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:
Thanks for visiting
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:
Thanks for visiting
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.
Ryan Trecartin likes to play with language and a bit of wordplay that recurs in his work—sometimes in the words of the scripts, but more frequently in the way characters and scenarios are constructed—is a confusion of the corporate and the corporeal. It’s like a folk etymology or a pun in the way Trecartin exploits a superficial resemblance of two words to generate idiosyncratic connections between them. But there’s a real etymological connection at the words’ root, and Trecartin’s play animates the forgotten bond between the corporeal reality of a person and the social body of a corporation.
Vocabulary review: Corporeal means “of a body.” Corporate means “united in one body.” To incorporate is to “to put (something) into the body or substance of (something else).”
“Corporations are people.” The corporation is the instrument by which a group of people act together as one in order to to make money, to make things happen, to create changes and disturbances in the world and in the social world. How does the corporation do it? How does the corporation unite so many bodies in its one to achieve its ends? It does it with corporate culture, with human resource management, with guidelines of professionalism—all techniques for controlling behaviors and actions and bodies. Corporations are people but their bodies are huge and grotesque—its avatars have stunted bodies, their impulses and affects are subjugated to the fluid discourses of a brand identity, they speak the stilted business tongue of PowerPoint slides and memos. We live in the time of corporate personhood—when corporate bodies and perlocutionary corporate speech make the models of how a person should be.
Look at K-Corea INC.K (section a)—the title of Trecartin’s video is a corporate name, taken on as a collective name by a bevy of career girls. (What does K-Corea INC.K produce? Nothing, other than its own collective subjectivity.) Korea is a geographic entity; it is a place name—a word that transforms a mass of land into a concept, making the substance of Earth legible in discourse and politics—and it is a near homophone of career. Korea, career. A career is a social concept, a technique by which a person identifies as an avatar of his profession and obscures his individual body to merge with a corporate one.
All the Koreas—Argentian Korea, Iran@-itzerland Korea, French adaptation Korea, Post-Canadian Retriever Korea, Another Greek Korea, Mexico Korea—are dressed identically. They must have gone shopping together for ladies’ business casual at Kmart or T.J.Maxx: white blouses, dark skirts, blond wigs. The clothes and the white pancake makeup makes them identical, in a way, but the forced identity just makes the differences of the individual bodies pop out: this Korea has a moustache, that Korea has real female breasts; this Korea has big biceps, that Korea is paunchy. Traits of individual bodies betray the unity of the incorporated one. But they try their best not to let them! The Koreas are mostly silent, or their speech is an inaudible whispered conversation between co-Koreas. Global Korea is the boss; she’s played the charismatic Telfar Clemens, and she speaks for them all. “We had a meeting,” Global Korea says. “So Lets Have A Meeting!” And the avatars of K-Corea INC.K assembles around a picnic table, outdoors, at night. Having meetings is a habit of the corporation’s inner life, and the word “meeting” has accumulated an array of associations: the conference room, the conference table, the hierarchies of who sits where at this table, a water cooler, an agenda, items, goals, objectives, directives… (Etymology facts: The Old English metan meant to encounter or to find; the “meeting” became an assembly in the sixteenth century.) The way K-Corea INC.K has meetings evokes the contemporary corporate usage while returning the word to its most basic bodily meaning: the simultaneous presence of two or bodies in spatial and temporal proximity to each other. What’s more, at K-Corea INC.K the meeting never ends. This corporation is nothing but a meeting: “We had a meeting. So Lets Have A Meeting!” In the script, when it doesn’t matter which of the Koreas speak, or when many of the Koreas are to speak at the same time, the speaker of the line is given as “Meeting.”
Besides Global the company has a few other very important avatars, including Trecartin as USA Korea, who interviews a wannabe career-girl named Jessica. She’s dressed like the rest but she doesn’t have a Korea name. She’s an intern, an outsider on the inside. She’s a slut: interns are promiscuous, commingling with the corporate body for a limited time, unpaid. “Contemporary Slut!” Mexico Korea (Raul Nieves) rages at Jessica/Cindy. “Every Body’s’ Got the Agenda!” Note the split of “Every Body’s” and think about how a collective is named by indicating its constitution in all of its individuated bodies. And this is important to the business of K-Corea INC.K, which produces a group body that is mobile and communicative and regularly grooms itself by designating its avatars and its Others as hires and fires. This meeting of drag queens and their gofers incorporates—incarnates—corporate corporeality.
