Sculpting the Internet | On Digital Materiality- exhibition by Jan Robert Leegte

When looking at the many artistic projects focused on how and why we use the internet, it’s easy to find yourself lost in a field which doesn’t show obvious, strong ties with what we normally know as “traditional art history”. This is due to historical and social reasons that emerged between the 80s, 90s and early 2000. These artists were at the vanguard of art culture and pushed at the edges of what art could be, whilst living in a post-punk and postmodernist era, and on tip of this, the arrival of the Internet in 94 changed everything. Many artists took on the challenge of what the Internet offered the world creatively, and explored it not merely as a marketing tool or a place to upload images and videos, but as a medium in its own right, inventing new technically informed, artistic tools and also building grass root led, networked art groups with new infrastructures as cultural platforms. Turning away from anything relating to the mainstream art world and what was seen as outmoded and tired traditions.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the expansion of the Internet and its use by younger generations where the medium is no longer something you exploit to change the culture, but more to integrate in traditional terms, canonical contexts.However, artist Jan Robert Leegte (born in 1973) is a very important figure to reflect upon, in order to understand this transition; while other artists of his generation were taking the internet for a non-hierarchical distributed system, he chose to explore it from a classical studies background that forged the cardinal points of his artistic research. He reflects an Internet art influenced practice which not only exists online but also in physical space. In fact, we can safely say he can be considered as one of the first Post-Internet artists. This makes him a pivotal figure in this historical segment and it’s under this light that one must visit the online exhibition On Digital Materiality (Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen, 3 August-12 September 2016). It’s a retrospective show presenting some of the most important and representative works of the Dutch artist, who wrote for the occasion an essay in which describes some of the most important aspects of his work.

Leegte says, the “materials I first used were basic HTML objects, buttons, scrollbars, frame borders, table borders, and also plain color fields and found images. I questioned what it was that rendered this practice similar to making installations rather than collages. At first it was the simulacrum of real world interactive elements (buttons, window frames, etc.). The operating system extended this haptic strategy with traditional paper-based forms, like check boxes, text fields, lists, etc, and, along with the form elements and the interactive document, led to an ecosystem of fake 3D, interactive objects.”

The work fluctuates between working on the surface and thinking in three dimensions. The same difference can be found with his use of Photoshop and HTML. If in the former case an image editing software operates directly on the final result, for the latter there is the need to know how to write code while at the same time imagine what the potential results will bring via its translation in the public space, the internet. In this sense, we do not hesitate to define Leegte as an artist who studies and uses the tools of the sculptor; he wonders how to place objects in the space, he feels the problem of contextualising a work in relation to a public and physical environment.

                    Jan Robert Leegte, Scrollbar (2002), Image by Jan Robert Leegte

The perception of a substantial difference between surface and space is also proven with his interest in the basic elements of composing the digital interface (scrollbars, mouse pointers, etc). His research examines the artificial environment built by Microsoft and Apple designers. The colours and the shapes were designed to not be perceived as evident mediating agents between the user and the content – in this sense, it is interesting to note that Microsoft has often chosen a minimalist style (shades of grey, square shapes) while with Apple systems the style is usually more exuberant.

However, we should not look at the former as a less culturally relevant product. In the same way, we should not take the white cube exhibition space as a synonym of neutrality (unless we want to think that the whiteness and emptiness stay for an objectivity). This is an aspect that the artist does not seem to detect (in the text, he writes that he “preferred the aesthetics of the Windows classic interface design because of its minimalistic design – no rounded corners and ribbings like the OS 9 design, but simple beveled grey rectangles and a button object was merely a highlight and a shadow, nothing more”).

The artist reflected on how specific design elements may in some sense be preserved, as reflections and products of a particular aesthetic and cultural taste: “In Memory of New Materials Gone” (2014) is a work made by a print of the OS9 scrollbar placed in a transparent case in the same way you would do with an object no longer fashionable. This project and all the other works belonging to The Scrollbar Composition Series programmatically address the perception of virtually anonymous and transparent objects on the screen in a three-dimensional space. In a situation where their significance must be noticed; it’s the artist himself who begs to not see in this a disruptive act, an action that reveals the subtle ways in which they influence us. It is, however (but not “in opposition to”), a reflection on the artist’s activity; as we previously noted, these works are shown on the internet in the same manner in which they would be set up in a gallery space.

Screenshot of Random Selection in Random Image (2012) by Jan Robert LeegteScreenshot of Random Selection in Random Image (2012) by Jan Robert Leegte

Perhaps, the highest point of the artist’s reflection on the differences you meet working on a surface or in three dimensions is The Photoshop Marquee Selection Series. “Random Selection in Random Image” (2012), in which a randomly generated selection marquee is shown within an image randomly obtained from the net. It is the most important work of this series because it opens three-dimensional gaps which have been created sculpturally in two-dimensional images – a dynamic that has echoes of “Scrollbar Composition” (2000), in which the Web browser’s monodimensional space is broken down and reassembled in many windows, many independent spaces sharing only the mathematical material they are made of.

Screenshot of Scrollbar Composition (2000) by Jan Robert LeegteScreenshot of Scrollbar Composition (2000) by Jan Robert Leegte

The works featured in this exhibition are related to questions that go beyond the historical and cultural contingency in which they have been created. This makes many of them feel very much alive even 20 years after their creation (a novelty in digital art, I would say). This allows a healthy dialogue between different generations of artists to exist as common ground. It also engages art experts who want to be introduced to artistic issues linked to the internet. It is a dynamic that makes this exhibition a special opportunity for us all to relook at this so-called digital culture and its traditional and non-traditional art theories and its practice under a peculiar and exciting light.

On Digital Materiality – an Internet exhibition is online at Carroll / Fletcher Onscreen until 12 September


Nam June Paik – Video Philosopher

Intro.

Lynn Hershman Leeson is a renowned and accomplished artist and filmmaker in her own right. Over the last three decades she has pioneered uses of new technologies in critical investigations of issues, recognised as key to the workings of our society today. She tackles the big questions surrounding: identity in a time of consumerism; privacy in a era of surveillance; the interfacing of humans and machines; the relationship between real and virtual worlds; and growing parts of the human body from DNA samples. Last year Modern Art Oxford hosted a major solo exhibition of her work Origins of a Species, Part 2 and she has work in The Electronic Superhighway, at Whitechapel Gallery, in London at the moment. Her work has had a strong influence on many contemporary artists working with technology. Recently, ZKM in cooperation with the Deichtorhallen Hamburg / Sammlung Falckenberg exhibited the first comprehensive retrospective of Leeson’s oeuvre, and also the most recent productions of her work. In May this year a book of the same name Civic Radar, will be published, featuring a comprehensive monograph of this Feminist pioneer in the fields of film and performance art, edited by Peter Weibel.

Nam June Paik was born in 1932 Seoul, Korea and died 2006. Many in the artworld regard him as a visionary artist, thinker, and innovator. Considered the “father of video art,” his groundbreaking use of video technology blurred past distinctions between science, fine art, and popular culture to create a new visual language. Paik’s interest in exploring the human condition through the lens of technology and science has created a far-reaching legacy that may be seen in broad recognition of new media art and the growing numbers of subsequent generations of artists who now use various forms of technology in their work.

Through his progressive ideas and artworks Paik dared to imagine a future where the technological and playful innovations that we now take for granted might exist. This interview with Hershman Leeson is timely, documenting the meeting of two imaginative beings who have changed the history of work at the intersection of art and technology. The issues they discuss are as important now as they were then.

Nam June Paik, “Merce/Digital,” 1988 single-channel video sculpture with vintage television cabinets and fifteen monitors; color, silent, collection of Roselyne Chroman Swig, Copyright Nam June Paik Estate. (Image courtesy Nam June Paik Estate)

Interview.

This interview of Nam June Paik by Lynn Hershman Leeson was first published by Artweek, April 1980 Electronic Art.

LHL: If you were elected president, how would you solve the world’s problems?

NJP: I just wrote an essay about how to make oil obsolete. Number one, information has to be recognized officially as an alternate energy source. Information changes our lifestyle. Dancers and yogis achieve ecstasy with 200 calories. However, racing drivers, if they want to achieve ecstasy, have to burn 200,000 calories. I found this new economical law… any consuming activities – certain activities which have a higher spiritual quality – use less energy. For instance, when rich man can buy a Jasper Johns for $100,000, that takes very little energy. However, if rich man buys Cessna airplane and flies around, it takes a lot of energy. But contributions to national economy would be the same… $100,000 spent. Same thing when you buy a videotape recorder for $500. Or if rent a car for $500 – ten days – national economy benefits from the same. But videotape recorder consumes much less energy. So when we shift our economic priorities of consuming to more spiritual sphere then we can solve all economic problems with much less energy. I found it is much easier to go to Paradise than to make this a paradise. It’s much cheaper to die than to make this world a paradise.

