Are We All Addicts Now? An interview with Katriona Beales

The interview is taken from the recently published book Are We All Addicts Now? Digital Dependence edited by Vanessa Bartlett and Henrietta Bowden-Jones, Liverpool University Press, 2017, and published with permission from the publisher. Available from the LUP website here – the interview is published in parallel with the exhibition Are We All Addicts Now? at the Furtherfield Gallery, London 16 September – 12 November 2017.


Ruth Catlow: In your exhibition Are We All Addicts Now? That opens at Furtherfield, Autumn 2017. You will be presenting a number of works and installations made in response to your research into online addictions. What prompted your interest in this matter?

Katriona Beales: I have insomnia on and off — like a lot of precarious workers. And to deal with being awake for long-stretches at night I go online, parse hundreds of hyperlinks, images, videos. It’s like an out of body experience: I detach, temporarily, from anxieties, pressure, claustrophobia via total preoccupation. Reflecting on these experiences caused me to question whether there was something inherently ‘addictive’ about the conditions of the digital. My research has developed to look at the burgeoning field of neuromarketing and how much online content is ‘designed for addiction’ (to borrow the title of Natasha Dow Schüll’s scorching analysis of machine gambling in Las Vegas).1 Gamification strategies and various psychological techniques such as variable reward (originally employed in the casino) are now utilised to mass effect on social media platforms, search engines, email accounts, and news sites.

RC: Can you give us an example of digital content, an interface or a device that you personally experience as addictive?

KB: I find the infinite scroll function on sites like Instagram and Twitter very compulsive. It removes the natural breaks that are built into technologies like the book, with chapters starting and ending. Then again, I used to be a compulsive reader and now I am a compulsive scroller… But I keep circling back round to think about the specific qualities of the conditions of the digital. The infinite, hyperlinked and networked nature of online content means scrolling, scrolling, scrolling never needs to end. There is also a correlation between these repetitive physical actions and meditative type states.

RC: Yes, this connects with theories of flow employed in game design. The idea is to design activities that produce the fulfilling feelings of focus, and to minimise a questioning of the context or frame of play. And there is very little critical discussion in mainstream culture about the gamification of everything, which replaces individual agency with a kind of soft coercion. It’s problematic because the less we notice how our attention and experiences are being harnessed by external forces (commercial or state based), the harder it is to connect and collaborate with others outside the given frames.

The trigger fountain (2017) KBeales

KB: Totally. I like your phrase ‘soft coercion’ because I think that sums up nicely what I’ve found troubling. Take this quote from Nir Eyal: “Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that companies use to hook users… levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state… When Barbra lands on Pinterest, not only does she see the image she intended to find, but she’s also served a multitude of other glittering objects… Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling.”2

RC: We initially had reservations about applying the concept of addiction to internet usage, partly because the addiction label is usually used to attach blame to individuals. However, after conversation it became clear that you are exploring a political question. Why is the concept of addiction important to you?

KB: Too much discussion about addiction is focused on the responsibility of people to help themselves. The fact that many can’t is often seen as a kind of moral failure. There’s also the disputed status of internet addiction in itself as documented by Mark D. Griffiths and his colleagues in their contribution to this book. We can’t pretend that there aren’t lots of people out there experiencing unhealthy and compulsive relationships to their technologies. But what kind of language is most appropriate to define this? What I am interested in is the phenomenon of what could be understood as addictive behaviours (including my own) being normalised in relation to digital devices. Kazys Varnelis 3 describes network culture as demanding connectedness, with power concentrated in nodes of hyper-connectivity. The more views, the more likes, the more power is accrued. Addictive behaviour is both normalised and valorised in late capitalism as it is associated with the public performance of productivity. Whilst these actions appear to be the choice of individuals, how much is due to the influence of mechanisms and systems of control? Ultimately, I am interested in the idea of the addict as a perfect capitalist subject. However, can we/I be both active-users and critical participants? I am concerned about how many of these platforms function as closed systems in which we contribute (without remuneration) our creative and emotional labour and yet can’t shape the conditions in which it is displayed, performed and monetised.

