Writing and Digital Media

{I was invited to teach a seminar at City College’s MFA program in Digital & Interdisciplinary Art Practice. This is the syllabus for the course I came up with. I wanted to share it as a resource for people who are interested in the topic, and also in hope that I’ll get some feedback on it, in case I ever have a chance to teach it again. Please leave comments if you have suggestions. I removed housekeeping stuff–program policies, assignments, deadlines–so if you are a student in the course DO NOT refer to this version of the syllabus because it’s missing information that’s essential to you. It’s fine for everyone else.}

 

Themed Workshop: Writing and Digital Media

Introduction

How is writing on a computer different from writing with pen and paper? How is text on a screen unlike text on a page? Conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith has said that writing online is the same as archiving; the platforms for distributing writing on the internet—from Blogspot to Facebook—automatically add metadata, organizing entries with timestamps and user-defined tags. But “archiving” implies a purposeful preservation for the future, and the examples of Geocities and Friendster, among others, show that users’ digital writing can be deleted by the companies that own the platforms it’s on, and further steps must be taken to archive it properly. Furthermore, an archive maintains a standard of historical significance, and most of the writing produced online wouldn’t meet any such standard. Text messages, chat room transcripts and status updates have just as much in common with everyday speech as they do with the printed word, in that they have the most meaning at their moment of utterance, the moment they appear on the screen. But the enduring traces of the written speech of digital text have interesting implications for artists and writers, who have long tried to capture the immediacy of speech and physical presence in their work.

The relationship of digital media to speech and the archive will be the central question of this seminar, as we consider how writing—one of the most transformative technologies in human history—inhabits and adapts to other technologies of communication, and the possibilities of these developments for art. We will approach the issue from a variety of perspectives, reading critical and philosophical essays on literacy and orality by thinkers such as Freud, Derrida, and McLuhan, and studying recent works of art and literature that exploit various features of digital text, from the ease of appropriation with the word processor’s copy-and-paste tools and the “active” text of code to experiments with the short forms of blogging and poetic stylizations of chat vernacular.

 

How to Read

Over the course of the semester we will consider what digital media does to the idea of a text, both in our theoretical discussions and in our practical work as readers of blogs, twitter accounts, interactive fiction, and other forms of writing that pose a challenge to linear habits of reading. When I put a blog on the syllabus, I don’t expect you to read every post from beginning to end, but I do expect you to read enough to draw some intelligent conclusions about it. You should come to class prepared to share an excerpt that struck you as interesting—whether that is five tweets or three blog entries—and give a close reading of it.

For each meeting there will be a reading in critical theory in addition to artworks. Students are not expected to “apply” the week’s theoretical text to the artwork; rather, the readings should be seen as two parallel tracks. For the most part they will be discussed separately, but I expect the quality of our discussions of artworks will be influenced by an understanding of writing as a medium and a technology developed through the theoretical readings.

 

Schedule of Readings and Assignments

 

9/3: Introduction

Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries, SAMSUNG

Oliver Laric, Still Available

 

9/10: Participation

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, Introduction, Chapters 1-3 (pp. 1-76)

Douglas Davis, World’s First Collaborative Sentence

 

9/17: Interactivity

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, Chapters 4-5 (pp. 77-135)

Mark Amerika, Grammatron

Olia Lialina, Agatha Appears

Imri Sandstrom, A While Ago I Decided to Eat

 

10/ 1: Code as Poetry

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, Chapters 6-7 (pp. 136-176)

code {poems}, ed. Ishac Bertran [handout]

Nick Montfort, Concrete Perl

Nina Freeman, untitled

Ryder Ripps, git-poetry

 

10/8: Text Adventures

Marshall McLuhan, “The Photograph: The Brother-without-Walls” (pp. 188-202) and “The Typewriter: Into the Age of the Iron Whim,” (pp. 258-265) in Understanding Media [PDF]

Matt Sheridan Smith, Play

Jeremiah Johnson, Wave Muse

Nina Freeman, Perishable

 

10/15: Conceptual Writing

Lev Manovich, “What Is New Media?” (pp. 18-61), The Language of New Media [PDF]

Kenneth Goldsmith, Soliloquy [PDF]

Kenneth Goldsmith, Fidget [PDF] [Applet])

Tan Lin, BIB. [PDF]

Sheila Heti, “From My Diaries (2006-2010) in Alphabetical Order” [PDF]

Claude Closky, Welcome to My Blog and My Latest Things

 

10/22: Flarf

Sigmund Freud, The Mystic Pad [PDF]

Mainstream Poetry (esp. “Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism”)

Nada Gordon, “Unicorn Believers Don’t Declare Fatwas”

Sharon Mesmer, “The Swiss Just Do Whatever”

Ji Yoon Lee, “RE: Dear translationmachine,” from Foreigner’s Folly: A Tale of Attempted Project [PDF]

Brandon Brown, “99: Nine translations for the Flarf Anthology,” from The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus [PDF]

 

10/29: User Engagement

Jacques Derrida, “Exergue” and “Preamble” (pp. 7-32), Archive Fever [PDF]

Guthrie Lonergan, 3d warehouse

Joel Holmberg, Legendary Account

 

11/5: Modified Readymades

Jacques Derrida, “Exergue,” “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,” and “Linguistics and Grammatology” (pp. 1-73), On Grammatology [PDF]

Jeff Baij, Everything U Stand 4

pvvq on Buzzfeed

 

11/12: Alt Lit

Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa” [PDF]

Tao Lin, “hikikomori” and “i’m going to touch you very hard”

@tao_lin

Mira Gonzalez, selected poems (1, 2)

@miragonz

Bunny Rogers, Cunny Poem [PDF]

 

11/19: Internet Poetry

Harryette Mullen, “African Signs and Spirit Writing” [PDF]

Steve Roggenbuck, i am like october when i am dead

Steve Roggenbuck, videos

Michael Hessel-Mial, Tweets Like a Lovebird

Internet Poetry

 

11/26: Robots and Aliens

Mikhail Epstein, “Reconfigurations of Textuality” (pp. 69-78) and “Scriptorics: An introduction to the anthropology and personology of writing” (pp. 117-129) from Tranformative Humanities [PDF]

@Horse_ebooks

Angelo Plessas, Robot Poetry

Oscar Schwartz, bot poet

Christian Bok, Xenotext [PDF]

Christian Bok, “The Piecemeal Bot is Deconstructed: Notes toward a potential Robopoetics” [PDF]

 

12/3: Case Studies

Bhanu Kapil, Was Jack Kerouac A Punjabi?

Kevin Killian on Amazon

 

12/10: Case Studies

Paul Chan, Wht is a Book?, Wht is Lawlessness? and Wht is a Kardashian?  [ebooks]

Rob Horning on Buzzfeed Community

Why I Hate Post-Internet Art

I really don’t like “post-internet art.” I don’t like the term and I don’t like the art that’s presented under its banner. Lots of people tell me that they don’t like it, either.