And what does “corporate corporeality” mean?? Incorporation is the realization of a dream of a body that can be bigger, more powerful, more durable than a human body—better than the gross animal vessel our spirits carry around. But with the new spirit of capitalism the corporation aspires to be flexible, mutable, and fluid, unlike the old kind of company, the generations-old family business, with its rigid mimicry of aristocracy and sturdily pious Protestant values, its emulation of king’s immortal body. In a time when corporations are people, the incorporated body is more like a real one—or at least the model it sets for how a person should be is gross. The corporate body (or its avatar) lives in a state of precarity, much like the real body is vulnerable to disease and mortality; it leaks, strains, and bulges. It screams at the world and it can’t make sense of itself. It is like K-Corea INC.K.
Look at another Ryan Trecartin video, Roamie View (History Enhancement), from the Re’Search Wait’S cycle. In this one, stock video is a stunt double for the idealized corporate body and it is cut with shots of the weird real thing. Glistening skylines and pristine office corridors of stock footage give way to the plain bodies and grotesquely made-up faces in Trecartin’s own footage. Pseudo-corporate business calls between Trecartin’s players are interposed with stock views of suited corporate employees in a brightly lit office corridor; the speech in the handheld devices gets implicitly compared to the bodies in the office, and both sets of footage are juxtaposed to a tracking shot of a big city’s waterfront, apparently shot from a boat: as the camera moves it shows the glass pavilions and twinkling lights around a port, the node of an international trade network. One thing that all of these pieces of footage share is the color blue. Blue is a soothing decorative element in the stock corporate corridor. Blue illuminates the buildings by the waterfront at night, and blue is the color of the water in front of them. Blue is in the streaky make-up and the cheap fabric of the attire on Trecartin’s players—like the white T-shirt emblazoned with a gridded blue globe that brands the body of the player who wears it with global aspirations. Blue represents water, a substance that enables vessels to be transported from one place to another, a substance that takes the shape of the vessels that it is in. Blue represents the values of fluidity and adaptability; it’s in the branding of Chase and Citibank and it’s the new spirit of capitalism.
So much mobility! And yet—have you ever noticed this?—bodies never move very much in Ryan Trecartin’s videos. (The Re’Search begins with a dance number by the pool—moving bodies, still water—but this is an exceptional scene, not a normal one.) Bodies are meat that sits around—but it sits around expressively! The physical movement in these videos is about gestures and facial expressions: grimaces, turning heads, cocking heads to the side, fidgeting in swivel chairs, waving arms, moving mouths to make words. If people are going somewhere, they’re sitting in cars—and sometimes they’re sitting in airplane seats that have been removed from an airplane, pretending to go somewhere but actually going nowhere, talking into their phones and at the camera lens the whole time. The absence of bodily mobility even applies to the stock footage that Trecartin uses in Roamie View. In one sequence, a man stands with a stoic look on his face; he doesn’t move as his colleagues’ bodies (which are depersonalized as a metonym of the bustle of office life) flow around him. In another sequence, the stock models are all frozen in place as the camera twists around them, exploring the corridor. Bodies don’t move much in Trecartin’s videos yet the videos are characterized by a feeling of constant movement. What makes the movement is editing. Movement is reserved for speech and for technology; bodies move thanks to these things, or as them.
“Neoliberal subjectivity,” the way that bodies behave (are handled) because of (by) the late spirit of capitalism is about subdividing the individual into nameable affinities (Facebook likes, dating profile stats) or competencies (the school assessment report, the HR office review), in order to incorporate bodies as other, more usable substances. Networked social being and bureaucratic procedure reify personal attributes and redefine subjecthood as situational and mobile—but the mobility is a characteristic of the attributes and the tools and technologies that move them, rather than of the bodies they came from.
Bodies become objects of operations. Trecartin, as J. J. Check in Roamie View: History Enhancement, says: “I thought it would be neat and cute if someone took out all the times they say ‘people’ or ‘humanity’ [in the U.S. Constitution] and replaced it with ‘situations.’” Meetings are situations (bodies meet because they are situated in the same area). Situations are states of people. Veronica Gelbaum, as North America Korea in K-Corea INC.K (section a), says: “The New Look for This Company, IS re-Thinking the Word |Humanity| as an Object with a (Goal).”