You’re just building this little village in the sky (2017) KBeales

RC: You have collaborated with scientists as well as other artists and curators. How has this worked and what have these collaborations produced?

KB: The space of art offers an opportunity to tap into diverse fields of research, as a kind of (un)informed amateur. I find a Rancièrian strategy of ‘deliberate ignorance’ liberating. As an artist, I find myself in a position where I can turn my lack ofspecialist knowledge in fields like neuroscience into a kind of asset. I’m not answerable to a canon so can make unorthodox connections. In 2012, I started a conversation with clinical psychiatrist Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones. Henrietta is fascinating as she started the first NHS clinic for problem online gambling and is now one of the leading experts in the field of online behavioural addictions. My collaboration with Henrietta has flourished, I think, because there is a recognition that there is a mutual benefit from the conversation but not an ownership or entitlement to each other’s outcomes.

RC: How does your work deal with the relation between physical and virtual presence?

KB: I am a tactile person, the sort who goes into a shop and strokes things with their face. I am fascinated by how digital devices act as portals into virtual worlds but often their own physicality isn’t dwelt on. Yet these devices connect us in a very tangible way to a globalised workforce and unethical labour practices. My iPhone has parts in it that were constructed by hand in an environment that resembles the Victorian workhouse more than the shiny aesthetics of the Apple store. These deeply dystopian factories create objects that seem so sleek, so smooth, so modern, as if they’ve arrived whole from outer-space. But they were created by workers who do compulsory over-time, sleep in triple bunk beds in small dorm rooms and aren’t even allowed to kill themselves. (I’m specifically referencing the suicide prevention netting that Foxconn put up around their buildings after a spate of mass suicides.)4 I’m emphasising physicality to connect my body lying in my bed to the body of someone bent over a production line; it is far too easy to dismiss the impact of our insatiable appetite for electronic goods.

Tracking pattern (2017) KBeales

RC: Your exhibition at Furtherfield is to be sited in the heart of a public park. How are you thinking about the relationship of digital devices to the natural environment?

KB: I continue using my smartphone when I step inside the park gates, in a continuum of ongoing augmented experiences where my physical environments are overlaid with digital content. The park acts as a fulcrum for changing understandings of leisure as labour, labour as leisure, and is the perfect site for encouraging reflection on this relationship. As part of this, Fiona MacDonald, who has been working with me on Are We All Addicts Now? as both a curator and an artist, is developing a mycorrhizal meditation piece, looking at network culture from an organic non-human perspective.

Glass cloud (2017) KBeales with Bruce Marks

RC: I’d like to end with a description of some of the artworks and installations you are making, the materials you are using, and, in the context of the un-ideal strategies used by designers of mobile interfaces, what condition do you aspire to cultivate in visitors to your exhibition?

KB: I’m making a sunken plunge pool of a networked nest-bed, with glowing screens on which moths flutter embedded in glass orbs. Bed hangings embroidered with dichroic screens stripped from smartphones shimmer overhead, iridescent in the reflected light. I’m trying to communicate how seductive I find the screen in that dark, warm space – in those moments when I am more intimate with my device than my partner. There will be some participatory sculptures referencing pachinko and prayer beads, rhythmic movement, trance-like repetition, lulled into endless hypermobility in the closed systems of ‘communicative capitalism’.5 I’m also working on some moving image works in which makeup is used as a tool to undermine eye tracking software, which I am hoping will incorporate some specialist hardware generating a live-feed of eye-tracking data from audience members. A series of table-top glass sculptures and embedded screens will explore interfaces that are ‘designed for addiction’ and the way notifications, for instance, are neuromarketing strategies seeking to ‘awaken stress — the mother of all emotions.’6 I’d like the audience to share in my disquiet, and hopefully leave encouraged to engage more critically with shaping their online worlds.


