Last year Constant Dullaart made a video, Crystal Pillars, about leaving Facebook behind. It was edited from footage he’d taken with his phone over the previous few years, with a voiceover that mixed introspection regarding his own feelings about Facebook with some found texts: the prospectus from Facebook’s IPO, a statement by Mark Zuckerberg, the “About” section from Klout’s web site, tweets by Lil B. Crystal Pillars was shown in 2013 at the Rotterdam Film Festival and at bubblebyte.org, an online exhibition series. I didn’t see it in either of these contexts but Constant had sent me the video by email in the fall of 2012 and I watched it then.
For the most part I liked it. I liked the imagery and the editing. I also liked the open, confessional nature of the first-person text and the strangeness of its contrast to the found excerpts collaged with it. I was excited by the personal turn in Constant’s work, which has always tried to identify the traces of human presence in information technologies, but usually does so in an aloof, generalizing way. Take his series of “internets,” the tweaks of the Google homepage—the default gateway to the internet for so many people—that remind us that even though the page is white and blank as if it came out of nowhere, the default is not nothing; it’s a setting that someone chose to put there, and as such there is a flexibility and vulnerability to it. The Revolving Internet spins end over end as users try to navigate it. The Disagreeing Internet waggles in the browser window as if shaking its head no. The Censored Internet changes every character to an X. The Sleeping Internet dims and brightens to the rhythm of a sleeper’s breath, suffusing the coolly empty site with a human warmth. These give a personality to a web site, they make it weird in ways that only people can be weird. The default is already designed to be open and understandable to everyone, and Constant gives them traits that anyone can imagine—though more human than the default, they still have the generalness of the default. There is nothing particular about them.
In other works Constant has featured his own body, if not himself (his self)—like his performances that mimic the DVD screensaver, where he moves the logo to the edges of his webcam’s frame, and Poser, where he adds himself to group photos of strangers that he found on Facebook—but even then the work is not about him, it’s about his transformation into a generalized human presence.
I like Poser a lot and it’s probably my favorite of the landmark net-art works that address social media group photography (others worth mentioning: Guthrie Lonergan’s Internet Group Shot and Daniel Chew’s Cropped). The aloofness feels right in it because it means he’s not putting himself above the strangers in the found photos—he’s embodying the distance felt when encountering pictures of strangers and it’s something that’s easy to relate to. As in the series of internets, feeling is generalized, yet it’s still more effecting and vital than a template or a software setting. But in Crystal Pillars the generalizing feels wrong, because the video is largely about Constant’s personal experience, and the attempt to generalize obscures that. The voiceover text is read aloud by Henna Hyvarinnen, who was his intern at the time. She wrote parts of the text, based on interviews with Constant; Constant wrote the rest himself, and compiled the collage. The single voice partially smooths the differences between the cut excerpts—but not fully, because besides the various styles of writing the voice itself is ragged, with awkward pauses, sniffles, stumbles, and mispronunciations. I liked how the audio track included mistakes. It was unlike videos by Constant’s peers (Oliver Laric or Harm Van den Dorpel) where the text is read by text-to-speech robots or hired voice actors. But I didn’t like how it was a woman who carried the burden of the voice in its abject, imperfect physicality. It seemed sexist, especially when all the texts were written by men, except for one that the voice itself—the intern—had to written to vocalize for Constant.
Besides the phoniness of personal branding and the affective labor that goes with it, Constant’s criticisms of Facebook targeted the atmosphere of the “perpetual high-school classroom” and the feelings of jealousy and competitiveness that it exacerbates. I identified these as Constant’s personal experience of using the site, based on conversations when he’d told me about this. I suppose it’s a common experience but it’s not something I personally feel so I can—personally—attest that it’s not universal. And that’s the source of the contradiction that I think undermines Crystal Pillars. On the one hand, Constant is trying to deliver a critique of ironic distance and packaged personal connections. Yet the artistic methods used in the creation of the audio track replicated the social media conventions of the commodified self that mask vulnerability, weakness, doubt. I think it could have been more honest and effecting if he had recognized the particularity of his own experience and related it in his own voice—and let his audience chose how to identify (or sympathize) with him.
I’ve never given artists suggestions on changing a work but I wrote him an email to tell him all this and urged him to re-record the audio track with his own voice. Constant defended his choices and argued for them and left the video as it was, which is what any artist should do.