LHL: Do you think we’re getting closer to that now – global spirituality or global promiscuity?

NJP: Same thing. Sex requires only 800 calories. Same ecstasy, but racing cars take many more calories. Everything counts on calories. We need worldwide dieting. Lose weight.

LHL: Do you think pleasure or ecstasy is being popularly redefined because of technology?

NJP: Also because of a lack of energy. Things are getting so expensive that we have to use less. If you telephoned me instead of flying to New York, we not only save $300 air fare, we also save American Airlines gasoline. If they have less business, they will fly less. So we should move ideas and not weight. Less gravity we use the better. Transportation and communication are a trade-off. The more communication and less transportation we use, the better.

LHL: So your ideal is that we shouldn’t move too much…

NJP: Well I coined a term called “Stationary Nomad.” We are nomads but we don’t move.

Electronic Superhighway (1995) by Nam June Paik. Source – http://s.si.edu/1PuXfwI

LHL: Do you think that we, as a species, are becoming biologically changed, that we’re almost becoming married to electronic systems?

NJP: Most important biological change is that when you move to moon you have to change sex patterns. You can make sex because you have certain weight. On the moon our weight is only one sixth so our whole muscular coordination has to be different.

LHL: What about all the perceptual changes?

NJP: When we have videodisc, all the New York Times microfilms will become like ten videodiscs. Then we’ll start browsing all hundred years of New York Times. Then you’ll look at early “help wanted” columns. Very interesting how the “help wanted” pattern changes over one hundred years. A new set of computer games would be born. Have you ever looked at New York Times microfilms? It’s very interesting. Celebration… that, I think, is the contribution of John Cage to world artists, because John Cage is first conceptual artist. Conceptual art is still very interesting movement because it requires least energy. No canvas. No movement. Just head!First time I’m coming from Asia to Europe, I’m flying from Calcutta to Cairo on a night plane. Everybody is sleeping. Only one light is on. A young American girl is reading paperback science fiction and I was so impressed. This girl was made for technology, you see. Celebrating.

LHL: How long will it be before ordinary people supersede movie stars, and intercommunicative TV and computers supplant fictional film?

NJP: I got an idea which I hope some capitalist will do. Interaction. Gene Youngblood had a conference at USC about the future of television, and he thought that interactive TV must be the alternative television. He knew but couldn’t quite formulate a complete idea about it. So it became chaos. Well, I thought chaos would be a great interactive TV. So the problem is how to create electronic chaos so we can enjoy each other. When you watch television or a very good film – which they make – really not very good… another one, you make it yourself, then there is also a limit of making it good because we don’t really know yet how to make our television. At the intermediate stage you will have ten different discs, and the first disc has only kissing scenes, the next only killing scenes, the third only music, the fourth only driving around scenes, the sixth just talking scenes, etc. Each disc is very complete. Kissing disc has all the kissing from movie history, every kissing of Marilyn Monroe, every kissing of Greta Garbo, and the second every killing scene from John Wayne. So we could just mix it according to our rhythms. Television proceeds in three-minute cycles. Every three minutes you want one nice thing, one bad thing, one mediocre thing… and music. So you have console and you just push buttons. So you interact with all of film history. I think that will be the intermediate stage before everyone has interactive television. It’s nice to meet and touch people, but it’s more exciting to talk very far. I just talked on telephone with Shigeko. It’s very exciting. She says: “Oh you’re never there!” She’s in a bad mood yesterday. She called… then I called back and she didn’t answer. This morning she didn’t answer again. I got an answering service. Distance makes things very exciting!

Nam June Paik, “Zen for TV,” 1963/1982, manipulated television set; black and white, silent, Collection of Marcel Odenbach, Copyright Nam June Paik Estate. (Lothar Schnepf)

LHL: What are you working on now? You were just in Israel.

NJP: Yes. For Allen Ginsberg and Allan Kaprow. For some reason I got to know people very early in their development. I’m just lucky. I got to know Kaprow very early. These two famous men kept my friendship. They let me be their friend. So I want to make a variety show with two Allens because they are so different. Kaprow is a very cerebral man. Ginsberg is a very emotional man. Ginsberg is very semantically avant-garde and Kaprow is very formalistically avant-garde. We were going to do a show with them on a raft on the Mississippi River… let them talk to each other. This was to be me Bicentennial product. Then everything got delayed. Delay and delay and delay in our lives. That has to be solved. The plot got thicker and thicker. Two years ago I had some travel money available so I thought maybe I’d bring Ginsberg and Kaprow to Israel. Then my travel fund dried up so I had to pay for all these tickets to go to Israel. It wiped out my whole savings.

LHL: Can’t business and pleasure be the same?

NJP: Yes. But playing is more interesting. Yet playing is harder. The futurist thing is how to play without being bored. That is the most important thing… how to forget the Protestant ethic… Confucianist has same thing… how to be able to play. Americans know how to play a little bit better than Europeans or Asians. Africans know a little more about playing than Americans. America and Africa got together and made American entertainment. America invaded the world through their jazz and not by their airplanes. Because of black people’s music, America is such a big image around the world. American defenses are made form two things… hardware and software. Russians can match American hardware because they can produce. But Russians cannot match American software because Russians don’t have black people. Russian culture is all nineteenth century… Bolshio Ballet. Now you can’t make video out of Bolshoi Ballet. You can only do it live. So Bolshoi, it’s only where rich people can go who are anti-Communist anyway. So they are wasting all Bolshoi Ballet because it never reaches poor people who are target for their propaganda. That’s because their culture is made before information technology. Scott Joplin, a black man, made his art especially for mass production – the “player piano.” The black people’s music from the beginning was developed for mass production. The rich Americans packaged it to sell. Of course the black people are exploited.

LHL: Do you have trouble playing?

NJP: I think I have this guilt complex… must work all the time. My doctor told me I should get enlightened. But I always think I must get enlightened after next job. Then, with the next job, I get more and more in debt. Then I need another two jobs to pay the bills. So my enlightenment gets postponed.

LHL: Do you think being enlightened and being in debt are related?

NJP: You can act enlightened even if you are hopelessly in debt. There’s a guy I know… he’s a Catholic. He drinks. He’s very fat… but he drinks one quart of Coca Cola everyday. He thinks he’ll just work until he dies. But I don’t want that kind of enlightenment. I don’t work too hard anyway. I just work minimum.

Artweek, April 1980 Electronic Art NAM JUNE PAIK – VIDEO PHILOSOPHER
c.lynnhershman1980 all rights reserved


A celebration of twenty years on the Web: My Boyfriend Came Back From The War

Annet Dekker in conversation with Olia Lialina

Twenty years ago, in 1996, Russian artist Olia Lialina created My Boyfriend Came Back From The War (MBCBFTW). Using the story of a veteran’s girlfriend who has mixed feelings when he returns, the interactive Web narrative quickly became an iconic work that inspired many artists to create their own interpretations of it. At the moment two exhibitions at HEK in Basel and MU in Eidhoven, pay hommage to MBCBFTW, a tribute to a medium and a new approach to keeping history alive.

Participating artists
Inbal Shirin Anlen, Freya Birren (Jennifer Walshe), Vadim Epstein, Dragan Espenschied, JODI, Olia Lialina, Abe Linkoln, Guthrie Lonergan, Armin Medosch, Ignacio Nieto, Anna Russett, Tale of Tales a.k.a. Entropy8Zuper!, Mark Wirblich. With two new works by Constant Dullaart and Foundland (commissioned by MU).

Educated as a journalist and film critic, and curating experimental film programmes in Moscow, in the mid-1990s Olia Lialina quickly embraced the Web and started experimenting with its unique qualities. She made her first net art piece, My Boyfriend Came Back From The War in 1996. Four years later she set up the Last Real Net Art Museum – an initiative to oppose museums that were presenting the first ‘Internet art exhibitions’, and a place on the Web where she could collect and exhibit the projects that responded to MBCBFTW. Ten years after she made her first net artwork, in 2006, in their popular book New Media Art (Taschen) Mark Tribe and Reena Jana wrote about MBCFTW: ‘One indicator of the historical significance of Olia Lialina’s 1996 Net art project, My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, is the numerous times it has been appropriated and remixed by other New Media artists. (…) Perhaps it resonates with other artists because it is among the earliest works of New Media art to produce the kind of compelling and emotionally powerful experience that we have come to expect from older, more established media, particularly film.’

