Tag Archives: social media

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.

Publics of the Toilet

 

{NOTE: In October I started writing a Yelp review about apexart. After writing the first two sentences I realized I could turn it into a submission to their annual Unsolicited Proposals contest, which was being advertised at the time. I figured it didn’t have a great chance of winning but wrote it anyway, knowing that I could at least use it as a blog post. Maybe I will also write and post the Yelp review but I was planning to give them two stars and after ranking 87th in their contest it might come off as sour grapes so maybe I won’t.}

apexart is the only non-profit exhibition space in New York that doesn’t let visitors use the restroom. Artists Space, White Columns, Art in General, the museums–they all have places where people can relieve themselves. But not apexart!

This is a banal observation. But it offers an opening onto a series of questions about how architectural environments demonstrate concern (or disregard) for the needs of life. In her book Museum Bodies, museologist Helen Rees Leahy cites mid-nineteenth-century accounts of women fainting at the British Museum due to a lack of lavatories. It’s part of an investigation into how museums have always regulated bodies and prescribed physical behavior–a missing prologue, as it were, to Brian O’Doherty’s celebrated critique of the white cube and its erasure of life from the space of art. The situation at apexart is relevant not only to traditions of disembodied gallerygoers but also to the conditions of neoliberal citycraft. The number of public restrooms in New York per capita is vanishingly small. Does a body only truly materialize in urban space when it becomes a paying customer at a commercial establishment? When nature calls today’s flaneur, must he answer it at Starbucks? Municipal responsibility for the people’s bodily needs, as for so much else, has been delegated to corporate persons, the managers of privately owned public spaces. Meanwhile, on the privately owned public spaces of the internet, potty talk flourishes. Recently I saw this tweet: “i like toilet paper commercials cuz theyre about touching buttholes but never come out and say ‘this is the best for touching buttholes'” If you look at Amazon reviews of toilet paper, however, touching buttholes is all anyone talks about. Perhaps the physical body in the museum or in the city is less spectral than its grotesque, collectively carnivalized online counterpart, which weaves through the network’s nodes like an endlessly unspooling roll of Charmin.

“Publics of the Toilet” is an exhibition project that attempts to address these issues. The gallery will be used for a series of readings, performances, screenings, and talks; participants in these events will include artists and writers concerned with abjection and social being, the circulation and management of bodies in public space, andtoilet humor, broadly construed. Rather than displaying artworks, I will fill the gallery walls with “bathroomreading”–clippings of jokes, anecdotes, poems and bits of text selected in consultation with the exhibition’s participants. Last but not least, I plan to temporarily fix the lack of a public restroom at apexart. A large part of the exhibition budget will be spent on the rental and maintenance of a portable toilet, to be installed in the gallery for the exhibition’s duration. (Maintenance should not be too difficult, as I doubt many visitors will avail themselves of the john.)

[speculative list of possible participants has been redacted]

Alt Lit’s Limp Dicks

 

{NOTE: This post is distilled from notes for a lecture I gave at Outpost Artist Resources in Ridgewood, NY, in June 2013, for an event series organized by David Wightman. I prepared this version for Next Time, a publication edited by David Geer and Isaac Pool,  and I’m giving a related presentation at the Next Time Symposium, organized by Colin Self, taking place Nov. 14-17 at Envoy Enterprises in New York.}

 

“i told you… i wanna get my dick stuck in a whisk,” the poet Steve Roggenbuck says in one of his videos. “i don’t know how its gonna happen but i know that’s what i want.” And, elsewhere, he writes: “i hope a bird peck’s my dick.”

“i could smash this computer with my dick,” writes Spencer Madsen in a poem posted to his Tumblr, but equivocates: “i could smash my dick with this computer”

Jordan Castro starts his poem “weak” by describing his failure to suck his own dick and ends with these lines:

i have tried giving a piece of my penis to everyone,

so as not to be discriminatory or

hierarchical or

something 

but my penis was not strong enough.

‘is my penis inadequate’

‘who will nurture an inadequate penis like mine’

 

All of these guys are affiliated with alt lit. Alt lit means different things to different people. Last time I checked the Wikipedia definition highlighted the following features, all of which seem pretty uncontroversial:

“social media-based creative community”

“sharing of Gmail chat logs, memes, macros, screenshots, and computer generated art are also popular”

“the harnessing of the possibilities offered by internet for the creation and publication of literature, and by extension, the associated surrounding community and standard culture”

 

I would define somewhat more specifically, as a kind of writing that affirms an embodied presence in social media. It’s a kind of writing that understands language as a fundamental material aspect of how humans live in the world—a sensibility that connects it to other, older kinds of writing concerned with language’s materiality. But alt lit not only collapses distinctions between language and bodily functions—it also projects said collapse into the telecom technologies used to convey words across great distances at high speeds. Alt lit inscribes bodies into social media.

Alt lit tends to look unpolished, which produces a double impression of language’s physical immediacy and the immediacy of how social media spreads it. Alt lit can be silly, stupid sounding, flatly phrased, or just plain bad. Roggenbuck’s signature move is intentionally misspelling a lot of words, as if they’re just pouring out as fast as he can clumsily move his fingers on the keyboard—as if he doesn’t have the time or the need to use spellcheck. When he’s talking in his videos he blurts crazed phrases like the ones I quoted above—as if they spurt from his mouth like so much spittle. Words are abject emissions from the body—like drool, shit, or sweat—and social media is where words leave visible traces—like those fluids do on bodies or clothes.

Why do Roggenbuck & co. talk about their poor dicks so much? To me, it conjures the specter of the “crisis of masculinity”(AKA the “end of men”) that we keep hearing about. I think the sense of crisis stems from the bourgeois white guy’s loss of his status as political subject par excellence. Not because women, blacks, queers and the rest have gained visibility—but because the ideal political subject now is not a human at all. It’s a corporation. (An aside: The shift to corporate power has made visibility available to non-white-male persons on the condition that they make themselves available as consumer demographics.)

