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‘The Piano Etudes Project’ A Space for Play

One of my older brothers played a stand-up bass, and unlike my brother I had no formal musical training. The musical notation that my brother could read and the instrument itself were part of a closed, mysterious and privileged society from which I was excluded. But still, I loved to flail away on the thing.

The Piano Etudes project by Jason Freeman, with Akito Van Troyer and Jenny Lin, is a move towards opening the forbidden city of musical composition. The project is based on piano etudes, musical compositions in which the pianist can rearrange connections between some open form pieces. Site visitors are invited to create their own etudes from four short compositions by Jason Freeman. Each etude is transcribed graphically into something that resembles an organizational chart. Each visual component of the chart has a corresponding audio note pattern. The pitch of a note pattern is roughly indicated by the height of a horizontal bar that is part of the graphic. A site user can select graphic elements and arrange them on a time-line to hear the resulting sound piece. Pieces created on the site can be saved and transcribed into musical notation so that pianists can perform pieces created by site visitors.

The Piano Etudes site interface is easy to use. Making the connection between what is possible musically on the site and the visual interface takes a bit of play. But then playing seems to be very much the point of the Piano Etudes project.

Diagram of etudes

Two things that strike me straight off about using visual graphic elements to compose music digitally are remix and re-mediation. The Piano Etudes project invites us to remix the works, to make a new composition from components of the original. Ironically the tradition of open-form musical scores continues in digital mash-ups and other forms of remixing.

Remixing is an admission that all creative product is indebted to other works in some way, and unlike most of the remixing done in the Wild West of popular digital music, in the Piano Etudes site the remixing is done with the authors’ assent and encouragement.

The Piano Etudes project also asks users/composers to re-mediate, to re-write one text in another, completely different medium. Here the musical score becomes visual elements that can be arranged within a rectangular space. The visual mode of composing opens the creative process to those untrained in reading musical scores. That the product – the composition – can then be re-mediated again as musical script, and again re-mediated when performed by a pianist is an amazing expression of digital technology making a creative space.

There are similar spaces for digital composing that do not require formal musical training, the most recognizable being the GarageBand application. The YouTube Symphony Orchestra was competitively constituted by applications/auditions submitted via YouTube. The Pete-Townsend affiliated site and application Method Music (now defunct) came close to offering the kind of creative space for composing music digitally that Piano Etudes makes available. Along the lines of GarageBand and Method music, many of the “opportunities” to create music on the Web are commercial pitches to purchase licensed applications. The free and collaborative nature of the Piano Etudes seems to be quite different.

What makes this project truly wonderful and distinct from other approaches to creating music digitally is that this is a shared creative space. The inherently social nature of the web allows for creative collaboration that dissolves many of the obstacles to creative practices: differences in education, training, language, location, culture and economic status become valuable distinctions among contributors that inform the creative process rather than impede it.

My brother’s stand-up bass offered an opportunity to create something musically, it was a solitary experience, since my playing was dependent on my brother being away from our house. And the product of my flailing away on the bass could be thought of as illegitimate, since I lacked training in music. The Piano Etudes project I feel, values the creative possibilities in us for musical expression. The site also validates those musical expressions by making them available and performative. What is perhaps most valued by the Project Etudes project is play; to discover, to learn and to create through experiences that are enjoyable and interesting – kind of like banging on my brother’s bass fiddle but much more fun, more social and more generative.


Special thanks to Turbulence for hosting this web site and including it in their spotlight series and to the American Composers Forum’s Encore Program for supporting several live performances of this work. I developed the web site in collaboration with Akito Van Troyer. Piano Etudes is dedicated to my wife, Leah Epstein. Jason Freeman.

Web Cinema: Alone together with Chris Marker in Second Life

Web cinema is an oxymoron. The internet is a resource; a hilariously unreliable encyclopedia for a distracted population amusing themselves to death as Richard Feynman has written – and all by themselves together. The new “web cinema” furthers none of the real time phenomenon of engaging with the seventh art. Bite sized videos on a computer screen actually remove the viewer from the energy and participation inherent in the original motion picture viewing experience. As dull as endless hours of someone else’s home movies – web cinema creations are typically viewed by one person watching a computer monitor in an endless possibility of environments. The very essence of cinema involves company, darkness and a communal experience.

web cinema creations are typically viewed by one person watching a computer monitor in an endless possibility of environments

The actual successor to the seventh art is Second Life. The enigmatic French cineaste and sociopolitical rabble rouser Chris Marker has been offering up his home movies for six decades now. At 87 he has led the charge out of the heady 16mm revolutionary 60’s of Parisian student unrest into the subdued society of blinking solitary screens that incite mass hypnosis via YouTube today. Second Life is the perfect realm for Mr Marker to further his socially conscious antics. While newcomers to the moving image who may never have spliced a real piece of film let alone toiled at a steenbeck lay claim to being the future of “web cinema”, Chris Marker has moved on and taken the foundations of cinema experience with him into Second Life. As a new medium Second life is not an extension of human experience like Youtube or Facebook it is an alternate collective experience in the spirit of film viewing.

Monsieur Guillaume

Image: Monsieur Guillaume, photo by Bettina Tizzy

Famously elusive, Marker can engage people with remove in this alternate reality. While Marker stays put in Paris – his avatar traveling to points infinite in Second Life – he continues to have a presence in our actual reality through his recently appointed live action avatar Thomas Vuille. Vuille, the creator of serial Parisian graffiti cats has been rocketed out of obscurity into the public domain as a result of Marker’s interest. A collaboration made in cyber heaven, Marker’s attraction to Vuille’s anarchic art practice started with the resemblance he saw to his own cat Guillaume. Marker’s homage to Guillaume, “Cat listening to music” is the original and probably the most sublime YouTube home movie or “web cinema” ever created. Thomas’ enchanting graffiti cat has taken Marker’s subject back into the real world to continue his heroic journey while Chris ventures deeper into the virtual world to further the artistic discipline of cinema. Just as cinema propels us into a place that feels intensely real but is only a representation experienced collectively so – in spite of real time connections – Second Life has the potential to further the collective cinematic experience by creating a space for parallel experience.

Chris Marker first appeared in Second Life in the company of his longtime guide, Monsieur Guillame, a cat and a furry entity at the opening of his exhibit l’Ouvroir. On Tuesday, March 11th, 2007 at 11am SLT / 19:00 CET, in conjunction with a Real Life exhibition in Zurich, Switzerland, at the Museum Gestaltung. Marker exists in this cyber realm in much the same way as he has in the real world – only occasionally venturing out of his virtual hiding place. The site is still active but you may knock at his cyber door for hours if not months without a real interaction. He is there and he is not.


Image: Ouvroir, photo by Barbara Binder

Just as he was and is in his films, Marker is there through the creation of the work but absent in the experience of it. Marker’s highly regarded meditations on the state of our existence, including the infamous short film La Jetee, have mellowed into playful observations of our lunatic society through the eyes of a cleverly positioned graffiti cat who echoes Marker’s own feline amour “Guillaume”. Featured in such video art classics as “Cat listening to music” Marker’s cat has been reborn on the streets of Paris and the world and redrawn in Second life. This has revived the profile of Second Life at the same time – no longer a cyberia where losers go to live the lives they cannot in reality – it is becoming a creative platform, an infinite silver screen for individual heroes journeys to be played out in concurrent time.