In the meantime, Lialina had moved on and in addition to her online art practice, wrote about new media, Digital Folklore, the vernacular Web, co-founded the Geocities Research Institute, and became an animated GIF model and a professor at Merz Academy in Stuttgart, whilst the ‘mini-drama in hypertext’ MBCBFTW continued to be of interest to many artists, curators and critics. For its fifteenth anniversary, The Creators Project described MBCBFTW as a ‘charmingly simple yet poignant work’, emphasising its importance for the history of net art and its longevity through its interpretations. At the moment, as Lialina tells me, the project is discussed on Twine – an open source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories – where people communicate with each other about this ‘early Twine’. It is therefore not surprising that 2016 starts with two anniversary exhibitions, opening almost at the same time but in different frames, of My Boyfriend Came Back From The War. online since 1996. In what follows I asked Olia Lialina to reflect on the lasting popularity of the work, her intentions for making it, and her ideas about ways to go forward with it.

JODI, Wolfenstein 3D Game Modification, 2001 at MU, Eindhoven

Can you tell me something about your background, how did you end up being an artist and a professor?

Twenty years ago I was absolutely happy with what I did: writing about films, curating film programmes, trying to make my own films. But as with many who embrace the World Wide Web (or were embraced by it) when it left academia in the mid-1990s – I was lucky to have a sudden new life and career. I became an artist only because MBCBFTW became a piece of net art. And I could become a professor four years later because of it 🙂

Could you briefly describe what the work is about?

In my teens I came up with the sentence ‘My boyfriend came back from the war, after dinner they left us alone.’

Мой парень вернулся с войны

И вот мы остались одни

And I always wanted to complete it as a poem, but the next lines never came. Years later, still confused about the phrase, I made it into an ambivalent dialogue with the browser: dividing it into frames. It was never about a war, but about a difficult conversation that doesn’t lead anywhere, and of course about the browser. I wanted to make something that people would spend time with and look at in the browser. This was also possible back then because the connection was much slower – so it took time to go through it. This has changed a lot now: HTML adapts to faster speeds, and most of us aren’t used to waiting – or loading time – anymore. You cannot click slowly if something is fast. That is also why we artificially slowed down the Internet connection for the exhibition.

When you started working on the Web, you came from a background in journalism and film. What sparked your interest in HTML frames?

They were very new at the time, not every browser supported them and you had to install the Netscape 3 version that had just been released – although in specifications I see now that it also worked in Netscape 2, but I remember that it didn’t back then. So, at the time it was cutting-edge technology – even though there was already a ‘I-hate-frames’ movement on the net, which I only discovered later. For me, it was interesting to see that a browser window could be divided up: you could assign coordinates, partition the screen and have multiple HTML documents within the same window. It sounds naive now, but at the time it was very empowering: I felt like a hacker, I could decide what it looked like and how it functioned.

And it reminded me of celluloid. I used to work with experimental 16mm film: cutting and pasting frames together. The editing was a way to work with the material, not just a concept. So, the connection between film and browser frames was something exciting. At the time I always talked about MBCBFTW as a net film. Someone more familiar with CD-ROM art, programming or interactive art would probably see it differently, but for me using frames inside the browser was a way to edit – it was a direct transition from being a filmmaker to a net artist.

While preparing the inventory table with all the elements of MBCBFW for the exhibition and reviewing the HTML code, I saw so many mistakes that I felt a bit ashamed. Mona Ulrich, one of my students, and I noticed warning after warning while reading through the code. So, it’s not only an old code, it is also very buggy, but despite all that it still works! That is the great thing about HTML, it has a very high tolerance, and it’s very forgiving if you write ‘bad’ code. It allows you to make mistakes: it’s not even that it was easy to learn, but rather that you didn’t really have to learn it at all.

In 2000 you started the Last Real Net Art Museum, as an initiative to collect and present interpretations of MBCBFTW. Could you explain the context and purpose of the Last Real Net Art Museum?

The Last Real Net Art Museum was a provocation to museums who in the late 1990s and early 2000s started making their own online net art exhibitions and collections – and at first they seemed to succeed, but it turned out they didn’t. In my title, ‘Real’ meant that an online collection should be based on links, because the net was about making links to people, information, etc. A good example was äda ’web designed by Vivian Selbo and curated by Benjamin Weil for the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis between 1995 and 1998. Because this and other projects ended, another phenomenon started with museums like the Guggenheim, Tate and Whitney who acquired copies of Internet art and just kept these somewhere on a floppy or a CD, or showed the work in a pop-up window on their website – for me this was not real, and rather disrespectful of the artworks. And ‘Last’ meant that this previous method was completely disappearing.

The Last Real Net Art Museum was also sort of self-referential because of the First Real Net Art Gallery that I made in 1998, where I sold net art. It wasn’t a gallery selling offline art online, but people could buy online art for the first time. Since the First gallery was still well known in 2000, and to make the connection between the works, the second one became the Last

Talking about museums and collections, was MBCBFTW ever acquired?

Yes, there is a copy at Telepolis, which was sold for what I thought back then was the amazing sum of 300 German Marks, but it was above all a statement. It’s also in a museum collection, MEIAC (http://www.meiac.es/) in Spain, and has been bought by a private collector, too. There is one more edition left. For this one I think it makes sense to sell the complete package: a computer, a monitor with the right resolution (800 x 600) a slowed-down server connection, an emulator with the old Netscape browser and all the other settings. Everything is emulated, simulated and fake, but the work is alive in its most precious state.

I have also adapted the work at certain times, for example around 2006 I added Google Ads to the website, not to become rich, but to reflect the Web of that time. Without the Ads it seemed old-fashioned and I wanted it to be alive and contemporary. About a year ago I removed them, because they made the work look outdated. It was interesting to see what Google thought suited the site – mostly non-governmental sites. Unfortunately, I never captured this version. That’s the irony – part of me is very much involved in preserving the Web, but when it’s about my own work, I change things immediately and forget how it was before.

The adaptations to the medium are striking in all the different interpretations. Seeing all the works next to each other illustrates a historical technical lineage of online practices: from HTML frames to blogs, games, video and VR. In a sense the Web seems almost to be little more than a constantly changing technical environment. Many have argued that this emphasis on medium specificity is one of the reasons why it took/is taking so long for net art to be taken seriously by the traditional art worlds. How do you view the relationship between the concept and the technical or formal aspects of the work?

For me the main concept and message of the work is the medium specificity. When thinking about the MBCBFTW exhibition we noticed now that it is also about the development of the Web. Yes, it has many technical translations. For example, the work by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (previously known as Entropy8Zuper!) was made in Flash; it was interactive and had sound, and for that time it was the most obvious software to use. Then Blog and Twitter versions were made, people kept changing it to other realities of the Web. What is interesting though is that the last interpretation, by Inbal Shirin Anlen, brought it back to its original classic HTML structure. The variations are some sort of tribute to the medium: these can range from manifestations of particular elements, to an aesthetic message or a personal statement in the medium.

I strongly believe that there is no contradiction between medium specificity and a mature conceptual message. For that reason I also think that it’s important to always emphasise how the work is made – it just being ‘art’ is not enough; I cannot forget about the Web or the net. In my article ‘Flat against the Wall’ of 2007, I wrote that while it is fine that Web art is part of the art market now, it would be a tragedy if we lost its connection to the Web. It can be a topic of contemporary art but it should stay part of the new media art scene.

For the exhibition you choose specific interpretations. What were your criteria for this selection?

We had to make a selection because some things have been lost. At the time of the Last Real Net Art Museum I thought it was important to just have the links to the works rather than showing copies of the works. So, unfortunately now some works are missing because nobody saved them, the Internet Archive didn’t capture them, and the artists (some of them students at the time) said they didn’t have their work anymore. For example, Web comics were popular at the beginning of the century and someone made a version in that style, which unfortunately didn’t survive either.

In the exhibition we left out works that had a similar structure, but almost all of them are featured in the book that was made for the show by House of Electronic Arts (HeK) in Basel, for example, Don Quichote Came Back From The War (2006) by santo_file group.  But we also left some out of the exhibition that – perhaps surprisingly – were just too difficult to show such as the beautiful animated gif by Mike Konstantinov. He made this animated gif in 2000 and it was widely used for and known as a website banner. This work was a typical banner, 468 x 60 in size, and because it doesn’t use any of the images from the original work is also mimicked the cheesiness of banners. In the book it is printed frame-by-frame, but it’s difficult to show the banner phenomenon in an exhibition. We thought of several ways: put it on a random website, or against a black background, but in the end we decided not to present it at all. It just didn’t work.

