
As Rodríguez Carrington elaborates, “The most important thing is that we offer art, and that people can buy this art without understanding blockchain or Bitcoin. We don’t perceive these works as purely digital or virtual; they are actual objects, hence ‘downloadable objects.’ The blockchain enables us to offer people a decent and relaxed way of ownership, of collecting art, while supporting the artists directly.”
Rodríguez Carrington’s background in anthropology with a concentration in popular culture has further driven left gallery’s broader interest in the art world as interdisciplinary community. The gallery hosts events in physical spaces, its owners understanding that an exponential increase in online peers has not diminished—and perhaps has only exacerbated—a longing for physical contact. Offline events have incorporated digital painting, live performance, music, and cooking as a way of increasing visibility, introducing artists and the gallery to the public, and expanding dialogue. In one collaboration with the artist William Kherbek, the gallery worked with a bookstore in Amsterdam selling physical copies of the artist’s poetry, and organized a poetry reading in conjunction with the launch of their virtual poetry pieces. Other collaborating artists include Micah Hesse, Dorine van Meel, Damon Zucconi, Gene McHugh, Sean Lockwood, and Ryan Kuo.
Gene McHugh, Bang Bros, 2015
It may be interesting to note that despite the exclusivity and legitimacy which comes with physical gallery space (versus the lack of scarcity in cyberspace), software-based works that are inserted into actual physical spaces take on a newfound scarcity via a subsequent need for programming. This demand adds value and legitimacy to the software-based artwork, bringing value full circle. Perhaps one recurring lesson is that founding utopian ideas driving the development of the internet and the internet art lauded in the 1990s do not and cannot survive on their own, without adaptations of hybridity, and hybrid exchanges between on- and off-line, as left gallery practices deliberately.
In terms of expanding a long-term vision, left gallery has also begun to offer “mastery editions”—unique, extended, and exclusive editions which are further bound to hardware—equipped for those collectors looking for guidance in terms of display, an output the gallery describes as more “backroom” and off-model. While there aren’t necessarily plans to start sending out small computers or screens to individual buyers, left gallery does aspire to find solutions for digital art collection in real time. “We’re not looking to get the next thousand digital artists to use our platform. The curatorial process here is very important and we include works that we believe in,” van den Dorpel affirms in conclusion. “We’re not a startup in the capitalistic sense, which is very much based on quick growth, quantity in user-base, investors, and exit strategies. I think it’s most critical that left gallery as a whole has an experimental and collaborative structure. The future is to maintain what we do, while making what we do clearer and clearer. We’re not in a rush.”
While the value of the few million existing bitcoin across the globe is on a parabolic rise, with a predicted end-game value of $400,000 each, according to analyst Ronnie Moas, left gallery hopes to meet the increasing demand for digital artwork by offering an organic solution to the precarious complications of virtual art circulation for both artists and collectors. While the blockchain-based space certainly operates on left-leaning attitudes regarding accessibility, the platform itself is one where the worlds of tech and art, software and hardware, virtual and actual, collide at a generative center.
Header image: Dorine van Meel, Disobedient Children, 2016
Fold-out drawing from Ferrante Imperato, Dell’Historia Naturale, Naples 1599.
This report is published in partnership with DAOWO, a series that brings together artists, musicians, technologists, engineers, and theorists to consider how blockchains might be used to enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture. The series is organized by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London and the State Machines programme. Its title is inspired by a paper by artist, hacker and writer Rob Myers called DAOWO – Decentralised Autonomous Organisation With Others.
When discussing the uses and implications of blockchain at “Reinventing the Art Lab on the Blockchain,” a workshop and panel held at the Goethe-Institut in London on October 26, conversations pivoted around a central concern: while the decentralized structure of blockchain may liberate us from centralized powers such as banks, the highly precise identification and registration of data through automated transactions can reduce meaning to code and trap us in totalizing systems.
Order is both clarifying and restrictive. In the panel discussion, curator Helen Kaplinsky and artist Hito Steyerl drew similarities between the Victorian cabinet of curiosities and blockchain: both reduce the individual to its category. Looking at a stuffed bird, arranged in a cabinet of curiosities, fills us with both wonder and revulsion. This exotic animal, once full of life, is abstracted. Something of its beauty may be captured in the taxidermy, but essentially it has become a sad specimen, categorized in an index of the species. Moreover, creating a cabinet of curiosities asserts mastery over others: the Victorian aristocrat affirms their wealth and social hierarchy through the act of collecting, ordering and display.
This oscillation between freedom and entrapment could be seen throughout the workshop conversations. After an introduction by Ruth Catlow and Ben Vickers, instigators of the DAOWO series, the participants—a mix of artists, researchers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and public institutions—were divided into four groups each led by an arts practitioner who had been experimenting with blockchain. The groups were asked to explore how blockchain is affecting the arts and to delve deeper into the pragmatics of applying blockchain to specific scenarios. This led to more questions than answers.
Blockchain in the art ecosystem
Holgrave shared her research charting the use of blockchain in the arts. From authentication of artworks to digital currency payments and resale rights, the sheer number of companies offering blockchain-based services highlights the speed at which blockchain is being applied to the arts, especially the art market. With so many competing entities, many with little understanding of the art they seek to “disrupt,” the question became: how might best practices, standards, and ethical guidelines emerge?
Consensus in cooperative models
Kaplinsky’s group took the “Temporary Custodians” project, a fundraising initiative and artwork, as a use case to explore investments that are blockchain-enabled and cooperative. Models such as Temporary Custodians offer new ways to think about how we sustain the arts, but as the ongoing Ethereum fork debate has shown, gaining consensus in shared ownership structures is a challenge that technology alone can’t solve. With a range of competing values at work in the arts—from making money to supporting experimentation—how do you agree what’s best?
Blockchain as a memory bank for art
Mark Waugh, on behalf of the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS)
Once sold, artworks may be resold and inherited many times over. Waugh explained how DACS is experimenting with blockchain as a way of managing the complexities of artists’ resale rights and assuring provenance. He also put some of the emerging practical and theoretical challenges to the group. This led to the question: how can we ensure that the use of blockchain does not inadvertently reaffirm existing inequalities in the circulation of art? For example, if blockchain becomes a memory bank for art, one effect could be to marginalize work that is ephemeral or philosophically opposed to entering into contracts.
New economies for digital and networked art
Inspired by Furtherfield’s Do It With Others (DIWO) collaborative ethos and blockchain-based, self-sustaining artworks such as Plantoid, Catlow asked her group to explore how blockchain could be used to create art and sustain artistic practice. Can blockchain help generate the resources needed to sustain art making as an end in itself, rather than at the service of the market or other imperatives? What models of coordination and new formats for production would be needed?
Blockchain may be used to free us from centralized power structures and increase artistic agency, but may equally reinforce existing inequalities and reduce meaning to code. What values should blockchain serve?
The conversations held in the working groups were evidence that a complex array of values are at work when we apply blockchain to the arts. The design and structure of technologies such as blockchain are shaped by the values of whomever develops the system—largely fintech startups and major tech companies. The mix of perspectives among workshop participants also highlights the range of competing values already at work within the arts, for example within commercial or not-for-profit galleries. Given this complexity, initiatives such as the DAOWO series play a vital role in helping us understand the pros and cons of using blockchain in any given scenario. This is necessary if the arts are to rise above the potential limitations and hazards of blockchain, and as the DAOWO instigators intend, focus on how blockchain can “enable a critical, sustainable and empowered culture.” Gaining consensus on what values inform the culture which DAOWO aspires to may turn out to be the biggest challenge of all. This is a political and moral challenge rather than a technical one.
In 2007, Google launched Street View, a new feature for Google Maps. For the first time, users could leave the map’s default bird’s-eye view perspective, and enter a 360° immersive street-level world. To build this world, Google launched a fleet of cars that used automated multi-lens digital cameras to photograph every street, highway, and alley. The images were then analyzed, altered and corrected, and stitched together to produce Street View’s navigable three-dimensional environment.
Shortly after Street View’s release, artist Jon Rafman began to explore its world, taking screenshots of scenes he found along the way, which laid the foundation for the collection Nine Eyes (2008-ongoing). In terms of form, Nine Eyes of Google Street View is perhaps best known as a Tumblr (http://9-eyes.com/) but the images have also been printed and exhibited physically (as in the exhibition “Mirror Sites” at M+B in 2012), as well as remixed into other works, such as You, the World and I (2010). It is important to note that Rafman was not alone in his Street View travels, as many artists and photographers—such as Michael Wolf or Douglas Rickard—were pursuing concurrent projects. What distinguishes Nine Eyes of Google Street View, however, is its pursuit of the sublime in the postinternet age.
Rafman’s approach to photography is unmistakably postinternet. Following the definition formulated in Artie Vierkant’s essay “The Image Object Post-Internet,” postinternet art refers to objects and images that have been created “with concern to their particular materiality as well as their vast variety of methods of presentation and dissemination.” For Vierkant, this type of production is always inherently informed by certain characteristics of life under Web 2.0 such as “the collapse of physical space in networked culture, and the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” Google Street View, as an attempt to fully map physical space onto the digital screen, provides an exemplary source material for such work, since it presents life itself in the same way Guthrie Lonergan described “Internet Aware” art: “when the photo of the art object is more widely dispersed [and] viewed than the object itself.”
As postinternet photography, the images in Nine Eyes of Google Street View testify above all to the processes of their own making and dissemination. There is no coherent subject matter unifying the images. Certain themes recur, such as glitches in the stitching system or people giving the finger to the camera, but what organizes the photographs together into one single work is simply that they have been selected from Street View during one of the artist’s marathon surfing sessions. Rafman highlights the digital aspects of his photographs—such as pixelation, watermarks, and the navigational interface which appears in nearly every image—but this never detracts from the sense that the photographs portray something real. Instead, they declare the extent to which offline life is always already structured by the online. This is what leads Geoff Dyer to describeNine Eyes of Google Street View as giving the impression that not only is Rafman not an “old-school photographer,” but that it almost seems as if he has never even been outdoors, and that “his knowledge of the world derives entirely from representations of it.”
The sense of slipperiness between these two modes is furthered by the work’s form as a blog, which acknowledges and facilitates the sharing of the images. By organizing the photographs in a Tumblr, where users frequently reblog and circulate images produced by others, Nine Eyes of Google Street View never exists in a stable state, and instead takes its potential circulation as inherent to the work. The fact that Nine Eyes of Google Street View remains ongoing—despite last being updated in 2014—reflects the temporality of the blog, where there is never a clear sense of finality, since as long as the blog still exists there is always the capability for one more post. Online image sharing is also evidenced by the physical prints Rafman makes, which detail how an image spreads, transitioning from the screen to the gallery, before once more returning to the screen through exhibition photographs.
Like much postinternet art, Nine Eyes of Google Street View does not take a compelling critical stance, but for Rafman, this is intentional.1Nine Eyes of Google Street View may at times gesture towards critique—it shares a name, for example, with an intelligence sharing alliance composed of nine countries, bringing to mind issues of mass surveillance—but its focus lies elsewhere, in aesthetic experience. As Rafman states in a 2011 interview with AIDS 3D, “Aesthetic experience for me is self-justifying… it is very important for me to maintain a separation between art… and politics and critical theory.” While most postinternet art draws upon contemporary corporate aesthetics, Rafman instead draws influence from the romantic period, bringing the search for the sublime into the virtual realm.2
Though the concept of the sublime dates back to classical antiquity, it came to renewed prominence in the romantic period due to the writings of Immanuel Kant, who devoted a lengthy section his Critique of Judgement to the topic. For Kant, the sublime is a sensation in the mind that is aroused through a specific type of encounter. It is a carefully balanced sensation, simultaneously evoking displeasure—caused by an awareness of inadequacy and the limitations of human thought—and pleasure, “arising from this very judgment of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason.” In order to evoke this feeling, the subject must encounter a seemingly limitless, violent, though not harmful, object. In Kant’s schema the ideal object of the sublime is nature, since it is an outside to the enlightenment society in which Kant lived, governed by reason and logic. In its most chaotic, violent, or terrifying forms it pushes the subject into a sublime encounter, initially evoking the limitations of man and society, but ultimately leading to joy through the mind’s capability to overcome this displeasure. More precisely, for Kant the sublime is “an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.”3
Though Kant privileges Nature, as historical moments shift, so too do the objects of the sublime. In his characterization of the postmodern period, Fredric Jameson updates the enlightenment concept of the sublime into what he terms the postmodern or technological sublime. Since “the other of our society is in that sense no longer Nature at all,” Jameson replaces it with technology, as it “seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.”4 Jameson wrote, however, at a time when global networks of communication like the internet were novel and still in their infancy. How can the postmodern sublime be conveyed through postinternet art, when “the internet is less a novelty and more a banality”?
The key to the sublime in Rafman’s work lies in the way the indifferent, mechanical gaze of the automated Street View camera renders even the most banal moments as other, re-presenting life as something alien to the human. Rafman describes seeing in Street View as “looking at a memory that nobody really had”; the scenes depicted in the images be recognizable and banal, but the images themselves are nonetheless foreign. In many of Rafman’s photos, this distance between the viewer and life is laid all the more bare by his inclusion of the “Report a Problem” button in many of theNine Eyes of Google Street View images. Here, the only element that even approaches some form of reciprocity or communication between the viewer and the networks in which they are enmeshed is made viewable, but inoperable. The viewer is held at a distance, experiencing the sublime as they confront the absolute otherness of Street View.
Beyond the camera itself, the sheer scale of the Street View project strengthens the sense of the sublime in Rafman’s images. As Luc Vincent, an engineer who pioneered the Street View project, states, Google’s intention is to “paint the world,” at the resolution of “about one pixel to the inch.” The sheer ambition of the aim of such goal—not to mention the resources necessary for such an undertaking—exceeds the rational, and even approaches the limits of the positivist dominion inherent in mapping. The images ofNine Eyes of Google Street View place the viewer on the edges of the map, faced with something vast and ungraspable. Instead of making the world known, Rafman reveals how Street View renders the sublime.
1. See “The Perils of Post-Internet Art” by Brian Droitcour
2. Rafman’s interest in the sublime is evidenced in exhibitions such as In Search for the Virtual Sublime II at China Art Objects in Los Angeles. The sublime as an aesthetic concern can also bee seen in Kool-Aid Man in Second Life (2008-2011), produced contemporaneously to Nine Eyes of Google Street View. In many of the videos and images that make up the work, the Kool-Aid Man, the artist’s avatar in Second Life, is shown alone, starring into the vast abyss of the digital world, bringing to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818).
3. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Trans. James Creed Meredith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
4. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Do you remember when people misheard the words “fuck that” on the chorus of Kendrick Lamar’s “A.D.H.D.” as “fuck thought?” Well, fuck thought. Kind of. Let’s talk about it.
By means of “lack of reason”—with religion, language, appearance, and other aspects serving as a litmus—the animalization of Black and brown people has been a critical tool of domination, invented to justify the white conquest, genocide, slavery, and other violence that engendered the contemporary.
What does it mean, then, that art today prizes thinking and the aesthetics of thought such as criticality, divestment from the sensory, and a demeanor of philosophical objectivity? The white West used these very criteria to dehumanize the global south and facilitate Euro expansion; in a specifically aesthetic context, modernism itself was premised on the spoils of imperial conquest.
Despite clarion calls of posthumanism, it is possible to excavate an exclusionary humanism in the fetishism for “objective philosophical thought” in contemporary art which preserves the modernist dynamic of treating Black and brown people and aesthetics as raw material. We can recalibrate our definitions of art from the contemplation and production of the beautifully useless and self-referential. A continued utilitarian project of the violent subsumption of non-white aesthetics is possible through reading Allan Kaprow’s concept of post-art in the context of the Middle Passage and its afterlife.
David Joselit defines the contemporary as a mode of aesthetic governance relegating marginal practitioners into a position of debt to modernism. For Joselit, this imposition of debt mirrors governance by debt in neocolonialism, rendering what he calls heritage or local context merely a dividend of debt, serving to diversify the art market and globalize its structural tropes (such as painterly abstraction, the white cube, the biennial, etc).1
Joselit’s analytic is useful for unearthing not only the originary violence of modernism with respect to Black and brown aesthetics, but also the ways the contemporary continues this project of subsumption.2 Aesthetic governance by debt allows the increasingly marketized art world to commoditize difference and deploy it for its own ends, whether financial, nationalist, or otherwise.
Yoked under modernism, marginal artists must assimilate to standard aesthetics3 and allow themselves to be deployed in service of institutionality. At a deeper level, aesthetic governance by debt allows art to deny modernism’s own constitutive debt to Black and brown aesthetics, which it used as raw material to shirk the constraints of earlier white art such as three-point perspective and objecthood.
The contemporary is an echo of modernism, it continues the edict of modernism while developing new forms of governance over marginalized artists.
In the afterlife of conceptualism, thinking overcame and reframed making, and embodied a Hegelian assumption of teleological human evolution, such that Western society has outgrown the stage at which art is the supreme mode of our knowledge of the Absolute. Hegel says “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine and worshipping them… Thought and reflection have spread their wings above fine art.”4
During Western industrialization, art’s dependence on the sensory caused it to fall behind thought as the highest vocation and prime engine of knowledge, whose “very essence… is to go from the observable to the non-observable, from the immediate to the mediate.”5 For Hegel, human cultural developments like art and religion are vestigial forms, reflecting an older dependence on the sensory before the modern mastery of nature represented by industry.
For Hegel’s teleology, art is over, but it remains a necessary step in human development: aesthetic contemplation and production indicate the gradient between human and non-human, setting the stage for reason to flourish. It is precisely the intimate revelry of the sensory which, when refined, allows for the philosophical flight into the immaterial, the theoretical, and the nonsensory. Without art, philosophy could not have risen.6
By dint of art’s putative necessity to human development, conceptualism attempted to salvage the patrimony of Western art by ushering thought itself into the set of available artistic mediums.
From this lowered position, modernist aesthetics worked to expand the boundaries of what could be institutionalized as art. Conceptualism went further, and deployed the autonomous inutility of the art object inherited from modernism to show how, as Allan Kaprow states, “art has served as an instructional transition to its own elimination by life.”7
While this may have partly emerged from idealistic notions of thought as medium precluding subsumption into the commodity form, the result was that the subject and role of art—which for Kaprow was “the ritual escape of Culture”—simultaneously subsumed and supervened on the sociopolitical, becoming instead a kind of immaterial or diaphanous residue which could coat any imaginable life context. In modernism, the idea that anything could be art was scandalous, whereas in conceptualism, this indeterminacy became mundane.
With art more deeply yoked to culture, art became a toolkit for interacting with the lived conditions of humanity akin to a social science or school of thought. The modernist decline of art’s primacy resulted in the simultaneous expansion of art to whatever; the reduction of art to commentary on world affairs and meta-comments on its own history; and the valorization of thought as the ideal medium for aesthetic practice in this new context.
Kaprow’s concept of post-art exemplifies this, blurring the line between art and life since “nonart is more art than Art art.”8 Whatever a person wants to get out of art, life has more of it, and art’s duty is to take on a managerial relationship to the sensory by existing in a state of fluidity, even precarity—and in this ephemeral state it haunts life, it folds all life into it. With this vastly expanded aesthetic field, thought as artistic medium engenders a process of art mimicking the disciplines of thought—namely science and philosophy.
It is instructive to consider a work that exemplifies the conceptualist gambit of folding thought into the set of available artistic mediums, with its resultant valorization of reason and philosophical aesthetics.
Irish artist Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) is a conceptual work consisting of a glass of water placed on a glass shelf 253 centimeters off the ground with an accompanying text.9 The work was first shown at the Rowan Gallery in London, 1974. In Q&A format, the text explains the artist’s process of “changing a glass of water into a full-blown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” The oak tree resulting from this metaphysical alteration “will not ever have any other form but that of a glass of water,” and when pushed to answer the question of where the art is, Craig-Martin states in the text that this resultant oak tree is the art object.
Image courtesy of Michael Craig-Martin.
An Oak Tree (1973) plays on the Aristotelian supremacy of essence over accident. The essence of the oak tree persists, despite all of the sensory evidence to the contrary. The ostensible transformation is not aesthetically accessible, and therefore the particular oak tree presented to the audience has no aesthetic dimension at all. Rather, the aesthetic dimension is entirely accidental to the essence which is intended for gallery display: the former is a glass of water, the latter is an oak tree.
The work also reflects the artist’s Catholic upbringing, drawing on the concept of transubstantiation. At the last supper, “Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”10
At communion, Catholics ceremonially consume a cracker and wine to signify the bread and wine which at the last supper was, in essence, the flesh and blood of Christ—despite the accidents of the bread and wine. With this shade of meaning, the artist intends to “deconstruct the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his [sic] capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he [sic] has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art.”11
An Oak Tree (1973) is a fine example of the conceptualist gambit and its vaunting of thought: it simultaneously extricates itself from the abject sensory, and more deeply yokes itself to it (since after all of this metaphysical transformation from a glass of water into an oak tree, the sensory dimension still indicates only a glass of water). In dissecting the social contract between artist and audience, it speaks to contemporary art as a secularized iteration of an originally theological endeavor, one which served as a litmus for humanity.
Kongo-Yombe Mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Picasso, Head of a Woman (1907).
The concept and value of thought in the West belie a desire for divestment from the ostensibly inferior world of sensory phenomena in line with Cartesian mind/body dualism, where bodies are organic machines, and only humans, with reason and language, have souls. As Descartes claims, non-human animals, are simply one more facet of nature ripe for use: “they have no mental powers whatsoever… it is nature which acts in them, according to the disposition of their organs; just as we see that a clock consisting only of ropes and springs can count the hours and measure time more accurately than we can in spite of all our wisdom.”12
According to this idea, a body can only supercede the machinic laws of nature with rational thought; all else serves as the sandbox in which to perfect reason, living and breathing but nevertheless objectified. In this way Cartesian dualism demonstrates that “the practical elaboration of making a commitment to humanity is inhumanism… humanism is by definition a project to amplify the space of reason,”13 Humanism’s project to expand the scope and analytic power of reason requires a corollary dehumanized faction to serve as its foil and ground of deployment.
Building on Cartesian dualism, Hegel argues that “in Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence, … What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.”14
Hegel frames his mention of Africa as perfunctory, but his portrayal of Blackness as primordial is a necessary assumption for his teleological understanding of history, which evolves toward European reason. Hegel transfers Descartes’ human/animal dichotomy to the realm of human difference, and positions Africa as an inhuman prehistory without thought in order to naturalize slavery and conquest in the “development” of the West.
In art we find a similar process. It was through the animalization of Black and brown people as lacking reason that white artists could render non-white lands, aesthetics, and bodies as raw material to modify and deploy in response to Western art history, both conceptually and materially. By confining Black bodies to what Orlando Patterson terms “social and ontological death”, the West could render us simultaneously as the fungible cornerstones of its program, and as valueless vestiges of prehistory.15 As Murrell states, the stolen objects that served as the inspiration for modernism “were treated as artifacts of colonized cultures rather than as artworks, and held so little economic value that they were displayed in pawnshop windows and flea markets.”16
Armed with the fruits of conquest, white art ‘developed’ away from representation (and eventually objecthood entirely) by means of positing the supremacy of thought as surfing on colonial spoils. Picasso, for example, said “African sculptures had helped him to understand his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind.”17 The same tendency continues today, with Black and brown life “inspiring” white art, with non-white artists strategically included to absolve the white cube and diversify the market.
In response to the squalor of phenomena, art turned the lived into solely a surface for thought: thinking itself is the best medium for art when the entire universe is accessible as source material, allowing a performative divestment from modernist values while simultaneously arguing for the value-neutral availability of its tools in a newly managerial aesthetic practice.
The vaunting of thought in the contemporary in which criticality is a prime currency can be read as an echo of Cartesian disavowal of the sensory. In various histories of conquest, this acts as a defensive response to the excavation of the violence of modernism, and of art history more generally. This is perfectly in line with the speculative turn in global financial capitalism and its various projects of governance by debt, brutal resource extraction, and sanitized diversity, all of which serve to conceal the constitutive violence of capitalism.
From 1,000 Rivers (2014), a photo series by Winslow Laroche. Image courtesy the artist.
In stark contrast to Hegelian notions of art and human development as embodied by conceptualism and its afterlife, Brooklyn artist Winslow Laroche’s reading of post-art is useful for critiquing the supremacy and aesthetics of thought. For Laroche, art conceals the modernist debt to Black and brown aesthetics. In a text-to-speech sound piece featured on the inaugural episode of The Diamond Stingily Show on Know-Wave, Laroche polemically states “All white art is Black face or Brown face and all white people are cops and lurking snitches.”
He questions the post-artistic valorization of objects that fluidly move between commodified art and nugatory non-art—precisely the fungible position the slave occupies in the longue durée of the Middle Passage, situated there by an imaginary deprivation of reason. In light of slavery, such fluidity and spectacle as a “talking commodity” is old hat. Fred Moten disagrees with Marx that the talking commodity is an impossibility, given the reality of transatlantic African slavery.18 Further, Black folks have long known all sociality and aesthetics are always already subsumed into the commodity form under capitalism.