Recently Marker participated in a brief discussion in Second Life that was broadcast live through Harvard’s Film Center. He cheekily “assisted” the cinematic dialogue in Second Life commenting on the limitations of the Second Life communication in amusing misspelled entries under the pseudonym Sergei Murasaki. Not unlike a director’s talk before or after the screening of a film in real life, the event offered more in the way of an experience of Marker as mischief maker than any elucidation of his Second Life experimentation as the new platform for his cinematic explorations. Marker’s contribution to the evolution of cinema into video and Second Life is documented, reviewed and archived on a comprehensive site that includes examples of what web cinema might have been if users were gathered around a giant screen together. His Youtube premiered video “Leila Attacks” from 2006 begs this communal experience and serves as a stark example of the non-cinema experience of “web cinema”. Like any great innovator Marker has infiltrated the realm of pretenders to his throne and dabbled enough to prove his explorations in Second Life are the real web cinema.

You can see other recent works, including experimental film loops such as Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men 2005 – at Peter Blum Gallery- Chelsea. New York. Between May 16th – July 31st 2009.

References and resources:

Museum of Design, Zurich:
Marker Website:
YouTube: Leila Attacks:
Chris Marker’s second life site:
Archive of Marker as sergei-murasaki interacting on Second life during Harvard event:
blog describing l’Ouvroir:
Telling Stories A History of Web Cinema:
“Web Cinema” a Rogue site posting “great films and videos”
M. CHAT info site France:
M. CHAT info site Chile:

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An Artist’s Guide for Editing Wikipedia

The collaboratively produced on-line encyclopaedia Wikipedia is becoming an important reference resource for art as well as for its traditional strengths in the sciences and popular culture. To help improve the representation of new media art on Wikipedia, more people who are involved in the field should learn about how Wikipedia works and get involved with editing it. This article is a brief introduction to doing so.

Wikipedia’s organization and culture can present a steep learning curve for even experienced new media art practitioners. Don’t be put off, it’s easy to learn how to work with Wikipedia’s organization once you understand the project’s core concepts and the rationales behind its processes.

Becoming a Wikipedia Editor

The technical side of editing Wikipedia is relatively simple, especially if you have experience of writing for other media or of HTML or BBCode editing. To become a Wikipedia editor just register, log in, set up your user profile and start working on a page. As soon as you click “save”, your work will go live on Wikipedia.

The social side of editing Wikipedia can be much more complex, even if you have experience of writing or editing for academia or the art world. Wikipedia is a large project with well established governance structures and its own peculiar terminology. It is important to learn how Wikipedia works at an organizational and social level as well as a technical level in order to write effectively for it.

There are several well written books on Wikipedia that cover all of the various aspects of editing Wikipedia clearly and in depth. Two that are available freely online are –

How Wikipedia Works

Wikipedia: The Missing Manual

You can save immeasurable time and frustration by reading at least one of these before you join in editing Wikipedia. I also recommend practicing editing on articles that are unrelated to new media art to start with so you can get a feel for the editing process as an end in itself.

Wikipedia’s organization and processes have their own concepts and terminology (or jargon). The books linked to above should teach you the terminology and concepts you need to know, but if you encounter an phrase in an article or in a discussion you can always find a reference for it on Wikipedia itself.


The most important concept in editing Wikipedia is “notability“. Notability is Wikipedia’s standard for deciding which topics should be included in an online encyclopaedia. It’s best if you think of it as a strange new quantitative concept that shares only its name with any qualitative concept of notability.

You cannot establish notability in Wikipedia based on personal opinion or unsupported assertion. This would be considered “original research” in Wikipedia’s terminology and rejected. Instead you must establish the notability of your subject by citing multiple reliable third party sources that have in turn found the subject notable enough to comment on.

Reliable sources” mean established and probably mainstream news or opinion sources such as magazines, journals, or major web sites. “Third party” means not self-published (and not autobiographies).

An additional difficulty when trying to establish notability for any artistic subject, never mind a new media art subject, is that there are no stated notability guidelines for art as there are for music. There should be.

If existing media, books, journals, magazines or the mainstream press cannot provide citations to support the notability of a subject, then it is not notable under Wikipedia’s definition of notability. The solution to this is lies outside of Wikipedia. You will need to write about your subject for reliable sources or to push for other people to do so. This will be of benefit to your subject more generally than just for Wikipedia if they do not already have such coverage.

Conflicts Of Interest

When a subject is suitable for inclusion in Wikipedia, it is important to avoid conflicts of interest. If you are tempted to write or edit an article about yourself or a project or organization you are directly involved with, there is a very simple rule to follow: don’t. This would be a conflict of interests. You can request that such an article be written, and you can contribute links to appropriate sources on its talk page, but you can’t edit it yourself.

Prohibiting conflicts of interest avoids vanity pages, and it avoids censorship. Individuals and corporations can both be tempted to remove negative facts and add positive spin to their Wikipedia articles. As an encyclopaedia, Wikipedia is intended to present a full and balanced view of its subjects. If you have information that you feel could help establish that a subject should be included in Wikipedia, you may be able to contact the editors and provide it, but it must satisfy Wikipedia’s standard for reliable sources (autobiography doesn’t, for example).

What Wikipedia Is Not

As a website Wikipedia can contain far more articles than a traditional printed encyclopaedia, but all of those articles should be encyclopaedic in nature. This means that original criticism, promotional material, reportage and other perfectly valid forms of writing about art have no place in Wikipedia.

As well as such writing not fitting Wikipedia’s stated purpose, Wikipedia is not the most effective way of distributing it. People who are interested in new media art are far more likely to find an audience and get useful input in more appropriate forums. There are many alternative outlets for writing about art, from web sites such as Furtherfield and mailing lists such as Netbehaviour to hosted blogs and Facebook groups. Using a more focused platform or setting up your own resource can be better for promotional purposes as well.

Deletion Reviews

When other editors think that an article does not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria, they will list it for a deletion review. A deletion review is not a personal attack on the innermost being of the article’s author or subject, it is an opportunity to improve an article for readers by answering the concerns of Wikipedia’s editors. When you have created or edited a page, watch it for deletion review notices so that you can get involved in the process.

The formula for a successful deletion review is simple. Write a well structured article about a notable subject. Then answer any queries with reference to how the article itself satisfies people’s concerns about how it may not follow Wikipedia’s guidelines. If it does not already answer those concerns, edit the article so that it does. If the article cannot be edited to meet Wikipedia’s standards, then harsh though it may seem it should not be on Wikipedia.

It can be difficult to explain precisely how the subject of articles on new media art projects or organizations should be evaluated. Often other editors will evaluate online artworks or pages for community projects simply as web sites and argue that their low Google pagerank means that they are not notable. This is listed as an argument to avoid in Wikipedia’s own guidelines.