Of course white guys still occupy most of the positions of power reserved for humans because corporate power is an apotheosis of characteristics that bourgeois society long ago linked to whiteness and maleness—things like reason, calculating intelligence, emotionless “objectivity,” competitive strength, and so on. By embodying these characteristics, anyone can align themselves with corporate power. Though straight white men seem to do it most effortlessly. Technology is rationality. Rationality is a phallus.

Look at the NSA—using the technological apparatus developed by America’s corporate subjects to penetrate the private life of the multitude. Any threat to the authority of this dick reads as terrorism. (Roggenbuck: “my cock keeps growing and the government is not happy about it.”) Last summer, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I saw a tweet about some pro-government article titled “Why Leaks Hurt”—the tweeter joked that it could have come from a urology journal. Leakage is a compromised dick—the cheesy, burning discharge of the NSA leak externalizes the corruption within the body of the state.

Leaking is a gonorrheal model of political resistance. Those of us without security clearances can’t be bugs in the body of the state, like Snowden or Chelsea Manning, but we can be bugs on and around the body of the state. There’s gonorrheal resistance and there’s the pubic lice resistance. Look at Occupy—power was effectively frightened by a parasitic relationship that made privately-owned public space (the site of collusion of corporate and state power) into a host to be infested.

Isn’t that something like what happens when people fill the bright fields of social media with the sad details of their slob lives?

(Crispin Best: “she said i kissed like i’d never kissed anyone”)

Eileen Myles wrote a critique of conceptual poetry in the May 2013 issue of the online poetry journal Volta, which included the line: “Poetry’s where men get to feel like women always feel.” Feeling like a woman means feeling the vulnerability of being alive. (Andrea Dworkin: “The stigma, finally, is in that alone: the old-time weakness of the flesh; needing and wanting alive like exposed nerve endings, desire being coldly demanding, not sloppy and sentimental.”)

The perfect Facebook user isn’t fleshy. He becomes exchangeable, bodiless, a source of data and little else, without the friction or resistance produced by bodies—just a linear timeline of events like jobs and easily described relationships (the progression of the drop-down menu from “single,” “in a relationship,” “engaged,” “married,” preferably without dabbling in the messy options below them, i.e. “It’s complicated”).

A disavowal of this apparatus is a disavowal the hardon—an abnegation of dick. So it’s no coincidence that alt lit—a kind of writing that reminds us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions, a reminder of the sensitivity of words and flesh—is full of tormented dicks, tiny dicks, limp dicks.

A Selfie Is Not a Portrait

Selfies may be taken promiscuously and gratuitously but that doesn’t mean that the word “selfie” should be too. A selfie is not any picture of yourself but a picture of you that you’ve taken yourself, with your phone, or maybe looking into your computer’s webcam—the picture is taken with a device that is capable of distributing it on a network almost immediately, and the picture shows the same device (if it’s a phone pointed at a mirror) or at least reveals the body’s relationship to the device through a certain shape of posture: the face tilted toward the laptop’s surface, an arm outstretched as it holds the phone at a distance, or a bent shoulder if the phone is held more closely. This is how the selfie inscribes a body into a network—this is how it asserts a body’s connection to others through a network via their respective devices. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.” Jenna Wortham wrote in “My Selfie, Myself,” a recent feature in the New York Times. The selfie is phatic: it’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry—both components of face-to-face interactions—to telecommunications.

A selfie is not a portrait. A portrait is a flat monument. Like a bust or a full-body statue, a portrait (whether painted on canvas or shot by a photographer) partially extracts the sitter from her life. Portraiture asserts the sitter’s significance—it says she deserves to be inscribed in history. A great portrait, whether painted or photographed, conveys its maker’s awareness of his task and the contradictions inherent in it this task: the promise and the impossibility of immortality. A great portrait reveals the ripeness and vulnerability of the sitter’s body, both in the way it depicts his flesh and in the inclusion of a memento mori, wilting flowers, or some fruit about to rot. Time will kill him. His image will outlive him. The same is true for the self-portrait: the artist has to find a distance from herself, to step outside her body in order to think about its mortality.

A selfie is not monumental. It doesn’t inscribe its maker in history; it inscribes him in a networked present. Can a selfie be art? I think so, but it would entail discarding the conventions of subjecthood of the public sphere both for artists and for art—the artist as a singular figure creating singular works of art—and instead thinking of art as an everyday activity. Even as an everyday activity, though, art would still have to retain a certain complexity and openness of relations—the qualities that allow an image to outlive the body in it, integrated in life. I think Jessica Ciocci’s selfies on Instagram are art. Her face and body acquire grimaces, poses, wigs and outfits in in her selfies, and she posts five or six or a dozen of them consecutively; the angles are weird, mirrors and frames cut her off. Charlie Chaplin made his movements stiff and distinct, to mimic the way film breaks reality into many still images and then reconstitutes them as motion—but Jessica Ciocci’s selfies do the opposite, revealing a fluidity of the body against the cut squares of Instagram and in doing so she situates social media in the movement of ordinary, everyday life. Jesse Darling’s selfies are art, too. She tends to take them in airports or airplanes or gallery bathrooms or chain coffeehouses—a liquid embodied presence in the junkspace of the global city, a grim expression and a gaze directed at the phone (not the receiver of the image) speaking to an anxiety about the affective labor demanded of her and her resigned acquiescence.