Another example that isn’t included in the exhibition is Roman Leibov’s work. Leibov is the unofficial father of the Russian Internet. In the mid-1990s the Web in Russia had a strong literary tradition, it was all about games with words and meaningful and innovative hypertexts, including of course many references to Russian literature. I made MBCBFTW in English to intentionally distance myself from this tradition. I wanted to create something very formal because I’m very interested in the structures of the browser, the frames, etc. Had I made it in Russian it would have ended up in a different culture. At the time it was a massive effort, because English wasn’t my language. Then I asked Roman Leibov to make a text version and post it on the Russian Internet, which he did. He took every frame and described it like a film critic, and it ends with a monologue, making it into a piece of literature.

How do you see this type of approach now? To me at times it seems there is much less experimentation with templates or in the browser.

Yes, it’s more difficult to be curious now. The browser is still generous, you can open the source code and look at it, but it’s very complicated to change the code, if you can do it at all. The gap between people looking at and those making the pages has become enormous now. At the time it was easy to copy and modify other people’s pages, but now it is much more difficult to do this.

In this sense, perhaps, Blingee is my favourite place to go at the moment. It is a creative community where people fulfil their wish to make something themselves, where they can construct something from other people’s material. It isn’t because they can’t afford Photoshop, it’s about finding things made by others and reusing them such that they become completely different, and also that those layers can be made visible again, showing the elements that have been used. All the layers in the images have value and they are there to be admired. You can also see the tricks people use to fool or misuse the system. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Blingee version of MBCBFTW yet.

What I like about the work from an historical point of view that it consists of two types of archives: the table with all the information and components that are necessary to reconstruct the work, and the living archive of different people’s interpretations. Which method do you prefer?

The archive is an interesting part. MBCBFTW consists of many files, yet it is only 72 KB in size, which is smaller than a small image today. In the early 2000s I wanted to write about the life of a work of art, its making, what is important to keep and its preservation, even though I didn’t think it was necessary for net art. Now I see that it does make sense to write down all these details, so Mona Ulrich and I updated the old table for the exhibition. The table shows all the files, their sizes and which one is used in what frame. Even if someone has never seen the work, it could be reconstructed by following the information on the table. Maybe someone should try it sometime.

However, thinking about the future of the work, I prefer the interpretative approaches, because they are closer to my way of working. I’m also happy, and proud, that people take it as a structure and build something else out of it. I also think it’s interesting to see to what extent it can still be recognised as being an interpretation of MBCFTW, what are those elements? For example, Ignacio Nieto made a tribute for the Chilean soldiers who died in the mountains, it’s his story, and he merely used the same frame structure, but he asked me whether he could make and show the work. It is a bit strange of course, because I don’t have a patent for the frames, yet the specific use of the frames is one of the work’s main characteristics. I also noticed that most people keep the left frame intact and the frames to the right proportionally become smaller. Perhaps it’s similar to the golden ratio in design, but then for frames. A final characteristic is that all the interpretations always end with nothing, with black frames.

The exhibitions My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, online since 1996 are on view till 20 March 2016 at MU in Eindhoven (NL) and HEK in Basel (CH).


Robert Hewison’s Future Tense 25 Years Later

Introduction.

This article revisits Robert Hewison’s book, Future Tense: A New Art For The Nineties, [1] published in 1990. The book focused on contemporary attitudes to art, architecture and design that manifested in what had come to be called the postmodern era. Earlier avant-gardes of collectives and groups such as Dada, Situationism, Fluxus and the Lettrists had incorporated new technologies and challenged the material values embraced by museums and traditional hierarchies in modern art and capitalist society. Hewison set out to discover the ways in which artists of the 80s contributed to a “critical culture” for the 90s. [2]

In the 70s in the UK, art had a role to play in changing society, transforming relations to controlling production and critiquing the role of the establishment. Hewison’s mission was to observe contemporary culture happening in the late 80s in Britain with an emphasis on the future. Even though there had been a massive evolution in culture; within and across the fields of music, art and theory, it was also a new dawn for capitalism as it morphed into what we now know as neoliberalism. By revisiting Hewison’s book I hope to elucidate what the cultural shifts and differences in our art culture then and now are, and invite you the reader to reflect on what they mean to those of us engaging with and practicing across the fields of art, technology and social change today.

Postmodern What?

The way Hewison deals with postmodernism and its rapport with art and society is complex. He appears to regard much of the established art promoted in the late 80s, such as works by Jeff Koons, as banal marketing schemes, appealing to the interests of a privileged art-buying elite. He is more positive about grass roots communities re-appropriating and remixing art culture for others to claim on their terms. Michael Archer in his review of Present Tense in Marxism Today (1990) observed that not only was Hewison critical of modernism but also of postmodernism, which did little more than signal modernism’s ending. [3]

[4] (Hewison 1990)

Lyotard argues that the grand narratives of 20th century modernism did not produce the benefits expected; rather, they have led to overt or covert systems of oppression. From this perspective the French Revolution and classic Marxism are seen only as forms of overarching and oppressive, ideology. Frederic Jameson offers another perspective on the ideas and social contexts around postmodernism. In his book Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson says “It is safest to grasp the concept of postmodernism as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten to think historically in the first place.” [5]

Future Tense’s cover image on the front of the book still feels contemporary. It shows a young woman about to kiss her mirror image while in front of a cracked glass, window. It alludes to a sense of culture – felt then as we still feel it now: as a disjointed picture of the world where modes of thinking and representation show us fragmentations, discontinuities and inter-textuality, and ‘bits-as-bits’ rather than unified objects. If the image were created now with a smashed up computer or mobile phone screen or an interface, its message would not be so different. We tend to beam our faces at our computer screens and then the screens beam right back at us, reflecting at us like data-mirrors, showing back not only a distorted image of ourselves but also a distorted multiverse.

Art Featured in Future Tense.


There has always been an irony at play with Gilbert & George. They usually expound a kind of punk aesthetic as an edgy chic; your lowest, basic, bigoted and unreconstructed inner ape giggles at their poo jokes. Yet while they subvert the idea of the ‘high’ of ‘high art’ by breaking life-style taboos they never bite the ‘high’ hand that feeds them. They know that shock is a dead cert currency just as the gutter press understands that sex and outrage sells, and that ethics and criticality get in the way of free market play. They sit well with the younger establishment in the arts, especially Damien Hirst and his peer YBAs, and similar Saatchi and Saatchi marketing investments.

Hewison discusses Saatchi and Saatchi’s gallery space, and how the work presented in the space achieves an apparent purity, which detaches it from life, and that it has that autonomy within its own sphere which much twentieth-century art has sought to achieve. But in doing so it has separated itself from that other impulse, to use art as a means of revisualising, and so changing the world. [6] (Hewison 1990) This is still a big problem with art across the board even now. Most art agencies, orgs and galleries, are still separated from people’s everyday life experience. In contrast Michael Clark and his dance company was and still is a breath of fresh air. Even though he was classically trained, Clark tore “up the conventions of ballet, mixing sound and image in a rapid collage of creation, quotation and reference that plunders popular culture with calculated offence.” [7]
 

Michael Clark Company with THE FALL, performing “I Am Curious, Orange,”
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, September 1988. Photo: Richard Haughton

Cross cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations have been another marker of radical transformation in the postmodern era. Clark’s collaboration with the punk band The Fall in 1988 is a case in point where two different fields meet and create a brilliant outcome.

“I’ve always had a very strong relationship to music, to punk and pop – David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Sex Pistols, especially The Fall. The Fall’s song “New Puritan” was kind of a clarion call to me, not just because its rhythm is so ramshackle. When you listen to it, you wonder, “How the fuck do the musicians stay together?” Apart from that, the song encouraged me to say, “Wow, I’ll do it just like Mark E. Smith!” You know, “New Puritan” was against the idea of a big company, and I didn’t want to be employed by anyone. I didn’t want to sign a contract. I wanted to make my own work. I wanted independence, my own company. Mark E. Smith was definitely an example for that.” [8] (Clark 2014)


Of Mutability. exhibited at the ICA in 1984-86. Helen Chadwick.

Many women artists during the 80s and 90s were using their bodies and identity as part of their art practice. Perhaps, one of the most treasured in the UK and greatly missed is Helen Chadwick who died on the 15th March 1996.

“Long before the current artistic obsession with the human body as a means for exploring identity, Chadwick had declared that “my apparatus is a body x [multiplied by] sensory systems with which to correlate experience”” [9] (Buck 1996)


Helen Chadwick. Piss Flowers, 1991-92. Bronze, cellulose lacquer12 parts,
each approx. 70 x 65 x 65 cm, each approx 25 kg.