Even the longest running and most widely distributed art computing and new media art journals may be unfamiliar or inaccessible to the majority of Wikipedia editors who will vote on whether to delete an article or not. This can create problems for new media artists and galleries as perfectly valid sources may require explanation during a deletion review.

How To Write A Good Wikipedia Article

The formula for a successful Wikipedia article is surprisingly simple. State what the article’s subject is, state why that subject is notable and support this with links to multiple citations from reliable sources, then place the citations at the bottom.

This makes for an article that is informative for Wikipedia’s readers, that is easier for Wikipedia’s editors to review, and that because of this is more likely to remain on Wikipedia.

If you click on Wkipedia’s “Random Article” link you will see that most articles follow this formula (and that those that don’t have most likely drawn the attention of Wikipedia’s editors).

How To Improve The Representation Of New Media Art On Wikipedia

Establishing standards for notability for art and improving the quality of citations for art are tasks that will require involvement in the organization of Wikipedia as well as in the technical side of the editing of individual articles. Organization around a topic on Wikipedia is done through WikiProjects. There isn’t a New Media Art WikiProject (yet), and the Contemporay Art one is moribund. The Visual Arts Wikiproject is very active, and should probably be the starting point for any new-media-art-related developments –

The best argument for keeping an article on Wikipedia is an article structured to quickly make the case that its subject is notable with multiple citations from reliable sources. With a group dedicated to better provision of reliable sources, more articles about new media art topics will satisfy Wikipedia’s standards and be accepted as part of the online encyclopaedia.

And that, galling as it can be when sitting out a deletion review of an article on your gallery or yourself, is the point of editing Wikipedia. For articles to remain on Wikipedia they must satisfy its standards. Those standards exist to make Wikipedia a worthwhile resource for society. New media art should definitely be a part of that resource. It is artistically and socially notable, and we can work to establish this within Wikipedia’s guidelines.

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 Licence.


Franz Thalmair interviews Daphne Dragona.

“Tagging”, “posting”, “sharing”, “commenting”, “rating” and … once again, the other way around: affective and opinion-driven practices of exchange seem to be essential key issues for the everyday behaviour on the so called Social Web. But, what happens with us, the users of commercially hosted platforms, when we share our experiences and comment on opinions and statements brought in by other users? Do those mechanisms of interaction have any effect on the clever systems of pre-defined templates we move in? Tag ties and affective spies is the title of an online-exhibition which presents a selection of Internet-based artworks that highlight different aspects of the Social Web. With the exhibition, hosted by the National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMST), curator of the show Daphne Dragona asks if we are really connecting or if we are also forming the structure of the Social Web itself?

The linked artworks reflect some of the controversies brought up by the inflationary use of Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Delicious, just to name a few of the most popular examples of Web 2.0: We Feel Fine (2006) by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, for example, refers to the Social Web’s most basic human and affective character, its influence on our everyday lives and the inability of the users to transcend mental and physical borders, as do Gregory Chatonsky’s L’Attente – The Waiting (2007) and Folded-In (2008) by Personal Cinema & The Erasers. Wayne Clements’ IOUs (2008) tests the possibilities of forming content, whereas Internet Delivers People (2008) by Ramsay Stirling visualises the fact that a user still remains a victim of the companies, offering now his subjectivity as a product. Furthermore, the presented artworks point out how Social Media themselves can record and reflect the current trends of the users employing their own contributions (A Tag’s Life (2008), by George Holsheimer, et al) and how they can construct fake realities (The Big Plot (2008/2009), by Paolo Cirio). With a sense of humour, Christophe Bruno refers to the redemption of language by the internet companies in Dadameter (2008) and finally Jodi (Delicious – Winning Information, 2008) and Les Liens Invisibles (Subvertr, 2007) encourage users to escape the conventions and the formalisms the Social Net cleverly imposes.

Who is wearing ties? Who are the spies?

The title of the exhibition, Tag ties and affective spies, is referring to us, the users of the social media and to our current modes of connecting and socialising. I think tagging is one of the most interesting features of the social web. Have we entered the “I tag therefore I am” period? Maybe, as tagging seems to imply a number of issues for the social web. It refers to our subjectivity as it is a process of naming, defining, highlighting our uploaded material. Our choices and order of tags, our taxonomies known as folksonomies, create interrelations and interactions for the users on today’s web. Tags are about associating content, and therefore about sharing, linking with others. They are about attracting attention, connecting and building relationships. Tags are about us and the others.

Spying is a fundamental issue in this relationship and it is basically a form of surveillance based on affection. As we are given so many opportunities to express our feelings in the social platforms today, as we are exposing ourselves constantly with our own will, surveillance is becoming a unconscious habit. Exposure justifies it all. In this complex environment that there could be no better instance for the market to observe, to evaluate and to take advantage of the data offered in order to cover our “needs” and encourage the continuous growth of new ones.

In the exhibition concept you raise the question if users of Social Media sites are really connecting or if they are also forming the structure of those sites. What is the difference between the two activities?

This is one of the main contradictions the social web presents. What are we being promised by all these platforms? That we can be creative, that we can be ourselves and that we can connect with others. While great possibilities might be opening up with the social web, at the same time we are asked to play double roles; to be spectators but also actors; to be consumers but also producers. There is no social web without us. There is no content and no structure without our participation. We are no longer in the web era of the 90s when pages were static and we were discussing authorship and access. Now in the user generated period, the web in constantly being formed by us, by our images, our videos, our posts, our tags, our networks, our tastes, our friends, our own voluntary input. It is very interesting to see how the political notions of immaterial labour and affective labour, as defined by Lazzarato and Hardt respectively have found their expression in the social web. Leisure and work have become one today because it is our own will, interest and affection that are being invested to support the social platforms. We are all cultural workers in the internet.

Many of the presented artworks do have a playful approach to Social Media. Is this characteristic for nowadays use of Social Media in general, or is it the artistic point of view?

I find that play has a central role in the social media. Not only because most of our activities within them have a playful side – lets think about the ways of interacting, of playing roles and of competing in the social platforms. But also because we have the tendency to play, to cheat, to doubt, to transcend the norms and the rules that the social media impose.

The works presented are playful in this sense. They examine the features of the social media, in order to decode them and reverse them; I see their processes as playful tactics that succeed in revealing their mechanisms and functioning. They somehow remind us of our right to disobey that we often forget. So, this aspect refers to us all – no it is not an artistic point of view exclusively. Irony and humour merged with play are introduced to form a critique that can be exercised by any user.

Folded-In, one of the projects presented in the show, is a multiuser online game by Personal Cinema & The Erasers where content as well as form are generated from YouTube and related to the topic of war. Why do you think it is important for Internet-based art to reflect the mechanisms of the medium it is settled in?