Jesse Darling was one of the artists included in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery,” a project organized by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina for the Moving Image Art Fair in London. I like the coinage “selfie portrait.” It sounds to me like a suggestion of an image that draws its characteristics from both the selfie and the portrait, but isn’t quite either one, or maybe it’s a new kind of portrait, where the conventional signifiers of fleshly vulnerability and fleeting life are replaced by references to the ephemeral, phatic time of social media. And maybe that’s what was happening in the works featured in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.” But that’s not how Chayka presented it in his statements about the project. “The concept of the selfie is as old as art history—selfies are simply self-portraits, the same as works created by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Masaccio and others,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “The original selfies were painted or drawn self-portraits. Albrecht Durer created his own as early as the 15th century. From there, selfies evolved with the different media used to make art.” Chayka’s equation of selfie with self-portrait is as stupid as Blake Gopnik’s identification of Picasso’s Cubism with an Instagram filter, on the basis that both change the way one sees an image, which naturalizes the conventions, respectively, of realist painting and cell-phone photography—but I digress. Chayka’s erasure of distinctions among mediums makes does a disservice to the artists he’s showing—he fails to identify what makes their work special. It’s also a disservice to himself as a curator—why is he showing these works? In Chayka’s explanations, the selfie becomes meaningless beyond its instrumentalization as an engine of attention, a buzzword that draws coverage. Something similar is happening in art magazines, as they use the selfie to leech some of the excitement of social media, and delay their own deterioration as organs of mass media. Art in America recently asked me to submit a selfie for a “mass portrait” of the art world (I refused, rather obnoxiously, because the request didn’t recognize me as a maker or theorist of selfies, they just wanted me to be one face among many), and I heard that Art Review’s upcoming “Power 100” issue will feature pictures of the members of its list with “staged selfies.” Spontaneity is discarded, and what’s left? A plea for attention. Most of the time when you read about selfies in the mass media you learn that every selfie is narcissistic, that every selfie says “look at me.” But that’s just what happens to the selfie when it’s taken out of context.

Notes from the Studio Wall

 

{In August 2013 I was a resident at the Shandaken Project. I made some sketches and notes on the wall of my studio there. These are the notes}

 

the corporate subject grasps the

public sphere, it is his

Property,

he wants to establish its/his

Vectors in the Common Blob of

Social Media but it absorbs

and dissolves them..

Rather, it cannot dissolve them

but it dirties them—sullies

them with its slop

 

the vectors are the apparatus…

the apparatus establishes relations

 

the apparatus—

the technophallic subject—

penetrates privacy

(rather than absorb

and dissolve and dirty

like the blob)

 

the corporate subject

is fucking privacy

to get access to

bodies

to manage bodies—

to reassert its vectors

of control at an individuated

individualized scale

 

DISCOURSE (the halo of

discourse sheltering

and nurturing

the public sphere)

 

[the public sphere is full of brands]

 

[vectors emanating from the public sphere establish: history; expertise, connoisseurship, judgment; policing discourses in general; social bonds, social relations]

[the Common Blob connects bodies to the public sphere and to privacy:]

the

common

blob

encroaching on the

corporate subject—

it is its abject

 

does it

encroach?

it emits from—

but it is always

perceived as coming

from without—

alien

[postscript: this is the nature of the abject, the subject is horrified by what its body produces]

 

the common blob assaults

both the public sphere and privacy

(because the concept of privacy

is incumbent upon the public sphere)

the blob dissolves the distinction between them—

and them with it

 

the common blob is not

the body but it is

a projection an

emission of bodies

just as the corporate body

is not a body—but a

projection

a sum

(a multiplication)

of relations

among bodies

 

the common blob

is the abject

of the incorporated

body

 

the common blob is not heroic

its people but its nothing

 

[things that are on the border between the territories of the body and of the public sphere:]

cognition

speech

 

[drawing of a body with a limp dick and things that pertain to it:]

taste

equality

sensory perception

pleasure

pain

the abject

 

taste belongs to the body

taste is a sense

 

 

[on Art:]

art is

a projection of a body

into the public sphere

or any public

even

the common blob—

even though there

it is difficult

to recognize

as art

(as we know it)

there, in the blob, art becomes stripped

of the discursive forms

of art

art is revealed as

an equitable relation

 

ART IS

what a body makes

to commicate

with other bodies

by means that outstrip immediate

restrictions on presence

(in time & space)

the things that bind

speech, gesture,

mimicry, movement }

all of which

become

choreographed

framed

ritualized

if they

are to enter

the field of art

 

when art is

incoporated—

when it is made by multiple

bodies

for an ideological purpose

it enters the sphere of

inequitable social relations

money and technologies

of public presentation

such as the

museum

 

but—like a

person who enters

that sphere

it still has places

of vulnerability

that reveal equality

otherwise—

its not real art

otherwise—

they are not real people

 

some may think

the BRAND is

the same as art—

an improvement, an

upgrade

but it’s something else—not art

BRANDS can be used

by art or people

to become something lese

to operate like

the corporate subject

to imitate it, the rules of its discourse

 

[notes on the drawing:]

the smudge

is the abject

of writing

 

enjambment is

the limit

of the hand

when writing

on a wall

while standing

so is stanza length

 

“i really value the personal context around art provided by social media”

A Q&A with Steve Roggenbuck about selfies in anticipation of his forthcoming book, if u dont love the moon your an ass hole: poems and selfies:

Q: I don’t know if you think about things a lot when you tweet them but I’m wondering if you could look at these tweets of yours again and say a few words about why they feel true/right to you:

A: these twets are funny to me because most ppl would say that selfies are nottt providing value that makes the world a better place and are nottt the point of life. i do feel that my selfies are providing value, but its still not nearly the “main point” of lief to me, and not the main way i see myself making the world a beter place. so there mainly to be funny, which is, a form of value that makes the world a better place !!

Q: Your new book is subtitled “poems and selfies.” What do you think putting these two things (categories, genres, whatever) next to each other says about your poems? alternative question, what does it say about your selfies?

