Traceroute – A Personal Journey Into the Uncharted Depths of Nerd Culture

Traceroute – A Personal Journey Into the Uncharted Depths of Nerd Culture, A Realm Full of Dangers, Creatures, and More or Less Precarious Working Conditions. (Or Fear and Loathing in Nerdcore).

“In the end, we’ll all become stories” Margaret Atwood.

Before Vaporwave, Post-Internet, Facebook, and your latest Kickstarter campaign, there was the cybercultural counterculture. I encountered it through publications like Collapse, Mondo 2000, ReSearch, Fringeware Review, and bOING bOING (when it was still in print), and on BBS boards like The Thing and The WELL. This was the land of cyberpunk, Dead Media, Tactical Media, The Church of the SubGenius, online dungeons and wetware hacking. This is the native culture of Johannes Grenzfurthner, born of the dark forests of Austria, famous for music and mass murder (by his own admission), and a crèche for nerddom.

Traceroute (…) is a reflection on his own roots of nerddom, and an On the Road style romp across the United States as he visits icons of the counterculture, the outré, and the generally questionable.

He begins Traceroute with a fitting genesis story of his growing up in Central Europe, dressing like Captain Kirk, making treehouses and accidentally killing the family chicken with a failed science experiment, reading comic books, making short films, and being obsessed with Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor. He saw that the neighbor’s patio tile always looked like LCD displays, and he started noodling around with his neighbor’s computer, logging into the FIDONet, learning about his nerddom, discovering ASCII porn, and Woschi Woschi Wau Wau, the Dog that Never Pooped. If you’re following me up till now, then you’ll get the general tone of the movie.

As Johannes expands on his arc from a gawky Austrian kid to founding the cybermedia group Monochrom in a quirky Germanic stream of consciousness, he decides to take his friends Jenny and Eddie on a trip across the US for a tour de farce into the depths of cyber-counterculture.

He begins his trip, of course, in San Francisco – home of the counterculture and the Californian Ideology, which he calls, “a fantastic realm of infinite opportunity and homelessness” There, he begins his intellectual trek across the USA with V. Vale – author and publisher of the ReSearch series of documentary books. Vale began his publishing career with a volume called Search and Destroy while working at the City Lights bookstore – a Mecca of beat culture. He cements the foundations for the film in saying that nerds made the counterculture; there is a sort of reflection that only comes from isolation or obsessiveness, and “There is no creativity in the absence of revolt.” says Vale.

Suddenly, I realize that I’m about a half thousand words into this review, and only about a quarter way through the movie, and barely out of San Francisco. That is the nature of Traceroute, a relentless stream of factoids and side trips that talks about many things, like the whiteness of cyberculture, the uncomfortable relationship between counterculture and neoliberalism, shipping containers, Area 51, as well as sci-fi props and makeup at Stan Winston Studios. This is the nature of the nerd; to be infinitely interested in infinite numbers of things, the more obscure the better. Actually, giving a feel for the film without describing it in total is probably the best thing to do, as it leaves many of the places Johannes goes to the imagination.

Traceroute has both memorable moments and stops that simply must be done if one is to visit cyber-counterculture. One of the mandatory stops is to SxSW Interactive in Austin, Texas and a chat with Jon Lebkowsky and Bruce Sterling. Jon is one of the founders of the legendary 90’s zine Fringeware Review and icon of Austin counterculture, as well as omniglot. Bruce Sterling, is of course, Bruce Sterling – cyberpunk author, WIRED Magazine blogger, and cyber-tastemaker. Listening to Lebkowski’s surprise at the traction of the cyberpunk movement in the 90’s in contrast to Sterling’s waxing of hanging with the tragically hip Milanese cyber-squatters of the time reminded me of the romanticism that also accompanies the underground.