This is an issue that reminds us of the net art of the 90s and of other forms of media art – game art mods is another characteristic example- where creators are using the platforms so as to critisize them. Such an approach presupposes a good knowledge from the side of the creators. They need to be participants, residents, players in the social web in order to comment on it, to transform it, to reveal it. So my answer to your question is positive but principally for one reason; for the audience. Who do we – or most accurately the creators- want to address this to?

The main audience would probably be the users of the social media, the people who use them as a tool of communication, of socialisation, as a mode of entertainment, of information and education. It would be absurd to talk about social media through sculpture or painting – although this also does happen… -. If you want to talk to poeple directly you talk to them in their own language and within their natural environment.

How could the online exhibition be presented in a physical setting? Do you think this would add any value – as well as to the art/artists as for the spectators?

This period the exhibition is presented physically in two venues: at the media lounge of the National Museum of Contemporary Art – Athens, and in the exhibition space of Enter festival in Prague. Yes, I believe it does add value for several reasons that interconnect. Firstly, I believe that through a physical installation, institutions can communicate the information to a wider audience that might not be familiar with net based art. Secondly, acknowledge and support in terms of presentation is very important for an art that is contradictory to institutions by its nature and it is out of the marketing system. Furthermore, such works, as the projects on social media, can raise fruitful discussions about issues of art, society and politics and build bridges between institutions, artists and visitors as they are based on platforms that the people know and use.

The project is settled within an institutional framework: How do you think that a museum like the EMST can come to terms with the artworks the 21st century “networked society” develops when “everything becomes changeable, interconnected and rhizomatic; personified, exposed and exploitable”?

That’s a good bet for the future. Will it work? We shall see. Because in a way we are talking about vertical versus horizontal structures. If one absorbs the other, then their nature will fatally alter. I think changes occur and adaptations happen that bring edges closer together. Museums are not what they were in the past. You can not have a network museum – at least not yet – but museums do work in networks today. They also aim to work as public spaces, as environments open to collaborations and discussions. They are trying to bring more people in and allow them to have roles, to be active spectators. I think that museums are learning from the forms of interaction from the virtual public spaces and are developing environments that respond to today’s needs. Artworks are not the peculiarity we should pay attention to – they are only part of the phenomenon. Museums are changing as society is changing itself in an interconnected world.

What was the latest Social Media site you opened an account at?

Dont ask! It was my blog believe it or not… a month ago… I wanted to start it for a couple of years now and I only recently decided to go ahead…

Do you still use it?

Well yes… but as a site mostly. I’ve uploaded the info I wanted and sometime soon… I hope i ll make it more lively. Blogs need energy… I was always admiring bloggers for the time they were giving into this.

About Daphne Dragona
Daphne Dragona is a media arts curator, based in Athens. Her exhibitions and events the last few years have focused on the notion of play and its merging with art as a form of networking and resistance. She has been a collaborator of Laboral Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial (Spain) for the international exhibitions “Gameworld” and “Homo Ludens Ludens” and of Fournos Center for Digital Culture (Greece) for the International Art and Technology Festival, Medi@terra. She is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Mass Media & Communication of the University in Athens conducting a research on social media and a member of the Media Arts Collective Personal Cinema.

The 4th Radiator Festival

The 4th Radiator festival. Going Underground – Surveillance and Sousveillance.

“The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself…”
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine.

Many readers will remember their fave sci-fi, fantasy and social-political movies, exploring and relating to themes of humanity’s civil liberties threatened by technological means. One movie which springs to mind is Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith as Robert Clayton Dean, released in 1998. The film was about a group of rogue NSA agents who kill a Congressman in a political-related murder, and then try to cover up the murder by destroying evidence and intimidating witnesses. It explored and exploited our worries, fantasies and paranoias around technology being used against us by those who have power within the realms of government agencies. In contrast to such adventurous and playful films with their stylish visions and high-octane, scenarios; we are presently faced with something less imaginative and sadly, more predictable. In the real world, as in ‘real’ digital networks and everyday human environments, the creep of surveillance has entered everyday life.

We have emerged into a complex world, inter-meshed in digital and virtual technologies, harbouring social networks and on-line communities, alongside the ever expansive growth of mobile and portable platforms; facilitating us to share with others our moments of immediacy. The convenience of connecting with others has opened a multitude of doors to a complicated era. We have become part of a larger world which is also shrinking at the same time. We are globalized citizens, united not only through economic work-related directives, but data. Behaviour related products for markets thrive on trying to find out what we are doing and thinking. We are a rich resource, fresh territories for knowledge. Digital data about us, ‘civilians’ is big business. Many individuals and organisations including artists, are cashing in on the rush to make money out of our digital identities and behaviours. Whether it be in the supermarket, with I.D cards, on the Internet or by tracing people’s movements on the streets.

The Radiator Festival and Symposium was curated and organised by Anette Schafer and Miles Chalcraft, co-founders and continual main instigators of Trampoline with support from Matt Davenport. Trampoline has hosted and curated events in both Nottingham and Berlin since 1997. Exploits in the Wireless City is the 4th Radiator festival and symposium to date, which lasted from 13th to 24th January 2009, 10 days of Exhibitions, Events, Screenings, Music, Artists’ Talks and more. This time the main theme was about engaging in an active shared dialogue, around the development of digital networks transforming and effecting people’s everyday lives, whether it be public or private space. “In its critique, Radiator will question the opportunities, future strategies and implementations that artists and communities face when learning to act within these new hybrid city spaces.”

My visit was on a different day from the symposium and even though I usually enjoy a good hearty debate, it felt important not to dilute my experience. Nottingham was given a quality treat outside of its usual, consumer orientated vices in witnessing and being part of this festival. The art was accessible from different venues around the city, the Surface Gallery, Hand and Heart gallery, Broadway Media Centre and also the QUAD in Derby.

For the festival a commission was set up, called Going Underground, inviting artists to submit work about surveillance and Sousveillance. The artists selected, were Glenn Davidson (exponentially), N55 Intelligence Agency (NIA), Folke Kobberling & Martin Kaltwasser, The Office of Community Sousveillance, Christian Nold, as well as the guest artists Stanza, Sebastian Craig and Candice Jacobs.

Before we move straight into exploring some of the work featured as part of the Going Underground commission. I need to lay out some context…

In 2006 a research document called A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner was published. Produced by a group of academics called the Surveillance Studies Network. The report was presented to the 28th International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners’ Conference in London, hosted by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The publication begins by saying “Conventionally, to speak of surveillance society is to invoke something sinister, smacking of dictators and totalitarianism. We will come to Big Brother in a moment but the surveillance society is better thought of as the outcome of modern organizational practices, businesses, government and the military than as a covert conspiracy. Surveillance may be viewed as progress towards efficient administration, in Max Weber’s view, a benefit for the development of Western capitalism and the modern nation-state.”[1]

To deny that Surveillance is systematically effecting a modern day panopticon[2] for UK citizens, more highlights where their priorities lie. One priority seems to be an unquestioning protocol in support of the needs of a market system over the needs of civilian rights. Such a stance communicates a behaviour which is complicit in promoting a hegemony that lacks compassion or empathy of the very real circumstances of public freedoms being eroded for the sake of corporate economics rather than nurturing human, social contexts. Make no mistake, this is the privatisation of our public spaces, civil liberties are pushed aside as a secondary factor, rather too easily at whatever price.