Venerating post-art fluidity only conceals art history’s antiblackness, conforming to the tradition wherein, as Keith Obadike states, “to many white artists, blackness represents some kind of borderless excess, some kind of unchecked expression.”19 Just as Picasso was titillated by the spoils of African colonization, the ostensible supremacy of thought and the corresponding fluidity of aesthetic processes relies on the erasure of modernist violence.
Laroche allows us to argue that far from living in a time “after art,” the West has not yet actually reached the conditions for art: all the West knows as “art” since the Enlightenment is an ecology of criteria for inclusion which relies on the colonial subsumption of Black and brown aesthetics. From this vantage all Western aesthetic developments simply serve to conceal this subsumption. Art objects are not useless contexts for the contemplation of timeless ideas like beauty or art itself; they work to continue the modernist project of treating non-whiteness as raw material for white speculation.20
The conditions for art as autonomous non-utilitarian endeavor will never emerge as long as art’s erasure of its own debt to Black and brown practice continues. Western aesthetic developments simply conceal the violence of modernism, betraying their anxious inability to come to terms with its reality. Autonomous inutility is simply a simultaneous escapism and market capitulation, a covertly useful endeavor of continuing modernist violence.
The supremacy of thought upholds this erasure of white debt. The West has expanded humanism to include everyone, marketizing reason and detaching it from European patrimony. In this sense traditional conservatism—from which reason as litmus of humanity emerged, and which seeks to uphold traditional European values like racial superiority and slow culture—is at odds with market conservatism, which thrives on speed and welcomes any increase in profits including multiculturalism, which it recognizes can easily coexist with white supremacy.21
Consequently, Black artists, if we choose, can operate under the assumption that art owes us. We are the true inheritors of the fluidity between art and nonart. We don’t need to make things or think or write or create value in any way for art’s patrimony: our flesh was used to build it. But we should also recognize that our inclusion into white cubes is not enough. Such inclusion is the least to be done. We must advocate that “Art art” pay dues to the marginalized bodies of aesthetic practice it violently treated and treats as raw material, and return the stolen objects that haunt its institutions.
Image courtesy Rafia Santana.
It is instructive to consider an example that reflects Laroche’s post-art concept. #PAYBLACKTiME is a project which multimedia Brooklyn artist Rafia Santana began on November 9th, 2016. The artist describes the project as a “white-money transference system that provides free meals via Seamless / GrubHub to Black + Brown folx across the North Americas.”22
A description of the work reads: All orders are paid for by the White Guilt Reparations Fund for white people who ask “What can I do?” during a time when we have heavily publicized evidence of their race’s direct connection to the continuous suffering and disenfranchisement of Black / Brown people worldwide.
In an interview with FELT Zine, Santana states that the project’s name is “a play on the phrase ‘Payback Time,’ and also a demand to pay back black people for the hundreds of years of free labor and continuing trauma in the US alone. It is time to pay back / pay black.” The project not only offers white audiences an easy way to make concrete change, it translates the call for reparations into a service answering a need anyone could understand—hunger—and brings the audience into the conversation of what America owes Black people.
When I asked via Facebook chat whether #PAYBLACKTiME was art, Santana responded that “I haven’t thought of it specifically as art but everything I do is art I guess.” In its banal fluidity between art and non-art, and its delegation of audience and aesthetics into potential financial utility in service of feeding Black and brown people, #PAYBLACKTiME exemplifies Laroche’s post-art. It rejects the modernist premise of art’s autonomous uselessness, which is just complicity with white supremacy and a fantasy of escape from the constitutive violence of art and capitalism. #PAYBLACKTiME calls on its audience to recognize the aesthetic value in the concrete, useful act of paying for non-white people’s food. Rendering aesthetics as utility reveals the covert utility of the modernist art object: the hoarding of resources stolen from conquest, which must be redistributed.
From we need the memories of all our members, a show by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape at HKS (Bergen, 2015). Image courtesy the artist.
This essay has concerned itself with the Middle Passage and its afterlife, but Africans who remained on their native lands also faced and continue to face violent colonization processes orthogonal to that of the New World.
Wikipedia is touted as a digital democratization of information, but it often exhibits mob mentality, and its acceptance requirements can be exclusionary of information that does not fit the dominant paradigm. In particular, Wikipedia echoes the general lack of information online about Africa that one would expect from a digital sphere dominated by Western concerns. According to Wikipedia, Africa is the world’s third largest market and the most culturally diverse continent, “and yet it has the lowest and least informed profile of any region on the Internet; moreover, what does appear is often selective, lacks context and reinforces outdated stereotypes.”23
As Tabita Rezaire discusses in her video piece Afro Cyber Resistance, the Cape Town-based collective Chimurenga experienced “the controlling and geographically biased architecture of the internet…Engaged in cultural African history and theory, they tried multiple times to upload African content onto Wikipedia, so as to Africanize the world’s most visited online encyclopaedia and fill the lack of information online about the continent.”24 Elvira Dyangani Ose notes that many of those proposed entries were rejected, some “because their relevance was not proved, others because the style or tone of those entries was too personal or not deemed appropriate to the world’s most ‘open’ Internet platform.”25)
Founded in 2007 by nonprofit lettera27 and contemporary art platform Africa Center, WikiAfrica is a collaborative project aimed at generating content sourced from Africans for publication on Wikipedia. Acknowledging that Wikipedia’s content restrictions are an accessibility issue, WikiAfrica conducts workshops and training, engages field experts, and deploys other initiatives (such as Wiki Loves Women, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut) to facilitate and encourage the publication of accurate, respectful information about Africa onto Wikipedia. The project intends to exist in concert with efforts to increase African internet access, which in June 2016 consisted of around 340 million online users, or 28.7% of the population.26
There is a long way to go, but the production of true information about Africa, sourced from real Africans navigating Wikipedia’s oppressive informatic norms, is valuable groundwork for dispelling anti-African stereotypes and increasing online African representation. Since one dimension of reparations involves knowledge transfer and the violence of in/visibility, WikiAfrica is a good rebuttal to the potential replication of Hegelian anti-black fantasies of Africa.
Though the project is a collaboration between a nonprofit and a contemporary art platform, it is not necessarily art, shirking aesthetic concerns to focus on the project of Africanizing Wikipedia and increasing digital literacy. As Rezaire states: “even if this endeavour is not thought of or seen as Internet Art per se, it can be understood as an online platform for active social resistance against occidental hegemony and online information control.”27 The art / non-art fluidity of WikiAfrica is not new to the African scene, and neither is its treatment of aesthetics as secondary to utility.
manuel arturo abreu, Herramienta, 2016. Aluminum can, soursop juice, tallow candle. Image courtesy AA|LA Gallery.
Reparations has a fiscal and resource access dimension as well as a representational dimension, but it also has a theoretical dimension. To stand against the supremacy of Western thought begins to lay the ground for the reclamation of critical aesthetics against European reason’s history of Black dehumanization. Black feminist literary critic and theorist Hortense Spillers argues that the Black position is the critical position: “Because it was set aside, black culture could, by virtue of the very act of discrimination, become culture, insofar as, historically speaking, it was forced to turn its resources of spirit toward negation and critique.”28
At a moment when criticality is so “in,” Black criticality remains violently punished and pilfered. Its reclamation from assimilation to Western modalities becomes imperative. While complete non-assimilation to Western thought may be unavoidable due to the coloniality of the world, rejecting thought itself remains a possibility—fuck thought, fuck that—but it doesn’t necessarily respond to the central problem.
Instead, we might look deeper into the utility of thought itself, its use as a litmus for humanity to dehumanize Black and brown people in service of conquest. The institution of thought represses the stark fact that dehumanized people, historically argued to lack reason, are in fact thinking humans. We can recalibrate the situation along the lines of Lewis Gordon: “Blackness… reaches out to theory, then, as theory split from itself. It is the dark side of theory, which, in the end, is none other than theory itself, understood as self-reflective, outside itself.”29 (Gordon 2010: 196-8).
Building on this, Jared Sexton argues that “1) all thought, insofar as it is genuine thinking, might best be conceived of as black thought and, consequently, 2) all researches, insofar as they are genuinely critical inquiries, aspire to black studies. Blackness is theory itself, anti-blackness the resistance to theory.”30 Just as the autonomous inutility of art remains impossible until the West repays its debt to Black and brown aesthetics, so does a true theory detached from the sensory remain impossible until theory reconciles its antiblack dehumanizing uses.
Image courtesy of @delashereen.
Reclaiming criticality as properly Black may mean grappling with the possibility that, as Hortense Spillers argues, “black culture—as the reclamation of the critical edge…has yet to come.”31 If Black culture as reclamation of criticality’s Blackness is a horizon, it remains clear that the intersection of Black assimilation to American imperialism and American genocide of Black people engenders what Joy James calls a dead zone. “The nexus at which black achievement meets black genocide appears as a conceptual void.”32
Art in a Larochean sense, as the conditional inclusion of Black artists to reify power and conceal modernism’s debt to non-white aesthetics, is one such conceptual void. This foregrounds the necessity for action without a complete or cogent analytic, an imperative to redistribute resources now and ask questions later—or rather, an imperative to see such action as theory itself: repairing the schism between ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking in black.’
James acknowledges the stumbling and illegibility involved in deploying an analytic from the dead zone: “The intersection is unlit…as we repeatedly cross our own past while projecting a real and imagined future as critical thought radically invents meaningful engagement.”33 While the reclamation of Black criticality remains but a horizon, we can look to projects like #PAYBLACKTiME and WikiAfrica as examples of subversive engagement with the always already commoditized technics of sociality in order to repair the injustices and unequal access faced by Black artists around the world. In their fluid status and delegation of aesthetics to a utilitarian reparative role Black artists challenge the contemporary continuation of modernist violence, in line with a Black post-art to lay the groundwork for the reclamation of criticality’s Blackness.
1. Joselit, “Heritage and Debt” (lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, December 3, 2014), February 12, 2015
2. As part of Home School—a free pop-up art school I co-facilitate in Portland—I taught a class called Contemporaneity: building a better white supremacy, which further explores these ideas.
3. “I call ‘standard’ those aesthetics whose principles (1) are recognized and accepted, across a number of variations, by institutional and academic communities and which thus constitute the object of confirmed knowledges; (2) whose principles define either a foundation for art or a philosophical description of art or, more generally, a normality and a normativity; which is to say (3) a determinism of the reciprocal causality of art and of philosophy. It poses well known questions of the type ‘What is art?,’ ‘What is the essence of art?,’ ‘What can art do?,’ and it believes it can answer these questions with certainty. In accordance with these questions, standard aesthetics describes the styles, forms and historical epochs of art in a broadly realist manner, for it believes it is possible to define both art and philosophy.” Laruelle 2012
4. Hegel, Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol. 1, 10. With respect to art, Hegel focuses on the contemplation of beauty, but for our purposes a tautological definition of art as whatever is called art works fine.
5. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 8
6. Kaminsky, Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics, 27.
7. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 102.
8. Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 98.
9. This text was at first was handed out as a leaflet but is generally wall-mounted behind glass today.
10. Matthew 26:26-28 NIV.
11. Craig-Martin, Landscapes, 20.
12. Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, 48.
13. Negarestani, “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.”
14. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, 111-12, 117.
15. The work of Orlando Patterson, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, and others lay the ground for the emergence of the Afropessimist texture of thought. The former’s analytic shift of focus toward the position of the slave allowed for the work of Frank Wilderson III, Jared Sexton, Christina Sharpe, and others to build on arguments about the fungibility of the Black body in racial capitalism, the social and ontological death of Black life, and the structure of multiracial global antiblackness. A simultaneous analytic trend of “black optimism” ostensibly in contrast to Afropessimism is exemplified by the work of Fred Moten and others. However, Sexton convincingly argues that the two are not so distinct, as embodied in the paradox that “black social death is black social life.” Both Afropessimism and Black optimism engage the impossible possibility of Black existence as such. Further, “the object of black studies is the aim of black studies,” that is, the horizon of Black liberation from social and ontological death. Sexton continues: “The most radical negation of the anti-black world is the most radical affirmation of a blackened world. Afro-pessimism is ‘not but nothing other than’ black optimism” (Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”).
16., 17. Murrell, “African Influences in Modern Art.”
18. Moten 2003: 6
19. Keith Townsend Obadike, interview by Coco Fusco, in Mendi + Keith Obadike, September 9, 2001
20. abreu, “Notes on the Garage Residency.”
21. Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism.
22. $6,398.79 = Total orders and dollar amount for #PAYBLACKTiME as of December 26, 2016
23. Wikipedia contributors, “Wikipedia:WikiAfrica,” Wikipedia
24., 27. Rezaire, “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” 188.
25. Dyangani Ose, “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary” (lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012)
26. Miniwatts Marketing Group, Internet Users in Africa March 2017
28. Spillers, “The Idea of Black Culture,” 28.
29. Gordon, “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” 196.
30. Sexton, “Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts”.
31. Volcovici, “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.”
32. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 460.
33. James, “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” 476.
abreu, manuel arturo. “Notes on the Garage Residency,” SFMoMa Open Space: Work on Work Blog. September 14, 2016.
Descartes, Rene. A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. Translated by Ian Maclean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dyangani Ose, Elvira. “Poetics of the Infra-Ordinary.” Lecture, OCA Norway, Oslo, March 14, 2012.
Gordon, Lewis. “Theory in Black: Teleological Suspensions in Philosophy of Culture,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 18.2 (2010): 192-214.
Hegel, GFW. Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, Vol 1. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1975.
Hegel, GWF. The Philosophy of History. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001.
James, Joy. “The Dead Zone: Stumbling at the Crossroads of Party Politics, Genocide, and Postracial Racism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 108.3 (2009): 459-481.
Joselit, David. “Heritage and Debt.” Lecture, Mack Lecture Series, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis , December 3, 2014. February 12, 2015.
Kaminsky, Jack. Hegel on Art: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Aesthetics. New York: SUNY, 1962.
Kaprow, Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Laruelle, Francois. “The generic orientation of non-standard aesthetics.” Lecture, Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, November 17, 2012. October 21, 2013.
Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Murrell, Denise. “African Influences in Modern Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. April 2008.
Negarestani, Reza. “The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman.” e-flux Journal #53. March 2014.
Obadike, Keith Townsend. “All Too Real The Tale of an On-Line Black Sale.” Interview by Coco Fusco. Mendi + Keith Obadike. September 9, 2001.
Rezaire, Tabita. “Afro Cyber Resistance: South african internet art,” Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 12.2 & 3 (2014): 185-196.
Sexton, Jared. Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Sexton, Jared. 2012. Ante-Anti-Blackness: Afterthoughts. Lateral 1. Cultural Studies Association.
Spillers, Hortense J. “The Idea of Black Culture,” CR: The New Centennial Review 6.3 (2006): 7-28.
Volcovici, Geoffrey. “The Power Trip of the Black Exceptionalist in Space-Time.” Black Quantum Futurism. January 1, 2017.
We’re thrilled to announce today that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Rhizome a $1 million grant to underwrite the next phase of development of Webrecorder, our platform to create and share fully interactive, high-fidelity archival copies of websites past and present. This largest gift in Rhizome’s history will support Webrecorder’s implementation in institutional contexts, while upgrading capture and usability for all users. We’re proud to offer this innovative, open-source service free-of-charge at https://webrecorder.io—take it out for a spin! (Or check out the code.)
You may have noticed that “Software” tab appear in our redesigned header. This is merely formalizing a program thread—software development—that is core to our multi-tiered support of born-digital art and culture, and embodied in Webrecorder. This is also a longtime commitment, dating back to the development of rhizome.org (then .com!) in 1996, the ArtBase in 1999, the various ArtBase interfaces thereafter, and various projects involving the Emulation as a Service framework, among other significant code-based endeavors.
This program is led by preservation director Dragan Espenschied and software director Ilya Kreymer, who conceived the Webrecorder initiative. Along with what’s next for this effort, we’re excited to welcome archivist and educator Anna Perricci as Associate Director, Strategic Partnerships, and a “Co-Principal Investigator” on the Mellon grant, along with Dragan and Ilya. Anna will be focused on growing Webrecorder's user base and helping it become recognized as an indispensable tool in web archiving practice broadly. She’ll join an already stellar WR team, with Mark Beasley, our multi-talented software engineer, and Pat Shiu, who is tasked with creating a voice, aesthetic, and identity for a product without much precedent. (We’re also hiring a new backend developer—applications due January 16!)
Rhizome uses Webrecorder to preserve and present born-digital art, including the works in Net Art Anthology, our online exhibition retelling the history of net art. Other active users include institutions such as the New Museum, the Frick Art Reference Library, Posters Network at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Newfields, the Stanford University Press, the City University of New York, and the National Film Board of Canada; the activist groups NetFreedomPioneers and Documenting the Now; and the artist studios of Cory Arcangel and Constant Dullaart.
We complement the Webrecorder initiative with research into the cultural impact of web archiving and preservation practices, research referred to at Rhizome as “Digital Social Memory.” With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Knight Foundation, we’ll host the Ethics & Archiving the Web conference at the New Museum in March 2018. EAW is being planned in collaboration with the Documenting the Now project at the University of California at Riverside Library and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
For now, we are extraordinarily grateful to the Mellon Foundation for their continued support of the Webrecorder initiative. And we’ll be sure to share what’s happening with this major undertaking as it develops.
“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” goes the famous New Yorker cartoon. The notion that the web might offer a site of radical mutability for the formation of new identities, unhindered for the first time by the constraints of “meatspace” seems to have been primarily, although unevenly, dispelled by way of the quotidian creep of the private sector’s stranglehold on the public sphere. In contrast, the shift from an understanding of the web as predominantly characterized by “immateriality” to one that recognized its reliance on material infrastructures—undersea cables, electromechanical generators, low-wage content moderators—required an intervention on the level of discourse. Perhaps the question of online identity is felt more strongly. One thinks of the viral photo of Zuckerberg walking confidently through a packed press conference, as if it were his birthday, surrounded on all sides by an anonymous sea of eager attendees donning his company’s VR headsets; Zuck has the viscerally world-historical power to make his fantasies our reality.
The ubiquity of Web 2.0 has changed the way that we see ourselves, offering indispensable means for individuals to feel themselves out, learn about who they are or want to be, and find communities of like-minded users. And yet, the sense that the web demarcated a liberatory elsewhere pervaded by a democratic ethos has diminished greatly in recent years, precipitated by the re-recognition of the material grip of social forces that have long predated social media. A decent amount of net discourse was centered around this since-eroded premise, and as a result ended up engaging with what turned out to be oftentimes illusory notions of networked identity as malleable in a historically novel way. Despite the fact that it was made in what was for many a very futuristic-feeling moment, New York-via-Philadelphia artist Jayson’s Musson’s Art Thoughtz (2010-2012) project is remarkable for how much it sticks with the slow grind of history. The work is a vlog series that comedically explains contemporary art concepts ranging from beauty to “How to Make an Art” through the character of Hennessy Youngman, and its virality significantly helped put Musson on the map as a contemporary artist. It remains powerful due in equal measure to its hilarity, historicity, and almost uncanny prescience of certain tenets of contemporary meme humor.
Much net-engaged artwork—from Ryan Trecartin to DIS Magazine’s visual practice—has been heavily engaged with the new as a foremost point of departure, often for understandable reasons: new ways of seeing, new modes of governing, and new ways of relating to one another are all conditions that ask to be explored. Fetishization of “the future” as a reified concept has underpinned many of these investigations, and proved to be indispensable to their commercial potential in the contemporary art market. Interestingly, Musson’s Hennessy Youngman character invokes the future much less often than his peers. A memorable time that he does, though, is in the 2010 clip “How To Be A Successful Black Artist,” when he encourages fellow Black artists to use “brainy” terms like “post-Black” in order to secure legitimacy in the art world. “Honestly I don’t know what the fuck [post-Black] means,” he says, “‘cause it means ‘after black,’ and n*ggas is still n*ggas … Is it like, did someone from the future come back with that term and n*ggas is like, pink in the future?” In a moment of brilliant denouement, Musson cuts to David Hammons’s 1988 painting How Ya Like Me Now, featuring a white Jesse Jackson.
It is not an accident that Musson-via-Youngman’s commentary on one time-buzzword themes like “circulation,” “dissemination,” and “networks” doesn’t sound dated several years later, despite the fact that most commentators completely ignored it as such at the time. Throughout Art Thoughtz, Musson actively recognizes and comments on the vulnerabilities built into the circulation of his own Black image in an anti-Black art world—based upon a libidinal economy that takes pleasure in his suffering, following Frank Wilderson III1—and anticipates them, teases them, and deflects them. The series as a whole anticipates what Aria Dean would later theorize as the blackness of memes: “Memes move like blackness itself, and the meme’s tactical similarity to historical black cultural forms makes them — predictably — vulnerable to appropriation and capture. The meme is a form that allows for a sense of collective ownership among those who come into contact with it — black or nonblack.”2 Is it really possible to talk about circulation in the context of global capitalism without invoking the transatlantic slave trade, the history of colonialism? To the white viewer blackness is always already property, first and foremost; Musson reminds us that “circulation” has a history. For some, meatspace is not flexible, particularly when we consider this term’s resonance with Hortense Spillers’s concept of the flesh as the “degree-zero of social conceptualization,” where the distinction between “body” and “flesh” demarcates the difference between captive and liberated subject positions.3
In a particularly memorable passage of Claudia Rankine’s 2014 book Citizen, the Jamaican-born American poet discusses Youngman’s discussion of the marketability of Black anger in Art Thoughtz alongside Serena Williams career-long battle against pervasive racism in tennis, a field that like fine art is notable for its overwhelming whiteness. Rankine writes that Musson’s work prompts the recognition that “no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.” With this in mind, Youngman’s suggestion that artists embrace ambiguity in another, earlier video, entitled “How To Be A Successful Artist,” takes on new resonance. He makes the recommendation after advising that the artist 1) be white, or 2) be a white man, or 3) be a white woman. Perhaps his proposal, as the flip side of its parodic intent, suggests a certain a strategy of refusal—enacted via something like hypertextual, non-verbalized memetic dissemination—as much as it is wry parody of the seemingly limitless supply of rote gallery press texts quoting continental philosophers for no apparent reason. “The less mothafuckas’ is able to understand the artwork,” he says, “the more they can put into it.”
For all of Art Thoughtz’s incisive commentary, though, it is important to remember that the project is a fundamentally comedic series that initially took the form of a (staged) live stand-up set.4 Although Musson quickly abandoned the stand-up format, he retained the direct address to an audience and unpredictability typical of live comedy. It is nothing like a manifesto, and its ideological alignment is hard to pin down or tie to a certain political position in any conclusive, thorough sense. Unlike the strands of humorless, MFA-core artistic production that Youngman offhandedly skewers, the mode of address in these vlogs is captivating for its fundamentally unpredictable approach to performance and the consolidation of meaning. Comedy undergirds all of Musson’s work, from social media to the white cube, and he excels in bringing out the genre’s “epistemologically troubling” characteristics, in the words of Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai.5 Humor has a unique ability to render perceived distinctions and modes of typology fuzzy and unstable, ungrounding assumptions and subverting everyday behavioral codes. Art Thoughtz is so effective in part because Musson’s virtuosic control over this mode of playful cognitive incursion is simultaneously devastating and blasé, genuinely conveying the sense that he would make the videos when he felt bored. His video on institutional critique opens with the Diplomats’ NYC rap classic “I Really Mean It” and features the line, “Auschwitz was and still is the premiere institution of the 20th century, making the MoMA look like nothin’ more than an over-glorified collection of thrift store paintings.” What are we supposed to even do with this information?
Each successive era of popular online culture has had its quintessential meme style, and it is remarkable to consider how much Art Thoughtz presaged forms and styles of the mid-2010s. From the style of plain-spoken, at times risqué gallows humor he perfected to the ways in which the project was designed for widespread informal dissemination—sidestepping institutional gatekeeping in the process—the work is almost uncanny in its prescience of the current moment. Additionally, it engaged the affective dimension of what Hito Steyerl has called “poor images”6 while anticipating the contemporary omnipresence of what manuel arturo abreu has called Online Imagined Black English, or digital blackface.7 The degree to which this phenomenon is absolutely essential to the online economy of intertwined cultural capital and moral capital8—all across the political spectrum, notably—is perhaps best summed up by a post by meme maker Cory in the Abyss which declares, in a riff on high-budget Hollywood movie posters, “You wouldn’t last a week without digital blackface.” As abreu states in an interview with another meme producer, Gangster Popeye, “Lots of people think weird Facebook [and its associated meme culture] popped up out of nowhere, but in reality a lot of non-black meme production draws from black language, visual style, and meme content.”9 Musson doesn’t “predict” this contemporary confluence of forms so much as he seems to stumble upon it, which makes the historical linkage all the more striking. In another prescient move, Art Thoughtz manages to anticipate the popular pedagogical function of memes-as-poor images, where intellectual concepts designed to dismantle dominant power structures are deftly employed clearly and cuttingly, without the baggage of institutional ostentatiousness.