We spun a dream last night by Francesca da Rimini

We had a dream last night, we had the same dream’1

I’m looking for a new love, a mouth that promises . . .

once upon a time . . .

or . . .

in the beginning . . .

the islands in the net were fewer, but people and platforms enough
for telepathy far-sight spooky entanglement
seduction of, and over, command line interfaces

it felt lawless
and moreish
wandering into the maw of the feast

in the realm of the Puppet Mistress, 1995

speech acts, sex acts, strange pacts
squirreled away in buffer logs and pasted Pine trails
weaving 1001 nights of Puppet Mistress tales
never on the down-low
was this most splendid DIWO

permission granted,
always, all ways
read write execute
reeds rites hexecutes

I was Alice clasping the little bottle labeled ‘DRINK ME’
becoming-Sufi, heady with some love-like like love emotions
juiced up jouissance
psychosomatic investigations

psi psi psi
ψ ψ ψ
sigh

seeking the difference/s
if any
between a suspected false binary
Virtual — Real — Life

difference
différance
different ants
worker queens snorting lines of flight

‘IRL’ (‘in real life’) prefaced conversations
whereas no-one said ‘IVL’
VL was the norm
so no need for a distinguishing preposition
whereas you needed to go somewhere, in, purposefully,
to get (back) to real life

 

Back to life, back to reality
Back to the here and now yeah
. . .
Back to life, back to the present time,
Back from a fantasy
Soul II Soul 1989

 

I ask Monstrous_Gorgeous (aka t0xic_honey @Lambda) to trawl through my stash of Moologs and MOOmails from my Lambda life, to search for signs of digital affliction. t0x’s forensic gaze (who eirself had been a keen Lambda queercoder back in the day) might be illuminating. GashGirl and her morphs(GenderFuckMeBaby, Madame_de_Clairwill, doll yoko, Rent_Boy, et al) had run amok and amongst simultaneous games, switching genders, personae and communicative registers as easily as children playing ‘let’s pretend‘. The best game was that between Puppet Mistress and her Puppet (aka YourPuppet). Today the language seems quaint, The Difference Engine meets The Pearl, steamy stream punk. All bonnets, bronze and tiny buttons.

Wolf.
Homunculus.
Ghost.
Doll.

It’s a sky-blue sky.
Satellites are out tonight.
Let X=X.
Laurie Anderson 1982

 

does X=X?
or VL = zero?
with RL the one of ones, the one and all,
the only one (of all possible lives)

I think not!

t0x phones me, recounting episodes that I cannot recall, but which are so in-character I have for sure they happened. Like when I punished My Puppet severely for daring to speak with t0x about her in-MOO peep show. Now we can laugh about it, now that the field lies fallow, but at the time I was furious. Living at (on? in?) LambdaMOO did not diminish affect or emotion, but rather it intensified thought, sensation, desire, need.

can we call this addiction?
or obsession?
compulsion maybe?

I chatted this week with Jon Marshall, my anthropologist friend and author of Living on Cybermind (an ethnography of a mailing list), about how it felt more like a habit than an addiction. He talks about personally accumulated habits and socially accumulated habits. Humans are constructed of habits, including the habits that you build up around internet use. We recall the ‘Rape in Cyberspace‘ event at LambdaMOO; ‘that story becomes a myth that guides behaviour’, suggests Jon. My habit would not have led to such intense encounters, if all of us lot had not been sharing a gravitational pull to the glimmering galaxies of spiralspace. My twin talks about habit lying at the junction of nature and nurture, opening up another line for future investigation. Never enough time. Instead I loaf around on Netflix with Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City.

for me the habit of MOO (Mu) was quickly formed,
and devastating to desert
Ripping through a damaged heart
in the best of daze
circa 1992 93 94 95 96
(=3)
I didn’t leave home
a charming house with a white peach tree, goblin hut
and a dial-up 14,400 modem usurping landline’s phone functionality

for years I burrowed in through a borrowed log-in
J (aka connie_spiros @Lambda) pounds on front door to kick me off
later I jumped onto a free account offered by community provider apana
through its tiny sibling sysx (thank you Scott and Jason)
part of a tribe meshwork of cool sysops animating .net
motivated by the conviction of net access for all
xs4all
excess for real