All of these innovations and disruptions, these subdivisions and operations, are related to everyday techniques of control, but their representation in Trecartin’s videos suggests obsessive-compulsive disorders or cases of borderline schizophrenia. When manifested in the corporate body they are normal and acceptable. But when they return to the individual body they appear as psychic maladies. Recall Melanie Klein’s observation that conditions like schizophrenia, narcissism, and so on are considered psychotic when they manifest in adults but the same conditions are normal stages of infant development. Thus the conditions that are normal to the corporate body appear as psychotic when embodied in Trecartin’s individual players. Trecartin often casts children and teens in his videos, as living reminders of how the body grows and changes—as as implicit suggestions of how the body might grow further, in incorporated bodies, and how all of these kinds of bodies have conditions that inhere in them, and look weird when transported to others, when people behave in a way that might not be suited to their bodies, in order to be part of a bigger one.
Does incorporation MAKE people the way they are? Or is incorporation a manifestation of how people ARE already—of their pull toward the whole? This is one of the antinomies that Trecartin presents, and of course there is no way to resolve it.
People like to say that Trecartin’s work is about contemporary networked technologies. OK fine. But only insofar as these technologies are integrated in the array of social techniques and habits characteristic of human life at this point in time. THIS IS ART ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION!! Trecartin’s players hold Blackberries—but they’re just as likely to be hold a sledgehammer, or a flute. Any object implies a use but it doesn’t have to be used in that way.
Any system has an organizing principle, and any organizing principle can be broken. It creates a system of control—and at the same it creates ways of how that control can be defied. (When J.J. Check reads the Constitution he gets talking about how the law can be adapted to suit situations.)
Trecartin’s world is a carnival and it shows everything as it could otherwise be. If a tool can be used to make something it can be used to break something. If a technique is applied to achieve an end it can be applied wrongly, to fail. If telecom technologies enable communication they can also be used to disrupt it. Every ideology opens itself to misinterpretation, abuse, and defiance by any individual. Where there are societies of control there are societies of out of control. Ryan Trecartin knows this and feels this; he likes to play with language and so he knows how any word that means one thing can be misheard, misread, misused, made to mean something else.
Tools, techniques, technologies, ideologies are like language. And in language where there’s a right syntax there’s a wrong syntax; grammar begets mistakes. (Look at how Trecartin tweets: “I publicly believe that cardio clot & your god ends with you. Let’s go on a hike mudda cutta ,” he tweeted in September 2012.) Moreover: language is the medium of incorporation (and other types of transformation). Language provides the techniques by which one substance can be understood as another one. Even if bodies are separate from language and all the things that are like it—and I’m not sure that they are!—language opens up the possibility that they are not. There are languages and there are bodies, and Ryan Trecartin makes videos about how one makes the other, and the other way around.
Guess what. I have some ideas about Jay-Z rapping in the gallery, and I decided to blog about it.
First of all, the question that lots of people raised about this event—“is it art?”—seems irrelevant. Jay-Z is making a music video. He’s making entertainment. Yes, he spent six hours lip syncing his rap, but is it more of a “durational performance” than any Hollywood shoot? Making videos for the entertainment industry is always grueling work; setting this shoot up as a six-hour marathon, with extras and guest stars lined up to take turns in front of the camera, was a good way to get the most people involved while expending the least possible effort. The point of setting the video in a gallery was not to present it as a performance but because art is a theme of the song, “Picasso Baby”: “I just want a Picasso, in my casa/ No, my castle … I wanna Rothko, no I wanna brothel, No I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute.” This is a standard pop-music wish-fantasy about having the immense wealth that allows private access to rare cultural artifacts among many other luxury items; the desire for ownership and the fact of ownership equal sexual desire and sexual satisfaction, etc.
So the people who counted Jay-Z among Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, and James Franco as another celebrity who claims status as an artist asks for respect as such from the art world are, I think, mistaken; I doubt that this was Jay-Z’s wish. But I’m interested in the reactions from these self-appointed gatekeepers. It expresses a vision of the art world as professionalized and quasi-corporate, a regulated environment where everyone occupies a well-defined position, where the bosses can decide who gets to do what, and where, and when. People get mad about celebrities encroaching on the art world–and yet they want the art world to be as rigid as the entertainment industry. Where were they when Kenneth Goldsmith invited poets to give readings alongside artworks at the Museum of Modern Art? Were they mad that the last Whitney Biennial devoted nearly an entire floor to choreographer Sarah Michelson? Poets and choreographers aren’t artists, in the professionalized art-world sense of a person who has exhibited in galleries and museums–the credentials one needs to get an artist’s membership card from a museum. But the art world thrives on ignoring these disciplinary boundaries, because art in the broader, anthropological sense (which includes poetry and choreography and other creative pursuits) is about identifying boundaries and ignoring them (cf. What Is Art 1).