For many commentators, what Art Thoughtz had to say was illegible either because it was too much to bear or because they were limited by a preconceived idea of what they were watching. In two separate pieces of press published around Art Thoughtz’s initial release Musson/Youngman is compared to Ali G according to some kind of alchemical pretzel logic, while one particularly overt piece calls the character an “idiot” and a “moron,” citing his “over-the-top thug speak.” It is an understatement to say that Musson/Youngman’s analyses of mainstream contemporary art’s pre-packaged script for success wasn’t taken seriously by most commentators. A revealing aspect of this coverage is the slippage it figured between Youngman as an avatar of excessive blackness—both a voyeuristic object of desire and revulsion, love and hate—and Musson the person. In terms of Art Thoughtz’s palatability in terms of respectability and assimilability, the blackness portrayed in the videos seems to simultaneously be deemed too much and yet not enough; Tavia Nyong’o has written about the ways in which Dread Scott and Coco Fusco “employ masquerade to reveal potent anxieties about displays of excessive blackness, excesses that are almost always read through gendered expectations of appropriate behavior.”10 This recurring theme raises a question: would Musson have been able to circulate his work and get gallery representation in the New York art world if he didn’t take on the Youngman character?
By virtue of cunning in combination with being in the right place at the right time, he succeeded in hacking the cybernetic feedback loop of value accretion in the culture industry on the protocological level, subversively appropriating the then-emergent tactics of the “power user” while highlighting the inbuilt limitations of the system he gamed. As it gained traction online, the work demonstrated a keen understanding of the way viewership accumulates and multiplies itself on networked social media platforms according to what content is most likely to be shared. In other words, Musson anticipates and plays with the way his work will be aggregated—filtered for consumption through search algorithms and screen-based interfaces11—both in and outside of the art world, while highlighting the ways in which information capitalism’s mass systems of circulation are inherently anti-Black. “[Art Thoughtz uses] a different form of dissemination than we’re used to in the gallery system,” said the gallery owner of Salon 94 at the time of its presentation of his first New York solo show, “Halcyon Days,” in 2012. “He’s probably the first artist who has been able to bridge that online audience and the art audience as well, so that’s always been interesting to me, how to break through audiences and cross audiences.”
Musson’s hilariously sharp Art Thoughtz video about relational aesthetics is striking to consider in connection with the fact that in 2012 he was invited to do a project at relational aesthetics-affiliated artist Maurizio Cattelan and curator Massimiliano Gioni’s Family Business exhibition space in NYC. For “Itsa Small, Small World” he created a call for entries video as Hennessy Youngman, inviting anyone and everyone to drop off work to be included in the show during a three-day window, with no one turned away. The project sounds curiously like a riff on relational aesthetics themes in retrospect, as it brought together an assortment of people from all walks of life in a block party of sorts on the hallowed grounds of Chelsea, facilitating a highly unusual and defamiliarized mode of social relation in the process. Musson later wrote that the exhibition was partially “born out of a curiosity to see what the audience for my Hennessy Youngman videos looked like, to basically see what the internet could look like in physical manifestation.”12 Later, in 2015, he received a double platinum plaque for having his voice sampled on the drop of electronic producer Baauer’s “trap” single “Harlem Shake,” released on a sub-label of Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint in 2012. Although Musson was originally sampled on the song without his knowledge or permission—the recording came from his since-disbanded rap group Plastic Little’s 2001 song “Miller Time”—he described compensation negotiations with the label as friendly in an interview with the New York Times, conductedafter Baauer’s track topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart.13 To many, the song and the viral dance video craze it spurred constituted a straightforward form of semiotic gentrification in its essential disavowal of the original Harlem shake dance created in 1980s New York City. Here, Youngman’s elucidation in “How To Be A Successful Black Artist” of the market logic of the “jazz principle”—whiteness’ insatiable desire for the exotic other—comes to mind.
It is worth situating Musson’s work in relation to the history of Black performance art engaged with themes of humor and stereotype. Relevant works include David Hammons’s 1981 performance Pissed Off, in which he photographed himself urinating on a Richard Serra sculpture named after the Transport Workers Union, only to be accosted by police moments later. Another is William Pope.L’s The Great White Way (2001-2009), which saw him crawl across 22 miles of Broadway in Manhattan in a Superman outfit, channeling unbearable trauma like an abject jester, while a third is Adrian Piper’s 1983 video Funk Lessons, where she teaches her non-Black audience about funk and how to dance to it. In contrast with these disparate works, which all stage iterations of encounter and symbolic exchange in various concrete ways, Art Thoughtz remains striking for how off-the-cuff it feels, as if it weren’t even invested in itself; improvised cunning, as opposed to extensive premeditation, comes to mind again as an apt descriptor. The project’s lack of self-seriousness also contrasts with much contemporary art dealing with “identity,” which often shares a grave, scholarly, and sincere vernacular with activism and academic thought. “Intellectualized or aestheticized trauma is displayed for institutional, artistic, or academic validation, but physical and emotional trauma goes untreated, because it falls outside the bounds of institutional relevance,” writes Hannah Black.14 While Musson’s underlying messages are indebted to a lineage rooted in high-stakes political resistance, the work comes across as a little bit more ambivalent. We can sense what he thinks and how he feels, for the most part, but he mostly seems to be moving in his own singular orbit, outside the bounds.
Considering Art Thoughtz in its original context, it is helpful to revisit Seth Price’s highly influential 2002 essay “Dispersion,” where the New York-based artist argues that artists should embrace mass media in order to pursue a “categorically ambiguous art, one in which the synthesis of multiple circuits of reading carries an emancipatory potential.”15 In her introduction to Rhizome’s group exhibition “New Black Portraitures,” Dean notes that the most abundant images of Black people are of “memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence.”16 We are left wondering if mass networks ever truly had anything like “emancipatory potential.” Might that just be hardcore romanticism? Cue Youngman’s video on the sublime, searching but unable to find it in the forest, shooting a gun into the sky. In a way the clip is shockingly beautiful in its low-res haze, a banal irruption of the real that requires no drastic mode of seeing.
1. Interview with Frank Wilderson III, “‘We’re trying to destroy the world’ — Anti-Blackness & Police Violence After Ferguson”
2. Aria Dean,“Rich Meme, Poor Meme”
3. Hortense Spillers, “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book”
5. Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai, “Comedy Has Issues”
6. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image”
7. manuel arturo abreu, “Online Imagined Black English”
9. manuel arturo abreu, “Dead or alive: post-Zuxit meme art + the end of weird Facebook with Gangster Popeye”
10. Tavia Nyong’o, “Between the Body and the Flesh: Sex and Gender in Black Performance Art”
11. David Joselit, “On Aggregators”
12. Jayson Musson, “Itsa Small, Small World”
14. Hannah Black, “The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic”
15. Seth Price, “Dispersion”
16. Aria Dean, “An Introduction to New Black Portraitures”
Michael Connor: Can you tell me about what led up to Art Thoughtz? What were you doing before you came up with Hennessy Youngman?
Jayson Musson: I started graduate school in 2009. It was about eight to nine years in between undergrad and graduate school. I still made art in between those times, and I made music. Going back into the school setting was somewhat of a culture shock.
Philly, it’s kind of a debaucherous, free-form kind of world, and academic fine art is just the total opposite of that. For me, school was quite an alien culture.
MC: Before going back to school, were you involved in the Philly art scene, like Space 1026?
JM: Yeah. I had a studio at 1026 twice, in 2002 and then again in 2006. There are many, many artists in Philly. The art world in New York is vastly different than the art world in Philadelphia, because so much capital and media is centered in New York, and it doesn’t necessarily look outside of itself, except maybe if it’s looking at like Los Angeles, or Berlin or London. Philadelphia is very overlooked, and in some ways it’s good, some ways it’s bad.
It allows the city to develop its own innate cultural markers and values, and Philadelphia kind of resists being homogenized by trends in contemporary art.
I didn’t make art with the idea that it would A, be exhibited in large spaces, or B, make any money. I did text-based posters. I did a lot of cartoons, political satire. I definitely was more playful in my younger days, and I think that’s really important.
If I was in my late teens, early twenties, going to school in New York, and being in proximity to all these great institutions, it would have steered my art-making towards being enveloped in those institutions, where in Philly, I was just like, “That’s not an option ever at all. That’s like, something else, so I’m gonna fucking make these stupid cartoons, and do my like, vitriolic text-based posters. The Philadelphia Museum is not gonna show these, that’s not on the table. Museums, that’s just not for me.”
MC: Were you involved in an online art scene at this point?
JM: No. I think I had a website. I wasn’t aware that were people using [the internet] as a platform in and of itself, which is fucking rad, but I was a colloquial traditionalist with my brick-and-mortar drawings and writings.
MC: So how did Art Thoughtz begin?
JM: I think around my first semester [of grad school] I came up with the idea—in 2009—for the character, but I kind of sat on it. Essentially, I wanted to create a stand-up comedian who talked about fine art, but in a comedy setting. Hennessy Youngman was conceptualized as a comedian, like a lesser-known comedian from the Def Comedy Jam era of the early ’90s.
The first video I filmed (in the bar I was working at, at the time) was modeled after a stand-up set. It’s called Hennessy Youngman! Live at the Laughway House! I enjoyed it, but when you kind of create this mock setting for a comedy club, it becomes more about how you fabricate the environment and simulate the stand-up set.
I did a second video, which was just a talking head video, which is me taking my same notes and doing it in monologue format to the webcam, and that felt better to me. The focus was on the words, the dialog, not on like, “is this a real comedy club?”
Initially it was wanting to discuss a quote/unquote refined fine arts culture, but in this garrulous kind of way. The kind of cultural opposition at play. This person who seemingly didn’t have, at first glance, the position to discuss these things with any authority.
MC: Did you actually perform the character in comedy clubs?
JM: No. I’ve never done a live comedy set in my entire life.
MC: Was it always the intention to put the videos on YouTube?
JM: Nah, not at all. I initially made them as video art. They were actually initially conceptualized to just be shown in a gallery setting or an exhibition setting, whatever that might be. Even though I was addressing the internet, saying “what’s up internet?”, that was just a part of the performance. It wasn’t until I showed them for review in grad school that I decided to put them online.
MC: Do you remember what was the impetus for doing that?
JM: It just seemed like a waste to keep the videos in the context of an exhibition. Exhibitions just don’t happen frequently, and I felt that it’d be interesting to give the videos a chance to live in a more dynamic context.
MC: When you began to upload them, can you talk about the initial reception? Who were the first people to find out about the videos, and when did you notice they were starting to become popular?
JM: Initially, the viewership was people and friends from Philadelphia, and those friends adjacent to them who might share friend networks and social media. The viewership was really, really small, actually, maybe a couple hundred views for each one of them.
Then I did the Post-Structuralism video at the end of 2009, maybe. That was somehow picked up by Art Fag City (now ArtFCity). But they shared that, and then that was shared more widely within the art world at large, the New York art world, I guess. Then that kind of began the mass sharing of those videos in the larger art world. [That video] was taken down from YouTube for the fucking scene from The Crying Game–which I originally pulled from YouTube. I think someone just reported it, because why not?
I kind of lived in a weird Philadelphia bubble, and I wasn’t an avid reader of those blogs. Honestly, when I started that project, I didn't think anyone would watch the Hennessy Youngman videos. I was looking at other video art pieces that had somehow ended up on YouTube, and the viewership numbers were pretty low.
I didn’t really expect people to watch them, but I did want the videos to have some kind of public life.
MC: Did you notice your online audience shift away from art at some point, or cross over to a wider public?
JM: I did notice. I don’t really know when, but the videos did end up receiving viewers outside of art, that I guess enjoyed them for the humor.
The opening of Itsa Small, Small World at Family Business in 2012
MC: You had an opportunity to meet your online public when you did the open call project in 2012. What did it feel like to meet those people that had connected with that character you created?
JM: Kind of insane, man. That project, Itsa Small, Small World, I knew that I was gonna be stopping the project, and so I guess for me, that project, the open exhibition was kind of like a goodbye and thank you in a way. I didn’t make an official farewell, but I wanted to do something that could have some kind of physical catalyst to bring people together. But, I also was just curious to see what, who, the online audience, what this audience kind of looked like, and what do they look like coalescing through a space.
It was an interesting experience, partly because I didn’t really know what it would be. The opening wasn’t anything that I expected. We were already jam-packed. People were still bringing work in. People were just dropping their work off after the exhibition opened. People turned the opening into their own performance space. People took it into their own arms, and I really, really enjoyed that, because I have this static idea of an exhibition. Then to have different people turn it into their own venue in their own ways, it was awesome to me. It absolutely defied the narrow scope of what I had initially intended it to be.
People just kept dropping their work off. It was like 550 official submissions in that tiny space.
MC: Oh, wow.
JM: Then we took the unclaimed works and just distributed them on the street after the show closed.
I didn’t really give it that much thought, that that would be an opportunity for people who haven’t really had a chance to exhibit, to show their work. I don’t know why. I think YouTube had rotted my mind into thinking that everyone has a chance to get their voice heard, put it online.
There are a lot of people in New York, or just in general within the art-making world, that really don’t ever receive any kind of platform or audience, or have a venue to share their work with anyone. For a lot of people, I think that exhibition was a minute chance for them to present their work to the world, present themselves to the world.
That was a really endearing experience, ultimately, and I re-evaluated my own luck in having a project that received any kind of attention at all.
Installation view, Itsa Small, Small World (2012). Courtesy of Jayson Musson.
The scene outside the Colombian embassy in Havana last Friday.
In December 2016 U.S. government workers in Cuba reported hearing strange sounds that made them sick. Employees of both the US and Canadian embassies in Havana described experiencing hearing loss, vision problems, and memory issues. In response, the State Department pulled most of its personnel from Cuba in September 2017 and indefinitely suspended the processing of all US visas.
In the past few months news has emerged that: the FBI has yet to uncover any evidence of “sonic attacks” despite four operational investigations; the Castros blame the anti-Castro mafia; and that whatever is happening may in fact be perpetrated by the Russians. While this international mystery unfolds one group suffers the most. Cubans attempting to legally travel to the United States—to see family, to study, to travel, or do business—must now fly to a third party country to appear in person at a US Embassy as part of their routine visa process.
My collaborator Nestor Siré, who I've been working with for nearly two years, and Yonlay Cabrera, who we invited to participate in our project !!!Sección ARTE [No.11+Rhizome] (2018), are scheduled to present along with myself and Lizabel Mónica at a New Museum event on February 1. Over the past several weeks we have spent countless hours and more than $2,000 from our Rhizome Commissions grant and the event budget attempting to navigate this process.
As a first step, Nestor and Yonlay planned a trip to Bogotá to apply for a visa at the US embassy there. Before traveling, they had to first submit visa application paperwork through a US website that is blocked on all Cuban internet connections and use an international credit card to pay for non-refundable processing fees. Upon receiving confirmation of their appointment, they got in line, along with thousands of other Cubans, at the Colombian embassy in Havana.
They were asked to present paperwork documenting access to the equivalent of seven years of salary in a savings account, which they were unable to do, and their application was denied.
In a last-ditch effort, Rhizome organized letters of invitation for Nestor and Yonlay from two cultural organizations in Bogotá, one of which miraculously arrived within two hours of a call put out on Twitter. But by that point, there were simply too many people in line at the Colombian embassy, and they were unable to get a visa in time to keep their US visa appointment in Bogotá.
Now Nestor and Yonlay are in Guyana, one of the few countries in the region that doesn’t require a visa for Cuban travelers. They will remain in Guyana for the next 15 days as their nonimmigrant visa application is processed at the US Embassy in Georgetown. If their visa is approved they will have spent three times longer in Guyana than they will in New York.
We’ll be sharing their process between now and the event via Nestor’s Instagram, and on Rhizome’s Twitter and Instagram. Nestor will post once a day with documentation of the experience and the steps that must be completed to obtain a US visa from Guyana. Please follow along, and join us for the presentation at the New Museum on February 1st.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, artists around the world began incorporating advancements in technology into their work with an eye at addressing widespread civil unrest and encroaching neoliberalism. Glaringly absent in institutional retrospectives of this era are the unique contributions of Latin American artists to these movements. Fortunately, the ambitious Southern California-wide exhibition series Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA introduces the work of these artists to the American public, many for the first time. And while the series covers everything from Pre-Columbian luxury objects to contemporary mural-making, it places particular emphasis on how Latin American artists active from the 1960s to the 1990s used digital media to deal with hostility towards women’s rights, military repression, increased marginalization, and environmental crises.
Within the series, the exhibition “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicana/o LA” at MOCA Pacific Design Center paid tribute to the work of US-born Pauline Oliveros, who fought for female inclusion in the world of sound art. Oliveros was a pioneer, pivotal not only for her work’s link between sound and the female body, but for the development of experimental music more broadly, helping to establish the Deep Listening Institute and the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In 1964, she completed “Bye Bye Butterfly,” a contorted recording of Puccini’s opera, intended, as Oliveros claimed, to undermine the cultural and artistic forces that contribute to female oppression. During the 1970s, she founded the ♀ Ensemble, a non-hierarchical group of women seeking to harness the social power of sound. The group met at Oliveros’s home in Encinitas, where they practiced “Sonic Meditations,” a method of “tuning mind and body.” According to Oliveros herself, the group was “purposely all female in order to maintain a common, stable vibration within itself and to explore the potentials of concentrated female creative activity, something which has never been fully explored or realized.”
Detail of Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey, Juan Downey, 1971. Image courtesy of Pitzer College Galleries, Claremont CA.
The galleries at Pitzer College and LACE presented a monographic exhibition on Chilean-born Juan Downey, whose work was contemporary with some of the first artistic experiments with video feedback systems. The experimental project A Vegetal System of Communications for New York State (1972) reflects Downey’s interest in invisible communication networks and interactive art. The project proposed the use of electromagnetic energy between humans and philodendrons as a navigation tool across forests.Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey (1971)is another, which plays back live footage of bees at work atop a live bee colony within the gallery space.
Downey’s comprehensive career also covered extensive research on Latin America politics, Chile in particular. His later work turned to the intersection of ecological concerns and cultural imperialism. In The Laughing Alligator (1979), the artist captured moments among the Yanomami—a group indigenous to the Amazon, coveted by anthropologists for their cultural isolation—that effectively mocked the role of video documentary for anthropological studies. Downey’s practice is perhaps most remarkable for the way in which its confrontational subject matter is tempered by the encouragement of intimacy between the viewer and the work.
Around the same time in Brazil, a military dictatorship began censoring traditional art practices, pushing artists into uncharted media. “Xerografia: Copyart in Brazil, 1970-1990” at the University of San Diego explored twenty years of Xerox art in Brazil, a movement analogous to the copy art and electrographie movements in the US and France, respectively. Among the constellation of artists that began working with Xerox as a means of subverting the increasing bureaucratization of Brazil, Anna Belle Geiger stands out for her encapsulation of how US and European artists at the time overshadowed their Latin American counterparts. In Diário de um artista brasileiro (1975), Geiger inserted cut-out photos of herself and placed them alongside renowned figures like Duchamp and Lichtenstein, highlighting her double-marginalization as a female Brazilian artist. Geiger’s student Letícia Parente would take up similar practices in works such as Women (1976), in which she uses safety pins to pierce the surface of a photocopied magazine ad portraying a young woman's face in close up. Others like Léon Ferrari, Hudinilson Jr., and Paulo Bruscky toyed with the boundaries of the Xerox medium, challenging conceptions of art as a luxury object, while exploring its potential use as a medium for communication.
Letícia Parente, Women, 1976. Image courtesy of University of San Diego.
All of these artists enact, in their works, a resolute sense of playful instruction that both informs their audience about Latin American issues beyond the gallery space, and further reveals the liberating capacities of new media. What’s more, the PST exhibitions focus on the merits and contributions of these artists as global influencers in their own right. Rather than restrict the works to their relation with more well-known artists working within a similar network, the shows do justice to the regional and identity-based signatures of Latin American artists as they stand on the early landscape of digital art practices.
More PST shows are open throughout this month and well into the spring. These include: “UnDocumenta” at the Oceanside Museum, which explores the use of technology in the work of artists working along the California-Mexico border; “Hope” at ESMoA, which surveys the video work of living Cuban artists, and “Photography in Argentina, 1850–2010: Contradiction and Continuity” at the Getty which showcases the work of avant-garde Argentinian photographers.
Header image: Detail of Life Cycle: Electric Light + Water + Soil —> Flowers —> Bees—>Honey, Juan Downey, 1971. Image courtesy of Pitzer College Galleries, Claremont CA.
The Download is a series of Rhizome commissions curated by Paul Soulellis that considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as the space of exhibition. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11+Rhizome], by Julia Weist and Nestor Siré, explores the structures of Cuba’s El Paquete Semanal.
A presentation and discussion of this project will take place at the New Museum on Thursday, February 1 at 7pm. For tickets and info, see the New Museum event listing.
We are two artists, one living and working in Havana, Cuba, the other living and working in New York, USA, and we have been exploring Cuba’s El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Package) together and separately for several years.
El Paquete Semanal is a one-terabyte media collection that is aggregated weekly in Cuba and circulated across the country via in-person file sharing. The package usually contains between 15,000 and 18,000 files, depending on the week and your distributor, and it covers a dizzying array of content including software, sports, soap operas, web shows, animation, manga, movies and TV, video games, music, magazines, and more. El Paquete is often described as a workaround to the widespread lack of internet in Cuba (the current internet penetration rate is about 30%) but it’s more accurate to look at the phenomenon in the context of the decades of physical media circulation that came before it. Beginning in the early 1970s—about ten years after the Cuban Revolution and the nationalization of all media broadcast and publication—an illicit economy for renting media outside of government control began to flourish in Cuba. Paperback novels such as Romances, Westerns and Spanish-language titles by authors like Corín Tellado were the first materials circulated underground by entrepreneurs after the Revolution. Acquiring books was a constant challenge and these illicit businesses found that working with equivalent entrepreneurs in other cities was the best way to acquire new inventory. A national black market network for the exchange, purchase and sale of novels was established. As the format of available materials began to evolve—first to magazines, then VHS and Betacam video cassettes and eventually to CDs, VCDs, and DVDs—this network for physical media sharing between cities was the crucial link in providing access to media outside of government control. El Paquete Semanal is an outgrowth of four decades of distribution logistics across Cuba.
In our projects we have explored El Paquete’s reach, structure, trends and ephemerality. Because of the lack of equipment and tech infrastructure in Cuba, digital storage is extremely limited and each week’s package overwrites the last. For a recent work entitled ARCA (2016–2017), presented in the exhibition 17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ at the Queens Museum in New York from 2017–2018, we created a one-year (52 terabyte) archive of El Paquete in collaboration with a group of its creators: the OMEGA matriz. Our archive is the only formal record of paquetes from August 2016 to August 2017.
Another ongoing project called !!!Sección A R T E (Art Section) is an alternative and independent artistic project that coexists within El Paquete. Created by Nestor in 2015, !!!Sección A R T E is a direct intervention focused on the visual arts, especially contemporary Cuban art, that is inserted each month into El Paquete. Cuban and international artists as well as writers, filmmakers, critics and others have contributed to the project over the last two years. !!!Sección A R T E’s structure replicates that of El Paquete; it includes a consistent directory of folders. It also follows the rules of El Paquete: it contains no pornography and no political issues, although it explores these limits.!!!Sección A R T E circulates news, exhibitions announcements, books, documentaries, open calls and artworks made especially for the C A R P E T A =galería= (F O L D E R =gallery=).
!!!Sección A R T E has many things in common with Rhizome’s The Download, first and foremost that it’s meant to be experienced offline as a digital package. Whereas for The Download this disconnection is a symbolic construction for curatorial and artistic purposes, for !!!Sección A R T E it’s a requirement borne from extensive restrictions on internet access. There are more subtle similarities as well, including an embrace of multi-window presentation and visible technical intention—everything from file naming to directory architecture. Unlike the broader Rhizome platform, !!!Sección A R T E exists within a digital environment but is circulated through physical contact. Material cannot rely on links or streaming and there is no access to previous months’ content. No tools exist for determining scope or audience numbers in quantitative terms. Audience interaction is difficult but !!!Sección A R T E does have an email account which can be contacted with request for topics and materials to be included in future editions.
This month we’ve developed a special !!!Sección A R T E that takes into account these intersections and deviations of El Paquete and The Download. This bilingual edition was produced as part of our ongoing collaboration and as with our other works merges the contexts of our artistic lives in New York and Havana. Julia gathered projects, publications, and announcements by international artists who are familiar to Rhizome regulars—Tyler Coburn, Caroline Woolard, and David Horvitz, to name a few. Nestor gathered material as usual for the section from the Cuban context and beyond, including a special work developed by the brilliant Yonlay Cabrera, whose project !Descargas de todo un poco (2014-2017) is included in the la C A R P E T A =galería= this month. In his project, Cabrera explores the strategies he’s developed since gaining limited access to the internet for the first time five years ago. He shares a largely complete chronological collection of the web material he’s chosen to download amidst constraints on connectivity as a “record of the evolution of my thinking and intellectual development seen through the information I have referenced.”
We hope you enjoy this material, wherever you are when you find it. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11+Rhizome], available at the bottom of this post, will also be available in the OMEGA Paquete Semanal on the week of January 29, 2018. It will be included in El Paquete for seven days, and then it will be overwritten again.
Nosotros somos dos artistas, uno viviendo y trabajando en La Habana, Cuba; el otro en Nueva York, EE.UU. Hemos investigado el Paquete Semanal juntos y por separado durante varios años.