Whether people like it, or hate it, or feel indifferent, it seems like they all know what “post-internet” means but they can’t articulate it. The vagueness of post-internet, paired with the assumption that everyone knows what it means, is one of the most aggravating things about it. “I know it when I see it”—like porn, right? And it’s not a bad analogy, because post-internet art does to art what porn does to sex.

But let’s try to define it anyway.

I first came across “post-internet” when it was the title of the blog that Gene McHugh kept in 2009 and 2010. The use of “post-internet” as a label wasn’t common then—no one besides Marisa Olson really used it—and I misunderstood Gene’s choice of a blog name as a pun about blogging (a blog entry is a post, it’s on the internet). But he really did use “post-internet” as a term and he tried at length to describe what it means.

When the internet stopped being the domain of amateurs, programmers, and hackers—when it became an inseparable part of everyday life for people with no special interest in or knowledge about computers—it changed. That’s why Gene thought it was worth saying “post-internet.” He wrote: “What we mean when we say ‘Internet’ became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from… sigh… It became the place where business was conducted, and bills were paid. It became the place where people tracked you down.”

I’m sympathetic to Gene’s approach to developing a historical framework. It seems similar to an attempt to think about how radio or television changed how people live and how art is made, or how newspapers changed things when printing and reproducing images became cheap and easy. Cultural shifts like these are impossible to quantify but they become visible in art and historians have used art to describe them.

The kneejerk negative reaction to “post-internet”—“How can we be post-internet when internet is still here? Shouldn’t it be during-internet”—doesn’t seem to hold up under scrutiny. Gene covered a response already. And yet, I have a problem with Gene’s response—with his “sigh” at what the internet has become.

Think about it through analogy to post-modernism. Post-modernism doesn’t mean modernism doesn’t exist anymore. Modernism penetrates all aspects of life: any big new building in any city owes a debt to modernist architects. Modernism infiltrates domestic life via Ikea. Everybody loves abstract painting now—it decorates the walls of banks and hotels. Modernism’s infancy was the period when it had the most potential, but that ended and now it’s living a dull adult life. Post-modernism doesn’t mean that modernism is gone. It means that modernism is familiar. It’s complete. It’s still alive but its features are recognizable, and that’s precisely why it can be repeated and reused. Scholars may continue to argue about the particulars of modernism, about the facts of its infancy, but they can do so because they have a handle on its general contours, which are out in the world in plain sight.

Post-internet says the same thing about the internet that post-modernism says about modernism. But isn’t that a little presumptuous? “What about what we mean when we say ‘Internet’ changed so drastically that we can speak of ‘post Internet’ with a straight face?” asked Gene on his blog. I’d agree that it changed drastically but I’d also ask: Why assume that it can’t change again? The internet is always changing. The internet of five years ago was so unlike what it is now, to say nothing of the internet before social media, or the internet of twenty years ago, or the internet before the World Wide Web. Why insist that the changes are over?

Artists who begin with the proposition that the phenomena of their world are boring and banal, who begin with an exasperated sigh, are going to produce art that is boring and banal, art that produces exasperated sighs. That was the case with a lot of conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists explored the aesthetics of administration, producing charts and diagrams and photocopy texts that presented viewers with the particulars of bureaucracy. Sigh.

What’s the new equivalent of the aesthetics of administration?

The post-internet art object looks good in the online installation view, photographed under bright lights in the purifying white space of the gallery (which doubles the white field of the browser window supporting the documentation), filtered for high contrast and colors that pop. The post-internet art object looks good online in the way that laundry detergent looks good in a commercial. Detergent doesn’t look as stunning at a laundromat, and neither does post-internet art at a gallery. It’s boring to be around. It’s not really sculpture. It doesn’t activate space. It’s frontal, designed to preen for the camera’s lens. It’s an assemblage of some sort, and there’s little excitement in the way objects are placed together, and nothing is well made except for the mass-market products in it. It’s the art of a cargo cult, made in awe at the way brands thrive and proliferate images in networks, awe at the way networks are ruled by brands. It’s like a new form of landscape painting, a view of the world as it is, and that’s why its visual vocabulary is hard to distinguish from that of advertising and product displays. An artist’s choice to make art that way—as a plain reflection of reality and the power systems that manage it—shows a lack of imagination, when there are so many other ways of making art available. Post-internet artists know what the internet is for, and it’s for promoting their work. Post-internet art flaunts a cheap savvy of image distribution and the role of documentation in the making of an art career. Post-internet art seems like art about the idea of art world success—the art one would make to become a well-known artist if one doesn’t care about anything else.

Should I name names? What’s the point of an angry rant if I don’t even call anyone out? I don’t want to do that, mainly because discussing the body of work of a particular artist or critiquing certain pieces would require a level of research, attention, and thought that I’m not willing to spend on post-internet art. It also seems futile because post-internet isn’t necessarily a permanent identity for any given artist; an artist can make post-internet art sometimes and another kind of art, for better or worse, at another time. Post-internet is an outfit that can be worn and discarded. So it’s better to call it out as a trend, or to call out the scenes and social groupings that do the most to popularize the trend. The Jogging—the people closely associated with it and the people who want to be closely associated with it—abuse post-internet most egregiously. The scenes that have been cultivated around Berlin galleries Kraupa-Tuskany and Societe are bad, too. If it’s at Higher Pictures gallery in New York I probably won’t like it. If it’s in a group show curated by Agatha Wara I’m sure I’ll hate it. If it’s on a cool Tumblr I can’t be bothered.

So post-internet is bad. But if we’re not post-, then where are we, when are we? What prefix can people who love labels use to situate themselves in history? Recently I’ve become enamored with Mikhail Epstein’s writing on proto-, which supposes that the modern age of humanity is over, and that sweeping changes to nature and technology herald the onset of a new, still nebulous era. Epstein writes:

“The period we are entering is no longer a period after something: postcommunist, postmodernist, ‘postthis,’ or ‘postthat.’ The present era is ‘proto,’ but a preface to what, we do not know. Proto- is noncoercive, nonpredictive, and unaccountable: a mode of maybe. The future is a language without grammar, an unconscious without dreams, pure nothing. Inescapably the future becomes everything so as again and again to remain nothing.”

Post- presupposes finitude, closure, knowing retrospection. Proto- points to multiplicity and possibility. An art that is proto- would approach the internet’s ubiquity not as a boring given but as a phenomenon ripe with transformative potential for the mediation of people and art (or people and people), for the creation of new genres from the microforms of texts or tweets, or from game design, from karaoke and fan art, and so on. Proto- is okay with not knowing or not working. As Epstein says, we don’t what proto- is a preface to, and so there’s no way to append it to a root and complete a buzzword. Proto- sucks for promo. But as a starting point for an artist, as a disposition for art, proto- is a lot better than post-.