But some boundaries are more interesting than others.
There was something art-like about Jay-Z’s appearance at Pace, and the images of it that circulated, and the opinions they generated. People felt invited to treat the event like art, and they could read it as such because of the ambiguities that the situation presented: art can be a “durational performance,” i.e. a unique and ephemeral experience, or it can be a set of objects to be desired and acquired; charisma can manifest itself in the smoothness of pop celebrity, or in the gravitas possessed by Marina Abramovic and Lawrence Weiner. If you approach the “Picasso Baby” shoot as art, then it is art about the power structures of the art world and the status of the art object–issues that William Powhida and Jayson Musson raise in their comics and comedy routines, respectively, although they address them from the position of outsiders, which makes it charming and sympathetic to art-world kids who identify with them. But Jay-Z and Pace and the other participants (if they can all be called the artists in this situation) address it as insiders, which makes it off-putting, and I think that’s largely what generated the negative feeling that launched a thousand Facebook posts.
I’m going to quote myself. This is from a review of Gagosian Gallery’s 24th St. location that I posted to Yelp, about the Richard Phillips show that was there in the fall of 2012 and featured the painted and recorded images of Sasha Grey and Lindsay Lohan: “At the end of the video the titles said ‘Lindsay Lohan [or Sasha Grey, in the Sasha Grey video],’ then ‘Gagosian Gallery,’ then ‘Richard Phillips.’ Maybe I got the order wrong but it was those three, fading from one to the next. So it was like a commercial but you couldn’t tell what the commercial was for. That’s what made it art, if not very good art.”
Likewise, anything that has a lot of people asking “is it art?” probably is art, or it could be art. But it’s not necessarily good art.
Robby Rackleff makes video performances around fantasy gaming scenarios or everyday situations, sometimes both at once, and he plays all of the characters; some characters are more powerful than others, some characters do violence (physical or psychological) to the others, but all of them are played with a faint sadness. I wanted to talk to him about it. “When did you first turn the camera on yourself?” I asked him. “Had you worked with other actors before that? Or do you ever?”
“I think it was in the fall of 2007,” Robby said. “I got to the Mount Royal MFA program at MICA and had a rough start. I was doing a lot of drawing and collage that wasn’t really going anywhere and I decided that it would be a good idea to learn something new. Video was the obvious choice for me since a lot of the artists that I was around before MICA were going in that direction and turning out some great work. I started taping myself for a couple reasons. The first was that I was just trying to get the ball rolling and the idea of trying to schedule a bunch of other people to conform around each others’ free time to make a more complicated piece was too much of a hassle. The other thing was that I was still incredibly nervous performing around other people.”
He paused. “In other words I was impatient and shy and over time I just got used to working that way.”
“I have a feeling that for male artists, turning the camera on oneself is generally a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation,” I said. “It makes a kind of loser aesthetics. Does that sound like something you’re interested in?”
“Absolutely,” Robby said. “I am a huge loser.”
“OK,” I said. This made me feel kind of awkward… It was, I suppose, exactly what I wanted to hear, but the way he put it in those blunt terms made me feel bad for asking. Anyway, I kept going, turning it to the specifics of his work. “What interests me about your work in particular among loser videos is the theme of gaming subcultures and how you connect the figure of the gaming nerd to guys in offices, at Subway, or in other everyday situations. What does the gamer mean to you?”
“One set of my videos represents the fantasy, the world of supernatural science fiction,” Robby said “That’s Dark Fortress Occult Master of Space. That’s the adolescent fantasy of comic books and video games. The videos where I dress up in a button up, tie, and slacks are more a stylization of what I perceive to be adult reality: vague and oppressive visits to doctors, awkward forced reunions… They’re both fantasy of course. The fantasy of adult behavior is for me just as unrealistic as super heroes and space travel. That’s something I struggle with psychologically. I’m still playing video games and reading sci-fi comics, but I spend more time wondering about whether or not I should get an Amtrak credit card or buy a new suit than I do wishing I could summon lightning.”
He continued: “There was that article a year or two ago in the New York Times about people my age (early thirties) who are taking their sweet time to grow up… Another way of putting it is ‘redefining adulthood.’ I am absolutely stuck in that situation, but from my perspective I have trouble seeing it as positive or constructive. It feels like the by-product of political and economic largesse and going through puberty during the 90s when America was the unmatched world power. I had so many people telling me to follow my dreams and I did and it got me to the point where I am an adjunct college teacher with no job security and I deliver cakes on the weekends to make ends meet. I don’t blame anyone but myself.