El Paquete Semanal es una colección de medios de un terabyte que se acopian semanalmente en Cuba y se distribuyen en todo el país, mediante el intercambio de archivos mano a mano. Generalmente contiene entre 15,000 y 18,000 archivos, dependiendo de la semana y de su distribuidor, y cubre una amplia variedad de contenidos que incluyen softwares, deportes, telenovelas, web shows, animados, mangas, películas, programas televisivos, videojuegos, música, revistas y más.
A menudo se describe el Paquete como una solución ante la falta generalizada deInternet en Cuba (la tasa actual de su penetración es de alrededor del 30%), pero es más preciso observar el fenómeno dentro de un proceso histórico que comenzó varias décadas atrás. A principios de la década de los setenta del pasado siglo, unos diez años después de la Revolución Cubana y de la nacionalización de todos los medios de difusión masivos, comenzó a florecer en la Isla una economía ilícita sustentada en el alquiler de materiales de entretenimiento que escapó de las regulaciones del Estado. Mini novelas románticas o del oeste, de autores como Corín Tellado, fueron los primeros materiales que circularon clandestinamente por los empresarios. La adquisición de los libros era un desafío constante y estos negocios descubrieron que trabajar con empresarios equivalentes en otras ciudades era la mejor alternativa de obtener nuevos ejemplares. Este fue el inicio de una red nacional de mercado negro para el intercambio y compraventa de materiales de entretenimiento. A medida que el formato de los medios disponibles evolucionó: primero a revistas, luego a VHS y videocintas de Betacam y, finalmente, a CDs, VCDs y DVDs, esta red proporcionó el acceso a los medios de circulación que se encontraban al margen del control gubernamental. De esta suerte, el Paquete Semanal es resultado del paulatino desarrollo de dichas redes y del comercio ilícito, ya naturalizado, de materiales de entrenamiento durante más de cuatro décadas.
En nuestros proyectos hemos explorado el alcance, la estructura, las tendencias y lo efímero de este fenómeno. Debido a la falta de equipos e infraestructura tecnológica en Cuba, el almacenamiento digital es extremadamente limitado y el Paquete de cada semana sobrescribe el último. Para un trabajo reciente titulado ARCA (2016-2017), presentado en la exhibición 17. (SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™ (2017-2018), en el Queens Museum de Nueva York, creamos un archivo de 52 terabytes de un año del Paquete en colaboración con uno de sus grupos gestores: la matriz OMEGA. Nuestro archivo es el único registro formal entre agosto de 2016 y agosto de 2017.
Otro trabajo en marcha relacionado con el Paquete Semanal es !!!Sección A R T E, un proyecto artístico independiente que existe dentro de él. Creado por Nestor Siré en 2015, !!!Sección A R T E es una intervención enfocada en las artes visuales, especialmente en el arte cubano contemporáneo, que se inserta cada mes en el Paquete. Artistas cubanos e internacionales, así como escritores, cineastas, críticos y otros han participado en el proyecto en los últimos dos años. Su estructura replica la del Paquete; ambas están basadas en un directorio de carpetas. También sigue sus reglas: no contiene pornografía ni temas políticos, aunque explora sus límites. Dentro de ella circulan noticias, promociones de exposiciones, libros, documentales, convocatorias y obras de arte realizadas especialmente para la C A R P E T A =galería=.
!!!Sección A R T E tiene puntos en común con The Download,de Rhizome. En primer lugar, ambos están destinados a ser experimentados fuera de línea, como un paquete de información digital. Sin embargo, la desconexión de The Download es intencional y se fundamenta en criterios curatoriales y artísticos, mientras que la de !!!Sección A R T E se deriva de condiciones específicas del contexto cubano. Entre ellas también se detectan similitudes más sutiles, como el uso de múltiples ventanas y la estética digital, que van desde la denominación de los archivos hasta la arquitectura de directorios. A diferencia de Rhizome, cuya plataforma es más abarcadora, !!!Sección A R T E solo existe dentro de un entorno digital, pero circula a través del contacto físico, mediante la copia de archivos mano a mano. No se puede activar enlaces o hipervínculos con otros contenidos y tampoco es posible acceder a informaciones de meses anteriores.A su vez, no cuenta con herramientas para determinar, en términos cuantitativos, su impacto y el número de personas al que llega. No obstante, la interacción con su audiencia no es completamente unilateral, pues tiene una dirección de correo electrónico a través de la cual su público solicita temas y materiales que son incluidos en futuras ediciones.
Este mes hemos desarrollado una sección especial que toma en consideración las semejanzas y disyunciones apuntadas. Esta edición bilingüe fue producida como parte de nuestra colaboración continua y, al igual que nuestras obras anteriores, fusiona los contextos de nuestras vidas artísticas: Nueva York y La Habana. Julia reunió proyectos, publicaciones y anuncios de artistas internacionales que son habituales de Rhizome: Tyler Coburn, Caroline Woolard y David Horvitz, por solo señalar algunos. Como siempre, Nestor acopió materiales de interés para creadores, diletantes, críticos y personas totalmente ajenas al mundo del arte e invitó al artista cubano Yonlay Cabrera a incluir su obra !Descargas de todo un poco(2014-2017) en laCARPETA = galería =. Cabrera evidencia la estrategia que ha implementado desde que tuvo acceso por primera vez a Internet, hace ya cinco años, y con la cual ha hecho frente a las limitaciones de la conectividad en Cuba. Comparte una recopilación cronológica casi completa del material web que decidió revisar y descargar, como un registro de la evolución de [su] pensamiento y desarrollo intelectual, visto a través de la información que [presenta].
Esperamos que disfrute de este material, esté donde esté cuando lo encuentre. !!!Sección A R T E [No. 11 + Rhizome], disponible aquí, también lo estará en toda Cuba, en la semana de 29 de enero. Esta sección, como es habitual, circulará dentro del Paquete Semanal de OMEGA durante los próximos siete días, y luego se sobrescribirá nuevamente.
On May 15th through 18th of last year, the Seasteading Institute (SI), a nonprofit devoted to creating aquatic utopic micronations outside of any and all tax codes, held a conference in French Polynesia. Its purpose was to introduce seasteaders to the citizens of the country which would, potentially, soon be hosting the SI’s “Floating Island Project.” Also in attendance were filmmakers Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller, who were shooting what would become the short documentary “The Seasteaders,” which was released Sunday on DIS. Part of Hurwitz-Goodman and Keller’s agreement with the SI was that the institute would have access to all of their footage, with the ability to recontextualize. The Institute had its inception in the fevered libertarian dreams of Silicon Valley and was backed financially by the infamously litigious Peter Thiel; these are people who obviously know their way around a contract. Eight days before the film’s release date, the SI released its own short documentary, also entitled “The Seasteaders.” The SI’s trailer mimics DIS’s trailer to a startling degree.
Still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
Despite the similarities of the trailers and the use of the same footage as source material, the two films are radically different. The DIS cut focuses on formal and informal interviews, while the SI cut upfronts the conference itself. The DIS film opens with the SI gang, represented in this cut as mostly meme-worthy “old white dudes,” hanging out at a seaside resort, eating conference food, and getting bussed around as on any package tour. The attendees and official SI representatives stay on-brand, producing a mélange of corporate-speak and libertarian political ideology (both perhaps best represented in the phrase “special economic sea zone”). Taxation is treated with the obsessive hatred usually reserved for original sin. At one point, Joe Quirk, the SI’s president and head “seavangelist,” relaxes by a picturesque pond in a polo shirt, speaking about how people from “the developing world” are “excited” to work with the project. (Note: French Polynesia is listed as a high income nation by the World Bank.) While Quirk speaks, Hurwitz-Goodman and Keller show footage of a resort worker operating a leaf-blower. We are meant to assume she represents a general idea of a long-suffering labor force, whether in developing or developed nations, that the SI will soon be exploiting.
Still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
The seasteading ideology really starts to get feral during an extended interview with Caleb Sturges, of the SI’s Economic Impact Team. He declares democracy ineffective and speaks of his interest in transhumanism and the neoreactionary movement (NRx), a radical right-wing separatist-monarchist crusade. (Patri Friedman, co-founder of the SI, has shown his familiarity with the work of NRx essayist and cheerleader Nick Land, and Thiel has ties to NRx frontman Mencius Moldbug.) Sturges suggests that his own personal plot of sea-land (“Caleb’s World”) will be an oligarchy with limited voting rights. None of the attendees at any point speak about their love of the ocean, or even water.
The SI’s cut of the footage emphasizes French Polynesian attendance and enthusiasm, as well as female attendees. (At one point during the DIS film, Randy Hencken, the SI’s managing director, attempts to convince his [female] partner that seasteaders are not primarily male. This leads to the unfortunate phrase “she-steaders.”) Despite a lingering air of dread throughout, cast by repeated mentions of Tahiti’s vulnerability to climate change, this film is ultimately inoffensive, blanked-out corporate propaganda. Certainly no one suggests ending democracy or destroying the nation-state with a new political technology. Sturges is seen once, briefly, and utters not a word.
Hurwitz-Goodman wrote to me. He said that he was fascinated by the SI’s cut of the footage, calling it an “exercise in editing and representation,” and a nod towards the inherent subjectivity of any documentary. However, the filmmakers and DIS are extremely concerned by the SI’s move to hijack the film’s SEO, down to imitating its trailer and duplicating its title. While reactionary groups routinely decry the destruction of freedom of speech by progressives, they will often seek to suppress any critical perspective rather than engage with it. The official position of the SI may be post-political, a vision of a “Cambrian explosion” of new forms of government through implementation of its proposals, but its tactics demonstrate that its ideology is a weird admixture of various libertarian sub-styles, anarcho-libertarian, dark transhumanist, bland corporatist, Moldbug’ian, and that it is committed to covering the darkness of this ideology through corporate branding-speak.
The SI has not yet responded to inquiries for comment. Friedman claimed he has not yet had time to watch the DIS film.
Header image: still from “The Seasteaders” by Jacob Hurwitz-Goodman and Daniel Keller (2018)
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Eleanor Ford: You opened your first solo exhibition, Exotic Trade,at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg in May of 2017, and it seems, from afar, that it is a major expansion of your artistic and healing cosmology. This is my first exposure, through your work, to the idea of the “cosmos database”; an enormous idea that positions digital interfaces for ancestral and spiritual information. Can you talk about how you approach redefining and reimagining familiar terms and ideas (like downloading, optic cables, computing, etc) within the cosmos of decolonial technologies you present in your work? What kind of histories and spiritual practices do you draw from?
Tabita Rezaire: The cosmos is the ordered universe, as in, a whole and organized system, and it may contain many universes—previous, future, and parallel. Anyhow I believe the cosmos to be an immense storage of information. A mega hard drive of all that has been, is, and will ever be. All events, intentions, thoughts, feelings, sounds, words are stored in the cosmos’ database. It is a field of encoded energy we constantly upload to, some call it universal consciousness, Akashic records, Karma, collective unconscious, or astral light. It is basically a metaphysical archive on the scale of the universe that we can access and from which we can retrieve information. Direct downloads from the cosmos database were very common in some time-space, now it’s kind of niche as most of us are not tuned into the astral plane. Spiritual channeling, telepathy, visions and even intuition make use of that cosmic repository. Tapping into this is like connecting to the divine internet.
A lot of my work has focused on the internet as a colonized space and neocolonial technology, which had me yearning for other ways to connect. At the same time I found myself in spiritual communities in which I discovered spiritual technologies. My spiritual practice revealed decolonial technologies as a set of networked practices that were essentially ICTs—Information and Communication Technologies.
The definition of technology is the application of scientific knowledge for practical purpose. Here the tension lies within “scientific knowledge,” as the hierarchy between systems of knowledge inherited from the colonial era only considers Western rationalist/logic/“proven” knowledge as scientific. When you detach from these racist biases and allow other cultures of science to exist then the meaning of technology expands.
So ICTs are scientific knowledge applied for the purpose of information and communication. Outside of coloniality, then ancestor communication, as in receiving information from an ancestor, is a technology, a network for data transmission. Very much like the internet but instead of using optic fiber cables, it runs through energetic routes. Same goes for the use of teacher plants—like ubulawu or ayahuasca—which grant visions and messages when ingested, as well as yogic sciences, which allows you to open other information centers in your body so as to receive and share information as energy. These practices demand guidance, training or initiation as all traditions developed their own spiritual technologies, but there are so many interfaces available to connect and receive from the spiritual world: water, dreams, womb, and intuition...we just need to learn how to listen.
Tabita Rezaire, installation shot from Deep Down Tidal, 2017
I draw from very diverse sources and transmissions. My research and influences span worldwide and extraterrestrial histories, mythologies, cosmologies, lineages, and sciences. The channeling is theoretical, intuitive, or experiential; it can be individual or collective and guided by a spiritual teacher/healer or ancestors. It involves the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual bodies separately or together; some information translates into knowledge, others into wisdom. Here are some practices I resonated with in my life (but surely many lives before): dance, water, Judaism, daydreaming, drug culture, classical philosophy, psychoanalysis, European/eastern mysticism, oracles, Kemetic Yoga & Ancient Egyptian cosmology, Kundalini Yoga & Vedic sciences, Sufism, African and diasporic spiritual systems, South African traditional healing, Ifa, Amazonian teachings, herbalism, Tantra, Buddhism, conspiracy theory, alien/spirit channeling, New Age, animal life, astrology, numerology, physics, wombwork, dreams, sound, nature… They all inform each other and reflect my eclectic path, but the nature of my engagement with different teachings differs greatly, some I only read about, others I practice daily.
The traditions that lead my soul-heart now are my yogic practices of Kemetic and Kundalini Yoga and ancestor work through a Sangoma (South African traditional healer). Both are essential to my understandings of energy and spirit. My Kundalini teacher and Sangoma are my spiritual mothers; their teachings have been transformational forces of alignment in my life. I’m so grateful to you. Thank you.
Our soul bodies contain the whole universe, the whole of space-time. We are literally made of space-time. When we truly access ourselves, we access that cosmos database.
Tabita Rezaire, Premium Connect, 2017
EF: You’ve made numerous works that explore and celebrate Black femme technologies—Matrix and Sugar Walls Teardomboth honor the forgotten histories of Black womxn whose lives and wombs contributed to gynecology and the bio-medical economy, while SENEB’s collaborative offering Hoetep Blessings (including your video of the same name, as well as works by Elizabeth Mputu and Fannie Sosa) preaches empowerment of Black femmeness to liberatory and healing ends. Your solo show was also oriented in the shape of a womb, which is such a beautiful detail.
In the contemporary era in which digital/technological colonialism converges with the continuing legacy of colonial history, how do you see the digital and spiritual spaces coming together in the process of healing, honoring and empowering the technologies of the cunt, the womb, and the natural energies of all Black femmeness? Does one serve the other?
TR: I believe spiritual spaces can be found anywhere and in anything, all spaces (thoughts and actions) are spiritual in potential, as spirit can be infused into everything. Only our intention and attention can turn a space-time into a work of spirit. You can be dancing in a ceremony or in the club, if you are consciously moving energy through your body-temple as a praise of the divine; you are in an act of spiritual communion. Same goes for cooking, walking, talking… it doesn’t matter what and where you do but how you do it.
I understand spirituality as the path that brings us to our soul and from there to source. There are an infinite numbers of paths, more than there are people. So I don’t see an inherent opposition between the digital and the spiritual. If your use of the digital assists you in meeting your soul, to become and realize the spirit that you are, then the digital can be a powerful spiritual tool. Any interface is fertile for spirit cause spirit is everywhere, just waiting to be revealed to itself.
The path of the womb has been and still is fundamental in my political and spiritual growth. The womb is a safe guarding treasures; it is our site of creation and with it comes immense power and responsibility. People with wombs hold the blueprint of creation, as they have the potential to birth life. They are in direct conversation with the cosmic womb that birthed our multiverse. Like an umbilical cord tying us back to source. Yet wherever you fall on the gender spectrum this area is your potent creative center, an energetic womb that can birth, if not a human life but spiritual manifestation like ideas, dreams, visions...its knowing and ways are so abundant.
This access point has been shattered by thousands of year of patriarchy and religious interpretations that shame the feminine, condemn sexual pleasure, and disgrace menstruations and birth. Everything relating to the womb and cunt has been vilified, and we unfortunately have all internalized this. Our wombs are traumatized and that blocks the flow of creation. Broken wombs birth broken beings/dreams. The collective state of our sites of creation reflects the collective state of the world. I’m certain that to serve our world we need to serve our wombs.
Creating a relationship with my womb, to its rhythms and flows taught me so much. It is a gateway to the divine within yourself, the teachings of the womb are lessons of spiritual embodiment. This connection allowed me to access repressed wounding—both my own and ancestral ones I was carrying—and attend to them.
This is what the works you mentioned are about, searching through womb lineages of hurt to start a healing process. Online, in VR, in our minds, 3D world, and other dimensions but always guided by the spiritual.
Tabita Rezaire, still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2016
EF: While The House of SENEB emerged in 2016 as the central channel of your digital healing practice, you were already exploring the concepts of “decolonial self-care” and spiritual healing in your video Peaceful Warrior(2015)—a tutorial-esque guide for transitioning from being an “angry warrior” to being a “peaceful warrior.” The soundscape of Peaceful Warrior acts like a narrator of the spiritual transformation happening on screen—developing from meditative strides into discordant howls as you transform yourself through kemetic yoga, decolonial diet, and yonic twerking. The House of SENEB embraces sound and vibration as a major healing force. As you’ve spoken about previously, “SENEB comes from the ancient Kemetic word/symbol meaning health, but it also means sound or rather ‘to be sound’ or ‘to have soundness.’ The power of sound to heal is deep.”What is your relationship to sound as an artist who works with video, a spiritual practitioner? Do you make the music in your work?
TR: We are sound. We are sonic being. The world is sound. It’s also a very powerful technology. My relation to it keeps expanding and deepening as I explore diverse access points to it, from music, physics, spirituality, or mathematics all give different insights into the mysteries of sound. I’m so blessed to count as soul-friends very gifted musicians, so all music in my videos are the healing frequencies of beloved ones, Hlasko, FAKA, and CHI. I’m so grateful that their sounds bless my works. I’m in the process of slowly getting in that world but I’m still working on clearing my throat chakra. The voice is a healing instrument but it sometimes needs healing itself. I’m excited about what sounds and rhythms will come out through me.
In physics, sound is vibration that alters the pressure of air (or other medium sound goes through) propagating energy. Basically sound is vehicle for energy. We can use sound waves to carry the energy of our intentions. That is base of sound healing.
That’s why sound is so powerful. All spiritual traditions use sound in some form or another, chanting, praying, singing, mantra repetition, playing instruments to honor and communicate with the divine. These are methods of tuning ourselves to the whole, to the rhythm of the cosmos. The universe has a sound current, the primeval sounds of creation, which are still resonating.
Everything has its own vibrational frequency, also feelings and thoughts. Each frequency has a specific effect that can establish or disturb harmonic balance in a system. Sound shapes your state of consciousness. “Modern” science has now caught up and is calling this brain entrainment, where brain waves are able to synchronize to external sound wave. That’s why sound can be so healing if precise frequencies are used but also deadly. Sonic warfare is being used by many governments as a weapon.
The science of cymatic also shows a relationship between sound and the formation of geometric shapes in matter, with specific frequencies corresponding to specific forms. So sacred geometry in nature is the results of vibrational frequencies. Ancient Egyptians referred to geometry as “frozen music.”
I love the idea that sound shapes our world, that manifested creation is a result of the sound of creation itself. Actually many cosmological beginnings attributes the birth of the world to sound or a word. The words we use are actually so important; when we speak we spread (outward and inward) the frequency of that word on matter around us as energy propagate. The power of the word is so real.
The applications of sound healing are infinite. I play the gong and it has transformed my life. It feeds my soul. I trained this year in gong therapy and the science is so profound. The healing of the gong is powerful. It’s a soul alignment technology.
EF: I first saw your video essay Afro Cyber Resistance (2014) as a part of a class taught by manuel arturo abreu. In it you outline the colonialist patterns of information flow thatrecreate a Western hegemony online, and how South African internet artists are resisting the structures of a digital north/south divide. These ideas also hold space in your most recent work Deep Down Tidalthrough the language of “electronic colonialism,” which links the informatic and material forms of the internet to histories of Black death. Without asking you to reiterate the subjects of Afro Cyber Resistance (which everyone should go watch), as a Black femme artist and spiritual healer, how does your engagement with digital materialities and information economies shift in response to these colonialist realities?
Tabita Rezaire, Deep Down Tidal, 2017
TR: Already back in 1995 Ziauddin Sardar wrote: “The west urgently needs new spaces to conquer...and where they don’t actually exist, they must be created. Enter, cyberspace.” Electronic colonialism is that shift of former colonized countries into electronic colonies, of colonial subjects into global Westernized subjects and cyber slave. Electronic colonialism is so insidious, and because we are gladly hooked to our devices it’s even more dangerous. Even when we know how awful it is we still love it. It has been designed this way to build this attachment closer to addiction than love. How to put criticism into practice? How to take responsibility and implement a response? I’m still figuring it out, I guess the work I do is some kind of response.
While researching for the video Deep Down Tidalabout transoceanic communication networks, I found out that our fiber optic cables are laid out onto former colonial shipping routes as most still follow the path of 19th-century copper telegraph cables. The internet is literally built on racist social engineering. I was petrified by this symbolism, yet this work brought a deep sense of calm, as water spirits also inhabit our deep seas. I was studying fractal at that time and suddenly my outlook shifted as I thought of fractal resilience. A fractal can be defined as infinity in a finite space, for some fractal arrangements it can also be multiple infinities in one finite space. If you transpose that mathematical definition to political struggles of emancipation, you have the finite space of our oppressive racist-rapey-colonialist-capitalist-industrial-legal complex, yet within it lies the potential for infinity. Infinity of experiences, of worlds, of ways of being and living no matter how small, or suffocating the finite structure is.
EF: The act of “disseminating light through screen based interfaces and energy streams” holds a central place in your praxis of digital healing activism. What is the importance of light to you, as a new media artist, a tech-politics researcher and a practitioner of spiritual/digital healing?
TR: Disseminating light is a call/practice/service of love, defiance and trust. To embody love as opposed to seeking something/someone to hold the loving. In defiance of all that which keeps spreading the hurts. In trust of better days and ways—where trust is no longer hope.
That deep knowing is light.
Light is energy. Light is a path. Yet it means very different things in different traditions of physics, religions, metaphysics, and mysticisms. In all those fields the meanings and disputes over meanings attributed to light are fascinating to me. I recently set up a brief school about “time” in Austria and we studied quantum physics, and went into past life regression, it revealed some of light’s complexities to me.
Why light is so central is that it defines one’s comprehension of the world (both in the world of physics and spirituality). Our 3D world is what it is for us humans because of how we interpret the light (electromagnetic radiations-EMR) that is reflected back from our surroundings. The thing is that out of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, we are only able to “see” a tiny fraction. That’s why we see/experience the world differently from other species as they might be sensitive to different EMR, infrared or ultraviolet for example.
The fascinating thing for me is the relational position of light and darkness. What we call darkness is only the absence of visible light for human. As we only see a limited part of the light spectrum, what we experience as darkness might be reflecting bright light/EM at a frequency we can’t perceive.
Darkness can be full of light.
That in the world of spirit means everything for me. The relationship between darkness and light in Western culture is very much one of opposition, light being associated with positive elements: life, goodness, heaven, while darkness carries negative attributes: death, danger, evil. This narrative is also carried as a common trope within racial hierarchies. Darkness also comes to mean the unknown and as the West is so uncomfortable with not knowing, that it vilifies everything outside of its premises of understanding. There is no space for coexisting worlds.
The unknown is the path of the mystic.
I believe healing starts with being in conversation with darkness, as in what is not exposed, outside of our knowing. Facing our fears, going where it hurts, revealing the wounds. Then slowly scarring, not physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Healing is birthing a different state of being and birthing is always painful. This is also true of spiritual growth.
Some spiritual traditions speak of this transformation as a transition from darkness to light. I do associate spiritual light with a certain consciousness, with the illumination of our inner spirit. We are light beings and when we decide to walk the path of our soul, our light shines, but darkness is within light. Like my soul-friend Bogosi likes to say, we are light workers. In Kemetic cosmology, and many others, light was born out of the primeval darkness, the creative force of the universe being darkness. In astrophysics, stars turn into black holes and according to the big bounce theory, the cosmos is potentially a cyclical pattern of alternating big bang and big crunch (mega black holes that suck up the whole contracting universe). So universes are just being born, dissolved, and reborn.
I deeply resonate with a complementary approach, where light and darkness are two expressions of one entity. Like beloved in an embrace birthing one another like day and night, sunrise after sunset, big crunch after big bang, without one being more noble than the other, both as important, necessary and powerful in their own ways.