So, if we cannot rely on our governments and local councils to do the honourable thing and take responsibility in effectively challenging this encroachment on our civil liberties, who can we turn to? Thankfully, there has been much debate around the subject in the media the last few years. Whether the government is able to step outside of its current mind-set, and become less blinkered is another thing. So, there needs to be as many different forms of communication around the issue so others from all walks of life can be included to share a critique from their own perspectives. In this context, regarding the festival we have artists who also happen to be experimenting with activism as part of their dialogue, initiating imaginative forms of expression to enable and facilitate varied processes in, getting their critical thoughts on subjects which matter, out there. “…artists using CCTV are critical of the present level of surveillance, but they’re also interested in establishing a dialogue about what is typically a secretive arrangement”[3]

The Surface Gallery successfully presented a dynamic and varied collection of art on the subject. Stanza’s ‘Stars of CCTV’, hung on the wall were representations of the ‘Big Brother’ generation, re-mediated as history paintings representing a social portrait of England. Displayed in expensive white frames, these works showed ghostly, chilling blurred images “each picture has a narrative, a history of time and place”.

Stanza, collection of art on the subject, 'Big Brother' generatio, a history of time and placeStanza. Stars of CCTV.

The images depict the last whereabouts of a lawyer, the July bombers, happy slappers beating someone up, people drunk in the street, thefts at gunpoint, sex in car, running someone over, stealing from a shop and trying the stuff on first. Other images include police abuse, child abduction, senseless fighting and terrorists using public transport.”

Stanza, the July bombers, Stanza. We Dont Want No Education.

Anonymous faces stare back at the CCTV cameras during their drunk and disorderly activities, like acts of defiance, whilst being snapped, trapped within the visual flicker of the ever spying eyes.

Stanza, drunk and disorderly activities, Stanza. The Rise of the Urban Surfe.

As soon as they are captured for us to observe, they become shadowy reflections of our own selves. Feral representations of strange creatures in an urban zoo. The darkness of these collected images allow us to observe our own subterranean fears, resting closely at the edge of what we as a supposedly decent society, accepts as normality. Yet there is a contradiction at play informing us that this is all too normal, part of the everyday. We are those people within these selected frames, as we scrutinize them, we judge ourselves.

One group who got their teeth stuck into the complex mess of community security and surveillance were The Office of Community Sousveillance, with the project PCSO Watch (Police Community Support Officer).

CCTV, The Office of Community Sousveillance, community,

Upon entering the venue, just before stepping into the main gallery was a help desk for the visiting public to use, offering a kind of alternative community service, where visitors input information regarding their own personal experiences of being watched or hassled by local authority security. On the desk it read “PCSO Watch will be appointing its very own ‘sousveillance officers’ to co-ordinate an information gathering exercise in the period leading up to the festival. The findings of this serious-piece-of-research-completely-unmotivated-by-revenge will be made public and interactive during the festival and will be presented in collaboration with guest undercover officers operating from a mobile field unit placed temporarily in hotspots around the city.”

Stanza, gallery, Surveillance Studies Network, research on CCTV,

There is even a blog where you can observe or contribute to the continuing number of incidences, experiences with ‘official’ security in the Nottingham area. This art, transcends the formal realms of being objects or items of installation within an art context alone, and seeks not to be fashioned within what it sees as a limitation. It exploits the ‘imaginative’ frameworks and infrastructures of art culture itself as a creative and polemic space, considering our every day lives and relationships with the world as part of its ingredients, as an interface; allowing a certain amount of flexibility and freedom to express their own particular methodologies and political voice. It rests on the edge of what many would consider to be art and this is where its main strength lies, for it if became ‘gallery’ art, the messages and spirit of it would be lost. For it to remain in its essence vital, it needs its own agency of raw presence. This work is angry, it demands an immediacy which is direct and resolutely challenges institutional hegemony, harbouring an angst which was not uncommon with the early nineteenth century Luddites. It is art performance and direct action.

Officer B report of incident
Incident report (ref 230)
15.15-15.45 Thursday 15 January 2008

CCTV, security officer, LOCATION – PCSO WATCH mobile unit parked legally (with landowners permission) on private land at the edge of Sneinton Market. Officer B was staffing the mobile unit.

This work rests between legality and illegality. By posing as security officers, PCSO Watch imaginatively play at the borders of what is typically deemed right and wrong, real and unreal, pushing their expression in the form of political enactments and direct action. This is a paradigm shift that is not particularly interested in the art critic’s perspective. Their approach deliberately bypasses art dialogue and is more interested in connecting with every day people’s lives. The audience they wish to make contact with is all of us. By relocating their particular creative practice and placing it in the streets, it opens up a more cultural dynamic. Tapping immediately into the murky depths of what our society is dealing with locally, nationally and in fundamental ways – it is about reality. At the same time this work helps us to realise that outside, out there, we need more than just shops as social environments; that we need more creative and wholesome experiences in our cities coming from the ground up. Through their work, one is also aware of how vulnerable we all are to forces imposed by those who say that they care for us. Solutions to social problems need not always have to be based around monetarily orientated processes and a presumption that all civilians are potential villians, tarred with the same brush.

The energy and spirit of this work reminds me of the The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army “…we refuse the spectacle of celebrity and we are everyone. Because without real names, faces or noses, we show that our words, dreams, and desires are more important than our biographies. Because we reject the society of surveillance that watches, controls, spies upon, records and checks our every move. Because by hiding our identity we recover the power of our acts. Because with greasepaint we give resistance a funny face and become visible once again…”

Another artwork worth highlighting is Blind Spot by Folke Kobberling & Martin Kaltwasser. I remember a day project/event that they collaborated on with Heath Bunting in Warsaw, 2008 called Fence Challenge. A one day performance of Kobberling & Kaltwasser and Bunting, an ironic play with architectural borders which get higher and steeper as a kind of obstacle run. Building fences and gates of found materials for Heath Bunting to climb over.

This time round they built small temporary structures out of building waste, with panels of wood and doors in Nottingham. These structures were designed and made to fill in spaces, blind spots where the gazes of CCTV cameras did not reach. When I saw these pieces they were exhibited in the gallery itself, but even imagining them in the streets brings a smile to one’s face.

CCTV, Folke Kobberling & Martin Kaltwasser, fill in space,

These mini- architectural builds were human scale, you could go inside and close the door behind you. Offering a haven to those who wished to avoid the perpetual gaze of cameras, to hide away for a little while when in the street, in order to reclaim some sense of privacy.