A: i really value the personal context provided around someone’s conventional Art (in this case poems) by social media. when u encounter my work online, you dont just get poems, you get my personal updates and images of me, you get my web design and all. it contextualizes the poems and enriches the whole experience, you get my whole personality or at least what i want you to perceive as my personality. you get a more holistic message about the kind of person i am, and if u are influenced by me, you get many more ideas of ways u can be like me. many of my poetry friends and followers have considered veganism more seriously because im vegan and i occasionaly post about it. so the selfies are one tool among many in the ‘personal brand’ toolbox, they help convey my style, my overall ~vibes and personality.. and as a part of that whole, they are very valuable

Q: Isn’t writing in first person basically like taking selfies? or, what can a selfie do that a poem can’t?

A: they are similar yes. selfies are a faster way to convince someone that u are cute

Q: Do you miss MySpace. Did you puts lots of selfies on your MySpace profile? were you taking selfies before you started making videos?

A: yes i miss myspace and i had selfies on myspace. i think we r blessed today with many platforms that are helpin to fill the gap tho, tumblr twitter and instagram most of all. these platforms are providing free and accessible spaces for the youth to express themselve’s holisticly as a personal brand. i think its very fun and awesome that ppl get to express themself in such rich ways.. for example a Tumblr blog, can include original content in so many formats and curated content by others in so many formats, both updated ANYTIME u want, and a visual design, an “about” page, an “ask”/message feature where people can ask u questions and u respond. such a rich space to develop a sense of who u are, what youre about, etc… and the tumblr dashboard, the content feed, is just like, kids are checkin this thing for hours every day, its like the new TV, but its not created or controlled by ad executives, its created by OTHer kids with tumblrs.. with social media we are collectively creating what our culture is… we are living in a very beautiful era in these ways

Q: I just watched your lecture on Boosting Theory & Praxis, and unless I missed it you didn’t mention selfies in it. Do selfies boost and if so, how?

A: one of the most guaranteed ways to boost someone else is to like/fave all their selfies. thats the most direct connection i can think of right now. also like i said about personal brand adding context to art works in general, a selfie could add a context needed for a different post to have more significance /boost to u maybe

Q: here’s a philosophical question for you to ponder: do you take selfies because you’re hot or are you hot because you take selfies?

A: i wish it was entirely the second, but i think both, and i think maybe, you take selfies because you perceive yourself to be hot. ppl are more prone to take selfies when they feel they look good. “o my hair looks good today,” boom, selfie. we are all actively creating these representations of who we are. it’s always been that way, with clothes choices and how u decorate your home, etc.. but this is on another level. i think mostly it’s positive, i think we have an ideal vision of ourselves, and we try to align reality with that vision. i think that is very powerful. this is a lot of the true power of stuff like what im doing, in my opinion.. if i can get a couple hundred/thousand more people to feel like its cool to be spiritual, like its cool to be excited about life, and i start to affect their ideal vision of who they are, then its gonna start to change who they really are. and thats gona effect positive change in the world

8==>

I don’t have a LinkedIn page but if I did it would be filled with dick jokes.

When you get a LinkedIn page you get a LinkedIn Body—it’s you, reconstituted as a linear aggregate of achievement. A LinkedIn Body is made of the ways in which you’ve made money. A LinkedIn Body makes you into money—the contacts and connections are the lubricants of your professional mobility, and you, as a LinkedIn Body and a product on a networked market, are easily exchangeable, measurable in value. LinkedIn contacts aren’t people; people on LinkedIn are contacts. The LinkedIn Body doesn’t sweat or piss but it does shoot out bots—via email—to invite more contacts. The LinkedIn Body is a vessel that incubates new connections in the big collective networked body of LinkedIn.

The LinkedIn Body is promiscuous, and its promiscuity is purely professional—professionally pure. The LinkedIn Body is clear and flowing, transparent, flat, eager to link in to networking opportunities, to register presence in the mobile zones of white-collar labor. The LinkedIn Body is shaped like a slender strip of netting—the more connections it has, the longer and stronger it gets. Its health is measured by its number of contacts. Its orifices are hermetically sealed but its fingers branch out, offering a slim handshake in all directions. Its arms flex the clout of its connections. Its mouth is impenetrable; it shows a tight mesh of white teeth that circles the whole head, its gleam pinging back the query—Are we connecting?

I don’t want to have a LinkedIn Body and this is why I don’t have a page on LinkedIn. This is why, if I did have a page, it would be filled with dick jokes—to poke holes in the fabric of the LinkedIn Body, to peek through its undone flies, to be reminders of the real, pissing body beyond bloodless LinkedIn one: 8==> HI !!

The LinkedIn Body’s look persuades follow professionals that it never has funny thoughts about dicks. Or if it does it keeps them hidden, just as—on the streets or in the office—it conceals its dick in khakis. The LinkedIn Body’s dick fucks its wife and doesn’t try anything funny. The LinkedIn dick—encased in pleated khakis—only shares its funny dick thoughts in an AFK location like a men’s room where the only ones who can hear them are a couple other LinkedIn dicks who can be trusted not to perforate the condom of integrity encasing their LinkedIn dick buddy.

What does Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, have to say about this? “You have one identity,” says Zuckerberg. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

What Zuckerberg is saying here is that he thinks we should all have LinkedIn Bodies. No—he thinks the LinkedIn Body should be the only body we have. Co-workers—no, “work friends”—might as well be the only people you know. LinkedIn makes everyone a “contact”; Facebook treats people the same way but makes them “friends.” Friends are friends, kin are friends—you can identify husbands, wives, siblings, cousins on your profile to single a few people out as more than friends but they still count toward your total number of friends. And Facebook connects you to hundreds of friends. Facebook dresses up the strangeness of LinkedIn Bodies in the gooey warmth of friendship. But in spite of that it still shapes bodies as flat, grasping, eager—monstrous.