Yet, her work resonates beyond her time period and still lives on through individuals inspired by her imaginative works to this day. Hewison dedicates five pages to Chadwick, and when discussing her installation Of Mutability, he says her work possessed a particular autonomy and, “Chadwick has found that the piece is most quickly appreciated by bisexuals who apprehend more easily the polymorphous nature desire.” [10] (Hewison 1990)

Hewison refers to the media baron Cardinal Borgia Gint in Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, the baron in the film says “You wanna know my story, babe, it’s easy. This is the generation of who forgot how to lead their lives. They were so busy watching my endless movie. It’s power, Babe. Power. I don’t create it, I own it. I sucked and sucked and sucked. The Media became their only reality, and I owned the world of flickering shadows – BBC, TUC, ATV, ABC, ITV, CIA, CBA, NFT, MGM, C of E. You name it – I bought them all, and rearranged the alphabet.” [11]

Hewison talks about the destructive power of Rupert Murdoch and other media barons at the time. Even today the UK has been relentlessly plagued by the Murdoch empire, which a couple of years ago accidentally revealed its true colours forcing a decision to close the News of the World paper when it found itself at the centre of a phone-hacking scandal. Employees of the newspaper were accused of engaging in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories [12]. Particularly damaging was the discovery by investigators that not only were the phones of public figures hacked- celebrities, politicians and British Royal Family members- but also the phones of private individuals, already innocent victims of public tragedies such as the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler and victims of the 7 July 2005 London bombings. The lives of us all are fair game as raw material for stories for the media markets.

Jubilee is one of those films that have so much in it and whenever I watch it again I always see something new. “The film originated in Jarman’s friendship with Jordan, the front woman for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s most outrageous designs for Sex and then Seditionaries – and a punk icon. Jubilee included several punk groups in this state-of-the-nation address – Adam and the Ants, the Slits, Wayne County – marking the start of a fertile relationship with the music industry.” [13]


Conclusion.

Revisiting Future Tense reminds us how influential and necessary punk was, and still is in creating the conditions for emancipation and artistic freedom. While postmodernism is able to describe and explain the workings of the postindustrial media ecologies it doesn’t create artistic agency. We don’t need it to make change. It’s main agency still remains within an academic framework. In contrast punk expanded beyond and reached the middle classes, but also included working class culture and influenced new forms of independent, collaborative and artistic expression.

“The credo that Anyone Can Do It reached a mass of individuals and groups not content with their assigned cultural roles as disaffected consumers watching the world go by. Like the Situationists, Punk was not merely reflecting or reinterpreting the world it was also about transforming it at an everyday level” [14]

Introducing dualities tends to force us into observing things with combative eyes and not as various levels of artistic engagements and situated knowledges. Of course, the other part of the story is artists’ use of technology and how this has a lineage in its own right. But, Future Tense is still relevant and all the more poignant because looking back reminds us how much creative imagination has been hidden, forgotten and lost by art institutions, galleries and art magazines, as they rely on the same historical canons, generation after generation. The last real social and Cultural Revolution, artistic evolution or even renaissance, was with punk. Although since the Internet we can now include glimmers of hope with Net Art and Tactical Media, and strands of hacktivism, early pirate radio and TV, and BBS’s. It’s obvious that corporations and their markets have wedged in their own yes men (and women) as troops to counteract and prevent the occurrence of another explosion of emancipation.

Ask yourself how many people working in the media or in the arts: the funding sector, art agencies, art galleries, art mags, art organisations, are from working class backgrounds? Where do the possibilities exist for actual artistic emancipation? All around me I see opportunities closing down and people closing the doors behind them; as the conditions imposed by the neoliberal 1% hoover up all of the resources, through the invention of Austerity measures. In fact, there are only a few artists and art organisations daring to even mention that neoliberalism even exists, self-censoring them selves so that their funding or jobs are not suddenly compromised. By going along with this we participate in killing our imaginations and artistic freedoms for expression now and in the future, dumbing everything down across the board. Don’t just take my word for it. Hewison’s latest book about culture and political policy published in 2014 Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain describes the impact of New Labour, targets, and an instrumentalised meritocratic ideology in the time of Cool Britannia and the 2012 Olympics and offers an in-depth account of creative Britain losing its way.

“It’s not a pretty sight, and his findings of folly, incompetence and vanity will entertain and disturb readers in equal measure. They should also embarrass any politicians and arts administrators who retain a degree of self-awareness.” [15]

Artists are now expected to be ‘AWSOME’, malleable entities. There is a pressure to try and get ahead of everyone else by repackaging one’s artistic intentions, ideas and behaviours under the (it’s obvious surely) ironic term innovation. This is so artists can morph to participate in a false economy that only accepts art to conform within the demands of a consumer, dominated remit. Thankfully, there are still grounded artists and networks of practice that understand the value to a wider culture of keeping their critical faculties sharp and experimenting with other ways to create, distribute and appreciate culture in the network age. 

To end this short journey, I will leave you with a note from the conclusion of Future Tense– “[…] within the gaps and cracks of the present culture there are possibilities for renewal. Join up the cracks, and a network forms; follow the lines, and a new map appears. It points beyond the post-Modern.” Good advice….

 

References:

[1] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990).

[2] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). Introduction in the book.

[3] The Crisis I n d u s t r y. Michael Archer. Marxism Today. June 1990.

[4] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). P.13

[5] Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Verso Books, 1991.

[6] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). P.48.

[7] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). P.112.

[8] MICHAEL CLARK Reflects on 30 Years of Choreography. Interview with By JAN KEDVES August 2014. http://032c.com/2014/anti-ballet-post-punk-michael-clark-reflects-on-30-years-of-choreography/

[9] Louisa Buck. OBITUARY: Helen Chadwick. Independent. Monday 18 March 1996. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaryhelen-chadwick-1342742.html

[10] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). P.159.

[11] Wikipedia. News International phone hacking scandal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_International_phone_hacking_scandal

[12] Robert Hewison. Future Tense: A New Art for the Nineties. Methuen Publishing Ltd (31 May 1990). P.47.

[13] Derek Jarman – Jubilee. _Black_Acrylic
http://0black0acrylic.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/derek-jarman-jubilee.html

[14] Agit Disco VS The Zombie Apocalypse. By Marc Garrett – 01/01/2014
https://www.furtherfield.org/features/reviews/agit-disco-vs-zombie-apocalypse

[15] Alwyn Turner, author of A Classless Society
http://www.versobooks.com/books/1760-cultural-capital


Choose Your Muse Interview: Lynn Hershman Leeson

Introduction.

Choose Your Muse is a new series of interviews where Marc Garrett asks emerging and established artists, curators, techies, hacktivists, activists and theorists; practising across the fields of art, technology and social change, how and what has inspired them, personally, artistically and culturally.

Lynn Hershman Leeson artist and filmmaker, who over the last three decades, has been internationally acclaimed for her pioneering use of new technologies and her investigations of issues that are now recognized as key to the working of our society: identity in a time of consumerism, privacy in a era of surveillance, interfacing of humans and machines, and the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Her work was featured in “A Bigger Splash: Painting After Performance” at the Tate Modern London in 2012 and a retrospective and catalogue are being planned for 2015 at the Zentrum fur Kunst Und Medientechnologie, Germany. Modern Art Oxford is hosting a major solo exhibition of her work Origins of a Species, Part 2, and it’s open until 9 August 2015.

Lynn Hershman Leeson released the ground-breaking documentary !Women Art Revolution in 2011. It has been screened at major museums internationally and named by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the three best documentaries of the year.


The image above is from !Women Art Revolution, which introduces the Guerilla Girls who draw attention to injustice and under-representation across artistic platforms and institutions. Several members discuss their origin story and modus operandi, including “the penis countdown. !Women Art Revolution won the first prize in 2012 at the festival in Montreal on Films on Art.

She also wrote, directed, produced and edited the feature films Strange Culture, Conceiving Ada, and Teknolust. All featured Tilda Swinton and were showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival before being distributed internationally. After her retrospective, at CIVIC RADAR in December 2014, a bumper catalogue consiosting of 450 pages will be published in Oct 2015. Featuring writing by Peter Weibel, Laura Poitras, Tilda Swinton, Kristine Stiles, B Ruby Rich, Hou Hanru, Andreas Beitin, Peggy Phelan, Pamela Lee, Jeffrey Schnapp, kyle Stephan and Ingeborg Reichle. Civic Radar is now at Diechterhallen Falkenberg till November 19, 2015.

Start of Interview.

Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?