S (aka Quark @Lambda) told me how depressing it was to leave home at 7.30am seeing me already jacked in, and to find me still in pajamas at dinner time, a sure sign that I hadn’t stepped away from the computer all day.

frequently he’d say ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’
(rhetorical)
5 words yanking me from my fugue
to discover myself pretzeled around the machine
in a position so unnatural it had become natural
to a life lived more and more in a VL that had become my RL

there was a vastness to the generative affective experiences
it felt unstoppable
on par with the most exhilarating love affairs
continual platform jumping
(don’t mind the gaps)
with unseen but deeply imagined companions
haunting me from nautical twilight to nautical twilight

netmonster, 2005

The only platform that came close to the seductiveness of Lambda was Netmonster, a network visualisation engine built by artist coder tinkerer Harwood (aka Graham Harwood). I was fascinated by the code and what it could do. And I adored the constant communication with my bruvv, the one who calls me ‘witch sister’. We hung around on the server, chatting white text on black screen. I made him a self-executing poem in Perl, my one and only attempt to learn some rudiments of that language. Netmonster could be a machine for collaborative writing, for prophesy, a tool for poking around in the machinations of power and capital. I imagined its transformative potential on a magical level, casting silver spanners into the bellyworks of the Beast. As a user I became tangled in search strings questing for the grail of understanding. Without knowing what I was asking, I pushed Harwood to push the code, Perl, to do things it wasn’t designed to do. The machine groaned under the weight of requests, and eventually its interactive functionality was turned off (brutal!), leaving just a beautiful hyperlayered carapace online. The emptiness I felt when the living essence of the project was no longer was comparable to the hole of grief when a lover says it’s over. The spirit of Netmonster had left forever. I was alone again.

clever little tailor, 2017

There’s a few of us chatting around a table in Clever Little Tailor, an affordable bar if you stop after one drink. Around the table S2 (artist/student, early 20s), A (poet/singer/student maybe just grazing 25), and a couple of ancient cyberwitches. We speak about imbuing inanimate objects, a child’s wooden horse, a Persian rug, with magical powers, to speak, to fly. The human tendency to want to create life in things, including things and wings of internet, and this predisposition in turn enlivens and expands us. The topic turns to matters of the heart, and native/natal platforms. Those communicative modes that either we were born into or grew into, the sticky tongue finger techs that we associate with our netted emotional and social lives. We talked about coding and not coding, about the need to live online, and the impulse to desert it. Instant Messaging is for S2 what Internet Relay Chat was for us. We spell out the spell of Command Line Interface in a condensed version of how we uploaded ourselves to the song of the modem, waiting up all night to be able to play, existing betwixt and between multiple time zones. We struggle to find the right words (because the material of this stuff is made of words but is so not about words really) to evoke the deliciousness of what was a relatively uncolonised uncommodified unregulated ineffable space. Even if we hexen rarely use the word ourselves, the neologism (and who could forget Neo!) cyberspace, continues to signify the consensual hallucination of jacking in to the zone. Maybe now it’s more mall than sprawl for us who experienced something more unbounded, but for the next gens the intensities, the desires are equivalent.

17.10.17

forever doll
becoming witch
she opens her mouth
and swallows the world
she opens her mouth
and swallows your word
dissolving like spun sugar
laced with saffron threads
hexe hexe hexe
tiva! tiva! tiva!
naughty naughty naughty
all for naught
and nought for one
zero and one
zeno and won
one on one on one
on and on and on . . .

 

Thank you to old and new friends whose ideas have nourished this text: Virginia Barratt, Alison Coppe, Linda Dement, Teri Hoskin, Jon Marshall, Stuart Maxted, John Tonkin. Big thanks to (bruvv) Graham Harwood for inviting me to play and live inside Netmonster in 2005.