A fantastic moment was when the Traceroute crew actually winds up at the gate to Area 51 in the middle of the night and decide to talk to tactical artist Trevor Paglen to get more information about the site. Paglen, almost more than anyone, has done work that reveals “black” projects being pursued by the US government, such as stealth technology, spy satellites, the location of Internet ocean cables, and so on. During their conversation, Paglen brings up a mission patch for the US Air Force for a stealth project that has two things. First, there is an alien head, as it is Area 51 after all, and a caption that reads, “Gustatus Similus Pullus”, (or, Tastes Like Chicken). Frat humor in the skunkworks – hmmm…

Trevor Paglen discussing Blackops insignia Trevor Paglen discussing Blackops insignia.

Grenzfurthner also muses that we are two things – sexual beings and tool users. This makes sense as his group Monochrom hosts the annual Arse Electronika festival (a sexual play on the Ars Electronica in Linz). This reveals itself  in a number of segments with Miss Maggie Mayhem (San Francisco), Kit Stubbs (Boston), Christina Anapakis (Los Angeles, who does art from body cultures), and Bad Dragon, a company that does science fiction/fantasy dildos. From Maggie’s playfully powerful illustrations of the links between sex work and Silicon Valley to Christina’s experiments with Johannes’ culture to make a failed cheese, I am happy to see that Monochrom’s sex and body-positive message that nerds are filled with a curiosity about all of the world around them is present in Traceroute.

My only complaint about the movie is that I wanted more of it, or perhaps more of the eastern US, as it is nearly three-fourths of the way through the film before we leave Austin. Perhaps the newest part of the country, the West, might be the weirdest, but I’ll leave that to Johannes. And there are tons of other alternative cultural sites to go, like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and Craig Baldwin’s Artist’s Television Access in California, and Rich Pell’s Center for Postnatural History, the Mystery Spot, but he had a week, and only two hours of video. But on the other hand, I’m giving inordinate attention to the first half of the film, so not only am I self-referentially riffing on Grenzfurthner’s narrative style here, but mimicking the structure of the movie.

Lastly, anyone dealing with outré culture that mixes nerddom and capitalist critique has to go to Monroeville, Pennsylvania – site of George Romero’s marvelous political zombie flick, Dawn of the Dead. They go to Monroeville Mall, the site of the movie itself, with leftist critic and game designer Paolo Pedercini. There is a certain poesis about Paolo ranting about consumer culture, nerddom, the nexus of the mall and the surveillance state while waiting for the security guards at the mall to show up. These remarkably self-referential shots are what makes Traceroute magical.

Paolo Pedercini gives an undead rant on capitalism in Pittsburgh. 

After watching Traceroute, I was left with a real exhilaration and a deeply reflective feeling at once, but I think this would be similar to Grenzfurthner’s experience on his ur-nerdtrek across the USA. I mean, except for being a decade older, we have a lot in common. Our upbringings were similarly nerdy, but mine in Ohio, and his in Austria, he started Monochrom while I was with RTMark, we have many friends in common in the film, and we’ve glancingly communicated for decades. And he just made the documentary of our shared subculture. Of course, I’m going to like this film.

However, I wondered – what about the relevance of cyberculture and the counterculture in the age of Facebook and postinternet slickness? I mean, what role does Traceroute’s subject matter have in the light of neoliberal, hyperprofessionalized cultural production evident in the mid-2010’s? But then, the words of Sandy Stone, an eternal voice of reason, rang out in my mind. She said that William Gibson (and I’d add, Sterling and the rest of the cyberpunks as well) wrote this future, and a lot of it came true. And it sort of went to shit, and we’re still doing it, and it’s all good. And I’d like to expand in saying that not just cyberculture, but counterculture just keeps going, and the fact that it’s from the 80’s or 90’s (or the 60’s, for that matter) makes any difference. What Johannes terms as nerd culture is merely many aspects of Western counterculture, and it’s a tradition that has given rise to everything from the Summer of Love to the personal computer (and that’s just San Francisco…). What Traceroute reveals is the tradition of alterity just beneath the surface of Western culture, and that it has a powerful effect on our mass consciousness, whether it is in plain sight or not. Traceroute  is debuting at the NYC Independent Film Festival, April 27-May 1, 2016.

The Rubix Cube is is not the only twisty puzzle. Learn about Pyraminx, the 2×2 and 4×4 cubes, the Megaminx on Ruwix.


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