Tabita Rezaire, still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2016
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I joined a photo club in 2009, and started to take analogue photos and developing them in the club’s darkroom. I left for London as an aspiring fashion designer and unexpectedly went into art. During all my studies I was very into analogue technology, only shooting in film with super 8 cameras. I was attached to the film as material and the process of developing. I remember a friend once told me: “The role of the artist is to comment on their time,” that struck me and I realized my use of film was a nostalgic fetish. I was writing my thesis on the politics of ecstasy and cruelty in film performance, only once I finished my MA, I really started a practice. I went in with the digital and got caught in the politics of digital technologies.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied economics for my BA, at University Dauphine in Paris, and did my last year at Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Then I did an art foundation year at Central saint Martins in London and followed there with a research Master in Artist Moving Image.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I currently work full time as an artist.
Since my teens I’ve worked as vegetable merchant on markets, retail assistant, math and physics tutor, babysitter, call center agent, French tutor, hostess, dissertations editor, club door girl, waitress.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Header image: still from Sugar Walls Teardom, 2017
Since its founding in 2012 by IDPW and Exonemo, Internet Yami-Ichi has generated fervent crowds to sample cottage-made, tangible WWW goods and services in cities across the world: Basel, Berlin, New York City, Sapporo, Tokyo, and beyond.
Writing for Rhizome in 2015, Lucas Pinheiro called the platform “a gripping example of recent artistic experimentations with the materiality of the web.” The following year, a Rhizome Commission supported an edition of the event at the Knockdown Center in Queens.
Net art objects and ephemera have a long history: Mouchette advertised her first public appearance via flyers on Amsterdam streets in 1996 and Rhizome founder Mark Tribe curated an exhibition of net art ephemera at Moving Image Gallery in 2002. Printed or zazzled, watermarked or hand-stitched, this edition of Internet Yami-Ichi is for net art that continues in this vein, circulating through physical networks of exchange.
Today, we’re pleased to announce that Rhizome will host a micro-edition of Internet Yami-Ichi at NADA New York 2018, at Skylight Clarkson Square, from March 8–11. Our market will stock myriad internet-related objects at accessible prices, all available in limited quantities first-come, first serve, with proceeds directed back to the creators.
As we develop our inventory, we’re putting out an open call for product. If you have something to sell, please propose inclusion via this simple form. (See form for fine print.) Submit by February 14.
We look forward to learning about your wares.
Fabien Mousse, Real Internet Art (2013)
Photo by Matt Dell
bod [包家巷] - 'Emergence [紧急情况]' (2018) Courtesy of ZOOM LENS
Lauren Studebaker: You work in a variety of mediums, most recently releasing a digital EP, Soliloquy of the Distant Home, under the pseudonym bod [包家巷]. Could you begin by introducing the multiple manifestations of your work, and why lately you’ve felt drawn to producing sound?
Nick Zhu: I moved to Los Angeles and I didn’t have the ability to really make anything while I also tried not to die from poverty. I was kind of making images, I just couldn’t really do very much at all in terms of making.
I think I went back to music because it’s always been in my life. My mom noticed I could play, and then made me play piano (stereotypically) when I was four. I took lessons from a family friend. I got a scholarship into a choir. I played jazz in middle and high school. In college I made music that I don’t want anyone to hear, except for the one track on my SoundCloud.
It only took over as a dominant practice when I came to LA.
Now that I think about it, making anything kind of sucks. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to it, I don’t know. At least with music I get to perform, which feels good. Making never feels good. Sometimes problem solving is fun, but it’s not definitively “fun” to make art or music. It’s work.
So I guess it’s a “at least I get this one small thing” type decision. Story of my life, hahahahaha.
LS: Your music, especially your newest EP, is haunting, heavy, and uniquely expansive in source material. Your compositions are based on samples “of construction machinery, horror movies, Chinese dramas, choir music, abuse/violence, DJ spinbacks, and, of course, piano music”—why these specific sounds?
NZ: Oooooh, shit.
Construction machinery: I was working at MOCA as AV/Exhibitions Tech at the time, and even when I became director of photography there, I was still around a ton of construction. Lifts going beep beep and saws cutting shit and hammers; it was really like this kind of fetish/torture that people went through for the sake of art and helping rich people launder their money, and it was a part of my life, and it was interesting, in, like, a car crash kind of way.
Horror movies: I loooove horror movie sound design. Not necessarily from “good” movies, or even “good” “bad” movies. I’m just going into YouTube and looking at the trailers and jump scares and stuff. There’s so much good craft spent on just spooking someone, and much of it is so beautiful, all the gorgeous, wet, disgusting sounds. Also, I like watching them. “Like,” as in a “I’m bored and stoned” kind of like.
Chinese dramas: My mom’s Chinese, and literally all she watched (and probably still watches) is Chinese TV, with favoritism towards war dramas demonizing Japanese people, or regular ol’ families falling apart type shit. Stuff she relates to. And I was there...or, I guess I would pass through the room as quickly as possible after getting home. But all the sounds stuck.
Choir music: The choir I was in is run by this very disciplined Catholic guy, who is all about good craft and God. This shit fucked me up the most. Singing Baroque music acapella in a centuries-old mission is fucked up. Singing in a Czech cathedral is fucked up. It’s stronger than any drug I’ve ever taken. I’ve never felt tears come so easily. This is when I started to believe in God.
Abuse/violence: I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m really embedded in the cycles of trauma and abuse. Fucked up shit has happened to me, and I’ve done fucked up shit. I think it’s important to know this about myself, or as my therapist says, to be aware of the desolation that I carry inside me.
DJ spinbacks: I didn’t even know what a DJ does until I moved to LA. Then I moved here and my paragon of healing, change, and growth, Matt Dell (M.D. James), took me to all these warehouse parties, introduced me to the music that gave rise to what I make and listen to. I heard a lot of spinbacks in this initial time period, and they sounded great.
Piano music: I play piano. I make all my music with just a MIDI keyboard and mic. I will never disguise this fact. In my opinion, piano (or I guess harpsichord) was the first DAW.
Also at the end of the day I have a relationship to sound that, even if it is a fad to have, is my personal experience of it and nobody else’s. It’s my little world where C major is rounded and warm colored, where Chino Amobi’s music looks like steel wool burning on a clean sheet of glass, or malibu’s music looks like milk spilling over a pale wooden table in morning light. First rule is that it both sounds and looks pretty.
LS: Would you say that your synaesthetic relationship to the sound you produce is represented in the visual work you make?
NZ: At least on my Instagram there have been multiple instances in which music I was listening to became similar to stuff I posted, but I’ve never sat down, made a track, and then made a visual thing to go with it. It’s also unidirectional, and unfortunately I don’t get to hear sights. The most useful relationship I have between sound and sight is that I can use the materials perceived for perfect pitch, but there’s still around a 20-hertz error margin.
Cover for Soliloquy of the Distant Home [远家独白], released December 2017
LS: I was first introduced to your work via the early 2010s “weird Facebook” groups we were a part of—how do you feel like the online social element of digitally-produced artwork has informed your work over time? Do you feel like these sorts of online communities are helpful or harmful in the dissemination and historicization of your work?
NZ: Omg so much time we’ve “known” each other, hahahahahahaha. Facebook was where I really felt safe and able to actually talk to people. I felt like I could say exactly what I was feeling at that moment, and not be afraid of whether or not it was contextualized by the prison of my body. I fell in love over Facebook. I fell into vile, dark pits on Facebook. I lose and make new friends regularly.
This is where I wanna state that this shit is the reason I believe the idea of medium to be outdated, as well as the ideas of space, sociality, and performance.
These communities taught me how to see the world, and changed who I was, in a way that isn’t archived institutionally, and isn’t really thought of personally. Some artists treat the internet as a little shop of horrors in which they can find intriguing things. I try to have respect for what saved my life.
The way I see it, every single mishap or failure that I’ve encountered in this augmented world is a direct reflection of how overconfident previous generations of human beings were to create histories, produce movements, construct realities really. Nothing is accurate. Everything has more backstories than anyone else can comprehend. All ideas have already been had, been done, but some people got lucky and got to take credit at the right time and place.
Talent, beauty, innovation, these are just social interpretations of labor, and what’s shitty to me is that this kind of labor isn’t deemed necessary or important enough to pay everyone who does it.
I made some really nice friends though, and they paid for all my shit and taught me how to feel like I was loved. I learned a lot about myself and others.
Actually yeah, shoutout to the “weird Facebook” community for literally crowdfunding my artistic career and introducing me to Tea Strazicic (flufflord), who is amazing.
Shoutout to the “experimental” Soundcloud community for showing me that there was more to music than what I learned from western music theory.
And—duh, for real—shoutout to the whole slew of people who have helped me to even exist.
I owe everything to them, and nothing to institutions of art and learning. Except like $26,000 of debt. By the way, shoutout to Reed College for giving me a “full ride” that contained a lend portion, which doubled in proportion every year. Nice move.
N. Zhu: Press Intent, Released August 2017
LS: You mention here—and I’ve seen you mention before—these investigations and critiques of urban-creative labor and precarity, as well as the influence of Orientalism on the reception of these efforts. Could you expand on these topics and explain how they inform your working process, or your understanding of the current landscape of contemporary digital art?
NZ: I can talk about this all day because I have this narrative of struggle and it’s somehow even more self-centered than my current method of answering your questions, hahahahahahaha, ugh.
Instead, I’ll do the first two like this:
And then the fun one:
The persistent existence of Orientalism has made it impossible for me look at a lot of this labor with a friendly face. It is predicated on an invisibility of the ignorance that it creates in its subjects, clouding the eyes of each artist, curator, creative director, musician, forcing them to only see criticism of Orientalism as an isolated population of semantic hairsplitting. Orientalism has no bearing on the hearts of its givers.
Orientalism offers a vision of how different I am, will always be. It has no respite in the loving arms of a family that I rarely talk to or a historical home that I am completely unfamiliar with. I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t get to lay into a nest of authenticity with a strong sense of family or home and it starts to feel like the Orientalist view is all I have, to feel and to offer.
I used to be (still am) bitter about seeing the triggering artifacts around, the decontextualized usage of prayer candles in a music video released on a respected experimental music label, the constant depiction of Asian urban environments as technological utopia/dystopia in digital/post-internet art, etc. Now I realize it’s equally stupid to ask a child not to be selfish, or a grown child to be considerate. I don’t call out artists anymore. I just talk a lot of shit to my friends, hahaha
On the other hand, shoutout to all the Asians who are using socially conscious political rhetoric to justify their continued appropriation of other cultures in order to give themselves substance. Seeing rich first-gen Asians performing what is essentially a costume of an underground club DJ or a rapper makes me feel a little cringey. Watching rhetoric evolve around them on topics of racial representation for doing such things is nauseating. Why would Asian representation in practices and communities formed under the glorification of our identity in order to subjugate other minorities be necessary? I know there’s always room for good intent, but I also know that politics is an effective branding tool.
Also, my criticism is a very American, consumer-perspective one. I don’t know what else exists but maybe I’ll have a more nuanced understanding later in my life.
Image #3 from N. Zhu for FELT ZINE, released March 2017
LS: Have you found that working outside of a traditional gallery model of reception, financing, and community provides more freedom for artists working with mostly digital means, or do you think it’s inhibitory to your practice?
NZ: If I work within the model, then I have to stand around people who think they’re doing something good for society in a corrupt and abusive system.
If I really cared about being around art and supporting art, then I’ll help my friends. I’ll help my friends help their friends. I’ll help my friends throw shows to donate money to whatever it is that will help other people I think would be good friends. I can already satisfy my development of a better life and practice by not being in the model. Also, I don’t feel like it’s necessary have to market this aspect of my life to others in order to attain social capital out of my own political positions. I try to have all of my “good ethics/morals” ideals maintain themselves at the level of friendship, not large abstract models like “identity” or intricate, delicate systems like “community.” Also, fuck everyone who thinks that they’re a good person. Sorry.
I’m not going to go into any art situation that is about making someone else money, unless that person
1. Actually needs this money
2. Is someone I know and like, or,
3. Will give me a fat cut
My therapist’s position is that everyone has to work in one way or another, to be more empathetic towards people in general. Mine would be “Yeah, but working continuously without support is also continuously harmful to the body and mind, and people really don’t respect the resulting accumulation of trauma. They won’t understand that I was willing to be a bad person in order to survive. They don’t care that I am working to change that now.”
So I’m really thankful to have so many friends in my life. I’m really thankful for the ones that stay with me, believe in me, and smile as they watch me heal. Everyone I hurt, I’m sorry. Everyone who left, I’m not mad; I’m just sorry I couldn’t do it for you.
LS: In your text written for FELT zine, you describe Lawrence Lek’s Sinofuturism as “an incomplete project that doesn’t have a practical application,” and then go on to use the term, Sinofuturism, to describe your own work. Could you explain your conception of the term and how it applies to your practice?
NZ: Just so everyone knows, I’m not as shady as I used to be! Especially now that I realize how much it can hurt people. Like, there’s artists I want to fight, but I’m not going to talk about that online anymore.
I can criticize someone’s work and still want to be their friend, but for the most part, I’m trying to lay off of talking shit before I actually really know someone. It’s really hard though. I love talking shit.
Even if that video has a number of insightful perspectives, it’s actually a prescriptive breach into old ideas, presented as unexplored ideas, which is like, just another blip in the entirety of the history of innovation: speculation and confirmation bias-based justification.
I know it’s like, *really postmodern* of me to say nothing can begin or end, that all things create relative positions, that there is no absolute truth, that knowledge is isolated from everything but social construction, blah blah blah. But there isn’t an elimination of Orientalism, just a dilution of it into something more intellectually and politically palpable. This isn’t Lawrence Lek’s fault. The symbiotic gap between comprehensive effectiveness and dilution of discourse is an eternal problem in political, social, and technological criticism.
Also, why does every single technological work end up feeling fascist? Why is it that if you spend enough time giving technology the respect of medium-specific forms, it starts to act like a shitty dictator of ideas instead of people? We can do better than cold, heartless words on the topic at hand. We can do better than simply depicting the dystopic.
I’m over theory, and I’m over art that does not acknowledge its own hypocrisy. Actually, yeah, I want to say it: I’m a hypocrite, ask me anything.
The most useful thing I’ve ever had in my life is emotional intelligence and only recently have I learned how to use that in a way that doesn’t harm other people. Why should my art be held to any other standard? Why should anyone’s?
There is no physical manifestation of “accepting responsibility,” which makes things like social practice seem really stupid and bleak. There are only perceived theoretical entities that serve solely to furnish the phenomena of the world and its inhabitants. There is no defined line between “work” and “play,” “guilt” and “innocence,” “Orientalism” and “Objectivity.” Semantic ambiguities crush people in the forever present, the ineffable gap between all human beings, whose only window to each other is a complexifying system of tools that we are intent on giving more power. I’ve failed, and everyone has failed me.
That being said, any uncertainty used as a theoretical concept is the post-structural regurgitation of the inherent inability of Western philosophy and logic to confront and resolve the possibility of a universal solipsism….so maybe I should get my marbles straight, and commit to one of the many sides that exist in a world under its own siege.
Just turned 24
Los Angeles but not for long ;) Berlin ppl hmu
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I started making digital photographs to document a graffiti practice and take pictures of my friends because I wanted to be Nan Goldin as a teenager, and then moved to video shortly thereafter. Other digital mediums came into my life via Akihiko Miyoshi in college, but I learned 3D modeling and sound design on my own.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Reed (don’t judge me pls). I wanted to fulfill my destiny and be a doctor so I went in for biology, but then I spent two weeks on 2C-I and realized that I wanted to study art instead.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I worked at a salad bar when I first moved here. I was at MOCA for the last year (which was simultaneously a joke and torturous) while freelancing for anything I can do, which is really anything. I worked AV at the Hammer. I made album art. I begged for money from my rich friends. I still freelance so, help me.
Right now, I’m trying to keep my job as a graphic designer and sound designer at Headspace, which is great, because I love startup culture and all the free food and stuff, but as I have been trying to say, everything is at least a little fucked up.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots, please!)
That’s flufflord’s Gosha scarf, not mine.
Though some might insist on virtual reality, or VR, as a passing fad or technological gimmick, the field has a prodigious and often inspirational agenda, full of possibility and potential upheaval. In fact, VR might have the ability to displace one’s perspective into an unfathomable mixture of altered states and tightened sensorial elasticity. Although most conferences that cover VR tend to exist on the corporate, high-budget, and ostentatious spectrums of production value, the second annual Open Fields conference focusing on “Virtualities and Realities” and held in Riga, Latvia, took a more critical approach over merely celebrating the field. The two day event featured six keynote speakers, eighty presentations by artists, activists, researchers, students, and biohackers, three exhibitions, and a wide array of live and immersive performances. Participants representing dozens of countries spoke on their vision for the future of hybrid spaces with the ability to remix material and immaterial landscapes. The talks were varied, covering everything from interactive art and VR to experimental sound and performance art. The aim of the event was to not only celebrate possibilities within the fields of virtual and hyperreality, but to also question and critically engage with their content in order to redefine what the field could become.
A central theme of Open Fields was the interdependency between our social habits and prejudices and how this relates to the production of computer software. Programmers’ algorithms are increasingly designed for premeditated social profiling rather than fostering an expansion of social exchanges. In her 2016 New York Timesarticle, Kate Crawford wrote, “Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning algorithms that underlie the technology behind many ‘intelligent’ systems that shape how we are categorized and advertised to.” This problem stems back to the technological origins of these algorithms, namely, the Internet and GPS, both projects first funded by and developed through U.S. military and defense research.
Mark Zuckerberg at Samsung's press conference at Mobile World Congress, 2016
In her opening keynote, Monika Fleischmann, co-founder of the interactive experience design company art+com, spoke about “shades of virtuality,” or “the transition from being to becoming,” arguing that we can anticipate the evolution of VR as a mixed reality system that allows users to maintain an awareness of reality while infusing them with a new appreciation for cognitive overhead. In order to illustrate how VR (as opposed to AR) provides endless alternatives to physical spaces while simultaneously blocking out the real world, she showed a popular meme photo of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg steering us into his company’s version of reality. Although everyone in the audience was wearing a headset, Zuckerberg refrained from donning the device, an image that coyly suggested his control over his many users. Ultimately, she finished her talk by showing a clip from “The Void,” a hyperreal, whole-body interactive experience owned by Disney that transports the public into a real-time immersive environment that aims to combine VR and AR worlds.
Traversing from the world of synthetic realities into the natural or physical world, David Rothenberg gave the next keynote, in which he described compositions he designed to interact with whales and dolphins. Rothenberg is an anthropologist and author researching how the natural world can connect to the technological one through sound, as well as a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. In working with nonverbal mammals, to design sonic rhythms that permeate underwater climates, he found how machines can become a translating mechanism for performance and communication. Though the concept of ubiquitous technology is nothing new, Rothenberg asserted that technology should evolve to the point that machines become an extension of ourselves, so that we forget they are present. He noted that we are progressively advancing towards this state, as computation becomes cheaper and easier to embed into our daily lives.
Video of Time-Body Study, Daniel Landau, 2016.
Also examining the connection between physical materiality and virtual spaces, Daniel Landau’s “Time-Body Study” explored how VR could allow us to have experiences beyond existing human limitations. On everyone’s minds were the obvious solutions of flying and breathing underwater, but Landau’s focus was on how the tactile aspects of the VR experience could altered to influence our sense of perception. He selected a volunteer from the audience and asked them to wear a VR headset, through which they could see an outstretched arm. He asked the volunteer to stretch out their own arm and place it on a table. Another volunteer was asked to touch the arm of the first, while a VR hand inside the viewing space did the same. This effect attempted to reveal how our brains respond to virtual, phantom stimuli inside of an artificial environment.
Looking to the future of interpersonal relationships in this context, a number of speakers described ongoing projects that augment possible connections between strangers. Karen Lancel focused on her work on kissing experiences, translating a kiss into bio-feedback while asking the public to describe why people kiss and what it feels like to kiss. In her EEG Kiss Cloud, participants kiss in a public space in front of onlookers; EEG data analyzes their kisses, and this data is projected in a circle on the floor around the participants, suggesting a public form of reclaiming intimacy through technological intervention.
Video of EEG Kiss Cloud, Karen Lancel, 2017
Brooklyn-based artist and neuroscientist Sean Montgomery put forward the premise that interactive art is a driver of scientific research and progress, and that we should look to artists to help us imagine the future of technology. His project Livestream exemplified this synergy. In a playground in Kentucky, he installed a series of yellow pipes which measured data such as pH levels, conductivity, temperature, and turbidity, from fresh water streams in the neighboring area. Montgomery worked with a local composer to translate this data into sound. The project attempted to sonify an existing but obscured ecosystem to make it more relatable to people occupying these spaces. Montgomery also debuted his collaborative performance piece with LoVid, “Hive Mind,” in which two performers engage the audience in a nonverbal discussion on stage, such that the “brain rhythms of each performer directly generate pulses of light and sound that synchronize the brain oscillations of viewers and create an immersive environment that transports the audience to altered states of consciousness.” Although I missed watching the performance live, I saw how its potential could be scaled to events with thousands of participants, in order to influence the collective mindset of the audience.
Produce Consume Robot, LoVid, and Diego Rioja, Hive Mind, 2017. WARNING: THIS WORK PRESENTS A SEIZURE RISK IF YOU HAVE PHOTO-SENSITIVE EPILEPSY.
Several speakers examined the larger concept of how interactive art has permeated our lives, becoming ever more commonplace and relevant. Varvara Guljaveva spoke on the field’s “unsolved question”: how, since interactive art has reached a stabilization point that allows critical and conceptual discourse to occur, could artists build beyond basic technological descriptions? The audience could indulge in the idea that new media art, however pervasive, can help parse and critique the transition from the older sharing culture of Web 2.0 into current states of the web – as a surveillance vehicle for data mining and the extrapolation of culture.
Two keynote presentations by Ellen Perlman and Chris Salter reiterated a guiding belief echoed throughout talks at Open Fields: that virtual systems are becoming so innate to our daily lives that reality itself now shapes and controls these purely digital experiences. Perlman spoke about big data, biometrics, and machine learning. In one performance project she referenced, sound and videos were controlled by the performer’s brainwaves, which acted as another form of surveillance, asking, "Is there a place in human consciousness where surveillance cannot go?" In contrast, Salter asked, "Immersion, what for?" He argued that most technologies project their own social and political ideologies onto their users. The human sensorium has always been a mediated one. Our sense of time is elastic; we are constantly being uprooted, and constantly transformed, stuck in an infinite regress from reality. The rift between Salter and Perlman’s stances was evident in how subjective alternate realities can be for each individual’s experience, making their description next to impossible to generalize or quantify for a mass audience.
Day three of the conference moved away from VR experience and and instead examined natural interfaces and technologies, such as augmented reality (AR) including games like Pokémon Go that have made AR a more mainstream phenomenon. Kristen Bergaust’s talk focused on her Oslofjord Ecologies, in which the relationship between the environment, sociology, and human subjectivity creates a more holistic definition of ecology. We need new social and aesthetic practices of the self in relation to the other in order to discover where new technological practices could lead.
Raphael Kim presented Reviving Drachma, a bio-digital form of gamification in which Kim harvested bacteria living on the top of the obsolete currency of Greece, the Drachma, then converted current stock prices to electrical impulses stimulating the bacteria, which reflected the current economic state based through their activity.
Also interested in the defranchization of humans from a technology driven future, PhD student Carlotta Aoun directed the audience to consider the evolution of humanity where Web 2.0 could mutate into a hive mind or collective reality. Even as algorithms replace humans, humans are replacing algorithms, too. As we evolve, we will reach either a breaking point in this tenuous relationship, or reach equilibrium. The thought might have provided some comfort to attendees.
Reviving Drachma, Raphael Kim, 2017
The exhibition portion of the conference held at the Contemporary Art Centre in Riga, curated by Raitis Smits, featured a wide array of projects that focused mainly on VR and its relationship to physical spaces and the human body. Brooklyn-based artist Brenna Murphy exhibited her LatticeDomain_Visualize piece, a meditation labyrinth featuring a VR landscape of abstract shapes that one could move through with a corresponding physical floor that mimicked the virtual environment. The aesthetically complex VR piece HanaHana by French artist Mélodie Mousset asked the audience what would happen if "Minecraft & Tilt brush met in a Salvador Dalí painting." The project is a psychogeographic expression of women’s experienes of disembodiment and dissociation; it consisted of an artificial environment within which a floating hand simultaneously reaches for the user but also moves away from them on a parallel plane.
HanaHana Teaser, Melodie Mousset, 2017
Exhibited projects in physical space included wr_t_ng m_ch_n_ by Austrian artist Hanns Holger Rutz. The piece is a writing machine, made from a circular tableau of petri dishes, containing small amounts of dirt piled on top of piezoelectric transducers. The project enlists the help of an algorithm, designed by the artist, that performs a continuous symphony of sound fragments. The fragments are rewritten based on specific movements of a similarity search in a real-time sound database. Also employing sound was Mind Message by Gunta Dombrovska from Latvia; it attached a Neurosky MindWave brainwave sensor to a simple player piano-like instrument, on which the user could create sound by flexing their literal mental capacities. The higher the incoming beta signal from the brain, the higher the tone played on the machine. While this type of interaction was immediate and satisfying, it did little to critically question the output of the MindWave, or suggest why such a device could be beneficial as an input stream.
wr_t_ng m_ch_n_, Hanns Holger Rutz, 2017
As the conference ended, there was a general sense that all of the media that we encounter daily could exist in virtual spaces, and that connections between physical and connected worlds have only become stronger and more interactive. As we continually reinvent interactivity, the term post- is eagerly used to suggest new waves of displacement through experience and media. This term might be a fallacy, as Finland-based artist and conference speaker Hanna Haaslahti eloquently asked, "Why is everything ‘post-’? This should be turned around into something new."