Francesca da Rimini (aka doll yoko, GashGirl, liquid_nation, Fury) is an interdisciplinary artist, poet and essayist. She revels in collaborative projects, joining companions in generating slow art, strange beats and new personae. As co-founder of cyberfeminist group VNS Matrix she contributed to international critiques of gender and technology. The award-winning dollspace deployed the ghost girl doll yoko to lure web wanderers into a pond of dead girls. As GashGirl/Puppet Mistress, she explored the uploaded erotic imagination of strangers at LambdaMOO. More recent performances , collaborations and installations including delighted by the spectacle, hexecutable, songs for skinwalking the drone, hexing the alien, and lips becoming beaks have combined rule-driven poetry, fugue states, spells and prophesies as hexes against Capital.

“Certain subjects compel me – alchemy, folklore/folk law, emancipatory social experiments, the nature of cognition, and states of ‘madness’ and ecstasy. I approach art-making as a hexing, a spell, a witch’s ladder to another realm. To paraphrase anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, a revolutionary act is to behave as if one were free.” da Rimini


The Critical Atlas of the Internet – An interview with Louise Drulhe

The Critical Atlas of the Internet, Louise Drulhe’s latest project, is a virtual and physical exploration of the Internet space. The implications of our physical actions in ‘real-time’ are not only timeless in ‘cyberspace’, but also constitute for the making of an obscure Internet architecture every time we browse the web. The Atlas itself, functions as an enveloping notebook of Drulhe’s discerning methodology in desiring to represent the geography and architecture of the ‘unseen’ Internet territory. Initially a graphic designer, Drulhe’s practice has meticulously evolved into including cyber-spatial analysis. She yearns to understand the sociological, political and economical issues that appear online, or are exasperated by an online presence – ‘a territory we spend time in without knowing its shape’. The Critical Atlas of the Internet, by being parted between fifteen different hypotheses, sheds light on matters such as the monopolisation of non-physical spaces, the possibility of encumbered networks and the potential forms of the Internet.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Drulhe, where she clarified certain distinctive matters that arise from reading or looking at the virtual form of the Atlas, online.

CS: In 2014, Google measured 200TB of data that they claim to be just an estimated 0.004% of the total vastness of the Internet. Initially, the Atlas perceives the Internet through a number of geometric shapes such as cones and spheres. Is this your approach to establishing that the Internet is an infinite space of shared connections and motion? If this is the case, do you therefore believe it is immeasurable?

LD: I will probably get back to you with a better answer to this question in a few months… I am starting an art residency in Paris at La Paillasse and I am going to study the question: “can we measure Internet?”. I am curious to see what the best way to represent Internet is: to count the data or to measure the borders. I haven’t started this research yet, but I will look for the best unit of measure to calculate the dimensions of Internet territory: meters? litres? percentages? data traffic? I wonder how to define the “size” of a website. If we look at Google.com, it’s only one webpage, so does this mean that Google is smaller than a regular shopping website that might have thousands of pages?

With the fourth hypothesis of the Atlas, “The Geographic Relief of the Internet”, I tried to represent the «size» of Internet platforms and their size is actually based on the concentration of the activities they host. The giants of the Internet try to saturate and incorporate as much territory as possible. Google (now called Alphabet) possesses Chrome, Gmail, Android, Google +, YouTube, Blogger, Google Map / Earth / Street view, Cloud, Nest, Google X… to cite but a few. Internet’s giants are almost raging an online war to monopolize most of the Internet territory. I think that the next virgin land to conquer is the Internet of Things. The map of this 4th hypothesis is based on a ranking by Alexa Top 500 Global Sites. What I would like to do next, is to measure this representation.

CS: Extrapolating from your claim that the Internet is a single point at the centre of the globe, what would the repercussions if that space were to be encumbered? Can a network not be encumbered?

LD: It’s true, a reticular space cannot be encumbered, I guess. Facebook.com, for instance, is getting more and more popular but the site works perfectly; you don’t feel any crowded situations on Facebook. If Facebook were a physical public square and 1 billion people met there one day, the situation would be really problematic. On Facebook you never see the crowd.

