Tag Archives: internet art

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.

“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.

On Humanisms

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.

Look Away

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.

Expiration Place

This was a while ago (2009 or 2010?) but Aleksandra Domanovic bought herself an international sampler of domain names: aleksandradomanovic.sk, aleksandradomanovic.rs, aleksandradomanovic.si, aleksandradomanovic.eu.

Buying a domain name with your given name in it is virtually a requirement for an artist or anyone else with aspirations to public significance, whose work may be searched for by curious (and potentially important) strangers. Public figures and would-be public figures need to stake a claim to their location on the web, and that means turning one’s name into a domain. Aleksandra Domanovic (henceforth AD) already had aleksandradomanovic.com but she was claiming more; she was locating herself in the top-level domains governed by Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European Union. This was superfluous—anyone who needs to find her can find her in .com—but it connected self-representation to political representation, web sites to geographic ones. .sk and .si are Slovakia and Serbia, little slivers of countries that splintered off from bigger, ethnically composite ones amid the fall of socialist governments in Eastern European and the accompanying upswing of nationalist feeling. .sk and .si are short for recent iterations of the modern nation-state—the assertion of a linguist and ethnic community under a parliamentary government that guarantees the representation of its individual citizens. .eu is the EU, the push in the opposite direction, the development of an extra-national governing body that protects the rights of nations and states as well as those of individual citizens and unites them all in currency and commerce. Then there’s .com, the “unmarked” URL. It seems like a default but when lined up with .sk, .si, .rs and .eu it reveals itself as one choice of many, and like them this choice is associated with a particular geography. The forms of representation connected to .com have little or nothing to do with law, rights, nationhood, or nationality; it’s still unclear what rights there are in .com, the domain of globalized networked commerce, and what governments are supposed to do with this domain when it enters their borders via underground and underwater cables.

Unless you’re in China trying to use Facebook, or in Germany trying to watch YouTube videos that GEMA has blocked because of musical content, or in some other similar situation the web presents itself as borderless, “World Wide,” offering up any site that users can imagine with the help of a search engine. .com is comparable to the art world, another globalized network where national origin can be elided even though it’s part of a complex and opaque system of control and representation. In a way AD’s collection of domain names might be seen as an inversion/update of a work by Mladen Stilinovic, who made a banner with the inscription: “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist.” An artist has to have a web site and it has to be a .com, or she’s no artist.

Stilinovic is a Croat, born in Serbia when it was part of Yugoslavia. AD was also born in Serbia, a few decades after Stilinovic was but still in Yugoslavia, and she grew up in Slovenia. Borders, their liquidity and permeability, the consequences of their disappearance, the role that the World Wide Web plays in ignoring or enforcing them—all these things matter to Domanovic. Her other projects address the same issues, in ways that are more tangible or visible than the purchase of a collection of domains. Turbo Sculpture, a video about monuments built in the former Yugoslavia to honor Rocky Balboa, Bruce Lee, Tupac Shakur and other icons of pop masculinity. Globalized culture is a ubiquitous nebula that congeals in local contexts with strange effects. Turbo Sculpture identifies the results of culture freed from the boundaries of the nation-state but bound again to the global market, and then manifested in ways that are remain particular to the cultural habits of the nation-state. Global heroes Tupac and Rocky—whose real monuments are media artifacts or memes—are recognized with monumental sculpture.

19:30 is an earlier project by AD. It involved asking DJs to make remixes of theme songs from various television news programs in the former Yugoslavia and organizing dance parties that incorporated the remixes. 19:30 also addresses forms of public space that circumvent the limits of nations and laws and the cultural forms attached to them, though its tone had an almost utopian optimism in contrast to the grim humor of Turbo Sculpture.