What does Chris Poole, founder of 4Chan, have to say about this? “Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror,” says Poole. “But in fact, we’re more like diamonds.” He means we have a body that’s not a LinkedIn Body—but we have to hide parts of it at times. We’re like diamonds, he says, but Poole’s diamonds oddly reflect light from only one facet at a time: a facet for Facebook, a facet for 4Chan, more facets for other places. “Anonymity is authenticity,” says Poole. “It allows you to share in an unvarnished, unfiltered, raw and real way.”  The truest facet is the hidden one—the dark side of the moon.

4Chan is a community of affinities of what the LinkedIn Body holds in privacy—a water cooler in the dark. 4Chan lives in symbiosis with the LinkedIn Body. It is the private parts of social media, or a glory hole for them. On 4Chan the dicks aren’t in the khakis. They’re out there! It’s the faces that are clad—in Guy Fawkes-type masks.

Both Zuckerberg and Poole are interested in preserving the social status quo through online communities. If one of them is radical it’s Zuckerberg, who wants to eradicate privacy and make public life—professional life—the whole life.

Zuckerberg’s “integrity” and Poole’s raw and real authenticity are spatial conceptions of selfhood derived from the liberal ideal of the subject—an autonomous agent within a bounding line, acting consciously and consistently as the embodiment of principles. Mirrors or diamonds, the pictures of the self that Zuckerberg and Poole like have hard, definite edges—inorganic and discrete.

A LinkedIn identity—Zuckerberg’s integrity—accommodates growth and change but only along a linear path. The change allowed is change in the sense of professional development, or the stepwise movement down the drop-down menu’s options from “single” to “in a relationship” to “engaged” to “married”—it’s better not to muck around in the grab bag below! Facebook’s Timeline tracks life as a chronicle where, when viewed retrospectively, one thing led to another with the inevitability of linear progression. It disposes with the narrative possibilities of biography that can be open to contingencies and the past possibility of other stories, other paths. The Timeline, like the pruned achievements of the LinkedIn page, is a bounding line, delineating people as agents within a nicely rounded public sphere.

But the remarkable thing about social media is its potential to undermine old conceptions of selfhood, by making space for a record of utterances and images of the body that are immediately public and visible, revealing change and the contingency of selfhood is an unvarnished, unfiltered way, as Poole might say. Social media turns the public sphere inside out, collapses and deflates it—the private mingles with the public in the leftover mess. Zuckerburg would clean up that mess by vacuuming the private parts—my dick jokes!—and discarding them; Poole would like to sift the public from the private and glue them to facets of diamonds to keep them apart. But what’s wrong with being real and raw without anonymity? What’s wrong with the real and raw abject dreck of bodies (selves) being with and changing with one another? “You have one identity,” Zuckerberg says, and he’s right—what he’s wrong about is the shape of it; what he misses is its shapelessness.

You only live once. You have one self, one body—and the contact of your self with the world is bound the position of its body in space in time. But singularity shouldn’t be mistaken for stability or solidity. Positions in space and time are always changing, and the self and the body—though one—are always changing with them, always changing with others. Authenticity is bound up in ideals of stability and consistency, but real and raw authenticity is the truth of change, the reality of multiplicity within singularity, the contingency of life.

Life is what happens around LinkedIn but LinkedIn makes it look like the bit of life it records is the one that matters. Facebook adds a film of friendliness to make it feel like LinkedIn living is all there is to life.

Lots of people feel good about their LinkedIn Bodies; lots of people are fine with Facebook.

Lots of people out there hate Life.

***

APPENDIX: Sample CV

1984: Made applesauce in pre-school; teacher said not to put plastic knife in mouth; put plastic knife in mouth to eat a tiny bit of apple; cried, not because cut self but because disobeyed. Skills utilized: Yielding to temptation, crying

1994: Viewed mother’s emaciated corpse. Skills acquired: Skepticism toward medical knowledge, indifference regarding death

1997: Saw therapist weekly; therapist said I only had to talk to him if I wanted to; sat through all sessions in silence; therapist said I didn’t have to keep coming. Skills utilized: Skepticism toward medical knowledge

2000: Did not have sex in twentieth century. Skills acquired: None

2005: Slept with friend’s ex; made people angry. Skills acquired: Rudimentary understanding of emotions associated with romantic relationships

2006: Invited friends over for a small gathering; three guests arrived early and proceeded to have threesome in my bed; tried to get them to stop but could not until other guests rang the buzzer; one of the sex guys ran into bathroom naked and vomited in tub. Skills utilized: None (someone else cleaned the tub for me)

2007: Black eye obtained when beaten by Miami Beach police officer. Skills acquired: Don’t spit at cops even when repeatedly asked: “Do you have AIDS?”

2012-present: Took many selfies. Skills utilized: Social media optimization

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.

Instagram Problems

Whenever you read an article about Instagram you encounter the same set of clichés. I think they are propagated by people who don’t use Instagram, or barely use it—people who don’t really like or understand social media in general.

I’ll list the clichés. You’ll recognize them:

Instagram is nostalgic. Instagram is a wistful and futile resuscitation of photographic tools from the past. It’s retro. Instagram is banal—it’s just people taking pictures of the same things again and again: food, pets, vacation spots, etc. Instagram is fake.

These clichés are fully displayed in a couple of articles that the New Inquiry has published over the last year: Teju Cole’s “Dappled Things” and Matt Pearce’s “Shoot Hip or Die.”

Let’s start with Cole. He’s writing about Gueorgui Pinkhassov, a Russian photographer who lives in France and has an Instagram account. Cole likes Pinkhassov’s Instagram because it’s a rare account that meets his criteria for art.