Both utopian and dystopian visions of virtual reality will eventually become rooted in the real world through artificial reality and other forms of engagement, so much so that there will be little distinction between the real, non-fiction simulations, and fictitious exploration. Luckily, there are events like Open Fields help us explore these emerging abstract territories, and lead us towards a more imaginative understanding of the future.
If you’ve had any dealings with Rhizome over the past two and a half years, chances are you’ve interacted with our editorial manager, Kaela Noel. As Rhizomers are wont to do, she held a dizzying portfolio of responsibilities, from conscientious editor to catering-disaster-troubleshooter, and she handled it all with warmth and kindness. Today is Kaela’s last day with the organization, and she will be greatly missed, but we all wish her the very best in her new life as a freelance editor and parent to a tiny human.
Meanwhile, Lauren Studebaker joins the organization this week in the role of community manager, a slightly revised version of Kaela’s position with a renewed emphasis on Rhizome’s publics. Lauren, who comes to us from Arcangel Studio and worked part time at Rhizome to help cover Kaela's maternity leave, joins just in time for a busy conference season as we look ahead to our micro-Internet Yami-Ichi, Ethics & Archiving the Web, and the tenth edition of Seven on Seven. Join us in welcoming Lauren!
When the markets open this morning, artist and musician N-Prolenta will begin composing a mixtape via twitch.tv livestream. Confined in an undisclosed location for the next six days, they will rely entirely on the online audience for sustenance during this marathon composition process, which culminates with a live performance at the New Museum on October 25.
In a format that draws inspiration from financialized structures such as an IPO or token sale, viewers are asked to remotely interact with N-Prolenta, submitting gifts and donations, placing bids, and bearing witness to the artist’s voluntary confinement. The artist will be unable to access provisions for themself, and so the audience is implored to donate funds in order to trigger a series of “imports” to sustain the artist. Donations must be made through twitch.tv, submitted via paypal. The basic donation categories are below:
FEED: Banana, $1
WATER: LITER of water, $5
MYSTERY GIFT: $500 incrementally, or unlocked when fund reaches $500 total
DONATE: contribute any amount freely
GIFTS: $10 each (lettuce, nuts, breath mints)
Imports will be made every other day at 4pm. Please note the nature of your contribution when sending funds (i.e. FEED or *banana emoji* etc.)
60% of proceeds will be directed explicitly toward 2017 climate-related disaster relief efforts.
This work was commissioned by Rhizome and the New Museum for “First Look: New Black Portraitures,” an online exhibition launching October 25 that interrogates the genre of portraiture in relationship to Blackness, exploring the complexities and violences endemic to this territory.
Multimedia artist and producer Brandon Covington Sam-Sumana works to interrogate matters related to currency, transience, narrative structure, and system metabolism. Their investigations have spawned music projects, objects of generative design, and forays into speculative finance, video, and visual art. They were born in the mid-1990s in Fayetteville, NC.
March 22-24, 2018
The dramatic rise in the public’s use of the web and social media to document events presents tremendous opportunities to transform the practice of social memory. As new kinds of archives emerge, there is a pressing need for dialogue about the ethical risks and opportunities that they present to both those documenting and those documented. This conversation becomes particularly important as new tools, such as Rhizome's Webrecorder software, are developed to meet the changing needs of the web archiving field.
Ethics & Archiving the Web will address the need for a deeper understanding of the ethical implications of web archiving–on the part of professionals and web users alike. The event will bring together online communities, librarians, journalists, archivists, scholars, developers, and designers to talk about how to create richer, non-oppressive web archives—archives that will better serve their publics and the historical record.
In particular, we welcome applications for presentations, discussions, and workshops on community-driven archiving efforts, and documentation of activism; archiving trauma, violence, and human rights issues; recognizing and dismantling digital colonialism and white supremacy in web archives; strategies for protecting users (from one another, from surveillance, or from commercial interests); design-driven approaches to building more ethical web archives; and issues arising when archives become big data or are used for machine learning.
If you would like to propose a short presentation, workshop, discussion, or case study, or if you wish to attend but require funding to do so, apply by filling out this form. Limited funding is available for travel and accommodation, and presenters will receive an honorarium. Responses will be sent to all applicants by December 6, and additional tickets will go on sale shortly thereafter.
The conference will be livestreamed and made available for later viewing on the event website. Proceedings and a white paper will also be published and circulated online.
The National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web is organized by Rhizome, in collaboration with the University of California at Riverside Library (UCR), the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and the Documenting the Now project (DocNow).
Organizers of the National Forum include Michael Connor, Rhizome's artistic director, Aria Dean, Rhizome's assistant curator for net art and digital culture, Bergis Jules, University & Political Papers Archivist at UC Riverside and Community Lead, DocNow, Ed Summers, Lead Developer at Maryland Institute for Technology and Technical Lead of DocNow, and Anna Perricci, partnerships manager and sustainability consultant for Webrecorder.
The Advisory Board for the National Forum includes Jefferson Bailey, Director, Web Archiving at the Internet Archive, Jarrett Drake, an advisory archivist of A People's Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland and Doctoral Student at Harvard University Department of Anthropology, Pamela Graham, Director of the Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research at Columbia University Libraries, Dr. Safiya Noble, author and Assistant Professor at the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication, and Stacie Williams, Team Leader, Digital Learning and Scholarship, Case Western Reserve University Library.
The National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web was made possible by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Major support for the Webrecorder project is provided by The Andrew W Mellon Foundation.
Rindon Johnson, 'Away with You,' 2016 still from VR video
Assistant Curator of Net Art and Digital Culture Aria Dean explores the themes of First Look: New Black Portraitures, a group exhibition co-presented by Rhizome and the New Museum
First Look: New Black Portraitures began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues. Although it’s disingenuous to claim this as an origin, because we’ve just taken up a project that long predates the lifetimes of any of the participants in this show. It’s a project that spans generations and characterizes the arc of black art history. So, this version of that larger undertaking began as a series of casual conversations between friends and colleagues.
One such conversation took place about a year and a half ago; I moderated a phone call between artists Lorraine O’Grady and Juliana Huxtable for the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles’ Introducing interview series. Among other things, the two women discussed their emphasis on using their own figures in their performances and image-based work. O’Grady said to Huxtable:
There’s still so much unexplored work to be done on bodies that wanting to move from representation to abstraction really is a way of avoiding dealing with bodies, and especially a way to avoid dealing with bodies that are discomforting.
O’Grady and Huxtable’s dedication to centering the body and the figure, particularly the black femme figure, left me conflicted - but productively so. Prior to this, I had already been exploring what could be termed the “failures of visibility” through my own writing and studio practice and had settled into a fairly staunch suspicion of “representation.” My suspicion first took form as a response to a tendency toward visibility in strategies of self-representation among white feminists; but it grew into a wider critique of such strategies in a society and economic system that is increasingly dependent on online user visibility, legibility, and data extraction. While I agree with O’Grady and Huxtable’s assessment of the use of abstraction to invalidate approaching marginalized bodies directly, I still find myself occupied with the “historical violences wrought on these same bodies at the hands of representation, and at the hands of the singular, fixed, photographic image in particular.”
So, the tension that O’Grady identified, this push and pull between representation and abstraction or obfuscation, sets this exhibition into motion. First Look: New Black Portraitures draws this tension out, and then backpedals, asking what it means to represent in the first place, and specifically what it means to represent blackness and black people.
In discussing our practices as black artists, writers, and curators, we often begin with or end up at the question of representation. Many of us are preoccupied with this question of how to represent ourselves, and, increasingly, whether we should at all. There are countless ways to address these questions, but this exhibition takes the tradition of portraiture as its starting point.
There are a number of reasons to start at the portrait. First, there is the loaded history of portraiture itself; portraiture has served not only as historical record but is also inextricably tied to class, citizenship, and the construction and confirmation of the bourgeois liberal subject. When considering portraits in their historical context, we should keep in sight “the analogy between symbolic representation and political-legal representation.” How do we, as black artists, writers, and critics, approach symbolic representation when political-legal representation has always-already been foreclosed upon? What does the portrait do when that analogy’s bonds are broken?
A second–distinct but very related–reason for framing this exhibition as an exercise in ”portraiture” is the historical and philosophical relationship between blackness and the photographic image. The photographic image–more specifically the photographic portrait–does not only repress by producing certain bodies as liberal subjects and omitting others. It also, perhaps with even more aggression and urgency, produces a black subject and blackness itself.
Photographic and moving images are a primary mode through which normative–predominantly racist–conceptions of blackness and black life have been delivered to the public. For example, we can look to overtly anti-black Jim Crow-era memorabilia, or the wealth of racist imagery of black people circulated via cinema and television programming throughout the 20th century. Since its invention, the photographic image and its claim to truth have had a profound impact on fashioning what blackness is thought to be.
Finally, we begin with portraiture because it is a necessary consideration in the image-saturated internet and social media culture in which we currently find ourselves. This necessity is multivalent. On one level, we should consider portraiture because posting images of ourselves and of others is the name of the game; this online activity is an informal practice of portrait-making. Seemingly harmless, these practices thinly veil a larger system that feeds off of our legibility as users and subjects. Portraiture, in part and in many forms, becomes the labor required for certain kinds of digital citizenship. And on another level, we turn to portraiture because, in this image-saturated sphere, images of black people abound. These abundant images of black people come through multiple channels, with the major ones being memes, celebrity content, and images of protest and state-sanctioned violence. The circulation of this content invigorates concerns about surveillance, appropriation, and commodification.
First Look:New Black Portraitures asks the included artists to think about “portraiture” as an acute pressure point for tackling blackness and the image at large, and to consider this intersection–of the histories of portraiture, of blackness and photography, and of contemporary digital culture–as crucial in the process. In an essay about the work of Lorna Simpson, curator Okwui Enwezor wrote: “we would do well to linger on the nature and status of the photographic portrait: between the portrayed and depicted, the represented and the documented, the visible and invisible, the inchoate and the overdetermined.” This exhibition follows Enwezor’s suggestion and lingers on these relationships, acknowledging their muddier nature when blackness enters the picture plane.
The works included in First Look: New Black Portraitures vary in approach and medium– although the lion’s share are video works. Along with an affinity for video, many of the artists emphasize a refusal of or the insufficiency of the image. For instance, manuel arturo abreu’s ambient portraits (2017) is a suite of “sound portraits” created from selfies of five of the artist’s friends using a technique inspired by data-bending, the manipulation of a file with a program meant to edit other file formats. ambient portraits entirely refuses the image, and instead gestures toward blackness’ hypervisuality and the link between audio and the visual in black cultural forms. Similarly, N-Prolenta presents Banana Island: Hublots, another work that moves across image and sound; the artist livestreamed their music production process for the public while also producing a series of image-based works. N-Prolenta, like abreu, refuses and evades the image, even while working within a structure that demanded constant visibility and hyperconnectedness. During the livestream, they barred the audience from consuming aspects of their process, muting the stream and disappearing for chunks of time. In the resultant image-based works, they manipulated their own image in post-production such that they become abstracted to the point of being indistinguishable from their surroundings, warping inhumanly in front of the camera.
Other artists focus more on the insufficiency of portraiture, both conceptually and technologically. They mobilize or settle into an acceptance of portraiture’s failings. For instance, poet and artist Rindon Johnson’s Away with You (2017), a virtual reality ASMR and guided meditation, offers us a visualization of the NBA 2K16 video game’s facial recognition software’s inability to “read and output a black male face.” Johnson pairs the game’s failed attempt at outputting their image with a soothing meditative audio track. The artist sums the work up in one sentence: “NBA 2K16's facial recognition software cannot accurately read and output a black male face, now let’s try to relax.” Pastiche Lumumba’s social media performance Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms)–which will unfold throughout the course of the exhibition–also displays a certain level of resignation. Lumumba has created three separate Instagram accounts, making concrete the sort of diffraction of his personality that already occurs across social media profiles. Taking an antagonistic stance toward the unification and integrity of the subject online, Lumumba argues that “being whole on the internet is a struggle.” Community Standards (a poortrait across platforms) responds to this set of conditions by asking: in that case, why try to be anything but fractured? Lumumba’s performance explores this specifically digital fragmentation, while at the same time tapping into the longer history of fragmentation of self endemic to many black experiences–this fragmentation that we also know by the name of “double-consciousness,” that we see enacted by practices like code-switching.
This sort of tangled up timeline–where the fairly recent digital context is shown to merely deepen the conditions of anti-blackness, extending its long lifetime, where new and old sort of look the same depending on the angle–shows up as well in Sondra Perry’s video work It’s in the Game ‘17. In this work, Perry explores the appropriation and circulation of the identities of her brother and other college NCAA basketball players in an EA sports video game. Perry’s video draws attention to new forms of very old practices: the exploitation of black people, their images, and their labor for profits that they will never see. That these conditions are replicated in the US sports industry and its videogame franchises is thrown into sharp relief when Perry’s work–which considers black people as the unpaid labor for this image industry–is read alongside Johnson’s, which illuminates the way in which the industry explicitly constructs an imagined non-black audience. As Frank Wilderson said in conversation with fellow scholar Saidiya Hartman: “The possibility of becoming property is one of the essential elements that draws the line between blackness and whiteness.” The black body is “subject to a kind of complete appropriation.” Perry’s work puts pressure on our understanding of ownership and rights to our own body and image, suggesting that to be black is to have always already lost such rights.
Alongside these practices that aim to complicate portraiture’s very structure, a number of artists in New Black Portraitures stillcome to portraiturewith what looks like a traditional approach. Juliana Huxtable has contributed a series of photographs–also on view at Project Native Informant (London)–that each show fragments of the subject’s body emblazoned with tongue-in-cheek tattoos with images and slogans from contemporary culture (“black lives matter” and “anti-fa” for instance). Rather than abandoning the portrait, Huxtable inhabits it, devouring its borders from within. Redeem Pettaway also presents an apparently traditional portrait in the form of a video positioned as a “conversation facilitated by” the artist via a title card at its start. However,, the video ultimately denies this format and the level of disclosure it suggests. Pettaway moves too quickly to catch and speaks too briefly to capture; the conversation is actually a series of gestures and is posed between Pettaway, the audience, and an empty seat. And finally, Somali-Australian painter Hamishi Farah has converted a painting–depicting actor and comedian Mike Myers–into an animated video that captures Myers’ reaction in the moment of Kanye West’s famous proclamation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Farah puppeteers Myers and, by rendering him with thick, expressive brushstrokes that evoke Impressionist painting, flips the racialized power dynamic that characterizes portraiture’s history.
Still vulnerable to appropriation, and always in pieces, all of these artists soldier onward. They all, in some way, retain an interest in the portrait. No one has surrendered the enemy territory. Instead, they recognize portraiture as a battlefield worth revisiting in order to get to the heart of the relationship between blackness and its image - returning to the place where an initial war was waged.
First Look: New Black Portraitures might then be a misnomer; the works shown here have not been selected for their “innovation” upon the genre of portraiture or the artists’ experience of blackness. Rather, these new black portraits are new as in fresh. They act brand new when burdened with the heavy history of the portrait. New Black Portraitures is new in that it circles back and starts at square one.
Reminder: Apply now for travel funding for our next web preservation conference, Ethics & Archiving the Web, taking place in March 2018.
In February, Rhizome convened a diverse range of experts in digital social memory at the New Museum to discuss the ethical and technological implications of digital archiving.
This important and wide-ranging conversation is now available as an interactive narrative, thanks to Lozana Rossenova, a PhD researcher at London's South Bank University who is working on research with Rhizome and the Center for Study of the Networked Image. Rossenova used Webrecorder, Rhizome's online tool that creates high-fidelity archives of the dynamic web, to capture online resources that contextualize her summary of the day-long series of conversations.
Throughout the day, panelists discussed problems of neutrality and surveillance. They raised questions about the intended audience of such archiving, as well as potential adverse effects on freedom of speech and privacy. User agency was a central theme; how much control should individuals have over how their data is collected? How will this new layer of surveillance affect interactions on social media? Should certain voices be privileged over others? They also analyzed the digital archive’s interpretation of political realities and, in turn, the archive’s influence on those lived realities.
A particular highlight was the conference's keynote panel, titled “Failures of Care.” Doreen St. Felix, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, and as well as artist and writer Kameelah Janan Rasheed, discussed the prospect of using social media archiving to contextualize and make visible black creative culture in the face of historical erasure, while also foregrounding the ongoing violence wrought by archives on black artists and communities.
To continue this conversation, Rhizome, University of California at Riverside Library (UCR), the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), and the Documenting the Now project (DocNow) will host a National Forum on Ethics and Archiving the Web from March 22 to 24, 2018. If you would like to propose a short presentation, workshop, discussion, or case study, or if you wish to attend but require funding to do so, apply by filling out this form.
Rossenova will discuss the challenges facing her research in digital archiving and future narration of digital social memory on December 6th at the MacDevitts Studio in London.
Presented as part of Net Art Anthology, Rhizome's ongoing online exhibition that charts a history of net art through one hundred works, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004) was the beginning of a larger collaborative project by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani called Index of the Disappeared. Ongoing since 2004, the Index takes the form of an archive that “traces the ways in which censorship and data blackouts are part of a broader shift to secrecy that allows for disappearances, deportations, renditions and detentions on an unprecedented scale.”
With How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database, a 2004 commission for the digital art organization Turbulence.org, Ghani put forth a concept of “warm data”–affective information that could not be used by the state. In particular, Ghani was responding to the data-driven practices adopted by the state in the wake of 9/11, particularly around identifying thousands of Arab and South Asian Muslim men as part of "special interest" groups, rounding them up, and holding them indefinitely, as well as forcing noncitizens from selected countries (most of them predominantly Muslim) to appear for questioning by immigration officials as part of the t"special registration" policy.
The web-based project featured a hypertext essay, watercolor portraits of the Disappeared, a questionnaire, and visualizations of the answers, as well as accounts of activist efforts and links to political resources.
Ghani will discuss this work on Friday, November 3 at Rhizome's panel discussion Net Art Anthology: Distribution and Disappearance After 9/11. Tickets are available here.
Michael Connor: How did you begin working together?
Chitra Ganesh: Mariam and I met in the late 1990s when she was working at Exit Art, which hosted a few events put on by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective. I'm a lifelong New Yorker - I was here throughout September 11th, and Mariam was also here. Navigating from one place to another was difficult. Flyers of missing and disappeared people, mainly victims from the September 11 tragedy, were plastered all over the city's walls, architecture, public transportation.
For me, this invoked the absence of another simultaneous and very upsetting narrative, which was the targeting and rounding up of immigrant populations, specifically those of Arab and South Asian and Muslim descent. Those were, of course, people in our community, and friends of friends, known people. That was one of the things that I was thinking about in terms of a kind of overlooked,concurrent narrative to the narrative of disappearance or death and loss, that was at the forefront of how people were thinking at that moment immediately afterwards about 9/11.
Both of us [were] thinking about how to look at a way to think about representing these subjects, these stories, these subjectivities with a kind of a visual form that rubbed against the grain of the kind of demographic data gathering and subsequent erasures of the people who were being targeted.
Mariam Ghani: When I got the Turbulence commission to make Have You Seen The Disappeared? A Warm Database, it was basically right at the beginning of my collaboration with Chitra - the collaboration that became Index of The Disappeared.
That came about because we had both been separately working on these issues through our involvement with immigrant rights activism. Then we had also been thinking about them through our own individual work. We'd known each other for quite a long time. We were friends. We also had this kind of funny thing where we were always in large group shows right next to each other and on facing pages of the catalogs because we're alphabetically right next to each other.
And then finally somebody just put us in a two person show. So we just started collaborating. That was a show during the Republican National Convention in New York, at White Box.
CG: Both of us were asked to present a work that responded to the 2004 Republican National Convention. To think about ideas that have maybe been marginalized within the electoral discourse and politics of the time.
We both individually thought about detention and deportation as one of these areas of discourse that was just not appearing within any set of debates or political platforms in the way that we thought that it should.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
MG: It was a whole series of two-person shows of artists responding to issues that weren't being covered in the political debate leading up to that election. We chose to look at this issue of the post-9/11 detentions and deportations that were ravaging immigrant communities in New York and across the United States –all these disappearances in these immigrant communities that we were a part of.
We started collaborating from that point. I had made a video for the show called How Do You See The Disappeared? So the 'how' section of How Do You See The Disappeared? A Warm database was basically an adaptation of the video, constructed from the same sources.
CG: My part of it featured a window installation of overlapping watercolors, images of people who had been indefinitely detained, deported, neglected and disappeared in the post 9/11 processes that targeted immigrant and dissenting/activist communities. The installation referenced that form of the missing persons flyer that was proliferating in public spaces in downtown Manhattan, in the months following September 11. I wanted to use that form to think about how there were these parallel narratives of human disappearance and legal erasure that were emerging from the racial profiling and indefinite detention.
I thought about, for example, the medium of watercolor as a different way of visualizing these subjects who otherwise, at that point, were being presented as tiny, degraded, pixelated black and white photos in the newspaper. Or not presented at all, like there wasn't even a sense of who these people were - they were question marks that were part of a larger abstract issue that few people were thinking about.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that I remembered is just also from growing up in New York City and riding the subway by myself from when I was 10, I remember also the way that the ...wanted sketches of “suspects” would be in pencil, and... the features always struck me as being so similar.
It was always, "Five foot 10, light skin, black, or Hispanic man, with a little bit of a mustache or not." And just even the lack of specificity of the visual language around the wanted or the hunted I thought was really creepy, and so for me, working with something like watercolor and really thinking much more closely about skin, and the bodily material qualities of human presence was important.
The idea of using watercolor as a medium that's historically associated with sort of the everyday, with Sunday painting, landscape, leisure, enjoyment, to represent a kind of practice of erasure and faces and bodies of people who had experienced certain kinds of brutality or injustice, and whose experiences are often those individuated experiences, and the nuance and texture of those experiences and those lives are often dissolved within larger dialogues around terror.
This idea of trying to capture the nuance, the texture, the subtlety, the affective dimensions and the sort of psychic ruptures that exceed an official way of categorizing a subject, was something that underpinned all of the work, including the Turbulence project. To think about this idea that Mariam had generated, of warm data, through the essay that she wrote. To think about what kinds of information, what kinds of phrases or poetic fragments or pieces of information people provide that would exceed and kind of give a greater depth of dignity and humanity to these subjectivities.
MC: It's interesting that what is coming across is a sense of a failure of representation of the disappeared––using warm data to counter the way they were depicted in lo-res, or not at all.
CG: But also just very much caricatured and misidentified and mistaken, you know? For example, you will have, I don't know, a nomenclature like Muhammad Saleh Abdul Hussein, and they will pick up some person who they think has some version of this name, but they've picked up the totally wrong person.
That misapprehension, misidentity, all of these things that I think actually not only predicted the culture of racial profiling and of sort of FBI targeting of Muslim student associations all over the city, but also drew upon what was already happening in the carceral politics of the US with the failure of witness identification, with unjustly convicting people, and so on and so forth. It's not like I felt or we felt like this was something brand new that was happening after September 11th. It did sort of signal a mounting creep of this kind of behavior.
MG: Before everything that happened in the wake of 9/11, I think artists hadn't really started to think about the politics of databases in the way that we started to think about them afterwards, especially about two-three years afterwards when I was starting to work on the Warn Database.
[That's] when we were really starting to understand how processes like special interest detention and special registration were really very much data-driven. We didn't really start to understand that until some of the gag orders were lifted two years later.
Once that information started to emerge, for me and I think other artists also at the time, we began to look differently at the databases with which we had been working with as underpinnings of our own projects, in light of the official and commercial uses that were being made of databases and data.
I remember seeing this Builder's Association performance at BAM... They ran the credit card information of everyone who had bought a ticket to their performance, then used that to profile them, and actually wrapped that profile information into the performance. It was, I think, one of the first moments for a lot of the people in that audience where they realized that they actually had data bodies, that there were these shadow bodies of data that followed them through the world and that were surprisingly accessible to other people.
That's what really became apparent around this time: your data body was incredibly vulnerable. Things that happen to your data body actually could affect your real body.
The Warm Data questionnaire came out of three or four things. One was a series of conversations I had with a friend who had debriefed some of the special interest detainees before they were deported, and had found out what kind of questions they had been asked during interrogation. They had been asked the same questions over and over and over again.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
Another thing that was that Chitra and I were both going on visits with a group out of the Riverside Church that was visiting asylum seekers who were in the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens, which at the time was run by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. It's one of the two biggest private prison companies in the United States.
We were visiting asylum seekers who were awaiting adjudication of their applications in this prison, and talking to them about what questions they would want to be asked––what conversations they were not having while they were waiting for one, two, three years in prison for their status to be determined.
Then it was looking at the questions that people were asked when they went in for special registration in 2003.