Lynn Hershman Leeson: What has inspired me are people who work with courage to do original work that has a political and authentic ethic. These include, to name a few only, it seems a bit strange because naming them isolates these artists from the context of their contributions. But I have been inspired by Lee Miller, Mayakovsky, Tinguely, early Automata and so many more like Thomas Edison, Jules Etienne Marrey, even Cezanne. Early on I educated myself by copying works to get a sense of how particular artists formulated their language – the way Rembrandt used light, Leonardo’s draftsmanship and parallels he found between technology and science, Gauguin’s color reversals, Brecht, Breton and Duchamp’s ironic and iconic archetypal identities, Tadeauz Kantor, and Grotowsky’s extension of the frame.

Also younger artists (nearly everyone is) like Rafael Lezano Hemmer, particularly the work he is doing now in using facial recognition to locate kidnapped victims, Amy Siegal’s Providence, Janet Biggs, Annika Yi, Nonny de la Pena, Tania Bruguera, Ricardo Dominguez, and many many more.

                     Lee Miller photographed women in fire masks in wartime London in 1944.
                                        [Source: Telegraph/Lee Miller Archives]

                          Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Sandbox, Relational Architecture 17”, 2010.
Glow Festival, Santa Monica, USA. Photo by: Antimodular Research.

MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?

LHL: I think these examples added to my conceptual dimensional and historical overview which has been reflected in my practice. There are direct links also, like how the breathing machines and suicide machines relate to Tinguely, or how Roberta relates to Duchamp and Breton. But these are obvious and on the surface. The deeper perspectives embed themselves into the structure and architecture of the work. Political references like Civil Rights and The Feminist Movement are part of the core of the time I lived through and the resulting collage that is my work.

                                      Breathing Machine. 1965. Lynn Hershman

MG: How different is your work from your influences and what do you think the reasons for this are?

LHL: I think we all work in the time frame we are born into, and if we are lucky use the materials or invent the technologies to give presence and voice to the political gestures of that era. We cannot produce work from another era other than what we inhabit and really have to be in tune with the global framing of the tools and language invented during our life time.

MG: Is there something you’d like to change in the art world, or in fields of art, technology and social change; if so, what would it be? How would that happen?

LHL: Of course I would open up the process and systemic repressions, which would hopefully result in eradicating censorship, and the making more transparent the capitalistic underpinnings that are polluting access, value and visibility. In the 70’s, I did the first prison art project in San Quentin, and many early public art works geared toward social change, and it just required fortitude and clarity that resulted in breaking down systems of perceived values.

MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?

LHL: Well, hearing about Steve Kurtz’s predicament and the unfairness of it caused me to make the film Strange Culture.  I personally experienced exclusion and rejection – as did many women, and that inspired !Women Art Revolution. I think work comes out of awareness of the situations of one’s time.

Steve Kurtz’s nightmare began on May 11, 2004, when he awoke to find his wife Hope dead of a heart attack. Police responding to his distressed 911 call became suspicious of scientific paraphernalia in his house (materials for an art project on genetically modified food) and contacted the FBI. Soon his world was turned upside down. Only hours after his wife’s tragic death he was suddenly a murder suspect, an accused bioterrorist, and a pariah to all but his closest friends.

The film is told through a unique blend of interviews, documentary footage, and reconstructed scenes starring Tilda Swinton, Thomas Jay Ryan, and Peter Coyote, Hershman’s critically-acclaimed film is a sophisticated, look at how the traumatic events of 9/11 altered American society and undermined its long-held values. [1]

MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and social change?

LHL: Stay true to your vision, forge ahead no matter what the obstacles are and keep your sense of humor.

                       Three images from, Origins of the Species (Part 2). Lynn Hershman Leeson.
                                      Modern Art Oxford. 29 May — 9 August 2015.

“Ms. Hershman Leeson continues to use art as an advance warning system in new work, developed with scientists, that focuses on, and participates in, the phenomenon of genetic manipulation. The show’s most recent piece is an installation of wallpaper made from images of hybrid animals, plants, and human limbs created through DNA manipulation, regenerative medicine and 3-D bio-printing. It looks great in the gallery, and like much of this artist’s work, it takes both ethics and aesthetics in ungraspable directions.”[2]

                            
MG:
Finally, could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for the readers to view, and if so why?

LHL: The Art and Technology show in MdM at Salzburg, my exhibition and catalogue for The Burden of Guilt. The Electronic Super Highway and catalogue coming up at Whitechapel next year. Recommendations for catalogues: !War Graphic Novel, Marshal McLuhan, Rebecca Solnet’s River of Shadows, Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild, Kristine Stiles: States of Mind,  Peter Weibel: The Global Contemporary and the Rise of the New Art World,  and so many others. I also think for instance that James Watson’s Double Helix is beautifully written. So many possibilities for educating one’s self exist.

References.

[1] Strange Culture Directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson, 2006.
http://www.docurama.com/docurama/strange-culture/

[2] Lynn Hershman Leeson: ‘Origins of the Species’. Art in Review. By Holland Cotter. The New York Times. March 26, 2015.
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/27/arts/design/lynn-hershman-leeson-origins-of-the-species.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

                            


Mainframe Experimentalism

Mainframe Experimentalism
Early Computing And The Foundations Of The Digital Arts
Edited by Hannah B Higgins and Douglas Kahn
University of California Press, 2012
ISBN 978-0-520-26838-8

The history of arts computing’s heroic age is a family affair in Hannah B Higgins and Douglas Kahn’s Mainframe Experimentalism. Starting with the founding legend of the FORTRAN programming workshops that one of the editors’ parents led in their New York apartment in the 60s, the book quickly broadens across continents and decades to cover the mainframe and minicomputer period of digital art. Several of the chapters are also written by children of the artists. Can they make the case that the work they grew up with is of wider interest and value?

The 1960s and 1970s were the era prior to the rise of home and micro computing, when small computers weighed as much as a fridge (before you added any peripherals to them) and large computers took up entire air conditioned offices. Mainframes cost millions of dollars, minicomputers tens of thousands at a time when the average weekly wage was closer to a hundred dollars. To access a computer you had to engage with the institutions that could afford to maintain them – large businesses and universities, and with their guardians – the programmers and system administrators who knew how to encode ideas as marks on punched cards for the computer to run.

Computers looked like unlikely tools or materials for art. The governmental, corporate and scientific associations of computers made them appear actively opposed to the individualistic and humanistic nature of mid-20th Century art. It took an imaginative leap to want to use, or to encourage others to use, computers in art making.

Perec's english FlowchartFlowchart for asking your boss for a raise, Georges Perec

Many people were unwilling or unable to make that leap. As Grant Taylor describes in The Soulless Usurper, “Almost any artistic endeavor(sic) associated with early computing elicited a negative, fearful, or indifferent response”(p.19). The idea, or the cognates, of computing were as powerful a force in culture as any access to actual computer hardware, a point that David Bellos makes with reference to the pataphysical bureaucratic dramas of Georges Perec’s Thinking Machines. Those wider cultural ideas, such as structuralism, could provide arts computing with the context that it sorely lacked in most people’s eyes as Edward A. Shanken argues in his discussion of the ideas behind Jack Burnham’s “Software” exhibition, an intellectual moment in urgent need of rediscovery and re-evaluation.

Georg Nees, 23-Ecken, 1964. Computer drawing.
Georg Nees, 23-Ecken, 1964.

The extensive resources needed to access computing machinery led to clusters of activity around those institutions that could provide access to them. In Information Aesthetics and the Stuttgart School, Christoph Klütsch describes the emergence of a style and theory of art in that town (including work by Frieder Nake and Manfred Mohr) in the mid-1960s. In communist Yugoslavia the New Tendencies school at Zagreb achieved international reach with its publications and conferences as described by Margit Rosen.

Charlie Gere’s Minicomputer Experimentalism in the United Kingdom describes the institutional aftermath of the era that is the book’s focus. Like Gere I arrived at Middlesex University’s Centre For Electronic Arts in the 1990s with the knowledge that there was a long history of computer art making there. Also like Gere I encountered John Lansdowne in the hallways and regret not taking the opportunity to ask him more about his groundbreaking work.

Perhaps surprisingly, music was an early aesthetic and cultural success for arts computing. The mathematics of sound waveforms, or musical scores, were tractable to early computers that had been built to service military and engineering mathematical calculations. In James Tenney at Bell Labs, Douglas Kahn makes the case that “Text generation and digitally synthesized sound were the earliest computer processes adequate to the arts” (p.132) and argues convincingly for the genuine musical achievements of the composer’s work there. Branden W. Joseph places John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia performance “HPSCHD”, made using the ILLIAC II mainframe, in the context of the aesthetics and the critical reactions of both, and considers how the experience may have influenced Cage’s later more authoritarian politics. Cristoph Cox, Robert A. Moog and Alvin Lucier all write about the latter’s “North American Time Capsule 1967”, a proto-glitch vocoder piece that, as someone who is not any kind of expert in that area, I didn’t feel warranted such extensive treatment.