Comparing the pictures distributed on a social network to art photography is like comparing everyday speech to novels. Not all pictures are paintings and not all sentences are poems. They may be nicely made nonetheless, but that’s for the pleasure of friends, not for posterity.

Cole says that Instagram is full of “pets, pretty girlfriends, sunsets, lunch.” This is a standard complaint but I have a hard time relating to it. I don’t see any of that stuff on Instagram, or if I do then it’s in small doses. Cole seems to suggest that it’s Instagram’s fault that he sees boring pictures there. I think it’s his own fault, for having boring friends.

Cole’s misguided prioritization of the medium over the social relations that it exists to support permeates his critique of Instagram. He wants to condemn it as bad photography. But Instagram isn’t photography. It’s a social media platform. He’s looking for art where he should be looking for good company.

Cole wants images with staying power. But social media isn’t an archive. I think of Instagram images as phatic images, taking a term from linguistics and anthropology. “Can you hear me?” affirms that the channel of communication is open; this is the example that linguist Roman Jakobson gives of the phatic. Bronislaw Malinowski had introduced it earlier, in his anthropological studies of small talk. Jakobson and Malinowski discussed two aspects of the same purpose—confirming contact—though Jakobson was more concerned with speech establishing the physical possibility of communication (again, “Can you hear me?”), while Malinowski was interested in the social possibility (“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 recording the current contents of the tweet’s head, a joke or a musing or whatever. The latter barely count as vehicles of information; mostly, they are there to remind the tweeter’s network of his existence, reaffirming the connection among them. Instagram images are phatic images because they aren’t made to last. They’re made to reaffirm the user’s presence in a network. The phatic image doesn’t need to be archived, unless an archivist determines that there’s a need to do so (even if that archivist is a person making a backup of his Instagram account), in the same way that not everyone’s collection of letters needs to be published as a book. (Snapchat is an ephemeral social media network that epitomizes the logic of phatic images… but I’m talking about Instagram.)

The phatic impermanence of Instagram means it makes little sense to speak of Instagram as “nostalgic.” Cole hates the “fake emotion, unearned nostalgia” of Instagram. But for most people who use Instagram the nostalgia isn’t there.

But while the icon for the app looks like a little square Polaroid camera and some of the filters are named for effects associated with obsolete cameras, most people who actually use Instagram aren’t trying to make new pictures look like old ones, and they don’t care if they accidentally do.

There are always people who do exactly what brand managers want them to do. But they are a minority—a minority overrepresented by people who write about the brands. You don’t have to be an artist or otherwise visually savvy to use Instagram in an off-brand way. Go hashtag surfing and look at all the people who repost “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “bro do you even lift” memes—they’re just using Instagram as they would use any other image-sharing network. And adding filters.

Polaroid only stopped printing film a few years ago. There were people in the 1970s using Polaroids and that wasn’t nostalgic. They just liked the way it looked. People want images that look interesting—better than life—and that usually means an image enriched by noise specific to the means of its production. For the digital photos taken with an iPhone this means the addition of a digital filter, like the ones in Photoshop; and while these are developed in reference to the noise of the Polaroid images those references don’t matter to most users.

Today the Polaroid-inspired filters are largely used not to simulate old instant photos but to compensate for the flaws in the iPhone’s image-making function, for the watery thinness of the pictures it produces. Filters add intensity, contrast, depth, and color. And the ease of this—or rather, the awareness of the potential for manipulation—speaks to a pervasive sophistication about the nature of the digital image. It is fluid, changeable, viewable from a vast variety of perspectives—like people and like words. The awareness of this is very contemporary. There is nothing nostalgic about it.

Like Teju Cole, Matt Pearce is interested in real photography, and this interest is an obstacle to understanding Instagram for what it really is. Pearce and Cole both exalt photography. They love cameras and film and the beautiful, slender objects you can make with them. They are way more nostalgic than anyone who unthinkingly drops a 1977 filter on an iPhone pic.

Given Pearce’s love of photography, it’s strange that he’s so bothered by “fakery.” After all, how can any image be “real”—other than in its reality as an image?

I’m always alarmed when I come across the conceit that a photographic image can show the world as it really looks. Take a look at the world, Matt Pearce! The world doesn’t have four corners. The world isn’t flat. The world has peripheral vision. Its depth is not an optical illusion.

Pearce says he grew up around photography. It was the profession of his dad. It makes sense that he’s nostalgic for it. But it’s strange that he’s oblivious to fakery when he grew up with the lights and backdrops and poses—all the trappings that have always been used to rescue photography from reality. (Cole wrote his piece after Pearce’s, and to his credit, he mentions Pearce and gently criticizes his fetish for veracity: “The filters that Hipstamatic and Instagram provide,” he writes, “are simply modern day alternatives to the dodging and burning that have always been integral to making photographs.”)

Who wants anything to be real? Humans live for fakery. Humans are unlike the other creatures of this world because of language, which makes it possible to represent what is not in the world, and build communities and societies around these representations.

Is it any wonder that a social media application can become successful by producing phatic images that are ostentatiously unreal?

This is an app where pictures are always attached to words. Instead of a darkroom, they pass through the stage where captions and hashtags are added. This is an app where showing things that aren’t in the world becomes a visual equivalent to the phatic utterance. And that’s why people like it.

The Poet’s Materials

{NOTE: Other versions of this text were submitted to Anna Lundh as an essay for her book Visions of the Now, to Angelo Plessas as a contribution to the Eternal Internet Brotherhood, and to Prof. Jacques Lezra as part of a paper for his seminar on Lyric & Abjection. In spite of all that it is still very much a work in progress and in flux.}

What happens to poetry when it meets the internet?

It seems to become fascinated with the materiality of language.