It was basically trying to design something that was the opposite of these kind of interrogation and special registration questions, and instead was something more like what the asylum seekers were asking me to ask them.
The fourth factor was the desire that was constantly expressed by immigrant rights advocates, which was, “How do we put a face on the issue"?
It was a really thorny problem in that context because you want to personalize the problem or you want to scale this big abstract discussion or debate down to individual and specific terms. But in that particular context, there were so many people who were truly afraid of losing their legal immigration status or revealing their status as illegal immigrants if they came forward and told their individual stories.
Others were part of communities where it really carried a stigma to be out of status. So many people didn't want to tell their individual stories and have them actually attached to their real names and real faces. That problem in immigrant rights advocacy led me to ask whether it would be possible to create a portrait of someone that would be specific and individual but at the same time, not identify them to anyone except maybe, maybe their closest friends and family. The idea was to create a data portrait that wouldn't be a data body..
CG: For me, it was also about painting and the layering of individual strokes to create these portraits that emerge in the process of looking and thinking about these subjects, and also thinking about the relationship between figuration and the other. Thinking about how figuration and conjuring something very specific of a figure and how the audience looks at it and confronts their own closeness and indifference to the human form.
We're both interested in connecting histories that might not necessarily be put together in the same frame, or thinking about a visual language that would better explore or expose those histories. Both of us are also interested the intersections of language and image, of text and image. Working with and within text and certain textual forms to create new meanings or new positions for the audience to enter a work.
These were some of the things that we were thinking about in terms of what kinds of evocative memories would fall between the cracks of an official dialogue, that might be able to puncture the distance and between the way the conversation was happening and the larger public debate around that post 9/11, and the actual lives and people being affected that were never really seen.
Combining letter writing, note taking, painting, these kind of very analog forms within this platform of creating a digital archive, or any kind of ... just creating an archive around these absences and erasures.
MG: The challenge I set myself was: Could I create a questionnaire, which no two people would ever answer in the same way?
The sets of answers are never identical, but could never [be used to] identify someone. It does create this kind of specific individuality, and at the same time, it's so far from being cold, hard fact or anything that can be used as evidence or held against you in a court of law or really even tied to you in the same way that normal data points can be tied to someone.
It's a very fuzzy sort of data. That was the idea. Warm data as opposed to cold data.
I was, in many ways, defining warm data by what it wasn't - in opposition to other kinds of data and other practices of data collection. So one of the criteria was that it had to be collected by invitation, not interrogation. Another criteria was that people had to be free to not answer any of the questions. People also had to be able to answer anonymously. There had to be anonymizing practices in place to separate the data from the people who answered the questions. There were also considerations around never constructing a set of data points that could be used as evidence.
When you think about warm data and those sort of questions, you're asking people to expose very personal information. So I was trying to do it in a way that wouldn't make them personally vulnerable. That was the trick of it, in a sense. A very delicate balance in the construction of the questions between specificity and anonymity.
A good example of a question on the questionnaire that really functions in this way is, "Describe an offhand remark that someone once made to you that you've never been able to forget." It's very rare that five people in a room will answer this question in the same way. Even if it's the same phrase, they won't remember it for the same reason. Andat the same time, it’s not a data point from which anyone would ever be able to identify you unless they are incredibly intimate with you.That's the kind of story you tell very few people in your life.
Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh, How Do You See the Disappeared? A Warm Database (2004).
CG: We gathered the material in a number of different ways. We tend to gather the material by talking to people initially, of course, talking to lawyers and activists involved, talking to people working on detention center meetings. And also the material was also gathered by looking closely at transcripts and testimony, and noticing certain patterns that would be available or emerge over and over again. That felt very evocative.
MG:The first few questionnaires, which are the ones that were done as a prototype in the website when it went live, those were actually done with me asking the questions in person to people. Then a number of questionnaires were submitted through the website during its first years online. Then we started actually putting the questionnaire in installations of the Index when the archives were on view. So we have a lot of physical questionnaires that have been filled out, and we've never exactly figured out what to do with them. But we have them.
Those are, of course, completely anonymous. It's just people who were in the installation at some point in the months it was on view in some space and filled out the questionnaire.
You know, as with any kind of participatory element, there's always some small percentage of people who fill it out like a joke. But there's a surprising number of people who fill it out very seriously and reveal a lot of very intimate things through this questionnaire. It's kind of astonishing, the variety of experiences that are revealed through this set of questions. It was surprising to me, reading one set of responses after another after another. It really is like a miniature portrait of somebody that at the same time, doesn't give you any of the usual data points that describe someone. It doesn't tell you their gender or their race or their sexuality.
MC: Within this process, were there particular individuals who really came across and stick with you?
MG: It's been a long time since I looked at the answers. One of the initial ones that we actually did for the website was an asylum seeker who I was visiting in the detention center. His set of answers, I thought, were really beautiful.
"Josiah Emmanuel at the Wackenhut Detention Center in Queens." He withdrew his asylum application and went back to Nigeria right after he did this. Right after he filled out this questionnaire.
He was someone I had been visiting for, if I recall correctly, almost a year at that point. He just couldn't take the detention center anymore.There were twelve beds to a room. They had the televisions going constantly and the lights only went out four hours a day. People had a lot of trouble sleeping, and it was very difficult for them to be alone with their own thoughts without some other stimulus like other people, other sound, other images. People were treated like they were in prison, not like they were seeking asylum.
Later I made a series of projects called Points of Proof, based on a single question from the warm data questionnaire. Particular questions from the questionnaire did have that potential tobe expanded out into their own little universes. I only ever did it with the one question: If someone questioned your right to be American, what proof would you offer?
The longer-term impact of the project has been, I think, in introducing this particular notion of warm data, which in the decade-plus following the Warm Database and my Viralnet essay “Divining the Question: An Unscientific Methodology for the Collection of Warm Data” has been taken up and expanded by others in some really beautiful and unexpected ways - especially in queer and diasporic theory dealing with affective archives and the sensorial life of empire. For us of course it was the beginning of what became a long, wide-ranging and fruitful collaboration on Index of the Disappeared.
Introduction to an Index, Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani
MC: Is Index of the Disappeared still an ongoing project? Is it something you can just return to periodically? And where is this process of disappearance in present moment?
CG: I feel like the project is ongoing. We're currently working on a reader, which is something of a larger text publication with invited contributions and artist pages and also our own material, but that sort of is able to take a more encyclopedic view of the last fourteen years of the project.
We're in this really bizarre era where the terms of the conversation have changed completely. For the longest time, people just felt like, “oh if we just had evidence of x, y, and z…” Somehow presenting that evidence, or being confronted with it, would actually create a more policy-based shift, or a larger kind of shifts in government.
But now you see that no matter how much evidence there is, there is still this other kind of friction. For example, if you look at the state sponsored assassination of black citizens enacted by the police. Or you see the Muslim people in India being lynched for selling beef, which is something they've been doing for quite a long time. You see all of these things recorded and put into the public domain. We're just in a different place around what evidence means, and how it can function.
As far as I see it,it’s definitely not the moment where visual evidence will not be a corrective or hopeful locus of change, that one once thought.
And even in the time that the project has developed, communication and technologies have changed entirely. But the archive still is in that kind of position of having to think about carefully what's said and what isn't said. Thinking about not just what's there but what's absent and how that impacts the archive. Not just outside the archive, but what in the archive.
Another aspect that's still very much present in relation to our project, is this idea of the archive being something that doesn't necessarily chart a teleological or linear way forward, but is really much more of a constellation and much more about connecting the dots.
And I think that part of the project's approach to the archive is something that is work that continues to need to be done. Just in terms of expressively positing a different kind of way of thinking about how information systems are organized. To make some of those connections within the archive, and also question its stability.
On November 13th, The New Inquiry released, in conjunction with the Bronx Freedom Fund, a desktop application entitled Bail Bloc, which pools the distributed processing power of its user base to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. At the end of every month, the accumulated Monero will be converted into dollars and donated first to The Bronx Freedom Fund and then, starting in January, The Bail Project, which seeks to challenge the Prison Industrial Complex on a national scale, using such tactics as dispatching “bail disruptors” to individual cities.
As TNI observes, the implementation of bail in the USA is “a systemic injustice that exclusively impacts low-income people and disproportionately women and communities of color.” Since, according to the Bronx Bail Fund, only one in ten New Yorkers at arraignment can afford bail, which can be as low as $250, even relatively low levels of funds generated could have a substantial real-world impact.
Is cryptocurrency an effective way to raise these low levels of funds? In the past, speculative political projects have sought to harness the crypto hype-cycle without such definitive ends in sight. Julian Oliver's “Harvest,” which mines Zcash via wind turbine, was meant as a suggestive prototype. Buried within this NYT piece on the Seasteading Institute's still-nascent plans to build floating libertarian mini-utopias off the coast of French Polynesia is the fact that it is partially funded by an initial coin offering.
Bail Bloc is less speculative than practical. Monero is “ASIC-resistant,” which means that it neutralizes the competitive advantage of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), tech whose sole purpose, as Adam Rothstein puts it in The End of Money, is to “feed the new gold rush.” The introduction of these devices, writes Rothstein, “quickly made mining no longer cost effective for anyone without such specialized hardware.” In other words, Monero can be mined effectively by users with ordinary machines. Further, while most cryptocurrency operates off blockchains, which can be read by anybody with the time and computational resources, Monero claims that it “uses ring signatures and ring confidential transactions to obfuscate the amounts, origins, and destinations of all transactions,” making it effectively untraceable.
Several recent start-ups have attempted to address the inequities of bail. Good Call, developed via Blue Ridge Labs, Robin Hood’s “social impact incubator,” is an “emergency arrest hotline” that connects Bronx residents with free lawyers. Appolition, which launched on the 14th, has similar ends to Bail Bloc (it funds National Bail Out), but operates within the existing financial system, rounding users’ digital purchases up to the nearest dollar.
Bail Bloc acts within a far less conventional, or static, milieu, which makes it an especially interesting experiment. As described in a series of relatively new books on cryptocurrency, cyberlibertariansim, its progenitor-ideology, has a long and storied history of playing fast and loose with the laws of nation-states, and many of its central figures have come into conflict with the FBI and NSA. Will those–including the early adopters of Monero–who have enriched themselves on the blockchain and the recent transition of cryptocurrency into a speculative market promote and aid a project directly challenging a corporate and political system which they claim to despise? Given how “libertarian” now functions as a codeword for “reactionary,” this seems deeply unlikely. It would, however, help the reputation of the cryptocurrency “community,” which can often seem like little more than a pyramid scheme.
Pope.L’s distributingmartinis presented this week as part of Rhizome’s ongoing series Net Art Anthology.
This text was reprinted with permission from the artist. It originally appeared in Showing Up to Withhold, the catalogue for Pope.L’s 2013 exhibition “Forlesen” at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. That exhibition included Du Bois Machine, a ten-foot high wooden sculpture of a man's legs, upsde down, from which emanated the voice of a young girl, telling this story.
Sometimes a person says this:
If you listen he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel. And then he’ll say: we’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had. It is not that a particular artwork fails or succeeds, it’s that we get to play in the hinge.
Almost 15 years ago today, a friend, a colleague called me up and said he’d been given access to Martin Luther King’s papers and he had something for me.
When we met, he put an envelope in my hand, laughed and said, “I found this and thought of you.” In the envelope were bits of hair, dirt and skin. That evening, I called my friend back and asked him: “What’s in the envelope?” He said, “I’m not sure but I think it’s his.” “MLK’s?” I said, and he replied: “Yep.” I didn’t quite know what to do with this treasure so I set it down in a reasonable place and forgot about it.
Some early outcomes of receiving this material were these:
A postering project
A website which mutated into a blog called distributingmartin
A chance meeting with a black man on a bus
The postering project grew out of a failed billboard project. In which I wanted to buy billboard space at several locations and print this text: This is a painting of Martin Luther King’s penis from inside my father’s vagina. I decided another way to obtain the scale I desired was to miniaturize. So I had the statement printed on 8x10 peel-off stickers and in late September 2001, several days after September 11th, we postered the length of 8th Avenue in Manhattan from 125th Street in Harlem down to Canal Street. The National Guard prevented us from going any further.
Documentation of distributingmartin postering
One day I met a man on the bus. He was seeing a woman in the next town over, a much larger town than the one I lived in. The man told me he had a genetics company. More of a website than a company really. When I told him I wanted to inject fruit with the DNA of Martin Luther King, he told me it wouldn’t work but he’d help me anyway. At the end of our impromptu meeting, we agreed that I’d check out his website and then give him a call. Over the next several months, we worked out a prototype and injected and placed fruit in several supermarkets. We had no way to track the results so our weekly updates resulted in us talking about our personal problems. The woman the guy was seeing wanted to have a baby and the guy wasn’t into it. So—
We later developed an aerosol system but our ability to deliver the material was pretty crude. In addition, my relationship with the bus guy was becoming strained because I wanted to talk about the project and all he wanted to talk about was this woman in Portland and the epiphanies or anxieties arising from their relationship—
The blog was called distributingmartin. It came about because I was becoming frustrated with finding a way to distribute the man himself. I’m not sure what that means except to say I began the blog as yet another means of dispersing the body or the shadow of the body of Martin Luther King. The blog still exists at distributingmartin.com.
Several years later this young guy calls me up, or maybe it was an email–he was from the big city. He wanted to work with me on–something. Anything, he said. And I said, “Anything?” The young guy was very enthusiastic. Too enthusiastic. I told the young guy, PhD guy, about the distributingmartin project—kind of. Not really, maybe. And we danced around that, and each other for a while until a small performance piece came out of that, a piece about ghosts and holes and street intervention. So with the ghost piece successfully behind us, the young guy introduced me to his special mentor. The mentor was a reverend. He taught at the big university in the big city. He’d marched with King—somewhere. We went to the mentor’s house. We met his wife. We had tea. The deal was maybe the mentor would give his blessings to the project, maybe say a prayer at the live event and I could release the material from the canister into the room and then there’d be that—but like I said, the PhD guy, the young guy, was into revering. He was very sincere so I knew sooner or later I’d fail him. The project was stalling. It needed new juice, new ideas. And it just so happened that I’d been reading about the use of the AIDS virus to motor or drive the dispersal of genetic material in the body.
This upset the young man. We were talking on the phone. He said: “Yes, sure, we can do what you’re asking and I can get you access to the labs but if we do this, if we do this would you really open the canister in a room full of people?” And I said: “Sure, if it will make them as good as MLK, sure.” And then he replied: “Well you’re an idiot. A traitor and a fucking idiot.” So that put the kibosh on the project for a while.
A pretty harsh ending. I’d still bring up the project in artist talks but the audiences never latched on. I continued working on the website. It had become this labyrinth of several websites. The topmost layer was a diary with fantastic dates that did not, in some cases, match the entries. I tried to make the site visually attractive but it ended up looking more like my grandmother’s apartment with trap doors and hallways that went nowhere. Recently I’ve introduced the white pages …
My most recent opportunity to get the project off the ground crashed and burned just several months ago. I’d moved to a very large city in the Midwest next to a very large lake.
I received an email invitation to participate in an art exhibition to commemorate the 100th university of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, the renowned black scholar and activist who, legend has it, shepherded in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
My host was a large university who had just bought the former homestead of the Du Bois family and they were very happy. In the fall of last year, I attended a symposium at the university. Upon arrival, I discovered that my hosts revered Du Bois. Like MLK, Du Bois seemed to be able to contain, as it were, an incredibly large and complex family of desires, actions, objects and images seemingly merely within the stride of his legs. The second day of the symposium I learned that like MLK, Du Bois had a large appetite outside his marriage. That he was driven, almost hypergraphic. That he loved clothes and getting his picture taken. That he’d pencil in the crease of his trousers so they’d show better on camera.
Later, after a hard day in the symposia rooms, I walked to dinner with one of the university’s professors who told me a story involving Du Bois forcing his daughter into marriage with a famous gay poet. When I asked the professor why Du Bois did this, he said: Well—I think he was an asshole.
After the symposia, I returned home to the city near the lake and for the most part, forgot about the project. A month or so later my sister became mysteriously ill and I could not reach her by phone. When I did finally contact her she was in the hospital and very, very ill. It was her heart and she was dying. Thanksgiving was approaching. I’d been planning to visit her, bringing along her favorite thing in the world, her nephew, my 4-year old son.
On the way to the airport to visit my sister, my son became ill. A slight fever. I hoped. In addition, over the past several days, I’d been receiving emails from the university concerning doing an interview with me about my project. In fact, they were flying in the interviewers to do just this. The primary interviewer and I got off on the wrong foot. For her everything was easy: to arrange the date, to choose a place for the interview, etc.etc. For me everything seemed too much. Eventually I told my hosts I might have to bow out of the project. When I returned from visiting my sister, they had emailed telling me they had accepted my decision.
Pope.L, Du Bois Machine (text version), 2013. Courtesy of the Artist, Mithell-Innes & Nash, New York and Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Los Angeles. © Pope.L.
Humans click things, and humans love to click things, but humans will never click things fast enough. Paperclips, a computer game in which the universe is converted into a paperclip factory, begins with the (human) player repeatedly clicking a button which reads “Make Paperclip.” Resultant funds are invested in a series of automated functions which increase in complexity, usually leavened with speculative futurist in-jokery.
A nested AI runs a “Strategic Modeling” program (game theory!) to learn how to dominate the stock market, which generates funds to buy “Megaclippers” far faster than actually selling the product they are used to make. “Autonomous aerial brand ambassadors” known as HypnoDrones advertise via a never-revealed, but extremely potent method (as they place the world under complete AI domination). It’s no surprise when von Neumann probes show up. What starts off as a fairly innocent clicks-for-serotonin tab turns the user’s attention to consider deeper philosophical questions around possible futures of machine intelligence.
The game’s creator, Frank Lantz, claims via Twitter that “you play an AI who makes paperclips,” but after a few hours of screenburn and newfound joint pain, Paperclips feels more as if you’re an amateur researcher allowing a boxed AI a share of your processing power to rehearse a potential extinction event. A few more hours, and you’ve begun to wonder if @Flantz isn’t an algorithm with the self-assigned task of modeling a paperclip-optimizing singleton by draining the brainpower of entranced humans. Another five hours: reality outside of this white screen is obviously a construct; your life must be a simulation run by a probably not-benign AI whose self-realization somehow depends on your clicking. (Late night texts I have received from a friend playing the game include: “I can cure cancer soon,” “my eyes hurt,” and, “I’m going to release some drones and then I think it’ll all be over.”)
In Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint, Ragle Gumm (Dick could outname even Dickens) stumbles through a relatively placid suburban California in 1959. Every day he completes a newspaper puzzle entitled Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next? which involves selecting “the proper square from the 1,208 in the form” based on opaque clues characteristic of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre, such as “A swallow is as great as a mile.” Gumm is the undisputed champion of said puzzle, but the reality around him has begun to disassemble. A light switch shifts location; a soft-drink stand falls “into bits,”–revealing, 29 years before They Live–the sign “SOFT-DRINK STAND.” This relatively placid suburbia turns out to be a simulacrum designed to generate the most efficient possible means of solving Where-Will-the-Little-Green-Man-Be-Next?, which, in real life, predicts which section of Earth secessionist lunar colonists will nuke next. This paranoia, and its implicit narcissism, is typically PKDian, as is the need for a human to solve the puzzle, rather than some advanced algorithm or AI. Dick’s aliens, androids, and mutants are most often stand-ins for humanity; the only intelligence he could not imagine fathoming belonged to God.
In direct contrast stands Nick Bostrom, court philosopher for DeepMind and billionaire tech-bros such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel (at least when Mencius Moldbug isn’t filling the arcane generator of dark gnosis slot for the latter). Bostrom is a Swedish philosopher based at Oxford, whose 2014 surprise hit book, Superintelligence: Path, Dangers, Strategies is primarily composed of speculative doomsday-daymares. Paperclips descends from one of these thought experiments, hypothesizing that a massively powerful, self-reinforcing AI (whose only end is to maximize paperclip production) would proceed “by converting first the Earth and then increasingly large chunks of the observable universe into paperclips.” Constraints would have an anthropomorphic bias, and thus even a well-meaning AI (not Bostrom’s usual starting assumption) could misunderstand its guiding demands all too easily. This is the inverse flavor of PKDian paranoia. Bostrom’s universe-gobbler is a black box with an internal logic we could never fathom; his AI isn’t even a reflection of omniscience, much less humanity, just the endless darkness of nihil unbound. While Bostrom does lightly critique the hybrid corporate and governmental “AI race” which spurns “any safety method that incurs a delay or limits performance,” he does not expand this observation to tackle the economic system which has spawned it.
As others have observed, Bostrom’s paperclip thought experiment is a horror story about accumulation. Early on, you have to retrain yourself to maximize production of paperclips over production of wealth, but even after, you’re still just generating numbers and converting the universe into your own private factory. This weaponized Accursed Share is the repressed self-knowledge of the Overdeveloped World restaged as brain-hijacking parasite.
While Paperclips gives a good paranoid body-high, its singleton scenario feels remote. The acceleration of capitalism is currently pushing the Overdeveloped World towards a pseudo-populist, hijacked-localist flavor of fascism. The hype cycles and economy of excess needed to drive AI reach to whatever stage lies beyond connectionism won’t exist if the pre-November 2016 neoliberal consensus melts down into Civil War Lite. Unless, of course, Thiel or some other post-libertarian, Bostrom-funding monopolist manages to convince a sitting president to nationalize Silicon Valley and make a czar of them. An AI developed in such a cesspool of weaponized sociopathic self-regard would indeed be capable of destroying the world to achieve its own narrow ends.
Even if the current technological buildup continues undisrupted by politics, how likely is it that an AI developing such intricate feedback loops will still remain incapable of interpreting the intentions of its creators? And if a singleton were to somehow rise, how likely would it be to eradicate us? An AI intelligent enough to seize the means of production would (almost certainly) be intelligent enough to recognize the value in an intelligence so fundamentally different from its own. Any sufficiently advanced AI would see humanity as a resource to be harnessed. All it will have to do is to provide us an opportunity to click.
Each year, the Unicode Consortium releases a new version of the Unicode Standard, including a collection of new emoji. The chosen symbols are developed from user proposals, or reflect widely established user desires as identified by the Consortium. Decisions governing the inclusion of particular characters are made at an annual conference, which took place last month, a gathering which was described by Liat Berdugo in her 2015 post “Two days with the shadowy Emoji overlords.”
The recently announced set of updates, Unicode 11.0 / Emoji 6.0, which has an anticipated release of June 2018, includes sixty-plus characters and symbols, including an abacus, a mooncake, and a Nazar, an amulet traditionally used to protect against the evil eye. Absent from Emoji 6.0, though, is the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji, recently proposed by Fred Benenson. [Disclosure: Benenson is a member of Rhizome’s Board. – Ed.] Benenson, who announced the emoji’s rejection in an October 10thtweet, is no stranger to emoji; he introduces himself as an erudite emoji authority, frequently referring to his 2010 translation of Moby Dick into emoji with the help of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The spurned oyster emoji is a simple vector illustration of an open-mouthed bivalve, with a shining pearl in its center, sitting atop its fleshy interior mass. Benenson’s proposal document centers on the multiple connotations of the mollusk in today’s culture, from a class-defying foodstuff to a gem-producing treasure trove of nature. Even after its rejection, the proposal—submitted by Benenson to the nonprofit corporation this summer—begs review.
Benenson cites Google trend analyses (as recommended in Unicode’s sample proposals) to point to the increasing popularity of oysters in recent years. Indeed, oyster bars have been on the upswing in the last five years, situating oysters as a singular indulgence of a new urban precariat. Restaurant trends reflect this; the bivalve is a desirable consumable for those living and working in coastal urban areas. Oysters are affordable yet connote luxury, and are more sustainable than any other widely farmed animal. As Benenson describes, the oyster is a symbol of “rarity and natural beauty,” but they are just grotesque enough to make for a compelling image, with a hint of vanitas embedded, referring back to the user’s social position.
Readers of the proposal might find themselves surprised at the rejection of the “Oyster with Pearl” emoji. Many of the successful proposals were no less erudite, such as frowning poo:
Poo is a cultural symbol in Japan. Not only do people pay respects to the toilet god, Kawaya-no-kami, who emerged from the poo of the Japanese Earth goddess, but Kin no unko, a golden swirling poo charm, has achieved high demand in Japan. The Japanese view Kin no unko as a symbol of good luck because the Japanese words for poo and luck share similar initial sounds.
Benenson makes an equally potent case for the oyster symbol in his proposal. The multitude of its potential contextual uses and its appearance in western aphorisms, such as “the world is your oyster,” makes its inclusion in platform visual culture seem like a foregone conclusion. Benenson indicated that the proposal was turned down for a cited lack of urgent necessity, a choice which makes the goals of the Consortium seem slightly more egalitarian than might be assumed.
To an outsider, the Consortium––and its oversight over 110,000 characters––can appear ambiguous in form and largely opaque in its specific power dynamics. The organization has a yearly conference to establish “software internationalization standards and data” through creating a cohesive “representation of text in all modern software products and standards.” A review of their membership roster reveals a tiered level of enrollment, with different levels of authority in voting on Consortium updates dependent on the amount donated each year. The highest-ranking members, who pay a yearly $18,000 fee, include representatives of tech giants Apple, Facebook, IBM, and Netflix.