Output from Alison Knowles' "House of Dust", 1967. Computer printout.
Output from Alison Knowles’ “House of Dust”, 1967.

Hannah B Higgins provides An Introduction To Alison B Knowles’s House of Dust, describing it as “an early computerized poem”. It’s a good poem, later realized in physical architecture, and given extensive responses by students and other artists, that helps underwrite the claim for early arts computing’s cultural and aesthetic significance. Benjamin H.D. Buchlock describes the cultural and programmatic construction of the poem in The Book of the Future. And to jump ahead for a moment, a later extract from Dick Higgins’ 1968 pamphlet “Computers for the Arts” explains the programming techniques that programs like “House of Dust” used.

I mention this now because of the way that the extract of Higgins’ pamphlet contrasts with the version published in 1970 (available online as a PDF scan that I would urge anyone interested in the history of arts computing to find and study under academic fair use/dealing). Mainframe Experimentalism includes many wonderful examples of the output of programs, and many detailed descriptions of the construction of artworks. But the original of “Computers for the Arts” goes beyond this. It includes not just a description of the code techniques but a walk-through of the code and the actual FORTRAN IV program listings. Type these into a modern Fortran compiler and they will run (with a couple of extra compiler flags…). For all the strengths of Mainframe Experimentalism, it is this kind of incredibly rare primary source material that we also need access to, and it is a shame that where more was available it couldn’t be included.

Three Early Texts by Gustav Metzger on Computer Art collated by Simon Ford gives the reader a feel for the intellectual zeitgeist of arts computing at the turn of the 1970s, one that might surprise critics then and now with its political literacy and commitment. William Kazen brings Nam June Paik’s lesser known computer(rather than television)-based work to the foreground while tying it to the artist’s McLuhanish hopes for empowering global media.

Emmet Williams, IBM, 1973, Print.
Emmet Williams, IBM, 1973.

Knowles’ poem isn’t in the section on poetry (it’s classified as Intermedia), which begins with Christopher Funkhouser’s First-Generation Poetry Generators: Establishing Foundations in Form. Funkhouser gives an excellent overview of the technologies and approaches used to create generative text in the mid 1960s, providing a wonderful selection of examples while tracking pecedents back through Mallarme to Roman times.

In Letter to Ann Noël Emmet Williams explains the process for creating a letter expanding poem that had been recreated on an IBM mainframe. Like “House of Dust” it’s an example of computer automation increasing the power of an existing technique for generating texts. Hannah B Higgins’ The Computational Word Works of Eric Andersen and Dick Higgins draws a line out of Fluxus for the artists’ Intermedia and computing work. Eric Andersen’s artist’s statement describing the lists of words and numbers used to create “Opus 1966” shows both the ingenuity and intellectual rigour that artists brought to bear on early code poetry. The inclusion of Staisey Divorski’s translation of Nanni Balestrini’s specification for “Tape Mark I” provides an example of the depth of appreciation that prepraratory sources can provide for an artwork. Mordecai-Mark Mac Low describes how his father took ideas from Zen Buddhism and negotiated the technial limitations of late 1960s computing machinery to realise them in poetic form in The Role of the Machine in the Experiment of Egoless Poetry: Jackson Mac Low and the Programmable Film Reader.

Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield No. 2, 1966. 16mm colour film (sound).
Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield No. 2, 1966.

Finally, Mainframe Experimentalism turns to cinema. Gloria Sutton casts Stan VanDerBeek’s “Poemfields” in a more computational light than their usual place in media history as experimental films to be projected in the artist’s MovieDrome dome. Ending where a history of the ideas and technology of arts computing might otherwise begin, Zabet Patterson describes the triumphs and frustrations of using World War II surplus analogue computers to make films in From The Gun Controller To The Mandala: The Cybernetic Cinema of John and James Whitney. It’s a fitting finish that feels like it brings the book full circle.

I mentioned that several of the essays in Mainframe Experimentalism were written by family members of the artists. A number of the essays also overlap with their coverage of different artists, or describe encounters or influences between them. Arts computing was a small world, a genuine avant-garde. We are lucky not to have lost all memory of it, and we should be grateful to those students and family members who have kept those memories alive.

In “Computers For The Arts”, Dick Higgins describes two ways of generating output from a computer program – aleatory (randomized) or non-aleatory (iterative) ways. Christopher Funkhouser and Hannah B Higgins’s essays also touch on this difference, but forty years later. This is key to understanding computer art making not just in the mainframe era but today. Computers are good for describing mathematical spaces then exploring them step by step or (psuedo-)randomly, and whether it’s an animated GIF or a social media bot you can often see which of those processes is at work. It’s inspiring to see such fundamental and lasting principles identified and made explicit so early on.

Away from the era of the “Two Cultures” of science and the humanities, and of computing’s guilt by association with the database-driven Vietnam War, the art of Mainframe Experimentalism rewards consideration as a legitimate and valuable part of art history. Not all of it equally, and not all of it to the same degree – but that is true of all art, and cannot be used to disregard early arts computing as a whole. This aesthetically and intellectually under-appreciated moment in Twentieth Century art is crying out for a critical re-evaluation and an art historical recuperation. Mainframe Experimentalism provides ample examples of where we can start looking, and exactly why we should.

The text of this review is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 Licence.


(Conceptual) Art, Cryptocurrency and Beyond

[Notes:

1. These are the minimally reformatted and slightly expanded notes for what would have been  a 15-minute presentation.

2. The presentation was meant to be followed by questions and form part of the introduction to a panel discussion. Any questions in the comments here or on netbehaviour gratefully received.]

Art and Money

greek drachma, 600BC

Art and money have always been involved in each other’s production. This is a Greek Drachma from 600BC with a relief depiction of a sea turtle on one side. For many people this would be the artwork, or at least the image, that they saw most frequently in their everyday lives.

damien hirst, for the love of god, 2007

In the present day, high art and high finance (or big art and big finance) go hand in hand. Blue chip artworks produced by brand name artists like Jeff Koons are collected by hedge fund managers and oil oligarchs as investments and as signifiers of socioeconomic position (while stolen Old Master paintings are used as signifiers of value in transactions between criminal gangs…). This tendency reaches its logical conclusion for now with Damien Hirst’s “For The Love of God” (2007), a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of an actual human skull complete with the original teeth. It was sold for fifty million pounds sterling.

nanex, h.f.t. visualization, 2010

Looking inside the sale of “For The Love Of God” makes its narrative less straightforward. It was sold to a group including the artist and their dealer, making the actual figure and its ownership less straightforward than a simple sale would suggest. Nanex’s High Frequency Trading visualizations from 2010 look inside transcations in electronic stocks & shares markets, finding aesthetic forms in the activity of share trading bots. What the sawtooth waves of this bot’s activity represent is unknown: a glitch, a strategy, a side-effect. But without making these forms visible, we would not be able to ask these questions or reflect on this economic activity.

Art, Particularly Conceptual Art, Critiques This Relationship

cildo meireles, insertions into ideological circuits 2, 1970

It is part of the value of art, particularly Conceptual Art, that it can afford us these opportunities for reflection and critique. Cildo Meireles’ “Insertions Into Ideological Circuits 2” (1970) overwrites the contemporary equivalent of the Drachma’s turtle with a rubber stamped message on a banknote, intruding into everyday use and circulation of currency in order to give its audience a pause for critical reflection.

lynn hershman, check, 1974

Lynn Hershman’s “Check” (1974) is signed by their artistic alter ego Roberta Breitmore, using financial transactions and their attendant contracts as a producer and guarantor of identity, literally underwriting it.

douglas huebler, variable piece no. 44, 1971

Douglas Huebler’s “Variable Piece no.44” (1971) incorporates an image of its current owner into itself each year for its first decade, in an analogue precedent for Bruce Sterling’s idea of “spimes”. When the artwork is sold a new owner appears, making the artwork’s contingent economics its aesthetic subject.

sol lewitt, certificates, 1980

The initial critique of the ontology and economics of art that Conceptual Art represented in its “dematerialisation” phase represented as much of a challenge for the livelihoods of artists as it did to its chosen targets. One solution found early on was to produce certificates of authenticity or ownership for otherwise un-ownable art. This re-appropriates conceptual art for scarcity economics and as property, returning it to the market. Sol LeWitt’s certificates for two wall drawings (1980) demonstrate how this works. If you own such a certificate and I do not, and we both follow the instructions on the certificate, you produce an authentic LeWitt and I at best produce a forgery.

