Monthly Archives: April 2013

In Search Of

{NOTE: This was the introduction to an essay I wrote for “Free,” an exhibition at the New Museum that opened in October 2010. It was published on the show’s online catalog, which the museum has since deleted}

In 2009, Microsoft launched an ad campaign to promote its search engine, Bing. One commercial starts with a blonde complaining about her meal at a sidewalk cafe: “We really need to find a new place for breakfast.” “The Breakfast Club,” her redheaded companion shoots back, “a 1985 cult classic starring members of the Brat Pack.” “What?” Cut to an electronics store. “So do we want an LCD or plasma?” a shopper wonders. His son pipes up: “Plasma is an ionized gas.” Cut to a line at an airport check-in counter. A traveler says to his friend: “Next time we gotta find cheaper tickets.” Glassy-eyed, the friend recites: “Cheap skate. Cheap thrills.” Each vignette resumes. Back at the cafe, the blonde insists: “Seriously, we need a new place to eat.” “Eat lead, eat my dust,” the redhead hisses. She pounds the table and shouts: “Man-eating shark!” A passer-by hailing a taxi chimes in: “Wolf spiders eat their young.” “Plasma cutter,” the electronics-store salesman says. “Tetro plasma,” replies the customer’s son. “Blood plasma,” adds a bystander. At the airport, the wide-eyed tourist says “theater tickets,” another man in line says “raffle tickets,” and over the airport’s PA system a check-in agent intones: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise, won’t you pack your bags and leave tonight.” Cuts quicken, and in each location more strangers extend the chains of association. Discrete vignettes dissolve in a shuffle of shots as absurd conversations become indistinct chatter. Silence. “What has search overload done to us?” Microsoft asks against a black screen. Bing, we’re told, is “not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine.”

The unnamed culprit is Google. Its search engine, to be fair, is not so bad. But as the most commonly used, it is also most commonly associated with the pitfalls of applying Boolean search to a database as irregular as the World Wide Web. Before last year, Google allocated nearly nothing to advertising, because of its founders’ twin faiths in free-market meritocracy and the internet’s viral gravity. But in 2009, Google purchased airtime during the Superbowl for a commercial called “Parisian Love.” The ad tells a sugary boy-meets-girl story entirely in Google searches. The invisible hero enters “study abroad paris” and selects a program from the results. Google corrects the spelling of his query “cafes near the louve” and returns a map. Amid cafe noises, we hear a Frenchwoman say: “tu es tres mignon.” Google translates: “you are very cute.” With the help of searches, the hero of “Parisian Love” finds things to talk about with his new girlfriend, a job in Paris to be near her, a church to marry her in, and instructions on assembling a crib for their child.

Was “Parisian Love” conceived as a riposte to Microsoft’s “Search Overload”? I don’t know, but the polarity of the two is so extreme, it’s funny. The Bing commercial dramatizes web search as an attempt at straightforward communication thwarted by non-sequitur interjections. It smartly exploits popular discomfort with search engines’ departure from natural language—the way Boolean search excises articles and syntax from queries to leave a jumble of decontextualized nouns, vulnerable to multiple interpretations. To great effect, the ad links the fragility of isolated words to the porous social boundaries of the internet. The strangers butting in with useless nonsense are farcical distortions of fears that a foray online might put you in touch with a MySpace predator or a Cragislist killer. The Google commercial romanticizes randomness. For all the quiet reminders of the search engine’s precision—corrections of misspelled phrases (even foreign ones), the return of a flight’s arrival time to a query giving the flight number alone—it is a tale of serendipity and spontaneity. In the Microsoft ad, language is a source of frustration. Ambiguities and proliferous associations harass the speakers. But for Google’s hero, language is the medium by which he contacts his spirit guide. He enters “churches in paris,” then picks Paroisse Saint Leon for his wedding; the telescoping movement from general to particular is like a dream come true.

Bing promises access to goods and services, Google—to life and love. Different as the two ads are, both map desires and anxieties onto language as it is used in a software application. Their success speaks to the search engine’s position in the public imagination: Can you imagine an equally affecting ad for PowerPoint? Neither commercial attempts to explain how the collective experience of the search engine affects individual ones, how the companies collect queries and clicks and use them to plan improvements. Instead, they make you wonder: Can my needs be conveyed in a handful of nouns? Am I feeling lucky?

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Selfies and Selfiehood

I love the word “selfie”!

People used to call pictures of themselves GPOY—Gratuitous Pictures Of Yourself. But that tag has disappeared from the vernacular, displaced by selfie. Maybe it was because people realized that these pictures weren’t gratuitous—they were important for sustaining contact with the people in their social environments. Or maybe they intuitively realized how hard it was to take a picture of your self—gratuitous or otherwise—because the self isn’t really there.

Lots of people still want to imagine that the self is there. A product of Victorian romanticism and Freudian psychologizing, the self-important phantom self requires consistency and autonomy, limits and boundaries. For a long time that self has set the parameters of the modern worldview.