In New Media Res

{NOTE: I wrote this essay in winter 2011 for “Read/Write,” an exhibition curated by Caitlin Denny and Parker Ito at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn. It was a revision of “The Chill Zone,” a post for Rhizome about jstchillin.org, the online curatorial platform run by Caitlin and Parker. It’s been a long time since I thought about the text and when I happened upon it recently while organizing some files I was a little surprised by it. I remember this essay as the first time I wrote about language’s phatic function and how I think it relates to net art and other kinds of media shared online, which I’ve been writing about in connection to selfies in the last year. But I didn’t remember that I’d written about the body’s relation to art in the museum, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in connection to Yelp and my ideas about vernacular criticism. So that was kind of cool. Anyway, I’d thought I’d put the text here because it was published in a zine for “Read/Write” and it’s not online anywhere (excluding the earlier version on Rhizome, but I think this version is much better). It was on my old web site as a writing sample but when I got a new web site in Fall 2012 it got deleted from the web. Now it’s back, here it is.}

 

Let’s start with a few new media moments!

1. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles screens video art in its restaurant, Cafe Hammer. The first work to be so shown was William Kentridge’s Automatic Writing, in fall 2010. The animated film’s duration exceeds the probable patience of a visitor strolling through the museum. But maybe it will catch the eye and penetrate the mind of the visitor as he eats. Café Hammer offers high-brow ambient television, a rarefied counterpart to ESPN in a pub or FashionTV in a Eurotrash espresso bar.

2. In spring 2010 the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh opened a long-term display of moving-image works by its namesake. A labyrinth of scrims presents seminal film works, starting with Sleep, the first Warhol ever made. Another gallery is gridded with television screens, collectively showing hundreds of hours of footage taken for Warhol’s channel, from fashion critiques to an aborted soap opera. The visitor is impressed by Warhol’s devotion to living a life behind and beside and in front of cameras. He left the rest of us looking at screens.

3. “Time doesn’t exist when you’re… just chilling!” The headline on an administrative page on the site of curatorial collective Jstchillin rephrases a familiar, folksky phenomenology—time flies when you’re having fun!—while taking it down a notch. Having fun is active. Chilling is slow. The slogan situates the presentation of artworks in the temporal and physical environment of a regular internet user, while suggesting how one might describe that environment. I’ll give it a shot. Chilling entails an awareness of parallel threads of messages, ordered by clock-time sequence (the sequence of clock-time) and subjective assignments of importance (as in Facebook’s toggled feed settings “Top News” and “Most Recent”), and the knowledge that each discrete parcel of information can wait for your next connection to your e-mail, your RSS aggregator, your Tumblr and whatnot. But they might lose relevance if you wait too long. The chilling body is motionless except for a few minor gestures: typing, clicking, shifting the direction of its gaze. Chilling is simultaneity of recent past and lagging present, with a furtive hope for updates in the near-future: the sum of attempts to follow a track or two into the past and push others toward forward. Awareness of physical surroundings gets fuzzy as old layers of digital sediment are sifted through, new ones deposited. Jstchillin says: “To chill is to live in a constant state of multiplicities, a flow of existence between web and physicality.”

We’ve moved from numbered introductory paragraphs into the essay proper. Hey, what’s up? Jstchillin encompasses several initiatives—including the exhibitions “Read/Write,” at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn in March 2011 and “Avatar 4D” in San Francisco in April 2010—but its flagship project is “Serial Chillers in Paradise,” an online exhibition that featured a different artist about every other week from October 2009 to February 2011. It had thirty-three projects, in all forms and looks. Video games are the subject of an illustrate short story/film treatment by Jon Rafman, and Jonathan Vingiano’s Space Chillers is a browser toy. Ida Lehtonen’s piece folds soothing ocean sounds into a video of exercises that desktop laborers can do to stay limber during breaks, while Eilis MacDonald’s work sends you scrolling through tidbits of New Age-y advice to a starry screen with an audio track of meditation instruction. Zach Shipko and Tucker Bennet’s feature-length movie “Why Are You Weird?”, parceled into ten-minute YouTube uploads, is a story of art-school students who spend almost all of their onscreen time at parties or hanging out in their dorm rooms, rehashing crits. And so on. Chilling as a rangy theme that contributors incorporate in their work now and then coincides with chilling as the state of the viewer when s/he encounters it. “Serial Chillers” often affects a unity between the art itself and conditions of its consumption. Another Jstchillin slogan: “We are the slackers of the art world!”

We’re familiar with many instances of conceptual chilling from art’s recent history. Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer Is the Highest Form of Art and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s soup dinners are just two of the best known. These rely on a temporary transformation of the gallery, from a sanctuary for sober contemplation of rare objects to a site of convivial sharing of food, drink, and experience. They have more-or-less distinct beginnings and endings in time and space. They starts at the gallery’s threshold. The number of participants and the duration of the event are limited by the gallery’s budget. The physics of hanging out has laws! But chilling online transcends most of them.  The byte-to-weight converter that Michael Giudetti made for “Serial Chillers” coolly asserts an awareness of the physical conditions of internet fun: the big slowness of you, the viewer, in comparison to the infinitesimal tininess of the content.

“Serial Chillers” had a few spectacular, math-free visualizations of this idea. Two of the earliest projects, the ones by Mitch Trale and Cody Blanchard, were moving three-dimensional environments, where the slight movement of a finger on a tracking pad or a twist of a mouse would cause a swoop or leap of perspective. Michelle Ceja’s Silicon Velocity and Tabor Robak’s Mansion, both reminiscent of sci-fi visions of travel through the insides of a computer network, also subtly reinforced the immobility of the viewer by simulating rapid movement in a realm “behind” the screen.

I started off by talking about museums and how they handle the increasing amount of moving images they want to show. Museum-going is almost the opposite of chilling. Museums make you keep moving. Standing in one place and contemplating a single work for a long time is uncomfortable. Your legs get tired. There are only so many times you can shift your weight from one foot to the other. When you’re chilling you can get cozy in your chair. You can slouch. The screen is what has to keep moving. What’s a screen saver? It’s a device that keeps things moving on the screen, because when an image stays in one place too long the pixels harden: digital cramps.

The Warhol Museum presents you with a chaotic surfeit of footage. In the hall of television, each monitor has a seat in front of it with headphones, probably to help you immerse yourself in that content. But the very presence of the grid is a constant and silent reminder that there is much more to see. It impels you to finish up watching, to get up and move. Cafe Hammer, on the other hand, wants you to relax and eat stuff while glancing at a single screen. The contemporary art museum, like the airport or the mall, is a site of ambulation. But Cafe Hammer is like the airport lounge, where you cool your heels and watch CNN.

In the museum the viewer’s presence is a given. Online a connection needs to be made. The point of contact is a discrete action in the otherwise fuzzy, slippery experience of time I tried to describe above. Because the internet is first and foremost a communications technology, a way to talk about the moment of contact can be found in the study of language. Roman Jakobson’s 1960 essay “Linguistics and Poetics” names six functions of language that all operate in any act of communication, although one might dominate it. An utterance like “Can you hear me?” affirms that the channel of communication is still open; its primary function is what Jakobson called the phatic. He took this term from anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowki, who introduced it in the 1920s in his studies of small talk. Jakobson and Malinowski were discussing two aspects of the same action—confirming contact—though Jakobson was more concerned with the physical conditions that establish the possibility of communication (again, “Can you hear me?”), while Malinowski was interested in the social ones (“How are you?”, “Nice weather we’re having,” etc.).