Here is part of a short text I wrote about 19:30 (the whole thing can be found at nineteenthirty.net):

“”By a coincidence of history, widespread internet use came on the heels of socialism‘s collapse in Eastern Europe. Routes of global commerce multiplied in parallel with the speed of information. From today’s standpoint, a world where capitalism and socialism coexisted is associated with rhythms of life defined by slower forms of media. Aleksandra Domanovic considers this condition through her own experience and the history of her native Yugoslavia in 19:30 (2010). The title comes from the time slot of the Yugoslav nightly news, when the whole country would take time to view the broadcast. Watching the news became even more important to the daily routine as ethnic tensions mounted in the late 1980s, but that routine, like many other unifying social norms, dissolved along with Yugoslavia itself amid open conflict. Around 1995, electronic dance music became popular in the former Yugoslavia (a bit later than it did in the rest of the world, due in part to the international isolation of the warring republics) and young people crossed the new borders to attend parties and dance to wordless, repetitive techno—a musical genre free of national associations. When information can be accessed at any time, the nightly news loses the power to create a simultaneous, shared experience for a multitude of people. But a live event like a rave, Domanovic points out, still holds that power.”

To rephrase: The World Wide Web arrived at the time of fragmenting social order, the disintegration of a socialist state and the promises and guaranteed to its people. The rave is a public space, too: it has promises of its own, which include a kind of collectivity and brotherhood, but (unlike the nation-state, or the socialist republic) it is temporary, mobile, anonymous. A consideration of the rave can prompt an imagining of what kind of public space the internet is: how people come together, what borders have to do with it, what identity has to do with it, how long does it last, why do people go there.

Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1992. Its top-level domain, .yu, was registered in 1989, and it outlived the country it represented by seventeen years. ICANN let the Serbian administrators of .rs manage.yu until the domain was abolished in 2009. (Meanwhile, .su—the top-level domain for the Soviet Union, which was registered 1990, fourteen months before the Soviet Union collapsed—continues to exist, as domain-holders lobby ICANN to keep it alive.) Perhaps the news of the expiration of .yu prompted AD to buy up her name in .rs, .si, etc. Now she’s let this international collection of domains expire. Maybe the cost was too much? But the purchase of the domains can easily survive as a story like the one I’m telling: all you have to do is list the URLs—aleksandradomanovic.sk, aleksandradomanovic.rs, aleksandradomanovic.si, aleksandradomanovic.eu—and they mean something. When I go there I get a DNS error. So will .yu

“I Don’t Always Like Being in My Videos”

“Ben Coonley,” I said, “when did you start filming yourself?”

“It started in the home,” Ben said. “When I was ten my family got a VHS camcorder and my friends and I would act in each others’ videos. We made little narratives (endless ketchup-soaked parodies/sequels to Psycho) but most of the time we would just goof around in the basement and show off for/to the camera. This continued through high school, when my friends and I had a cable access show which looked kind of like Global Groove crossed with a bad imitation of The Kids in the Hall.’”

“Why did you continue to point the camera at yourself when you grew up?” I asked.

“It would be nice to say it has something to do with theoretical interests in the video medium and unraveling its narcissistic inscription of subjects,” Ben said. “But the real reasons are probably a combination of poor organization (which makes it difficult for me to set up shoots with other people), a lack of confidence in my ability to direct others… and maybe some residual exhibitionist thrill carried over from pre-adolescence that’s been reinforced by years of pointing the camera at myself. I’m not always in my videos, you know… I don’t always like being in my videos.”

“Yeah it can be weird,” I said. “You’ve incorporated some of the videos you made in your childhood in your exhibitions and screenings. Is there any difference recording yourself as a child and as an adult? Or to put it another way, do you ever feel like there’s something infantilizing about performing for the camera?”

“I’ve only shown excerpts from childhood videos in exhibitions and screenings a few times, and it’s always been for a specific event where I think I’m going to know a lot of the people there,” Ben said. “But to answer your question, I don’t think it has to be infantilizing. For me, I guess I do trace the exhibitionist thrill of performing for the camera back to adolescent experiences. So… yes.”

It was time for me to shift the conversation a bit, to get to the point. “One of the things that interests me about your work is that video performance is something of a female-coded medium,” I said. “Or at least, video performance and photographic self-portraiture have been dominated by women. And I think this is partly because the video camera came into use in a period when women were (are) the default object of the camera.”