“Selfie” is a diminutive of “self.” Diminished, debased, made cute, it leaves room to acknowledge the flux of personhood, the reality of a living body that renews all of its cells every seven years, of a living mind that revises its ideas at least as often.

(People who cling to liberal subjecthood are terrified by the bodily and mental potentials for change, the inconsistency of personhood. They want to keep it all inside in the boundaries… that’s what “conservative” is.)

The selfie is abject, the residue of personhood’s digital and physical molting—images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin, recording a body’s change.

(This fall dozens of people told me they didn’t recognize me because I’d grown my hair long, and I wanted to tell them: Pay more attention to my selfies.)

Is the selfie a signifier of narcissism?

No—narcissism is a pathological obsession with the self that inhibits the recognition of others. The figure of narcissism is the body before its reflection, unable to look away. Social media is a house of mirrors built around transmissions. Producing a reflection of your image in Instagram always involves an awareness of the presence of others, the knowledge that your selfie is flaking and refracting in their phones. Labeling this reflection #selfie tacitly recognizes the horizontal proliferation of reflections, the dissolution of personhood in the network. The real narcissists are the ones who never take selfies. They imagine their self as autonomous, hermetic—too precious to be shared.

A Series of Tubers

What’s the difference between a potato and a rhizome? When Mike Francis started putting his animations on a site called Spudoogle I wanted to figure this out. Here is the answer I came up with after reading some definitions on online reference sources:

Spudoogle is a compound. It comes from “spud” and “Google.” “Spud” appeared in the sixteenth century, when Europeans started cultivating the potatoes that they’d found in the New World. The word migrated from the act of digging a hole in the ground to plant the potato—“spud” is related to “spade”—to the potato itself, from the little shovel to the tuber. Rhizomes are underground plants that send out roots from their nodes and grow in a horizontal network. Tubers are thickened rhizomes that store nutrients as starchy growths. Potatoes are tubers—stem tubers, to be precise. They are the swollen tips of a rhizome. Shoots develop from the buds, or eyes, of the potato. The eyes are its nodes and they look in the direction of potential spuds. As with a rhizome you can cut the tuber into pieces and each piece will develop into a mature plant so long as the cut piece has at least one eye.

Potatoes are parts of rhizomes that are thick and starchy.

Deleuze and Guattari did not say that decentralized hierarchies are shaped like potato farms. That would not have been sexy. They called them rhizomatic—much cooler. But the decentralized networks we live with now are like potato farms. Social networks with lazy fat folks sitting on their nodes, the starchy swollen chunks of Facebook pages covered with eyes, looking.

Mike Francis makes strange short animated loops, usually human or animal characters making awkward gestures again and again, as if he’s playing with the presets of Maya or whatever 3D animation software he uses and just lets the software do its thing rather than bother to force it to model motion as we know it in the world. These things he draws dig holes in the digital fabric and loll about in them endlessly. They have at least one eye but they aren’t developing in any direction.

Spudoogle is a black page with an image of a couple dozen freshly harvested potatoes set in the middle. The darkness of #000000 is a synthetic double of the real dirt in the photo; the cartoons mimic the swollen starchy shapes of the spuds. The post line up in the blog’s vertical like the potatoes laid in their rows. Spudoogle is a weird word and when you google it as a keyword it yields only one relevant result. It’s a spud at the dead end of a google—a spudoogle.

What Is Art 1

What is art?

Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist, said art is “a social technique for the conveyance of emotion.” That sounds good to me. Vygotsky was thinking, among other things, of the Greek drama, when the polis came together at the theater and shared cathartic emotional reactions, and in doing so strengthened relations within the community.

I agree with Vygotsky that art is a social technique but I think that there is more to it than affect. I would add that art conveys the richness of the possibilities of meaning. To Vygotsky I would add Jakobson’s theory of the poetic function of language, which describes the way that language draws attention to the sonic shape of itself, to how its sounds, to how that sound makes meaning, to how it relates to other sounds with different meanings. This attention always yields a recognition of multiplicity and variation of meaning, its asymmetry with its bodily, vocal means of conveyance.

Art that is rich in ambiguity, contrast, and complexity lasts longer than the simple stuff, because people keep finding fresh meanings in it, they keep finding new reasons to establish relations around it. If something superficially resembles art—it has the physical shape often occupied by works of art, it can’t be easily recognized as work or play—but lacks multi-faceted meanings then it is something else (usually design, propaganda, advertising, or entertainment).

My understanding of art is primarily anthropological: Humans are social animals and groups of them thrive by sharing signs; the more they thrive the more signs they make, and the more complex these signs get.

Why does political art usually suck?

Politics is another kind of social technique. But it is not like art. It manages relations instead of allowing them to proliferate. It establishes meanings of social actions, and relations among them. It sets limits—whereas art is about exceeding limits. Most political art sucks because it points to where the limits lie, or establishes the boundaries of behavior in the community of its audience.

Politics is bigger than individuals but art is bigger than politics. Politics cannot contain art. When it tries to it produces propaganda. It uses meaningful signs to manage relations; in so doing it puts limits on their signification. Art can contain politics. Art is often useful to historians as a document of society and politics because it envelops the political values of the context in which it is made. It can have other audiences because it exceeds the function of the document by opening affective and meaningful social relations around itself.