“Hello?” confirms a working connection at the beginning of conversation over the telephone. The internet started out in phone lines and expanded their potential as vehicles for communication, effectively spawning millions of ways to say “Hello?”—from “A/S/L” in AOL chat rooms to tweets documenting the contents of the tweeter’s lunch. The latter barely count as vehicles of information. They are there to remind the tweeter’s network of his existence, reaffirming the connection they share.

Gareth Spor brought the idea of contact to the foreground with devices of exaggeration and extremity in his project, which directed users to a video chat with a NASA space station. He focused on communication via internet as transcending the void of space, but other contributors to “Serial Chillers” introduced the dimension of time, singling out moments of contact within the diffuse temporal experience of chilling. Ivan Gaytan offered a menu that called up windows of looped visual and sonic noise. Over the course of the two weeks that his work was featured on the Jstchillin homepage, Duncan Malashock released six tableaux, where classical busts, candles, and other objects appeared in varying configurations depending on when you chose to visit the page; they could also be moved by a touch of the mouse. Ben Vickers linked chat sessions to a calendar, and marked the intersections of these different rhythms for measuring time with three-dimensional models that spun, suspended in the page’s white space.

Guthrie Lonergan’s 3D Warehouse demonstrates a deeper concern with the social conditions of contact. He collected Google Sketchup drawings of environments that their makers said (in the accompanying descriptions) that they had seen in their dreams. The sharing of dreams is an odd kind of small talk, as meaningless as discussions of weather but more intimate, something you’d only do with a close friend. But the Google Sketchup users assembled by Lonergan put their dreams out there for anyone. The discomfort you feel from this distortion of social convention is exacerbated by the images, which for all the modeling skills of the artists who drew them come at you as cartoonish, awkward, thin shadows of a stranger’s mind.

Lonergan interviewed his subjects and included the resulting text in his project. He was a ghostly interloper, and his subjects were usually confounded by his interest.

For them, the making of the model was an impulse, an ephemeral need. By investigating and preserving these drawings, Lonergan hits on a central paradox of online communication: it’s dominated by the phatic function, an aspect of language commonly associated with speech, but it happens primarily in writing. Chatter meets the archive. Another succinct expression of this condition is Martin Kohout’s “Watching Martin Kohout,” a YouTube channel of videos of Kohout, recorded with his webcame as he watched YouTube videos. YouTube creates an illusion of endless choice. One video leads to another. There is never a dead end. Kohout, however, is motionless. The act of watching is almost always identical. Andy Warhol, we learn at his museum, took a camera almost everywhere he went and captured what he saw. Kohout’s camera is the fixed webcam, and he transposes the cameraman’s motion to surfing YouTube. The result is an archive of chilling: a record of the videos he watched, and his inert body watching them.

“Serial Chillers” was announced with an IM screenshot, a fragment of a bigger chat between Caitlin and Parker. That set the tone for the whole project. There have been other web-based curatorial initiatives with distinctive approaches to the internet. Netmares & Netdreams was about creative perception, the artist’s agency in the interpretation and contextualization of media objects found online, and made the dream a metaphor for the uncertain fluidity of the net. Club Internet, with its guerilla curatorial philosophy and hidden or deleted past, was about looseness of location, transfer and transience. Nasty Nets and dump.fm conformed to the speed and flow of the internet, with a rapid and regular creation of images in the tempo of a blog and a chat room, respectively. “Serial Chillers” slowed things down a bit, featuring labor-intensive projects with a frequency more familiar from print than the internet. But through the projects themselves and the statements of the curators, Jstchillin got at the way art is viewed away from the museum: moving images and inert viewers, slacking and browsing, the extended presence of the artifact and the chat-quick speed of the encounter with it.

This essay originated as a post to Rhizome’s blog in July 2010. My development and resolution of certain ideas presented in that text is deeply indebted to Boris Groys’ essay “Comrades of Time,” published in Going Public (Stenberg Press, 2010) and his related lecture “Time-Based Art,” delivered at New York University in December 2010. My discussion of movement in the museum is informed by comments in statements and essays by Ilya Kabakov. Thanks to Caitlin Denny and Parker Ito for the opportunity to revise and expand the text.

Publics of the Toilet

 

{NOTE: In October I started writing a Yelp review about apexart. After writing the first two sentences I realized I could turn it into a submission to their annual Unsolicited Proposals contest, which was being advertised at the time. I figured it didn’t have a great chance of winning but wrote it anyway, knowing that I could at least use it as a blog post. Maybe I will also write and post the Yelp review but I was planning to give them two stars and after ranking 87th in their contest it might come off as sour grapes so maybe I won’t.}

apexart is the only non-profit exhibition space in New York that doesn’t let visitors use the restroom. Artists Space, White Columns, Art in General, the museums–they all have places where people can relieve themselves. But not apexart!

This is a banal observation. But it offers an opening onto a series of questions about how architectural environments demonstrate concern (or disregard) for the needs of life. In her book Museum Bodies, museologist Helen Rees Leahy cites mid-nineteenth-century accounts of women fainting at the British Museum due to a lack of lavatories. It’s part of an investigation into how museums have always regulated bodies and prescribed physical behavior–a missing prologue, as it were, to Brian O’Doherty’s celebrated critique of the white cube and its erasure of life from the space of art. The situation at apexart is relevant not only to traditions of disembodied gallerygoers but also to the conditions of neoliberal citycraft. The number of public restrooms in New York per capita is vanishingly small. Does a body only truly materialize in urban space when it becomes a paying customer at a commercial establishment? When nature calls today’s flaneur, must he answer it at Starbucks? Municipal responsibility for the people’s bodily needs, as for so much else, has been delegated to corporate persons, the managers of privately owned public spaces. Meanwhile, on the privately owned public spaces of the internet, potty talk flourishes. Recently I saw this tweet: “i like toilet paper commercials cuz theyre about touching buttholes but never come out and say ‘this is the best for touching buttholes'” If you look at Amazon reviews of toilet paper, however, touching buttholes is all anyone talks about. Perhaps the physical body in the museum or in the city is less spectral than its grotesque, collectively carnivalized online counterpart, which weaves through the network’s nodes like an endlessly unspooling roll of Charmin.

“Publics of the Toilet” is an exhibition project that attempts to address these issues. The gallery will be used for a series of readings, performances, screenings, and talks; participants in these events will include artists and writers concerned with abjection and social being, the circulation and management of bodies in public space, andtoilet humor, broadly construed. Rather than displaying artworks, I will fill the gallery walls with “bathroomreading”–clippings of jokes, anecdotes, poems and bits of text selected in consultation with the exhibition’s participants. Last but not least, I plan to temporarily fix the lack of a public restroom at apexart. A large part of the exhibition budget will be spent on the rental and maintenance of a portable toilet, to be installed in the gallery for the exhibition’s duration. (Maintenance should not be too difficult, as I doubt many visitors will avail themselves of the john.)