art and language, guaranteed painting, 1967

This stretegy was criticised (and parodied) within the Conceptual Art movement itself. An early Art & Language artwork, “Guaranteed Painting” (1967), contains a printed certificate guaranteeing that the painting accompanying it contains particular content and addressing the curator of the show it appears in as someone who can possibly intervene in artworld economic relationships.

carey young, declared void, 2005

Carey Young’s “Declared Void” (2005) is a wall drawing that creates a space in which its audience enters into a contract agreeing that the constitution of the United States. Legal form as sculptural form, this is no longer about the relationship between art and money but rather between the individual, contract law, and the state. This is the kind of relationship that produces money, or at least fiat currency, and is a broader context for considering the more specific relationship between art and money.

flower currency, 2005

I love this flower currency from 2005, produced by a group of Viennese artists. It’s both a LETS-style complementary currency and a use of the aesthetics of pressing flowers to allegorize and aestheticize the relationship between nature, production, and value in economies.

danica phelps, stripes drawing, 2013

This Danica Phelps stripe drawing (2013) shows the artist’s expenditure on reparing their car. If it depicted income rather than outcome the stripes would be green rather than red. Phelps’ work combines the ledger of their economic existence with the artistic record of their social presence.

Bitcoin as Critique

yodark, genesis block, 2013

Bitcoin emerged as a critique of state-issued “fiat” currency following the financial crisis of 2008. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a piece of software that runs on computers (“nodes”) spread across the network that communicate with each other to reach a shared consensus on the current state of a cryptographically-secured ledger. Every ten minutes or so these computers bundle up transactions into “blocks”, each of which refers to the previous block. This is the “blockchain”. This is yodark’s fanciful depiction of the blockchain proceeding from the first block of transactions, the “genesis block”.

milk-crate mining rig

In reality news blocks in the chain are validated (or “mined”) by nodes in the network using increasingly specialised hardware, such as this milk crate mining rig from a couple of years ago. They perform difficult to solve but easy to validate sums on each block, the “proof of work”, and the first node to succeed gets a reward (paid in Bitcoins) for doing so.

crypto hash examples

Bitcoin account addresses, Bitcoin transactions, and the proof of work system all use cryptographic algorithms. These are mathematical ways of taking data and creating an almost un-fakeable, almost un-reversable, almost unique (where “almost” means “as likely to fail as the Earth is likely to be hit by a civilization-ending asteroid in the next 20 minutes”) identity for it. The examples here show how feeding a cryptographic hash function the same data twice results in the same incredibly unlikely number, but feeding it even slightly different data results in very different and unrelated numbers.

rob myers, facecoin, 2014

Bitcoin uses these functions to secure its network in the “proof of work” system by searching for auspicious numbers in their output (strings of zeroes in the current scheme). My Facecoin (2014) implements an alternative proof of work system in which the useless work performed is that of portraiture, (mis-)using machine vision algorithms to find imaginary faces in cryptographic hashes represented as bitmaps rather than numbers.

rob myers, monkeycoin, 2014

My Monkeycoin (2014) takes a different approach, searching for the complete works of shakespeare in textual representations of those numbers.

Paying For Art With Cryptocurrencies

eric drass, corporate fight club, 2012

Cryptocurrencies can be used in lieu of fiat currency for all kinds of transactions, including artistic ones. Here the artist Eric Drass is offering a painting for sale via Bitcoin. Different means of exhange create different kinds of social relationships, buying the painting via Bitcoin is a different kind of social and economic transaction than paying with fiat currency for it via Saatchi Online.

banksycoin, 2014

Cryptocurrencies can be created as complimentary currencies with specific intent or for specific constituencies. This is the logo of Banksycoin (2014), an attempt to create a currency to pay for art and create a parallel economy for artistic production.

theironman, nxtdrop, 2014

Cryptocurrency-based technology can change how individual artworks are owned as well as paid for. This is theironman’s “nxtdrop” (2014), the ownership of which is represented by shares on the “nxt” blockchain. Ownership of the painting can be changed fractionally by dealing in those shares.

We Can Store Information Other Than Money On The Blockchain

rob myers, proof of existence 1, 2014

There are poems, images, and other cultural artefacts embedded in the Bitcoin blockchain, disguised as transaction information. I embedded the cryptographic hash of my genome in the Bitcoin blockchain to establish my identity with “Proof Of Existence I” (2014).

Smart Contracts Generalize The Blockchain To Other Contracts

caleb larsen, a tool to deeive and slaughter, 2009

This is Caleb Larsen’s “A Tool To Deceive and Slaughter” (2009). It contains a computer that must be connected to the Internet as part of the conditions of ownership, which then immediately offers itself for sale on the eBay auction site. This kind of “smart property” is a good example of smart contracts, in which arrangements such as ownership are managed by software rather or more immediately than by law.

rob myers, art market, 2014

My “Art Market” (2014), uses the Ethereum smart contract system (a generalization of Bitcoin to contracts other than for the exchange of money) to record “owenrship” of infinitely reproducible digital files and allow them to be “sold” for cryptocurrency. Other systems exist to do this, such as the Monegraph and Rarebit systems.

rob myers, is art, 2014

My “Is Art” (2014) uses a simple smart contract to democratize the nominational strategy of conceptual art. The contract can be set to nominate itself as art or not with a click of a mouse and the paying of a small fee to execue the change on the blockchain.

rob myers, art is, 2014

My “Art Is” (2014) applies behavioural economics to the philosophy of art, allowing individuals to pay as much as they feel their definition of art it worth. This disincentivises malicious or unserious definitions and indicates an individuals’s confidence in their definition, using market mechanisms to price and allocate knowledge and even truth efficiently. fnord

rob myers, art is, 2014

CryptoCurrency and Smart Contracts Can Be Used To Constitute Artists Groups

art and language, index 002, 1972

This is Art & Language’s “Index 002” (1972), a collection of the group’s writings assembled and indexed for presention in a traditional gallery setting to assert their identity and productivity at a time when their largely conversational practice might not have looked much like “art” to outside observers. Filing cabinets and photocopied sheets were contemporary information technology, later “Indexes” would use microfilm and (allegedly random) computer-generated tabulations. Their use and the production of the “Indexes” was both a solution to and a subject of the problems of Art & Language’s work. A contemporary group could use the blockchain to similarly focus and problematize their work.

the cypherfunks

The Cypherfunks are a distributed music group. Anyone who uploads a song to the SoundCloud music sharing web site tagged #thecypherfunks receives the groups cryptocurrency FUNK in return, becoming part of the group.

dogecoin. wow, such coin. amaze.

Dogecoin is one of the most popular “altcoins”, Bitcoin-derived cryptocurrencies that are not interoperable with the original Bitcoin network. It is the coin of an intentionally constructed culture of virtue and play, with its own argot and social norms based on Internet memes (particularly the titular “Doge” and the idea of a potlatch-like norm of tipping).

millais, detail from "isabella", 1849

These are all more contemporary, and more complex, ways of demonstrating affiliation to a group than simply painting currency code-like letters on a canvas (this is a detail from Millais’ “Isabella” (1849). Possibly the ultimate in creating a group affiliation, or even a society, using smart contract technology is the idea of “Decentralized Autonomous Organizations” (DAOs), economic agents that exists on the blockchain and manage the resources of an organization via code rather than bylaws or legislation.

prodoug

This is “The People’s Republic of DOUG”(2014), a DAO implemented as smart contracts on the Ethereum smart contract system’s blockchain. You can become a citizen, own property, vote, use its own currency in transactions, all functions traditionally provided by the state as conceived of in terms of contract law. Bitcoin’s dream of a stateless (but not property-less, making it anarcho-capitalist rather than anarchist) future realised in a few thousand lines of code. Imagine using (and/or critiquing) such a system for artistic organization and/or production.

Conclusions

  1. Sorting hype and scam from promise, and moral panic from critique, involves a learning curve when dealing with cryptocurrency.
  2. We can use cryptocurrencies to find new ways of (encouraging) paying for art, defamiliarising and critiquing artworld economics by doing so.
  3. AltCoins, crypto-tokens, smart contracts and DAOs are tools artists can use to explore new ways of social organization and artistic production,
  4. The ideology and technology of the blockchain and the materials of art history (especially the history of Conceptual Art) can provide useful resources for mutual experiment and critique.

“Now make art with it.”