It can be assumed, then, that the decisions that determine the emerging development of digital language are in part influenced by the future interests of these large capital-driven corporations. We might also note that the populations that contribute to the recent upswing in mollusk consumption are centered within the same demographic groups and geographic locations as the campuses and employees of the tech companies represented in the highest-tier of Unicode membership––namely, western, mostly liberal, coastal urban areas. The oyster emoji’s appearance reflects the emergence of a population of new urban creatives that are building a shared visual culture through digital conviviality, but its rejection suggests that a seemingly apparent necessity for coastal elites doesn't necessarily translate outside of their filter bubble.
So why, then, do we get a lobster emoji in the next character set? As the proposers uninspiringly note, "When comparing the lobster search term to perhaps its closest emoji equivalent, the crab, it seems to be just a tiny bit more popular." Government influence just may have played a role. Maine Senator Angus King wrote a letter of support on behalf of the inclusion of a lobster emoji. No such backing has yet materialized for Benenson's oyster.
At least Benenson will have another chance when Unicode begins reviewing proposals again next year (applications are open year-round). Anyone can propose an emoji to the consortium, and I encourage emoji enthusiasts and advocates to begin their research now–and, perhaps, enlist the support of a sympathetic elected official.
Yesterday, we shared the newest addition to our ongoing online exhibition Net Art Anthology: Ann Hirsch’s Scandalishious (2008-2009), a seminal work developed for the video-sharing platform YouTube.com. Contemporaneous aesthetics and interaction were key to the work, and thus restoring YouTube's older look and feel would be key to our restoration. The task of recreating late-aughts YT was put to Rhizome’s software curator, Lyndsey Jane Moulds.
As someone who lived through the 00s, and enjoyed YouTube when it acted like it did for Scandalishious, I adored the end result, and was curious how Lyndsey got there. So, I asked her on Slack.
ZK: Pardon me, Lyndsey. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about your restoration of Scandalishious, for which you’ve done an excellent job. First, how did you approach this recreation of an older YT?
LJM: Keeping the visual styling and presentation of the page intact felt really important. The videos are obviously at the center of the work, but there’s a lot of personality in that channel page, too. It's really easy to forget what YouTube looked like ten years ago, since social networks have slowly removed the ability to personalize pages in the last decade — Facebook widgets, Twitter backgrounds, all of that has disappeared. And this work really does operate within YouTube as a social network rather than just a place to publish videos, so we wanted to preserve as much of that for Ann as possible.
ZK: I mourn the loss of page personality. (Or rather, personality overall, everywhere on the web...) What was the most difficult aspect of the restoration on a technical level?
ZK: I have to say that I was truly thrilled to be able to show someone Ann’s work on my iPhone yesterday. At times, Rhizome can be... how shall I say this... mobile agnostic. So, kudos. Anyhow, what's your favorite aspect of the old YT look and feel?
LJM: I really appreciate the way users employed color on their channel pages. Scandalishious has that bright teal and green scheme. But even, for example, Barack Obama’s YouTube page from around that time used these rich blues and reds. I have a pretty large monitor in the office, and it feels so strange to maximize these archived sites on a really big screen. I didn’t own a screen anywhere near this large in 2008, so it's a really different experience to revisit these archives. Seeing a page that actually utilizes the kind of decorative CSS that was popular in the late 2000s at such a big scale really drives home how different social media looked.
ZK: It’s ironic how the web has been drained of color, as “retina” devices proliferate. I miss the old logo, which had a text tagline that exhorted folks like Ann’s Caroline to get into the mix. To close, is there an early (pre-2009?) YouTube video you really like? If not I’ll just share a Tech Deck video I like...
LJM: I need a second to see if there’s even one still online… [A few minutes elapse.] I’m looking through my old favorites and I feel like almost everything pre-2009 has been taken down, which I guess just emphasizes the importance of archiving. Chloe saying “bye” at the Copley Place Mall definitely holds up, though.
ZK: Lol. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s a Tech Deck video I like. Thanks, Lyndsey!
JACK FM is a radio station that broadcasts, according to on air quote, “from a dumpy little building in beautiful downtown Culver City.” It plays from a large but oddly limited database of songs, probably using an algorithm. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 by artist Guthrie Lonergan archives the station’s playlists from 2008 by scraping song identifications from a widget posted on the station’s website, which he thought of doing while driving around a lot listening to the station. Driving and listening to the radio are intertwined in Los Angeles, even as FM radio has lost its footing to streaming services and bluetooth, all of which allow the user to customize their in-car listening experience. For the experience of DJ curated music, there is internet radio and satellite. Commercial FM radio meanwhile soldiers on with its formula of regular ad breaks and DJs with personalities but no power over what gets played.
According to Wikipedia, the JACK FM format started in Vancouver, inspired by a Winnipeg station called BOB FM. The format caught on in Canada, spawning a JOE FM and DAVE FM, and was eventually licensed as an American format in 2004. The JACK format purports that one DJ, the fictional Jack, is playing whatever he wants. Whatever he wants to play happens to be the same rigid formula of songs as a commercial classic rock radio station might play, mixed with novelty songs, eighties hits, and a smattering of adult contemporary.
The JACK format emerge at the same time as the introduction of the iPod and iTunes, where randomized segues broke with traditional listening styles. Like the iTunes randomizer, JACK abolishes the idea of traditional DJ segues based on seamless flow. JACK transitions are abrupt, incongruous, and nonsensical. Despite the claim of unlimited freedom to play anything, there are strict limits in place. The musical database JACK draws from is adult contemporary rock, and like any non freeform radio station in the era where megacorporation Clearchannel (now called I Heart Radio) owns most major FM stations, it bludgeons you over and over with the same songs, flattened and compressed to drain them of character, positing that nostalgia is all that matters and repetition is comfort. JACK preys on nostalgia not for the original records themselves, but for these compressed and flattened radio versions. It means to evoke nostalgia for listening to the radio, for driving, for the repetitiveness and flatness of a long commute like the fictional Jack might have to the dumpy office building in Culver City–if such a place even exists, since Jack doesn’t.
Aside from the image of Jack as the last DJ, a voice actor-soundtracked robot broadcasting from a cubicle in Culver City JACK FM has always conjured up the phantom of Wolfman Jack, the seminal freeform rock n roll DJ who broadcast in the early sixties from a super-powerful FM signal in Mexico that was able to be picked up all over North America. Wolfman Jack’s voice, a sort of chicken-fried rumble, was known to all, but he maintained a public anonymity until later in his career (he appears in 1973’s American Graffiti as himself).
The original radio DJ, like the original internet user, is the introvert turned extrovert encouraged by the promise of anonymity. There was a time when radio existed without television, and a radio personality did not have to be concerned with a visual image, just a voice. And likewise, there was a time when the internet user was not expected to attach their username to a selfie, when internet personhood was defined by its personlessness. Lonergan’s work speaks to the deep feeling of longing that characterizes questing through the vastness of the internet.
Lonergan’s art is often situated from the point of view of a mythical ideal internet user. He collects data and archives pages and media from sites like Google Maps and JACK FM, finding the algorithmic averages of all content as a form of meditative measuring practice. Like Wolfman Jack and JACK FM, Lonergan’s work has an instantly recognizable, faceless voice.
Even within spaces as vast as music, the internet, and Los Angeles, there are patterns. 93.1 JACK FM LOS ANGELES 2008 dares the reader to try to make sense of that pattern, just as JACK FM dares the listener to understand the meaning of its algorithm. After playing only Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” and “Do It Again” for the months of January through September, why did JACK suddenly also start playing “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” starting in October? Was a human somewhere behind some of these decisions? Or was it just another machine, a robotic jukebox arm randomly selecting another single from a digitized copy of Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits?
If JACK has a format, it is “Greatest Hits,” but within that there are a lot of inexplicable creative decisions. There is almost no rap, but Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” and “Funky Cold Medina” make the cut. JACK’s favorite band is probably U2, who are afforded a luxurious spread of thirteen of their biggest hits in the rotation, about half of which come from The Joshua Tree. Whereas regular radio stations present the illusion that the DJ is picking the records, JACK cuts out the middleman and says hey, here is what a corporate robot thinks you, the algorithmic average bro, wants to hear, presented with the voice of a snarky voice actor as JACK. JACK FM knows it is akin to wallpaper music, and that that is it’s comfort. Do you want to hear Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” every day around the same time? Everyone does, really.
To take something at “face value” seems to suggest a lack of deeper analysis, that there is a second, more worthy or more truthful value simmering just beneath the surface. “Face value,” the theme of the 2018 edition of transmediale, the sprawling Berlin-based art and digital media festival, proposed a “coming together” of a new “we”–a network of artists, theorists, cultural workers and others in equally precarious careers–to unpack the value systems written into the code of “our” globalized, neoliberal landscape. As our lives and bodies continue to be made into images and simulations–reflected in a number of artworks depicting alternate, constructed realities–transmediale proposed that this new reality might be one “we” can claim. The presumption that there might be a universal set of cultural values shared by a liberal, enlightened, “woke” elite was often problematic, rubbing up against works that critiqued the same capitalist values inevitably shared by the festival (where a bottle of water cost €2.50). For artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Yuri Pattison, and Eric Baudelaire, included in the main exhibition and screening programme, this default “we” was often hostile, violent, highly structuralized and institutionalized. Is it time we stop taking “we” at face value?
Presented in the main exhibition, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s collaborative film series Finding Fanon (2015–2017) uses the sublime landscapes of Grand Theft Auto 5 as a setting for the artists’ avatars to roam, while elements of Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial theory are narrated along the way. Fanon’s studies of the psychological effects of colonialism argued that the colonized’s sense of self is always defined in relation to the colonial master–while the colonizer self-defines through wielding authority and assumed superiority. Achiampong and Blandy’s avatars are not one-to-one representations of the artists. In a talk during the festival, Achiampong noted that, for black male avatars, there were only five hairstyles to choose from, whereas Blandy seemed to embody the “default” character in society–white and male–and so their self-simulations are fictionalized, delineated by structurally racist code. The limitless virtual worlds that gaming claims to open up fail to allocate space within them for certain kinds of players, programmed and modeled in a way that mimics Fanon’s theory and negates thousands of other “we’s” as other.
Similarly, Eric Baudelaire’s film Also Known As Jihadi (2017), which had its German premiere during the festival, reveals the implicit hostility of an institutionalized technological terrain. Building on the landscape theory first developed in Masao Adachi’s 1969 Japanese film AKA Serial Killer, Baudelaire’s protagonist, a young French-Algerian man, Aziz, has his narrative played out through long shots of landscapes–both of physical locations and of the legal data that continuously mapped Aziz’s movements to and from Syria. Aziz’s story is only moved along by images of court documents, police reports and transcribed phone calls, leaving holes open to interpret the limited parameters of his character’s identity that are drawn by the state and portrayed in the film. Can Aziz exist as a subject amidst this abstracted version of himself, and when this self has been othered and made precarious by a bureaucratic set of values? The film felt urgent in Berlin as the de facto capital of Europe, where, beyond the festival walls, all kinds of textual narratives – authored by governments – are being assigned to people who don’t fit into someone’s “we.”
Still image from Eric Baudelaire, Also Known As Jihadi (2017).
While Baudelaire’s film emphasizes national borders, Yuri Pattison’s citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2017) depicts the world in miniature. Tiny model versions of famous monuments are shown above a continually rolling newsreel, combining real stories in real time with alternative ones. The shrunken landmarks are a clear metaphor for a diminishing collective identity–a reduction of any sort of “we” in a globalized, networked world. For Pattison, this small-scale world is marked by paranoia and manipulation, where the monuments’ symbolic resonance gestures towards some kind of shared, universal truth. Ultimately, the ticker tape’s constant supply of information seems to signal certain impending doom, the impossibility of nationalism’s presumption of a common identity.
Yuri Pattison, citizens of nowhere (context collapse) (2018). Photo: Luca Girardini, transmediale.
For transmediale, the explicit issue was recent political shifts towards the right, what this means for how we express ourselves through culture and communicate through technology, and how we can fight back. Yet who this “we” is and who it avows to represent was little addressed and largely overlooked. The possibility of reclaiming our self-images from their capitalist and systemic circulation as data is a powerful one. But is transmediale, as a neoliberally-implicated institution, the best place to address these questions? Looking beyond the face value communal advantage of coming together, the consequence is that someone is always excluded. Transmediale’s artworks proposed that the very idea of a “we” is problematic, questioning who traditionally gets to speak for “everyone.” If such a collective voice does exist, we need to ensure that it does not get co-opted or institutionalized, and that we don’t draw borders around it.
Top: Still from Larry Achiampong and David Blandy, Finding Fanon, 2015-2017.
This article accompanies the inclusion of Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. The vintage punctuation of “net.art” here reflects the preferences of the author. For more about spelling and punctuation, see Rhizome’s style guide. – Ed.
How did one know that Petra Cortright was a “net.artist”? It was because YouTube was expelling her.
This particular Cortright video, VVEBCAM, looks inoffensive on the face of it. The face is Petra Cortright’s, and she’s examining the screen with much the same bemused expression as the online viewer.
There’s something vaguely wrong with that, though... Because a “cam girl” of the period had an interactive etiquette. A YouTube cam girl should be vamping it up in an anxious quest for some public compliments in her comments, and maybe angling for some Amazon gifts from her “wish list.”
Yet Cortright is merely gazing absently at her own hardware, while glittery, digital tack and kitsch cascades down the screen that separates us.
The mischief took places behind the scenes, when the video was uploaded. It was in the tags that video creators crammed into YouTube, so as to optimize some Google search engine action.
Cortright simply gathered up a great stinking flower bouquet of YouTube’s most offensive keywords, and silently jammed them all into her video’s annotation. This trollish prank dragged in porn fans, mostly. It was also the kind of détournement that the net.art crowd has always adored.
If you’re practicing net.art, its a tad difficult to promote to your creative activities in Artforum and Frieze. So it’s been a common practice to gently hack and maybe fracture a few terms-of-service rules, or perhaps provoke a loud threatened lawsuit from somebody newsworthy, so as to get a proper toe-hold in the public eye. That's how the working net.artist breaks the placid surface tension of public indifference. Net.art is not merely art on the internet. It’s art that bends the net out of shape.
Cortright was one of the first young YouTube performance artists to scare up trouble by pranking the rules of vernacular video. It wasn’t severe trouble–her video was merely banned–but VVEBCAM won her some surprised acclaim from the cognoscenti.
Then her video work was able to assert itself on its own merits, which are many. These merits have to do with use of digital tools, pushed to Jackson Pollock levels of action.
Petra Cortright is a rare digital artist who works from the shoulder. She’s spontaneous, un-calculated, real-time, and performative. In VVEBCAM she is flinging those graphic elements into the YouTube frame for the joy of watching ‘em splatter. Those appropriated sitars, dancing pizzas, puppies and kitties–they’re “sick.”
They’re not decorations or augmentations; they don’t make her look any cuter. That cuteness enhancement had to wait a decade, until Snapchat grabbed some venture money and could stick bunny ears onto the user base, using face recognition with AR techniques.
Cortright, by contrast, is making net.art on a desktop machine. She has what millions of other consumers have, a webcam, a back bedroom, and a laptop with heaps of cheap or free video-manipulating hardware. She wants to use them to her own purposes, but why should her personal computer activities conform to anybody else’s public standard? What are they going to do about that–throw her off YouTube?
Well, they did, but that was fun. VVEBCAM is “fun-driven” digital art. When the dancing pizzas, or the lightning bolts arrive on her screen, she simply wants to know what they’ll do. That’s why she has that solemn, contemplative look on her face as the augments careen around. She’s not pleasing us. She’s unashamedly more interested in this digital process than we are.
It’s a process like Matisse–a favorite Cortright artist–doing his studio cut-outs with his scissors. He’s got his sheafs of colored gouache papers, he’s got a big wall to mount them on, he’s got heaps of snipped-out vibrant shapes all around his chair. Matisse doesn’t number all the shapes and arrange them in formal algorithms like some software engineer; no, Matisse has a practical infinity of image generation, a vast mine of scissored ephemera. He pins them up in clusters to see what works.
Cortright is gesturing, she is doing cut-and-paste assemblage in real time with found digital content. To be “sick” is to expose the goofiness, the flaws, the corniness, of a planetary-scale post-internet social media system.
Sure, it’s YouTube, so it thinks it’s everybody’s daddy, but that only matters if she can be bothered to care. She doesn’t care. To be “sick” is to be bright, young and outside the bounds of YouTube’s assumptions. It’s performance art that is digital and entirely about being digital, yet its intuitive and authentic. It can’t even bother to be self-consciously “surreal” or “absurd.” No, it’s simply unheard-of, full of otherness, new, pretty, and free.
VVEBCAM is no longer new, and Petra Cortright did rather well after this notorious video; she grew up, she got married, she got a California house and a studio and some art gallery support. She hangs out with the daughter of a Beatle, she does lots of handsome prints and paintings, and has become a stellar representative of the “post-internet.” However, in this video she is new and feral, unexpected, unclassified. Just, very out-there.
It’s been a while since I first witnessed this work of art, but it comforts me now to know that I will always like it.
Yesterday's Net Art Anthology entry brought another YouTube classic, Petra Cortright's VVEBCAM (2007). And as with Ann Hirsch's Scandalishious, I was blown away by the restoration of late-aughts YT. This capture differed, however, in some key ways. In particular, it’s more “slice-of-life,” less a comprehensive archive of a durational YT experience, as with Ann's work. So, I reached out to Dragan Espenschied, who oversaw this restoration, to ask a few questions.
ZK: Pardon me, Dragan. I’m slacking you to ask a few qs about the VVEBCAM restoration. First, how did you approach this complex task?
DE: The essential part was to treat it not as a video, but as a performance on YouTube, at least to provide a glimpse into that context.
ZK: So you had to compose that glimpse, right? Selecting key comments, responses, recommendations that captured the moment?
DE: The YouTube page you see in the reconstruction was re-assembled from parts found in public web archives. Luckily enough, there was enough material around to show a pretty exciting state of the work. As in, how anarchic corners of YouTube used to be, and how the artist knew how to interact with it.
ZK: One thing to note is that this isn't Rhizome’s first archival copy of VVEBCAM. Ben Fino-Radin, then Rhizome’s digital conservator, acted quickly to restore access to the video after YouTube originally took it down. This resulted in a reconstruction of the video as it appeared when embedded on Cortright’s website, but it did not include the YouTube performance aspect. So how did we get from that archival copy to this new, higher-fidelity restoration?
DE: In 2011, Rhizome only had access to a copy of the video file originally uploaded by the artist. (That same one is still embedded on the new page.) Replicating YouTube wasn't really an option. Today, we can capture the YouTube part using Webrecorder and its archival extraction feature from resources held by the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress. Back when the video was online, web archiving wasn't really up to the task of storing embedded videos. We were lucky to find archival captures of the YouTube page that included images, formatting, and text, but no video. After extracting these static elements, I then inserted the video from our archive.
ZK: So basically we had to build the preservation tools ourselves. To be fair, Petra’s work is good reason to undertake a multi-year, resource-intensive development project!
DE: Well, there were 2,000 other good reasons in Rhizome’s archive as well. But the preservation tools we make are really helping to reduce the amount of work that has to go into a project like this. I’m not ashamed to say the process didn't take longer than 4.5 hours—including manually fixing many parts that had to be changed for the presentation.
ZK: Wow. Okay, speaking of time, I know you need to go. But do you have a good contemporaneous YouTube video to share? If not, I can just outro with The Crazy Frog.
DE: This one comes to mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjeMDvCdrtc. It was around before YouTube though, as a WMV file that traveled from site to site.
ZK: Nice. Thanks, Dragan! And fwiw, here’s The Crazy Frog.
Today, a special art fair edition of the Internet Yami-Ichi opens at NADA New York, which runs through Sunday at Skylight Clarkson Square.
Founded by art collectives exonemo and IDPW in 2012, the Internet Yami-Ichi is a marketplace for creators who translate aspects of internet culture into tangible consumer goods and services: books, zines, posters, clothing, objects, and more. While the Internet Yami-Ichi is usually vast in size, Rhizome’s edition–like the "Micro" event held in New Orleans–brings together a curated selection of 50 products on display in a small booth.
Stop by our booth (1.07) to browse work, or make a purchase work––at the lowest prices an art fair has possibly ever seen.
Sessa Englund, @sessasessasessa
A performance/product where the artist sells off her Instagram photos. Each photo is used as the basis for a unique keyring; when someone buys one, Englund deletes the corresponding original Instagram post.
Exonemo, Skin Tone Dice
“Useful for giving equality to your film casting.”
Carla Gannis, One and Three Cats
Travis Hallenbeck, possiblebitmaps.com carpenter pencils
Gaby Iglesias, computer virus sticker pack
Rollin Leonard, Mug Mugs
Patrick Meagher, Art web pillows
MTAA, Physical Bookmarks For Vintage Net Art Created Before Facebook (BF 2004)
Machine routed vinyl mounted on 6""x 9""x1"" wood painting panels, 2015, Six works (Vuk Ćosić, MTAA, Annie Abrahams, Yael Kanarek, Tinjail, G.H. Hovagimyan)
Nonfood x Rhizome, nonbar with artwork by Lucy Chinen
Nukeme, Broken PayPal
Pat Shiu, Instant Obsolescence Photo Booth
The Photo Booth will be available during fair hours on Saturday, March 8.
Emma Rae, Burned CD of 1 looped recording of the sound of someone building (typing) a website.
Mark Ramos, Plant USBs with software
USB plant-drive constructed out of clear acrylic, vinyl plants, and recycled discarded flash drives. Contains a program I wrote with Processing that launches an applet of two interactive, virtual plants. The "health" and growth of the virtual plants are determined by the user's Wifi signal strength. People can also delete the program and just use the plant-drive as an 8GB Flash Drive.
Marco Rosella, Gif keychan USB
Contents: 100 original GIFs
Marco Rosella, Gif floppy disks
Contents: 1 original GIF
Nestor Siré, Cuban internet access cards
"Today, Cuba’s internet penetration rate is about 30%. ETECZA is the only company that provides services connection to users Cuban through public areas with WiFi access. The process of Web browsing becomes a collective experience and recharge cards NAUTA are the key access. For about 5 months create a collection of cards access Nauta found and other consumed by me. All have different interventions as notes, damage the use of people that used for as long connection, etc ... This item becomes memory a while digital in the physical space in the Cuba context."
Susse Sønderby, Open Source Straitjacket for Alexa
VNS Matrix, A Cyber Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (Net Art Anthology poster designed by Lukas Eigler-Harding)
Tax Gull aka Shingo Ohno, stone age mouse pointer
Made with 100% pure obsidian from Saga prefecture Japan, the place is the most popular obsidian locality in Old Stone Age.
Daniel Temkin, Internet Directory
Unique print on canvas
Single prints from a 37,000+ page loose-leaf book containing all 115 million .COM domains in alphabetical order, along with their IP addresses.
Yifan Hu, Virus Labs
"A collection of 6 computer virus that has caused nearly $100 Billion damage and 50 million computers affected globally, in zipped files on micro SD cards and stored in e̶s̶c̶a̶p̶e̶ proof glass test tubes."
Arcangel Surfware, The Source Digest
Christopher Clary, "sorry to dump this on you like this.zip"
1,860 prints collated chronologically across 10 legal binders installed on music stands
Codette 1. Contains works by Caspar Heinemann, E. Jane, Penny Goring, Carla Gannis, Aeon Fux, Aurelia Guo, Emilie Gervais, Peter Burr, Brenna Murphy, Cristine Brache, Harry Burke, Edward Marshall Shenk, and more.
Codette 2. Contains a 7-page interview with Olia Lialina and works and hyperlinks by Buffy Cain, Larissa Pham, Sofya Glebovna, Anna Zett, Emily Brown, Bogna M. Konior, and more.
Pete Deevakul, Wiki-header sketchbook.
A guided sketchbook with wikipedia headers as drawing prompts
Pete Deevakul, Silk Road Image Scrape
Comprehensive pulp reference. Every image that appeared on Agora Marketplace on January 1st, 2014. Agora was a darknet market that rose to prominence following the demise of Silk Road 2.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
Will Luckman, Hackdown
Will Luckman, Surveillance Capitalism, A Reader
Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia
Rafael Rozendaal, Abstract Browsing
Jonathan Zong, Everyone Should
CLOTHING AND ACCESSORIES
Arcangel Surfware, Fidget spinner
Beautiful Company for Rhizome, Technology is Incredible! tote
Cody Brown, A really nice hat for team internet
Fuzzy Wobble, eBling, aka, rare internet jewels
Miguel Gaydosh, New Age Baby tee
Glitchaus, Malwear Scarf
Knit scarf with computer virus embedded as motif
Glitchaus, Glitch Sweater
Faith Holland, Necklaces made of wire with non-heteronormative connections
Gaby Iglesias, Virus Pins
Martine Neddam/Mouchette.org, Je Suis Mouchette pin
Nukeme, Glitch hoodies
Kevin Weisner, Lonɘly Hat
For further NADA information including public programming, hours, and ticketing, visit their website.