[speculative list of possible participants has been redacted]

Alt Lit’s Limp Dicks

 

{NOTE: This post is distilled from notes for a lecture I gave at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY, in June 2013, for an event series organized by David Wightman. I prepared this version for Next Time, a publication edited by David Geer and Isaac Pool,  and I’m giving a related presentation at the Next Time Symposium, organized by Colin Self, taking place Nov. 14-17 at Envoy Enterprises in New York.}

 

“i told you… i wanna get my dick stuck in a whisk,” the poet Steve Roggenbuck says in one of his videos. “i don’t know how its gonna happen but i know that’s what i want.” And, elsewhere, he writes: “i hope a bird peck’s my dick.”

“i could smash this computer with my dick,” writes Spencer Madsen in a poem posted to his Tumblr, but equivocates: “i could smash my dick with this computer”

Jordan Castro starts his poem “weak” by describing his failure to suck his own dick and ends with these lines:

i have tried giving a piece of my penis to everyone,

so as not to be discriminatory or

hierarchical or

something 

but my penis was not strong enough.

‘is my penis inadequate’

‘who will nurture an inadequate penis like mine’

 

All of these guys are affiliated with alt lit. Alt lit means different things to different people. Last time I checked the Wikipedia definition highlighted the following features, all of which seem pretty uncontroversial:

“social media-based creative community”

“sharing of Gmail chat logs, memes, macros, screenshots, and computer generated art are also popular”

“the harnessing of the possibilities offered by internet for the creation and publication of literature, and by extension, the associated surrounding community and standard culture”

 

I would define somewhat more specifically, as a kind of writing that affirms an embodied presence in social media. It’s a kind of writing that understands language as a fundamental material aspect of how humans live in the world—a sensibility that connects it to other, older kinds of writing concerned with language’s materiality. But alt lit not only collapses distinctions between language and bodily functions—it also projects said collapse into the telecom technologies used to convey words across great distances at high speeds. Alt lit inscribes bodies into social media.

Alt lit tends to look unpolished, which produces a double impression of language’s physical immediacy and the immediacy of how social media spreads it. Alt lit can be silly, stupid sounding, flatly phrased, or just plain bad. Roggenbuck’s signature move is intentionally misspelling a lot of words, as if they’re just pouring out as fast as he can clumsily move his fingers on the keyboard—as if he doesn’t have the time or the need to use spellcheck. When he’s talking in his videos he blurts crazed phrases like the ones I quoted above—as if they spurt from his mouth like so much spittle. Words are abject emissions from the body—like drool, shit, or sweat—and social media is where words leave visible traces—like those fluids do on bodies or clothes.

Why do Roggenbuck & co. talk about their poor dicks so much? To me, it conjures the specter of the “crisis of masculinity”(AKA the “end of men”) that we keep hearing about. I think the sense of crisis stems from the bourgeois white guy’s loss of his status as political subject par excellence. Not because women, blacks, queers and the rest have gained visibility—but because the ideal political subject now is not a human at all. It’s a corporation. (An aside: The shift to corporate power has made visibility available to non-white-male persons on the condition that they make themselves available as consumer demographics.)

Of course white guys still occupy most of the positions of power reserved for humans because corporate power is an apotheosis of characteristics that bourgeois society long ago linked to whiteness and maleness—things like reason, calculating intelligence, emotionless “objectivity,” competitive strength, and so on. By embodying these characteristics, anyone can align themselves with corporate power. Though straight white men seem to do it most effortlessly. Technology is rationality. Rationality is a phallus.

Look at the NSA—using the technological apparatus developed by America’s corporate subjects to penetrate the private life of the multitude. Any threat to the authority of this dick reads as terrorism. (Roggenbuck: “my cock keeps growing and the government is not happy about it.”) Last summer, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I saw a tweet about some pro-government article titled “Why Leaks Hurt”—the tweeter joked that it could have come from a urology journal. Leakage is a compromised dick—the cheesy, burning discharge of the NSA leak externalizes the corruption within the body of the state.

Leaking is a gonorrheal model of political resistance. Those of us without security clearances can’t be bugs in the body of the state, like Snowden or Chelsea Manning, but we can be bugs on and around the body of the state. There’s gonorrheal resistance and there’s the pubic lice resistance. Look at Occupy—power was effectively frightened by a parasitic relationship that made privately-owned public space (the site of collusion of corporate and state power) into a host to be infested.

Isn’t that something like what happens when people fill the bright fields of social media with the sad details of their slob lives?

(Crispin Best: “she said i kissed like i’d never kissed anyone”)

Eileen Myles wrote a critique of conceptual poetry in the May 2013 issue of the online poetry journal Volta, which included the line: “Poetry’s where men get to feel like women always feel.” Feeling like a woman means feeling the vulnerability of being alive. (Andrea Dworkin: “The stigma, finally, is in that alone: the old-time weakness of the flesh; needing and wanting alive like exposed nerve endings, desire being coldly demanding, not sloppy and sentimental.”)

The perfect Facebook user isn’t fleshy. He becomes exchangeable, bodiless, a source of data and little else, without the friction or resistance produced by bodies—just a linear timeline of events like jobs and easily described relationships (the progression of the drop-down menu from “single,” “in a relationship,” “engaged,” “married,” preferably without dabbling in the messy options below them, i.e. “It’s complicated”).

A disavowal of this apparatus is a disavowal the hardon—an abnegation of dick. So it’s no coincidence that alt lit—a kind of writing that reminds us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions, a reminder of the sensitivity of words and flesh—is full of tormented dicks, tiny dicks, limp dicks.

A Selfie Is Not a Portrait

Selfies may be taken promiscuously and gratuitously but that doesn’t mean that the word “selfie” should be too. A selfie is not any picture of yourself but a picture of you that you’ve taken yourself, with your phone, or maybe looking into your computer’s webcam—the picture is taken with a device that is capable of distributing it on a network almost immediately, and the picture shows the same device (if it’s a phone pointed at a mirror) or at least reveals the body’s relationship to the device through a certain shape of posture: the face tilted toward the laptop’s surface, an arm outstretched as it holds the phone at a distance, or a bent shoulder if the phone is held more closely. This is how the selfie inscribes a body into a network—this is how it asserts a body’s connection to others through a network via their respective devices. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.” Jenna Wortham wrote in “My Selfie, Myself,” a recent feature in the New York Times. The selfie is phatic: it’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry—both components of face-to-face interactions—to telecommunications.

A selfie is not a portrait. A portrait is a flat monument. Like a bust or a full-body statue, a portrait (whether painted on canvas or shot by a photographer) partially extracts the sitter from her life. Portraiture asserts the sitter’s significance—it says she deserves to be inscribed in history. A great portrait, whether painted or photographed, conveys its maker’s awareness of his task and the contradictions inherent in it this task: the promise and the impossibility of immortality. A great portrait reveals the ripeness and vulnerability of the sitter’s body, both in the way it depicts his flesh and in the inclusion of a memento mori, wilting flowers, or some fruit about to rot. Time will kill him. His image will outlive him. The same is true for the self-portrait: the artist has to find a distance from herself, to step outside her body in order to think about its mortality.