“In this new reality, it’s impossible not to daydream about the world of something like Mad Men or The West Wing in the same way I once idolized Batman and the X-Men. Making videos that mimic these daydreams is really just catharsis. I can spend a long bus ride to work thinking about how great my breast pocket is for storing my MTA day pass and then turn that into Interview. It’s just a way of objectifying wandering adult thoughts.
“There is no one figure of the gamer because there are so many variations. There are those who play for sport, those who play for the social experience of co-operative gaming, those who are just casually gaming on the way to work… It’s like asking what the figure of the reader is. I can tell you this: I’m not personally drawn to the multi-player arena games like Call of Duty or to the more organized team-based games like World of Warcraft. I still respond best to the single-player video games. Part of that connection is based in the fact that single-player games are usually the ones that set technical benchmarks and create milestones for what games are expected to be… Think of Doom, Final Fantasy VII, Half Life, Resident Evil 4, Crysis, Skyrim… These all contributed to the advancement of what I think of as the soul of the gaming technology and its maturation as a medium. There are, of course milestones created by multi-player games—Mortal Kombat, Ultima Online, Second Life, etc.—but when gamers harp on video games as an art form, they usually point out a single player game like Shadow of the Colossus over World of Warcraft.
“This is a long way of explaining how I view myself as a gamer. I was 12 when Doom came out and I was 31 when Skyrim did. Part of me likes to think that the maturation of games paralleled my own rise to adulthood. Most likely, however, we (me and the games) are still stuck in a cycle of adolescent fantasy and coming up with images and situations that somehow validate that.
“I also wonder if you see the characters in your videos as avatars, or characters in games,” I said. “Or are they roles in the more traditional sense of theater? Do you even see any distinction between those two?”
“I see gameplay as more of a performance,” he replied. “I have a real knack for suspension of disbelief and I try and use it to the fullest when I’m playing a game. I try and play games as if I (as in the ‘I’ who is writing this) am in whatever fantastic situation the game sets up for me. In a game like Fallout 3 where you create a character and then make decisions that affect the story and place you somewhere on the good/evil spectrum, I always ask myself what I would actually do given the circumstances. I would like to point out again that I play only single-player games and so the performance of trying to squeeze my own conscience and politics into these rigid game rules is really done for no one else but myself.
“The end result is that I start to have these really intense feelings toward the action of playing a game that requires my decisions beyond where to jump or where to point a rifle. I like to think that the level of emotional involvement I have with my favorite games goes beyond nostalgia, competition, or irony. The characters and situations in videos like Dark Fortress and Guild are tools for communicating that involvement.
“Where do you get ideas for facial expressions and gestures?” I asked him. “Are there certain comedians/actors/cartoons you draw on?”
“When I was a young teenager I was overweight and I spent a lot of time in front of my bathroom mirror trying to make faces and poses that hid that fact,” Robby said. “If Facebook had existed in the early 90s there would probably be a very interesting historical record to back this up. Point is that I did a lot of weird stuff in front of that mirror and got into the habit of having these sessions with myself that, I am embarrassed to say, continue to this day.”
I tried to imagine him at the mirror, grimacing and frowning and looking surprised, but when I did I kept seeing him in one of his videos. That is, I could only picture him on a screen—not in a bathroom. I thought about myself in the bathroom, trying to make a selfie, but my actions in front of the mirror were more about getting the right angle and light than what was on my face. Meanwhile, Robby kept answering. “Those expressions and gestures are limited by the border of the mirror, however, and similarly they’re limited by the frame of my dinky camera (and the monitor that faces me when I’m shooting myself). I’m a big guy and so I worry about reaching outside the camera frame, over the edge of the small green screen I set up in my tiny living room… and that makes my movements tense and (somewhat accidentally) a little subtle. I think my favorite gesture I’ve come up with so far is in the video Interview when I tap my breast pocket. I basically have all my fingers spread except my middle finger is crossed over my pointer finger. Something about the way I hold my hand in that video has an effect on people watching it and I don’t have any constructive perspective on why that is…
“Whenever I watch Spalding Gray movies or videos I feel SO intense. His presence is like that of a superhuman. I am entranced by every gesture he makes and every time he stumbles over a line or stutters. The level of control he appears to exert in all these subtle half-seconds is spellbinding and he is probably the single most influential performer on my work.”
I don’t know who Spalding Gray is… something to look into. “Thanks for these great answers!” I said. That was all.