CCTV, Folke Kobberling & Martin Kaltwasser, fill in space, UK Goverment,

A contemporary enactment of the Orwellian vision is now here and for real, millions of lensed spectres watch our every move around the country in the streets, as the constant drone of shopping serfs waddle around in their state imposed panopticon daze. In George Orwell’s visionary novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the Thought police could view and control citizens at any moment via a tele-screen, no one knew whether they were being watched or not. Today, the UK Government is so rabid in its support of a more technocratic solutions to control its citizens, we are now the most watched soap opera by the powers that be on the planet. Us, who live in Britain are presently monitored by 4 million CCTV cameras, and if you happen to be living in London you are probably viewed on camera about 300 times a day.

A simple, search on the Internet for CCTV cameras will take you to thousands of web sites, offering you up to the minute, hi-tech CCTV equipment for the viewing of people in offices, work environments as well as the more lucrative business of selling CCTV for street surveillance. If we take a moment and consider the financial crisis, the repeating wars and climate change. It should not be a surprise to anyone that art in its various mediums and forms will naturally take account of it all and question what this means. Yet much art, whether it be performance based, activist or media art related are pushing things further in their processes, much of it challenging the very infrastructures of our institutions and their purposes for existence. This is not because they wish for a revolution, but more because they demand a better life for all, asking our institutions to become more human regarding their interaction with civilians and offer more progressive approaches. Our society needs an upgrade, pretty quick!

There were many other works at the festival worth writing about but this article would have been even longer, so I hope this will do for now. My main aim was to pull together the issues proposed by the festival commission Going Underground and discuss some of the artworks exhibited.

Regarding the Going Underground commission itself? It was successful, a much needed project and festival that desperately needed to happen. It has contributed to the larger debate on surveillance. Instead of choosing to treat art like a conveyor belt as a singular and banal process. Trampoline took a risk and moved things on further and this is to be commended. Hopefully, this endeavour will leave a legacy in Nottingham with some thought provoking challenges for all to reflect upon.

[1]’A Report on the Surveillance Society For the Information Commissioner by the Surveillance Studies Network.

[2]The Panopticon is a type of prison building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in 1785. The concept of the design is to allow an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, thereby conveying what one architect has called the “sentiment of an invisible omniscience.”

[3]Keep an eye on our growing surveillance culture

Other links of interest:

Talking CCTV Launch.

Watching the Watchers.
Right under Big Brother’s nose, artist-hackers are using surveillance images for their own purposes.
Christopher Werth. NEWSWEEK From the magazine issue dated Sep 8, 2008.

Notes on Surveillance, Sousveillance and Inverse surveillance:
Sousveillance, originally a term French, as well as inverse surveillance are terms coined by Steve Mann – (Toronto, Canada) to describe the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant. “Surveillance” denotes the act of watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the practice of observation down to human level (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

Inverse surveillance is a proper subset of sousveillance with a particular emphasis on “watchful vigilance from underneath” and a form of surveillance inquiry or legal protection involving the recording, monitoring, study, or analysis of surveillance systems, proponents of surveillance, and possibly also recordings of authority figures and their actions. Inverse surveillance is typically an activity undertaken by those who are generally the subject of surveillance, and may thus be thought of as a form of ethnography or ethnomethodology study (i.e. an analysis of the surveilled from the perspective of a participant in a society under surveillance).

Twisting Fistfuls of Time with David Rokeby – Part 2

Twisting Fistfuls of Time with David Rokeby

An Interview with David Rokeby, in conjunction with his first UK retrospective Silicon Remembers Carbon, FACT, Liverpool, (20th April – 10th June), by Charlotte Frost.

2nd part of the interview.

CF: That makes me want to ask whether ‘interactive’ is the right word? I was thinking about how it became a promotional buzz-word, and although undoubtedly you are a pioneer in works which developed unprecedented levels of interactivity, are there other terms that you think – perhaps today at least – better apply? For example I was thinking of proposing ‘integration art’, by way of highlighting the slippage between human and artificial intelligence in your work. Is interactivity still a term that you think works? Or is it even important to have a label for it?

I have a compiicated relationship with language ....

I have a compiicated relationship with language ....
I have a compiicated relationship with language ….

DR: I’ve never found a comfortable label for what I do. I have a very complicated relationship with language which is why I spent so much time doing [url:]The Giver of Names[/url] and [url:]n-cha(n)t[/url], which were so involved with language. I think my role is usually more to dodge descriptors as much as possible and to survive in a world between descriptors; my job is always to slip between the cracks. If someone tries to define something that’s dear to me too closely then I will probably come up with what I think is something that both fits and doesn’t fit and messes with the existence of the category.

I have a compiicated relationship with language ....
The giver of Names

I have a compiicated relationship with language ....
I have a compiicated relationship with language ….

“Interactive” is useful, it certainly doesn’t apply to all my work, some of my work is very explicitly non-interactive. Some of it that could be interactive is intentionally not because there are times when interaction is not the correct mode of reception, it engages a different part of the viewer, it puts them in a different space and that’s not always the appropriate space for the work. As you noted in the previous question I have sometimes hidden interaction in works because interactivity is sometimes very useful to set-up the relationship with the artwork and the audience and if they don’t know about it then they don’t become self-conscious about it, they don’t spend time thinking about it, and it just does its thing and makes sure the audience has as close an experience with it as possible.

“Integration art” is fine except it only works if you already understand the technology framework, or rather understand that there is a technology framework around the work because integration has a lot of different meanings in a lot of different contexts. In fact one half of the work [url:]Watch[/url] is specifically integration art because it uses integration as a mathematical function to compute the image, so there are lots of different layers to that. The term ‘integrated’ is interesting because the new media section of the Canada Council for the Arts in the 1980s was called the “integrated media department”, and it was interesting because in those days new media was such a sprawling thing – sparse and sprawling – and the department ended up receiving the applications which didn’t fit anywhere else.

CF: To pick up on something you were saying on how people interact with the works, I’m wondering about the gallery space and – I know you’ve talked about your works being intimate – how intimate you think an interactive work can be in a gallery? And to what extent the artificial set-up of a gallery codes people’s behaviour, in much the same way as a computer does. It makes me think of the gallery as a Graphic User Interface for art information, can you comment on that?

DR: I like galleries, I’ve also done a fair amount of work in unmarked public space, but I like galleries for works that are designed for galleries. There is a certain space that you have in a gallery that you have almost nowhere else in our culture, which is nice. There is a kind of focus that is possible in a gallery that isn’t very common in our culture. There is a kind of mental shift that happens when you go into a gallery space – it can shut you down, you can feel threatened by it – but I tend to feel like I’m breathing a little more oxygen in the air and that I can pay a different kind of attention. I appreciate that frame around a fair number of my works. On the other hand there also tends to be a fairly small flow of people through galleries most of the time, which means it is possible often to have a fairly intimate experience.

There are times when I’ve wondered about the home as the correct environment for my pieces, the big advantage about the home is not about space but about time. What I like about the idea of pieces in the home is that the work can be experienced over long periods of time and that some of the layers I’ve put in to keep myself amused that most gallery goers don’t get in their five-to-ten-minutes of interaction with the work would have a chance to express themselves. That is in fact why I also like positioning works in public spaces over long periods of time where they can work on you over and over and you can hopefully discover new things as time goes by. I have fantasies about works in shopping malls or office foyer spaces where people go through daily and one day they are the only person leaving late from work and suddenly they get what has been going on the whole time.