A selfie is not monumental. It doesn’t inscribe its maker in history; it inscribes him in a networked present. Can a selfie be art? I think so, but it would entail discarding the conventions of subjecthood of the public sphere both for artists and for art—the artist as a singular figure creating singular works of art—and instead thinking of art as an everyday activity. Even as an everyday activity, though, art would still have to retain a certain complexity and openness of relations—the qualities that allow an image to outlive the body in it, integrated in life. I think Jessica Ciocci’s selfies on Instagram are art. Her face and body acquire grimaces, poses, wigs and outfits in in her selfies, and she posts five or six or a dozen of them consecutively; the angles are weird, mirrors and frames cut her off. Charlie Chaplin made his movements stiff and distinct, to mimic the way film breaks reality into many still images and then reconstitutes them as motion—but Jessica Ciocci’s selfies do the opposite, revealing a fluidity of the body against the cut squares of Instagram and in doing so she situates social media in the movement of ordinary, everyday life. Jesse Darling’s selfies are art, too. She tends to take them in airports or airplanes or gallery bathrooms or chain coffeehouses—a liquid embodied presence in the junkspace of the global city, a grim expression and a gaze directed at the phone (not the receiver of the image) speaking to an anxiety about the affective labor demanded of her and her resigned acquiescence.

Jesse Darling was one of the artists included in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery,” a project organized by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina for the Moving Image Art Fair in London. I like the coinage “selfie portrait.” It sounds to me like a suggestion of an image that draws its characteristics from both the selfie and the portrait, but isn’t quite either one, or maybe it’s a new kind of portrait, where the conventional signifiers of fleshly vulnerability and fleeting life are replaced by references to the ephemeral, phatic time of social media. And maybe that’s what was happening in the works featured in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.” But that’s not how Chayka presented it in his statements about the project. “The concept of the selfie is as old as art history—selfies are simply self-portraits, the same as works created by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Masaccio and others,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “The original selfies were painted or drawn self-portraits. Albrecht Durer created his own as early as the 15th century. From there, selfies evolved with the different media used to make art.” Chayka’s equation of selfie with self-portrait is as stupid as Blake Gopnik’s identification of Picasso’s Cubism with an Instagram filter, on the basis that both change the way one sees an image, which naturalizes the conventions, respectively, of realist painting and cell-phone photography—but I digress. Chayka’s erasure of distinctions among mediums makes does a disservice to the artists he’s showing—he fails to identify what makes their work special. It’s also a disservice to himself as a curator—why is he showing these works? In Chayka’s explanations, the selfie becomes meaningless beyond its instrumentalization as an engine of attention, a buzzword that draws coverage. Something similar is happening in art magazines, as they use the selfie to leech some of the excitement of social media, and delay their own deterioration as organs of mass media. Art in America recently asked me to submit a selfie for a “mass portrait” of the art world (I refused, rather obnoxiously, because the request didn’t recognize me as a maker or theorist of selfies, they just wanted me to be one face among many), and I heard that Art Review’s upcoming “Power 100” issue will feature pictures of the members of its list with “staged selfies.” Spontaneity is discarded, and what’s left? A plea for attention. Most of the time when you read about selfies in the mass media you learn that every selfie is narcissistic, that every selfie says “look at me.” But that’s just what happens to the selfie when it’s taken out of context.

Notes from the Studio Wall

 

{In August 2013 I was a resident at the Shandaken Project. I made some sketches and notes on the wall of my studio there. These are the notes}

 

the corporate subject grasps the

public sphere, it is his

Property,

he wants to establish its/his

Vectors in the Common Blob of

Social Media but it absorbs

and dissolves them..

Rather, it cannot dissolve them

but it dirties them—sullies

them with its slop

 

the vectors are the apparatus…

the apparatus establishes relations

 

the apparatus—

the technophallic subject—

penetrates privacy

(rather than absorb

and dissolve and dirty

like the blob)

 

the corporate subject

is fucking privacy

to get access to

bodies

to manage bodies—

to reassert its vectors

of control at an individuated

individualized scale

 

DISCOURSE (the halo of

discourse sheltering

and nurturing

the public sphere)

 

[the public sphere is full of brands]

 

[vectors emanating from the public sphere establish: history; expertise, connoisseurship, judgment; policing discourses in general; social bonds, social relations]

[the Common Blob connects bodies to the public sphere and to privacy:]

the

common

blob

encroaching on the

corporate subject—

it is its abject

 

does it

encroach?

it emits from—

but it is always

perceived as coming

from without—

alien

[postscript: this is the nature of the abject, the subject is horrified by what its body produces]

 

the common blob assaults

both the public sphere and privacy

(because the concept of privacy

is incumbent upon the public sphere)

the blob dissolves the distinction between them—

and them with it

 

the common blob is not

the body but it is

a projection an

emission of bodies

just as the corporate body

is not a body—but a

projection

a sum

(a multiplication)

of relations

among bodies

 

the common blob

is the abject

of the incorporated

body

 

the common blob is not heroic

its people but its nothing

 

[things that are on the border between the territories of the body and of the public sphere:]

cognition

speech

 

[drawing of a body with a limp dick and things that pertain to it:]

taste

equality

sensory perception

pleasure

pain

the abject

 

taste belongs to the body

taste is a sense

 

 

[on Art:]

art is

a projection of a body

into the public sphere

or any public

even

the common blob—

even though there

it is difficult

to recognize

as art

(as we know it)

there, in the blob, art becomes stripped

of the discursive forms

of art

art is revealed as

an equitable relation

 

ART IS

what a body makes

to commicate

with other bodies

by means that outstrip immediate

restrictions on presence

(in time & space)

the things that bind

speech, gesture,

mimicry, movement }

all of which

become

choreographed

framed

ritualized

if they

are to enter

the field of art

 

when art is

incoporated—

when it is made by multiple

bodies

for an ideological purpose

it enters the sphere of

inequitable social relations

money and technologies

of public presentation

such as the

museum

 

but—like a

person who enters

that sphere

it still has places

of vulnerability

that reveal equality

otherwise—

its not real art

otherwise—

they are not real people

 

some may think

the BRAND is

the same as art—

an improvement, an

upgrade

but it’s something else—not art

BRANDS can be used

by art or people

to become something lese

to operate like

the corporate subject

to imitate it, the rules of its discourse

 

[notes on the drawing:]

the smudge

is the abject

of writing

 

enjambment is

the limit

of the hand

when writing

on a wall

while standing

so is stanza length

 

Diderot’s Pleasures

Over the summer I read Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1767 and he became one of my favorite art writers. He knows what he likes, and he knows how to say why it’s good. As you read it you get a sense of him moving through the space of the Salon, observing the paintings, listening to the other viewers, and making his judgments, quickly, with wit and with feeling.