Kenneth Goldsmith offers an explanation for this in Uncreative Writing, with a genealogy that connects the work of conceptual poets (including himself) to the typesetting experiments of Mallarme and Apollinaire, and the later experiments of concrete poets. Language’s materiality was the object of modernist experimentation a hundred years ago but, as Goldsmith says, it is more apparent than ever in these times, thanks to word processors and other agents of language’s digitization. Everyday speech is bound to screens and devices. The accumulation of it generates the construction and expansion of server farms, where deposits of language build up like geological sediment.

In uncreative writing, authorship is the embodiment of copy-and-paste software functions. The selection of material for appropriation is the primary task of the writer. “The context becomes the content,” as Goldsmith’s slogan goes. Language is material and in operating with it the poet becomes a machine. What results from the poet-automaton’s work is a stack of pages. His labor of aggregation replicates in miniature the physical accumulation of information in libraries and server farms. His books mimic the monumental architecture built to house data. And his readers browse the text as if they were wandering through the stacks of a library, or surfing Wikipedia—skimming rather than reading. Goldsmith is to poetry what Rem Koolhaas is to architecture. He litters the landscape with linguistic junkspace and theorizes the autonomy of the body and mind from it. Everything he makes is a surface and he invites his readers to skim over its endless continuity.

This is all very interesting but it entails a limited understanding of what material is. Goldsmith’s metaphors cast language as inorganic and mechanical. Language is concrete—an unnatural mongrel of rocks and clays, a favored foundation of junkspace. But there is another way of looking at it: Language is material because people are material. Our bodies touch, eat, digest, and excrete the world around us. Language is part of how we participate in the metabolism of the world. New habits like checking Twitter while taking a dump (and tweeting about pooping) or vacuuming crumbs from a laptop’s keyboard reflect the incorporation of telecom into the body’s day-to-day cycles. They remind us that utterances issue from the body like abject emissions. They remind us that language is a basic material aspect of our being in the world.

There’s another kind of internet-oriented poetry that implicitly takes this understanding of language and the body as its foundation, and it is known as alt lit. Here’s a poem by Crispin Best as an example:

<begin poem>

*that noise from the start of ‘circle of life’*

hello, assholes

so i am having my first snowball fight of the year

and holy shit it is awesome

tonight i want to tell you that the moon is my favourite kind of indirect light

but instead i’m 5 years old throwing snowballs like i’m 5 years old today

my internal monologue says “nothing rhymes with orange”

and i’m like “wow dumbass no it doesn’t”

i throw a tiny snowball and you catch it in your mouth thirty feet away

so yes i am the spooky janitor character in the direct-to-video movie of your life

and no-one has leaned over and kissed me for a long time

with your gloves on your ears now you are the world’s rarest moose

but i throw a snowball directly up and close my eyes

please god jesus let it land on my head

it doesn’t and you walk over laughing and i feel sad

you take the snowball out of my hood and smash it into my face

snow is cold as shit when you’re 5 and i love it

the last time someone kissed me i could feel their mouth smiling

and i don’t know if that is good

but ok i am a power station in your goddamn countryside tonight

and on a scale of alive we are alive

<end poem>

Hello, assholes! Best starts by turning the body upside down. Greetings come from the mouth and are addressed to other faces but Best redirects it to the ass, to the site of material egress from the body. Of course, “asshole” is an ordinary insult that performs this inversion all the time. But it’s a funny way to start a poem! Seeing that at the top of many lines of text, addressed to everyone who comes across it and yet no one in particular, makes me think of the greeting “Hello world!” that was found at the top of old web sites or HTML documents. It’s like Best is saying that the world of the web is a world of asses. Networks and bodies are equal as ways of connecting to the word. The blog that the poem is on plumps like a booty.

“hello assholes” is a nice prelude to the lumpy fluidity of time and space in the poem that follows. Best is a little boy and at the same time he’s a little man. He’s remembering something and he’s alive in the memory (“i am the spooky janitor in the direct-to-video movie of your life”). The “tonight” of his present merges with his childhood in the telling, which is delivered in a tone that is both naively child-like and youthfully insecure, a tone that easily accommodates both the description of the snow on his face, “cold as shit,” and the account of a recent instance when he was kissed and felt a worrisome smile on the woman’s mouth. The sensations of the distant snowball fight are so crisp that he feels them as viscerally in the “now” of the poem as he did in his childhood. Affect hugs physical feeling so hard that the shapes of them blend and become indistinct from each other; the coldness of the snowballs coincided with his earliest feelings of attraction to a girl, and that is what brings the coldness to the skin as he writes a love poem now. Sensation, memory, and poetry fuse in a single experience, an experience permeated with the feeling of being doubly alive.

*pause*

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith talks about a question he found in a popular magazine: Who could be the Andy Warhol of poetry? He promptly dismisses it. Warhol was unique, and he belonged to a specific historical moment. And yet Goldsmith follows this dismissal with an in-depth discussion of Warhol as a genius of unoriginality, a guru of appropriation that conceptual poets should emulate today. The implicit argument is that uncreative writing is literature’s Pop art, and Goldsmith is its Warhol. I wish he had stuck with his original dismissal! The conditions of culture have changed too much for Warhols to be of much importance now. In the sixties it was exciting for people to become machines, to coolly reproduce images and affects, to artfully mold their self-presentation. “I want to be a machine,” Warhol famously said, and he did this by making his body artificial (wigged, made-up) and untouchable, rarely eating or expressing emotion in public. He conceived of ways for people to consume brands and to be consumed by brands through the production of personal branding. His ideas captured the popular imagination and saturated it. Now Warholian self-design has become part of everyday life. Cool people want to have personal brands. LinkedIn members perform a zombified corporate version of the same act.