I’m very jealous of novelists because they have this big chunk of time with the reader and that is the frustration for me with the gallery space, the time.

CF: That leads into a question about the learning process for audiences with your work. Looking at footage of your work on line, you often perform the works yourself and I’m wondering to what extent you are producing instruments that can be learnt and played and whether or not you think you might misrepresent the work in any way by presenting its potential – I was thinking particularly about [url:]Very Nervous System[/url] or [url:]Taken[/url].

"David, you are the master, you should perform in it"
The Very Nervous System

"David, you are the master, you should perform in it"

DR: The works are all intended to be accessible to someone who knows nothing about what’s going on. That being said, with Very Nervous System for example, if someone has spent more time with it there are certain kinds of languages and movement that will they have discovered that they will be able to exploit. I went through a big struggle with Very Nervous System through the 1980s with the whole question of performing in it because I was always being told “David, you are the master, you should perform in it”. The big problem with that was that it was very difficult for me to get away from what was more like a product demo than an exploration. My favourite experiences of Very Nervous System though that time were almost invariably between Very Nervous System and amateur dancers – not professional dancers because they need choreographers, and not choreographers who have too much of an idea of what they want the relationships to be – but amateur dancers who have a very comfortable way of moving and that had no agenda, with no experience of the piece, were often the most effective, the most striking – much more so than myself. I did learn over the course of that time, slowly, to be able to explore the piece and get away from the ‘product demo’ state of mind.

In terms of demo footage and what is on the web, there is the problem that you have of the task of representing something that can’t be represented, which is an interaction, which is really something that occurs in the space between the user and the system. It is something that courses through them – through the circuits of the computer and through the body and neural system of the human – but is not visible in what is actually taking place. A person could be standing still but be hyper-aware of the fact that any movement they did make would make sounds. The documentation for example of Very Nervous System that you are talking about I don’t think misrepresents the piece because it represents where many people could take it very easily. What it does do however, which drives me slowly crazy as I show clips, is that I have the actual tune memorised through over exposure, so for something whose whole purpose is to not repeat and to reinvent itself in different contexts all the time has become this ditty that is etched into my head, which is problematic or, rather, irritating! It is always a challenge to document these things and even photographs are difficult – photos of projections are always too blue – so it is a challenge to represent what you feel the experience is.

CF: I was think about Derrida and Archive Fever and how he was discussing Freud’s notion of memory being an originary writing prostheses, and Mark Hansen criticises this theory saying that it erases technology as it is internalised, and I wondered if you could comment on that notion, perhaps particularly in light of The Giver of Names and explain whether you see technology as internal or external, or both?

DR: I think there are many ways that you could define internal and external and as you choose a definition, parts of the technology would flip in and out. What interests me about that question and about “insideness” and “outsideness” is the impact of one’s awareness or lack of awareness of the presence of that technology. In engaging in any feedback scenario, working on the computer with a mouse or whatever, you are engaged in a feedback loop that reflects something back to you about yourself in a very simple manner. If you are using an interface that seems to be transparent then any experiences, any shifts or transformations that may happen in the interface have to go somewhere, they are either internalised, mapped onto yourself, or they are externalised and mapped onto the outside. Quite often they are mapped internally and I think that can be a problem because you start to carry the distortions of the interface as part of your self-definition and I think its always important to be able to critique the interfaces and it becomes more and more difficult as they approach transparency. The problem with what happens as they approach transparency is a sort of convergence process, there would be nothing transparent at all about the Macintosh user interface to Papua New Guinea native of a hundred years ago. There are sets are cultural framings around any interface which make it appear transparent because it shares assumptions that you share and in the constant exchange with technology, we develop a shared frame of reference and that just continues to build and build and build. In that case I am concerned that there are aspects of technology that we will take internally even though they are not internal, that they will be distorting in a way that is not appropriate. This is quite separate from the notion of cyborgs, in the classical sense, because this is about what you consider to be yourself, not really what is. Obviously, that is leaving aside the whole question of language and technology, and although I think that writing and memory are valid lines of inquiry, that is not so much what interests me.

I had this experience when I was first developing Very Nervous System where I spent about two months really doing nothing but working with a computer, not seeing anybody and the degree to which my expectations and what the machine was capable of doing converged over the course of those two months was astonishing. It meant that the piece was complete garbage because it wouldn’t work for anyone else because I completely transformed the way I was moving in order to work with the system, but I was not aware of it at all. To me it was completely transparent, it was astonishing, and I was going to be a star instantly. And then I took it and put it out there and it didn’t even make a sound for most people. It wasn’t until I saw myself moving on video that I realised I had drawn myself into moving like this (makes odd jerky move) and not noticing that that was unnatural at all. And that is what I mean, it is possible in that tight interaction to lose sight of what you are taking into yourself to make something transparent.

Likewise, in a piece from which this show got its name, Silicon Remembers Carbon, that was up at the Lowry Centre at Manchester for a few years, I play with shadows that appear to be yours, or not. When you feel a shadow – in this case it was a projection on the floor that was approximately appropriate to your position – you would identify with it. If the shadow moved a little bit to the right, you would move to the right to keep that transparency, you would do that without realising it, you would unconsciously sustain that as long as it didn’t do something radical. Then it would walk off, which was terrifying, because you had associated with it so much. So I guess that’s a way of illustrating what’s at the core of this issue, that we do actually take what’s not working and put it inside ourselves and try to make up for it and its dysfunctional. I don’t think we should agree to go down a dysfunctional path, we have to continue to be able to critique the stuff that wants to get inside us, so that we keep what’s inside us the way we want it to be.

CF: Well, you already answered my closing question earlier on, however, given that retrospectives are about looking back, I think we should close with what’s coming up?

DR: I just finished a 42ftx42ftx16ft kinetic sculpture that has no relationship to anything else I’ve ever done. I have a lot of shows this year, one that just opened in Spain last week, one opens in Peru next week, this one here at FACT, then a small retrospective within a larger show in Montreal next fall, for which I’m preparing a new commission. And I’m doing a bunch of works for public spaces over the summer as well: 3 pieces for an airport, and one piece for a large 50ftx30ft video screen in a main intersection in Toronto. So its kind of a mixed bag of stuff.

I’m also dredging a couple of lost pieces. I was in Berlin in February, and I have a three year old daughter and I haven’t had time to think for three years, and being in Berlin for a week without much to do got me thinking about the past few years and there are a couple of pieces that got lost in the shuffle, so I’m also resurrecting one of those right now, which is very interactive.

I’m also dealing with this big Power PC to Intel transition on the Macintoshes because so much of my code is written to take advantage of certain features of the old Macintoshes that I have this huge headache of translation which I am deeply involved with right now.