In the summer of 2011 I wrote a post for Rhizome’s blog called “It’s Only Humanist,” about the popularity of images of classical sculpture in digital art—a trend that notoriously went mainstream in the fall of 2012, when the visuals of Rihanna’s appearance on Saturday Night Live mixed ionic columns and marble busts with palm trees and Photoshop gradients. “It’s Only Humanist” was inspired by Sterling Crispin’s Tumblr Greek New Media Shit, and also included discussions of works by Nick DeMarco & Nicolas Colon, Oliver Laric, and Aids-3D, with a couple of visual examples from Frank Eickhoff and Sara Ludy; I wanted to consider references to classical imagery across a range of works, with sculpture and installation as well as the software etudes posted to Tumblr. The point I tried to make in the post was that the use of this imagery—and the way it was undermined with software editing effects—suggested doubt or skepticism about the integrity of the human subject within technological networks.
About a year after “It’s Only Humanist” was published Tom Moody wrote a series of posts on his own blog mocking “my” idea that the artworks mentioned in the post continued a tradition of humanist art by appropriating its imagery. That is, of course, a ridiculous idea, and I didn’t write anything of the sort. Perhaps I’m partly to blame for Moody’s misunderstanding because I wasn’t explicit enough; I didn’t want to say outright that these artists ere anti-humanist or “pro-machine.” I wanted to respect the ambivalence of the works, some of which seemed melancholy or nostalgic about the loss of an ideal while simultaneously treating it with humor. (A lack of one-sided clarity is a chronic problem of art writing, because art thrives on ambivalence, and the description of ambiguity often produces bad writing.) But the main problem, I think, was that Moody mistook my post’s title as a literal description of the works I discussed—when it was a joke aligned with the light attitude of the artists toward their source material—and wrote his posts on the basis of that mistake.
The funny thing is that when I wrote the post I had no particular interest in humanism—Joanne McNeil, who was the editor of Rhizome at the time, was interested in the Greek New Media Shit trend and asked me to write about it—but now it’s become the subject of my dissertation. I’m writing about what happens to humanism in the twentieth century when thinkers feel the need to define the human against (or by) the machine. My central case study is Soviet culture of the 1930s, when vitalism resurged as a reaction to rapid industrialization and avant-garde metaphors of man as machine, but I also want to look at the emergence of anti-humanist philosophy in Western Europe in the 1930s, and try to offer some ideas about what humanism is or can be today. I don’t think the humanisms of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, with their idealization of the individual (male, European) subject using reason as tool to master the world, are viable or interesting now (and this was a problem in the Soviet situation: the disconnect between the neoclassical values that official culture promoted and the values it needed to build a new kind of state; I’m interested in the weird hybrid values in the artworks that this situation produced).
I’m not planning to say much about contemporary art in my dissertation. I think it’s too recent and unsettled to be an object of scholarship. But in my life outside grad school—in my work as a critic and curator—I’m looking at art that embodies these alternative humanisms, work that sees social media and other networks as potential means of expression for a common subjectivity and explores irrationality, abjection, queerness, affect, and other things that humans can do or have and machines can’t, the things that become important when omnipresent technology functions as a prosthesis for reason and calculation—the faculties most prized by the classical humanist subject. Some examples: Jesse Darling’s formless, ongoing online presence/work that ignores distinctions of public and private experience, or of bodies and work; Ann Hirsch’s treatment of networks as means of magnifying and refracting private desires and opening them up into real connections; Body by Body’s fantasies of physical transformation and degradation that identify bodies with digital media. These are all artists I’ve commissioned for Klaus_eBooks, a series of ebooks I’m organizing. What interests me about ebooks is how the device acquires power over the book; the book is formless, and only temporarily occupies the device’s screen. I see this as roughly analogous to how Facebook leeches power from its users over their self-presentation, or, more broadly, how power has passed from individual subjects to corporate ones in governments around the world. (These assertions are contentious and sketchy, I know; I’ll write more about them later.) The dissolution of the book’s objecthood appears as a companion to the dissolution of liberal subjecthood—and identification with the ebook’s mode of being offers a possible path toward a common subjectivity that defines the human against systems of power. Greek New Media Shit casts doubts on the integrity of the human subject by undermining the imagery of classical sculpture with glitchy pixel decay, or by decentering it amid a network’s web, or by coloring it with the giddy extremes of the Photoshop palette. In other words, it suggests a breakdown of the ideals of classical humanism by cluttering their aesthetic embodiments with a bunch of digital junk. The kind of humanism I’m interested finds the human—or something like it—within that junk.