Why is it interesting for artists and poets to mechanically operate words and signs in a time when we carry computers in our pockets to do this for us? What’s more interesting is how that constant proximity to machines generates a visceral flow of language in and out of them all the time. Our material engagement with the world and with other people is mediated by networked computers, and yet it’s not fully determined by them. Our modes of engagement aren’t exactly equal to the computer’s. The constant proximity of machines reminds us that we’re not machines—that we’re weird and hungry and messy and queer and lonely and gross in ways that they (the machines) can’t be.

This is why self-design is less interesting than the selfie. Self-design makes a big, legible version of the self, while the selfie is its diminutive. It is the abject residue of personhood’s digital molting, images shed in square, flat flakes like bits of a snake’s skin. With the selfie, social media sites facilitate a naked openness of the self as it changes and grows. The personal brand flounders and drowns in the swampy reality of personhood. The poetry of Steve Roggenbuck is the literary voice of selfie. If there is a Warhol of poetry today then it’s Steve, who invigorates literature by being Warhol’s opposite.

Roggenbuck’s early poems—such as his online chapbook i am like october when i am dead—mix utterance, physical sensation, and affective impulse in their representation of the urgency and truth of feeling, as in Best’s poem above. But what really boosted Roggenbuck to prominence was not so much the poems themselves as his social media presence, amplified by the videos he put on his YouTube account. The first videos were documents of him reading his own poetry to the camera with some background music. Later ones had a life of their own as short films. this is how we live in this world (NICE.. THIS VIDOE IMPROVED MY WORLD OUTLOOK) shows Roggenbuck in the bedroom of a suburban home, like so many teen vloggers who make themselves the object of their webcams in their search for an audience. But he distinguishes himself from the masses of YouTube confessionalists with his rapid editing and his weird, weirdly self-abasing invective. YouTube makes him an object and he eagerly makes himself abject. “whip me with a shop dick,” he shouts, whatever that means. “bleach my cock pubes white. […] i want lightning to come down and strike my dick.”

There are cuts from the house to the Target—from the standard, angular white walls of suburban domesticity to the organized aisles of big-box commerce. Through editing the two spaces blend together. It’s all junkspace. But unlike the uncreative writer, who skims over the surface of junkspace on a cloud of conceptual wit, the alt lit poet writhes and jerks around in it, confronting the differences between junkspace and the body. (In the last third of “this is how we live in this world,” Roggenbuck falls silent, and he joins a couple of friends as they run through a meadow near a lake and the wind tousles their hair—bodies playing in nature and feeling it on themselves.) Roggenbuck edits a lot, and he’s clearly aware of the complex relationships between the rhythms produced by the editing software and the rhythms of his audience’s bodies, between the lens of his camera and his audience’s eyes. But he’s not trying to make the machine functions blend seamlessly with the actions of the body, like Goldsmith does when he makes conceptual poems. Roggenbuck is pushing them apart, so you’re not looking at the effects of the machine. You’re left looking at life.

Mira Gonzalez, another alt lit poet, tweeted: “i want to pee on a lot of things, which would be problematic if i was a dog bc dogs pee on things for ownership & i don’t like owning things”. I actually don’t think this would be problematic. Dogs aren’t capitalists. Dogs don’t think of owning things like we do. Maybe for dogs, peeing is like tweeting. It marks an affinity to the peed-on object (the words) but what matters more to the dog is that the affinity is public and known to other dogs (it’s online). Gonzalez (or Roggenbuck, or Crispin Best) doesn’t want to own her tweets—she wants to emit them in public space of Twitter. Alt lit poets are like dogs who shit and piss in a public park.

Alt lit is caca poopoo. Seriously—a lot of it is really bad. But so what? Roggenbuck wrote in a manifesto: “what we are doing is bigger than and aside from abstract ideas of literary merit. we are making each others lives better.” Alt lit’s social priorities (which exceed, or are equal to, its aesthetic priorities) are articulated in Roggenbuck’s ideas about “boosting”: The purpose of making art is to incite other people to make art. Poetry only matters insofar as it impels others to join a community of poets. The notion of “creativity” has been appropriated wholesale by the industries of advertising and marketing to designate the rearrangement and repetition of formulas for selling products and services (and I think the corporatization of creativity is partly responsible for Goldsmith’s revulsion toward the concept). But alt lit recasts creativity as a primal urge to make something beautiful, not just for the sake of making it but for the enjoyment of it in the context of social being, for the sake of feeling alive. When Roggenbuck tweeted “I LOV TO APRECIATE THE ANIMALASPECT’S OF LIEF SUCH AS SEX, POOP, AND EAT” he wasn’t just making the abject reality of his body (of life) an aesthetic object, worthy of loving appreciation; he was making writing a reality of his abject body.

Uncreative writing—in the monumentality and deliberate boringness of the texts it produces—is always referring obliquely to the unreadability of the internet. The bigness of the appropriated text in the work of an uncreative writer discourages readers from actually reading the work, just as the internet is too big to ever be read in full, and we have to filter through it with algorithms and hierarchies and other conceptual apparatuses of organization. Language is a material detritus to be “shovelled, reshaped, hoarded, molded… discarded,” as Goldsmith writes. The concept is what’s left.

Alt lit has its own kind of unreadability. The output of it is massive, and most of it is lost in the vast and unwieldy non-archive of social media—all those status updates, tweets, and Tumblr posts occupying bytes in some remote server. Alt lit only matters if you’re online and reading it as it happens—just like the way that conversational speech only matters if you’re physically present when it’s spoken. Alt lit thrives in social media, and it invigorates social media by amplifying the feeling of presence and participation in it. It’s the poetry of bodies engaged in technologically mediated social being. Living in and against the networks that support it, the creativity of alt lit appears as an everyday bodily function, as regular and as vital as sex, poop, and eat.