Tag Archives: Caitlin Denny

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.

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