Diderot is credited with the invention of modern art criticism. Before him there were theories about art and histories of it, and theoretical histories—but there weren’t examples of writers who would look at a bunch of artworks and then record their response. He was the first writer to put into words the bodily experience of being among works of art, and having a sense of how his taste conditions a response to them. His approach was descriptive, lively, often conversational—a way of writing that defined journalistic criticism and persists in the best examples of it today: the reviews of Andrew Russeth, Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz. All of those critics write for general interest publications. But the general tone in art criticism today is set by the professional press, the many magazines and journals that are dedicated entirely to art, and for the most part in those publications a sense of taste—or taste as a sense that is connected to an embodied experience of art—is invisible, excised during the writing process, as writers try to project an air of scholarly objectivity, and inscribe art into the systems that govern the professional art world.

In the preface to the edition of Diderot’s writing that I read, Thomas Crow talks about how salon reviews were written before Diderot, and they were widely read and anticipated, because for people who couldn’t make it to Paris for the Salons these reviews were the only way to keep up with the latest in painting; reproductions weren’t available. But these reviews were mostly written for aristocratic collectors around Europe, who factored salon reviews into their choices of whether or not to purchase paintings, and so writing about art was highly regulated. Painters of the academy didn’t want outsiders commenting on their work because it could affect their sales. Diderot’s choice to write in a non-academic style, one that echoed the voice of art’s new public, the people who came to look at the Salons but didn’t have the money to buy anything there, was therefore a political gesture.

Diderot’s choice to write in a way that expresses the potential for spontaneity and emotive response in encounters with art works runs nicely parallel to his main criterion for good art—he likes art that is full of life.

Because Diderot is always looking for life in a work, he can address the subject of a portrait directly: “Madame la Princesse de Chimay, Monsieur le Chevalier de Fitz-James, her brother, you are terrible, absolutely terrible; you are insipid, utterly insipid. Into storage. No nuance, no transitions, no modulation in the flesh tones. Princess, tell me, don’t you feel the weight of this curtain which you’re holding? It’s difficult to say which of the siblings is the stiffest and the coldest.” Sometimes he inserts himself into paintings and imagines himself interacting with the people in them—he talks about the passions or passionlessness of the people depicted as if they’re real, as if he knows them, or could know them. On a historical painting by Halle: “Now tell me, if you will, who is this thin, ignoble, expressionless, characterless man reclining in this tent? ‘It is King Scilurus.’ That, a king! A Scythian king! Where is the pride, the feeling, the judgment, the undisciplined reason of savage man? This is a wretch.”

His judgments are terse (“He also exhibited pictures of fruit and some portraits; the fruit is beautiful, the portraits are bad.”). Or they start out that way. As he writes the review he leads you through the details that produced his judgments, and animates them: “Well, this is heavy-handed and tiresome. The scene unfolds in front of a landscape. And what a landscape! It’s  ponderous; its trees resemble those on the shop signs from the Notre Dame bridge; there’s no air between their trunks and branches; no lightness; no vibrancy in the leaves, which are so firmly glued to together that the wildest hurricane wouldn’t detach a single one.” Then he goes on about “Cupid the Knife-Grinder” present in the foreground. His gut reaction becomes the reader’s gut reaction, but he doesn’t leave it there. He can be nasty but he gives enough description of the work to enrich his account of it—he hits the gut, but gives a sense of the whole body and mind it’s attached to.

This is true his reviews of the paintings he likes as well as the ones he dislikes. When writing about “A Spanish Rider Dressed in the Old Style,” for instance, he starts out by saying “Very handsome little picture, I’ve made a mistake, a handsome large picture!” His point here is that the painter does so much with so little that even though the painting is massive it sticks in his memory as something small. His deliberate correction to his own description gives a sense of the proportion of detail to composition in the work.

He reflects on his method of writing. “A very good method for describing pictures, especially those set in the open, is to enter into the site from the right or left and, advancing forward to the lower edge, to describe its elements as they are encountered. I’m very irritated with myself for not having realized this sooner.” But he never just describes—he tells a story. A story about what is happening in the work, and a story of his encounter with it.

Diderot’s intent, as I wrote above, was to channel the voice of the people—the opinions of people who he heard talking about paintings at the salon. The way he does this is not transcription, but finding a way of writing about art that reanimates in language the immediacy of the experience of being there.

“When I censure I knit my brow,” he writes in his account of seeing some bad portraits. Taste isn’t just about a judgment—it’s a gesture. It’s felt in a body.

Away Message

Hello,

For a number of reasons I will not be updating the blog with new posts until mid-September.

While you’re here, why not revisit some of the blog’s Greatest Hits:

 

Selfies and Selfiehood

Instagram Problems

The Poet’s Materials

Catweb, Dogweb

8==>

Yelp and Criticism

 

Thanks for visiting

“The face you have today won’t belong to you”

Q: In the guise of your artistic persona, Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey, which I believe you’ve said is an homage to/parody of Steve Jobs. What about the jorts? I take them as a general signifier of an effeminate, vulnerable maleness—but maybe there’s more to it than that.

A: I’ve experimented with various looks over the years, but generally you can divide my career into two periods: Black Turtleneck and White Turtleneck.  I started out wearing black jeans and a black turtleneck as a simple parody of a typical new media artist. At that time I toyed with the idea of denim jeans but felt a straight rip-off of Steve Jobs would be limiting (though he has always been an influence). I retired my black turtleneck by framing it for a 2011 show at Pari Nadimi Gallery

I did so after reading Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up in which he describes the function of his signature white suit as a way to make his movements more visible to an audience in large stadium shows. I thought the same technique could help me stand out in the crowded world of an art opening and maybe even eventually in my own stadium performances. I also really liked that white was the fashion of the future and the color of gallery walls, which I could now embody. After deciding white turtlenecks were the future, I also abandoned black jeans. I didn’t replace them with jorts immediately though, because I couldn’t make up my mind I actually just wore underwear which you can see in Public Sculpture, the first video of me wearing white.

I actually started wearing jorts later in 2011. I had bought them several years before at a thrift store as what I imagined could be cutoffs of Steve Job’s own signature jeans. I wasn’t brave enough to wear them at first but I made the switch when I decided that my legs should be getting as much attention as my upper body. When I did finally put them on they were an immediate hit, so the look stuck.

In conclusion, jorts serve several functions. One, they help my legs get noticed, and therefore by extension help me get noticed. Two, they reference Steve Jobs now that I don’t wear black turtlenecks. And three, though I don’t disagree with you that they represent male vulnerability, to my persona they actually represent the exact opposite: total confidence, comfort, and androgynous sexuality. If they make you uncomfortable then they’re doing their job.

Q: Besides clothing, what other mannerisms and affectations of tech CEOs, nerds, and geeks do you incorporate into your performances? Do you watch TED talks to get ideas for facial expressions and gestures or what?