I put a “1” at the end of the title of the post because there will probably be a “What Is Art 2,” a “What Is Art 3” and so on. I will probably revisit and revise these definitions. I will probably blog about why games are not art.

Themes Like a Weird Place

“I like listening to classical music because it’s so relaxing,” is something I hated to hear in high school when all I listened to was classical music but I hated the term “classical” because it, I knew, referred to the rigorously harmonious work of Mozart and Haydn and their peers whereas the compositions for orchestra and chamber ensembles that I preferred were written in the last fifty or a hundred years and they were rough, dissonant, and nasty. This music—and really, any classical music—was not supposed to be relaxing at all if you listened to it properly. It was supposed to be rigorous, moving, engaging.

Piano and Violin Variations sounds like the title of a piece of twentieth-century music, a product of high modernism, when composers gave their works blunt titles that excluded suggestions of extramusical content, downplayed the complexity of the music they named, and—most importantly—used the same terminology found in titles of the past but mixed it up, just as the composers used traditional instruments but extracted new rhythms and harmonies from them. Instead of “Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Violin and Piano”—“Piano and Violin Variations.” But the Piano and Violin Variations I’m talking about isn’t a piece of music. It is a web site made by Michael Bell-Smith (henceforth MBS). It is a collection of photographs of rooms in various Marriott Residence Inns that are decorated with stock photographs of a piano and a violin, licensed from Getty Images. The photos of the rooms have been gathered from the sites of the Marriott Hotels and reviews of them on TripAdvisor.

“Variations,” we know, is shorthand for “Theme and Variations.” MBS dropped “theme.” What is a theme? In music it is a sequence of notes that can be recognized by the intervals between them and the rhythm in which they succeed each other. Online there are themes for the Gmail inbox (backgrounds and color schemes) and themes for WordPress (appearance and organization of text elements). Theme in music is about time. Theme in design is about space. Piano and Violin Variations suggests a musical theme but the theme that gets varied in it is a spatial one: a design template produced by some mid-level brand manager at Marriott’s corporate headquarters, and realized with slight differences in each of the many Residence Inns. There is a dramatic dash of red—a red pleather divan with a back that slopes like a grand piano’s soundboard. The rest looks boring—the beige curtains, the beige-brown grid of the carpet, the pale wood of the end tables. The piano and the violin are photographed at jaunty angles. But the instruments are at rest. No one is playing them.

One reason why people think classical music is relaxing is because it is impersonal. Especially in its recorded form it erases human presence. Of course there are operas, cantatas, lieder, and so on, but the kind of classical music that gets on the radio stations and upscale Muzak compilations that are listened to by people who listen to classical music to relax—this is instrumental only. Hands move over violins and pianos busily but so skillfully that they are inaudible. Hands merge with the instruments and vanish in them. Classical music is so unlike pop or rock, where crooners emote at you, trying to elicit feeling. Voiceless classical music simulates solitude… aaah!

Muzak organizes space by creating an innocuous, unobtrusive sonic environment. The photographs of the piano and the violin—without a pianist or a violinist—fragment and crystallize the idea of relaxing to music. And why does classical music relax people, why does it soothe them? Even in its rigor it has a sameness—the predictability of the tonic’s quest to the dominant, followed by its triumphant homecoming; the thumping satisfaction of the dominant seventh’s resolution; the deceptive cadence that you know is coming but gives you goosebumps each time anyway. These are the things that let Schenker say that every piece of classical music can be reduced to three notes! And now guests at the Marriott Residence Inn get it in two pictures.

Junkspace is what happens when the kind of patterns that are found in cultural forms fill the world. Rooms at the Marriott Residence Inn are as standardized as the sonata form, but instead of elegance and tradition their sameness speaks to the boredom of business travel, the frequent flying, the shuttling from the dry halls of the airport to the marginally cozy sterility of the hotel. It is movement stripped of life. So it is with the theme of the Residence Inn rooms. Only the red pleather sofa, with its sexily arched back, screams: “Someone designed this interior! And made an unusual choice…” That person’s choice sticks out like the wrong note of an inexpert player who makes the same mistake again and again.

We see it in MBS’s collection of all the variations. They sit in a grid, like the one on the beige-brown carpet. The Tumblr theme homogenizes visual space like Marriott’s theme homogenizes people’s travel experience. In the ungraceful junkspace of the business-class hotel chain, space functions like information, space sounds like Muzak. Its sameness is meant to soothe like classical music radio does with the impersonal voices of pianos and violins. The photos collected by MBS were taken to function indexically, to show what the Marriott Residence Inn’s rooms look like. In that sense they are unlike Getty’s stock photos of the piano and violin, which are meant to evoke a mood vague enough to be open to use a variety of environments, like a Muzak CD. But when MBS brings all the photos of the room together, their indexical function recedes and the shape of the space in them comes forward. Its contours describe how space melts into stock space, how junkspace functions as an image.