“Hmm,” Ben said. “Are you building toward a thesis about how male performance videos are trading in some sort of sexist assumptions about what it means to be put in front of a camera? I kind of want to hear more about your theory before I inadvertently support or undermine it.”

“Well it’s something I’m still working out but I think it’s less of a ‘trade in sexist assumptions’ than an abnegation of some of the privileges of masculinity,” I said.

“I think it’s a theory you should pursue,” Ben said.

“Ok thanks,” I said, and went on: “It’s like ceding a measure of authority or subjectivity to the camera—which is something that women are expected to do to a greater extent than men. And since ‘straight white male’ is basically the default identity of the artist there’s something weird about that identity being thematized or foregrounded. It seems to me that since Vito Acconci male artists have turned the camera on themselves as a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation… It’s a kind of loser aesthetics.”

“Acconci’s complicated though, no?” Ben replied. “You think he’s the origin of this tradition? Acconci’s videos oscillate between self-abasement and self-aggrandizement. It’s hard for me to think of him as interested in ‘loser aesthetics.’ I think self-abasement and self-deprecation are different things. And plenty of female artists performing for the camera trade in some kind of self-deprecation and self-abasement. But I can go along with the idea that there’s a strand of self-deprecating male performance on video, especially with artists interested in comedy. A lot of losers. There’s William Wegman, Mike Smith, Joe Gibbons, Jeremy Bailey…”

“Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Ronnie Bass…” I interrupt. “As you say, a lot of the artists who do this are interested in comedy. But the results aren’t just funny haha. They’re funny strange. Matthew Barney is arguably the most macho of video performance artists—but even when he gets in front of the camera he puts stuff up his butt and dresses like a monster.”

“Are they (or we) a phenomenon though?” Ben asks.

“Maybe you are a phenomenon,” I said. “Or maybe I’m just trying to make you one. Haha. I wanted to talk about your Valentine for Perfect Strangers, which was about putting yourself—and I mean “yourself” in the generalizing second person, not necessarily you, Ben Coonley—online, about the risks and rewards of objectifying yourself in an image. Can you tell me about why you made it?”

“In late 2005, I was asked by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter to make an e-card about love for a Valentine’s Day show they were promoting,” Ben said.  “The video was originally going to be a Flash-animated e-card. But in the process of researching how to distribute an e-card, I came across YouTube, which still felt new and exciting in 2005. Aside from its scale and global reach, one of the novel things about exhibiting on YouTube—as opposed to showing work in theaters or cable access TV or whatever—was that all these amateurs were directly addressing an audience comprised of individual users sitting in close proximity to the screen. So it was a very intimate one-way form of exhibitionism with a slim-but-tantalizing chance of reciprocity in the form a video responses from a viewer. (At that point YouTube was encouraging ‘video responses’ from viewers.) So I wanted the video to be about this new exhibition arrangement and the psychology of putting yourself on camera on YouTube.

“When I started to make the e-card/video, I had just moved to a very small apartment with my cat, Otto, who was a feral rescue. Otto wasn’t taking the move very well. He’d do laps around the apartment all night long, running right on top of me while I lay in bed, knocking over the TV, clawing up the doorframes, tearing up papers, etc. He was a shitty roommate, the Balki to my Larry.  I concluded that the only way we could continue to live together would be if I made him feel “safe and loved.” So I was trying very hard to empathize with him. And part of that process was to make him the ‘author’ of this video. Personifying Otto actually worked really well! We got along much better after Valentine for Perfect Strangers.

“And as for Perfect Strangers, that was a show about this physically comedic binary, which I saw as a parallel to me and Otto, or like the first-person creator of a YouTube video and its viewer. I also have some sentimental attachments to that show. My childhood friends and I had made a parody of it in which both Balki and Larry get stabbed to death. So using the theme song and clips from the show in the valentine was also about imbuing general feeling of nostalgia…and yearning, searching for completeness across a distance.”

Thanks Ben ❤

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.

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.