[url:]Part 1 of this interview [/url]

Grafik Dynamo [2005]

At [2005]

When I first encountered Kate Armstrong and Michael Tippett’s Grafik Dynamo after reading a brief description on the Turbulence website, it made me think of the concept referred to as the “Internet Hive Mind.” While I don’t subscribe to this concept as such, my initial thought when viewing Grafik Dynamo was, “is this an example of what collective consciousness looks like?”

Unlike the “Hive Mind,” described in generally futuristic terms by some proponents as a self-organizing group or team that comes together according to an organizing principle, resulting in an almost-mythical “super-being” fueled by collective brainpower, Grafik Dynamo can (on one level) be described as a literary conduit of sorts for current, collective online activity. In my opinion, this is what makes the work much more intriguing, in addition to more relevant, than ostentatious techno theories. In addition, its function as e-literature, as well as the visual and technical parameters the artists have set for harvesting and displaying images from the Web, distinguish it from other forms of collective online activity, such as virtual sit-ins.

Grafik Dynamo consists of one web page containing three rectangular frames or panels of equal size, arranged across the page in a horizontal line, similar to a comic strip. These panels are superimposed on a larger rectangular shape decorated with a blue and white pattern highly reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dots. This shape, in turn, is superimposed on a black background. Navigation is extremely simple; the links across the top of the page read “Launch,” “About,” “Kate Armstrong,” and “Michael Tippett.”

Each panel contains a different image (usually a photograph) of varying size, quality, and content – although most of them seem to be personal snapshots – which is continuously replaced by another image. Instead of being coordinated, the refresh rate for each panel is out of sync with the other two, and the images appear to be refreshed between roughly one and five seconds. The images themselves come from blogs and Web news sources, and are funneled into Grafik Dynamo through an RSS feed from LiveJournal. (For readers unfamiliar with RSS technology and/or terminology, RSS stands for RDF Site Summary, Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication. It is an XML format for web syndication, allowing for the sharing of content between sites. Syndicated content can include, but is not limited to, news feeds, events listings, news stories, headlines, project updates, and discussion forum updates. As a result, RSS provides web users with the opportunity to not only tailor and customize the flow of new information on the internet, but to monitor how often sites generate new information).

These images are not resized to fit entirely the panels’ borders, nor are they necessarily centered within the panels. Images larger than the panels are only partially shown, the size of the image determining how much is truncated. This heightens the visual interest considerably, forcing the viewer engage in the exercise of mentally reconstructing the remainder of the image. If these pictures were resized in their entirety, or chosen according to stricter size parameters, the result would be much more uniform (like a slide show), and would place fewer cognitive demands on someone engaged with the work.

Along the top of each panel is a speech or thought balloons, also refreshed at an asynchronous rate, containing a short question, statement, or exclamation in large capital letters. However, rather than statements along the line of the commonplace POW! ZAP! BANG! variety found in many comic books of the superhero genre, the utterances in these bubbles are considerably more cryptic: “GENTLEMEN, HATS OFF!” “HAD YOU SEEN HIM BEFORE?” “WE”VE LOST CONTROL OF THE MOLE AGAIN, VILLANOVA!” “THERE IT IS, THE SLEEPING MONASTERY.” “HMM! I LIKE THE SEASIDE!” “I DON”T WANT NO GOVERNMENT CHEESE!” “THE MAN IS NOTHING BUT A FOOD CHEMIST!” “RETURN TO ME THAT FIERCE GOD AT ONCE!” “ACK.” Every so often, a panel will refresh without a balloon, or two panels will contain identical speech or thought balloons.

Placed at the bottom of each of the three panels is a white, rectangular overlay containing a short sentence or sentence fragment refreshed according to the same technique as the thought balloons and images. In a manner similar to serious soap-opera continuity strips, as opposed to “gag-a-day” comic strips, these fragments connote a particular action, plot twist, a character’s state of mind, a scrap of conversation, or element of suspense (although the quality of these fragments are much more reminiscent of graphic novels than, say, Mary Worth or Brenda Starr). For example, some of these snippets include, “…THE ROYAL COMMISSION HAD MENTIONED NOTHING…” “…BUT THE BISHOP WILL NEVER COME…” “IT WAS A DECK OF CARDS FOR AMATEUR DIVINATION!” “THE MYSTERIOUS HAND WAS DEFT AND AGILE.” “THE COCKTAIL PARTY WENT ON, OBLIVIOUS TO THE MONUMENTAL ATMOSPHERIC CHANGE.” “…THE TABLE WAS COVERED IN GLASS!” “THE CROWD SPOKE ELEGANTLY OF THE HORRORS THEY HAD FACED IN THE STADIUM.”

Despite the fact that Grafik Dynamo does not afford the viewer opportunities to navigate the work by pointing and clicking, the viewer’s engagement with the work can hardly be described as passive; one does not “watch” Grafik Dynamo as one would “watch” TV. As each panel cycled through the text and images, I was constantly attempting to forge a coherent link between the text and the image within each panel, between the thought balloons and sentence fragments within each panel, and between all three panels. I was also trying to see if I could possibly construct a plot of some sort, not as a method of trying to decipher what the artists’ larger intentions were in terms of telling a story, but as a sense-making exercise in which I was expected to kluge together a story on my own from narratives and an irreverent, heterogeneous smorgasbord of visual fragments generated by people whose only apparent connection was their simultaneous use of a particular communication technology. It felt almost like I had begun watching a movie which was already halfway done, or a daytime TV drama, in that I was trying to figure out the backstory, along with who the characters were and their relationship to one another.

Cognitively speaking, this is not at all unusual, as humans are hardwired to make meaning from experience. However, I can’t help but feel that if the images were less compelling, or treated in a less compelling manner, and if the text was less evocative, I would have quickly lost interest or gotten frustrated (or both). In other words, I am left to wonder if the work would have the same impact had the artists perhaps chosen to harvest images from a much larger range of RSS feeds, or if the artists had not thoughtfully and deliberately composed the text fragments themselves and opted instead to collect text fragments from a broad spectrum of sources. This is why I am reluctant, as some have done, to describe any of the components of this work as “random.” On one level, I agree that there is an element of randomness in the sense that there is no particular order in which the text and images are displayed, and that such an order would be meant to convey a clear plot and solid character development. However, if the images and text were generated and arranged completely randomly, I feel that the work would amount to nothing more than a programming exercise, and would no longer be art.

Folklorists, such as Amanda Banks and Elizabeth Wein (1998), have described comic strips and comic books as a contemporary manifestation of folk tales and myths, and that comic book authors often draw upon folk narratives, motifs, references, and archetypes in their work. One could thus argue that comic books function in a manner similar to folk tales in that they are reflections of a collective cultural consciousness, manifested through storytelling and personal narrative. Would it be such a stretch, then, to suggest that perhaps personal blogs have succeeded comic books as the most recent version of contemporary folklore, the newest devices for storytelling and a communal source of meaning? If so, interpreting Grafik Dynamo as a work which relies on the formal and literary conventions of the comic strip to frame a segment of the blogosphere (in this case, LiveJournal) as an example of how blogs have come to play a popular cultural role not unlike one played by comic strips and its predecessors would not be way off base.