A: I watch TED talks, product launches and demos constantly. I used to mimic them much more closely, especially the unpracticed ones with CEOs attempting to make scripted lines feel natural, but nowadays you could say that my parody is actually a reaction against that style. I now prefer to embody the reckless free-styling spirit of an entrepreneur without a filter who is in way over his head. This more “authentic” style is meant to appear simultaneously over-confident and desperately overwhelmed at the same time. Essentially I’m out of control. I’m the over-branded artist of the near future, doing his best to be a better person but making work with technology he barely understands or controls in a world swirling around him with increasing speed.

Q: Do you have any observations or thoughts about how the tech industry establishes masculinity, and how this might depart from the conventional trappings of machismo/alpha maleness?

 

A: Obviously the tech industry has too many men and not nearly enough women. It establishes masculinity by excluding women from the conversation, rewarding brash alpha-male overconfidence, and promoting the myth of the meritocracy. This is true in a bunch of industries though. Where I may fancy to depart from this convention is that I believe that the actual products this industry creates are having a larger impact. Software is designed to take away control from the person using it. This is actually what’s considered “intuitive” among designers. Not having to think about what you’re doing may be fine if you’re using a fork but if I’m recording video of a protest or writing a poem for my mother this control may be shifting my perception and behavior enough that it changes the final outcome in ways that I might not have originally intended. This effect is only amplified over the network, turning mass misintent into social norm. Will the always-on video recording of Google Glass make creep shots as socially acceptable and inevitable as the Instagram selfie? Or will the prisoners of the panopticon censor themselves, fashionably reversing the polemic of the burka as a form of social control? I don’t know… Probably?

Q: How did you get into video performance?

A: It was 1999, my pants were baggy and my T-shirts were tight and I had just begun my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto.  I was only at U of T because I was rejected from the Film and Television programs of two other Toronto universities. I was obsessed with video all through high school, but only really knew it as a medium of the entertainment industry. Looking for some kind of video fix I enrolled in a seminar taught by a video performance an artist named Colin Campbell. Colin was the kind of art teacher you see on TV or read about in books. He was hilarious, fabulously gay, he brought wine to class, and a he was literal inspiration to everyone around him. Colin was the first person in my life to pull me aside and say, “You’re talented, you can do this.” I fell in love with Colin, enrolled in Visual Studies as a major, and became one of his trusted studio assistants. That is, until he suddenly died of cancer two years later. I never made a performance video while Colin was alive. After he died I decided to honor our relationship and say goodbye by making a performance video called Bye Bye Bye. That was in 2001, and over ten years later I’m still doing the same thing and I’m still in love with Colin.

Q: If I’m not mistaken, you did video performances before there were webcams, or at least before they came built into Apple products. Did anything change in your work when webcams became widespread?

A: You are not mistaken, my first performance work dates back to 2001. The webcam changed my work a lot. I went from being fascinated with post-production as something we perform for in our imaginations (e.g., imagine what this gesture could be interpreted as by someone in after effects) to a reflective perception of performance for the computer as a real-time mirror more similar to the way performance for the camera arrangements were conceived in 1970s video art performances.

Q: You’ve said that Rosalind Krauss’ “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” is an important text to you. Could you say a little about why?

A: Ya, it is. Krauss talks about the self-reflectivity of performance for the camera, which is basically a mode of working you find in a lot of 1970s performance video works. These works consisted of camera on a tripod hooked up to a television monitor, where both were facing the performer. In this way, the performer was able to watch herself as she performed. Only the reflection wasn’t in a mirror, it was on TV, and the way artists reacted to their image on TV, especially when they’d never seen anyone on TV but famous people and news anchors, was very different. Artists became objects, first consumed by themselves and then recorded and shared with others. I like to think this is where the use of persona in art was first popularized, as artists began merging their own identities with critical parodies of the television world.

Q: Do you feel like Krauss’ ideas still hold up now?

A: Yes, of course. Except everything is compressed and accelerated. We are still self-consuming and everyone has a camera/mirror they perform for called the internet. The reflection they see of themselves is highly distorted by the software they use. In my work I make this mediation literal in the form of augmented reality. We are actually heading toward even greater relevance of this mode of thinking. The popularization of augmented reality in products like Google Glass will only further conflate software and identity. Our identities will literally be transformed by software in the coming decades. The face you have today won’t belong to you, the gestures you use today won’t belong to you—you’ll invent new ones, or buy them. I was talking to a friend who observed a neighbor on his rooftop using Glass. He watched him, looking up and down repeatedly and often as if he had a twitch. Glass makes you look up to look at your messages so that people around you know that you’re reading them, but if you’re constantly receiving messages then you are constantly being prompted to look up. So he actually did have a twitch, or maybe it was choreography, but of course it was designed by software, not by him.

Q: I’m interested in moving discussions about production and dissemination of images of the self away from narcissism and other pathological areas, and being open to a broader spectrum of what these images do as social objects. The discourse of narcissism that Krauss’ essay popularized in criticisms of video performance seems very limiting to me.

A. I think you’re right. It can get boring, but the aspects of narcissism that fascinate me are the ones we have no control over. You could look at distribution through the same lens. How much of your dissemination are you actually in control of, and for that matter how much of your own production do you actually control? Marx has this great distinction between a tool and a machine. To paraphrase it loosely, he refers the tool as something that you use, whereas a machine is something that uses you. An example of a tool in this case would be a pencil whereas an example of a machine would be a machine at a factory where you have to pull the same lever over and over again to make it work. Most of the things you do are created by machines that are using you. They are observing and measuring you, and adapting to your behavior to present choices to you that they predict based on the patterns of others. Just like the factory worker whose arm is eventually useless from repeated injuries, you are being consumed by the machine. After a while you are useless and everything looks the same. Maybe thinking of the computer as the narcissist would be more interesting for you?

Q: I like that idea and will think about it more. With regard to your work in particular, I wonder if Krauss’ ideas are relevant because the computer has so many functions besides that of a mirror, or of something that captures the image. You have a lot of control over what happens with the image, a fact that you foreground by using animations in your videos (although you create an impression that the images are not totally in your control). So, to rephrase the questions I asked above a little more pointedly, how do the expanded capabilities of the computer relative to the video camera require revisions to Krauss’s ideas, if at all?

A. Computers actually consist of only inputs and outputs, that’s it. Honestly, I’ve landed somewhere where for me everything in the world is a mirror of some kind as long as there is the possibility of a response to an action. The computer is more like a pond than a bathroom mirror, though. If you get up close on a calm day you can see your reflection in it, if you drop a stone in it, the waves will distort it. If millions of people throw stones in the lake at the same time the waves will become so turbulent that multiple reflections become intertwined. It’s easy to turn away in disgust at this distorted reflection, but it could also be a really beautiful to think that my reflection and another’s are rippling together. The millions of things you can do with a computer are just millions of stones you can throw into a pond. Maybe one day I’ll stop looking for my own reflection and start looking for the one where I’m all tangled up with other people instead. I might stop waving my hands to find my reflection among others. I might just accept that we are all the same.

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