In the Atlas, I quote Boris Beaude on this idea “The growth of reticular networks, unlike that of cities, increases their interaction potential without boosting their internal distances. Regardless of the network size, the distance between its respective parts is potentially non-existent. Facebook can host 800 million people without affecting its interaction capacity.”[1] This is what he calls “reticular coalescence”.

[1] Boris Beaude, Internet : “Changer l’espace, changer la société“. 2012.

CS: You build your thesis on the hypothesis that Internet space does not require distance; that each component is of equal distance to each other, otherwise, one-click away. Whilst this grants no special status to any single person’s ‘search’ to being more important or unimportant, aren’t these ‘search results’ always altered depending on the search engine? For example, untracked browsers such as Tor or extensions on Chrome such as ‘Hola’ have the capability to displace a user from their current location and thus materialising a different order by which results appear to us.

LD: I wrote that the search engines “control Internet architecture” and “distribute the space” and because almost everyone uses Google, then we can assume that Google is the one that controls Internet space. So if you use another search engine, like “DuckDuckGo” for instance, you will access the web through a different architecture. But “Tor” and “Hola” are not search engines. “Tor” is a network that enables anonymous communication and “Hola” is a VPN.

By using a VPN, you can bypass censorship. The VPN, by changing your localisation, will give you access to another web. There are as many Internets as there are legislations. This idea is represented in the hypothesis, “A Global Object Projected at the Local Level”. Internet is global but we use a national projection of the global network. If you are in China, with a VPN you will be able to browse the Romanian web for instance and you will have access to websites censored by the Chinese government. VPNs also enable anonymity but that’s another aspect of it.


CS: Another one of your hypothesis places us (the users) at the centre of the Internet, therefore constructing the space around us as we move through it. Indeed, the Internet meets our individual needs, would you therefore account it more as a product – the world’s only flawless consumer good?

LD: Here, I would like to draw your attention to another aspect of my research. If we look at Internet as a consumer good, then it’s probably the first that actually turned consumers themselves into products! Jason Fitzpatrick, in rephrasing one of Mike Edgan statements, says “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”. The personal data that are generated through users’ browsing are the new “petrol” of the oncoming economy. And in this particular economy, we won’t be the consumer anymore!

CS: In early forms of the Internet, ‘cyberspaces’ were decentralised. Now, as the Atlas conveys, data is concentrated within the hands of a few ‘heavy players’, illustrated as ‘network nodes’ of various weights burying themselves within the Internet’s surface. Seeing as most of the ‘network nodes’ come from the west, would you consider the Internet to possess a particular Westphalian sovereignty?

LD: The centre of gravity of the Internet is clearly the west, but not, in my opinion, the west as a whole. The US has a dominant position for multiple reasons that I detailed in the Atlas. The Internet’s centre of gravity is defined as “the weight, concentrated solely at one focal point, instead of being distributed over several different points”, a focal point which is undeniably Silicon Valley.

CS: I’d like to ask you about the visual representation of your online Atlas. In particular, about the rigid protrusions of space you used to convey the ‘splinternet’ and the humorous intrusions of Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders among other seemingly unplanned objects such as fried eggs. Could you comment?

LD: We often imagine the Internet as a single Cloud and a unified territory, but this is wrong. There are multiple limits or frontiers that exist online. Some of them are really clear, like the Great Firewall of China: the wall of censorship that divides the Chinese Internet from the rest of the Internet. Another obvious frontier is the limit between the deep web and the surface web. But the frontiers that interested me most were the ones that nobody seems to pay attention to. The limits defined by private networks, such as Facebook. People who have a Facebook profile never see the frontier because there are always logged in. But when you do not have the password, then Facebook is closed, even if some pages are left open to attract you. Their goal is to make you join the private network.

CS: And the unsystematic quirks?

LD: Each time the website loads, the images are automatically taken from the emblematic forum “Reddit” which is defined as being « the front page of the Internet ». Those images work as timestamps in the Atlas; you can find them at the 4 corners of the website but also on the books. The Internet is a perpetually changing space, constantly evolving. It was important for me to bring a timestamp to my Atlas. In addition, these images are symbols of the Internet culture; the Internet meme: viral images spreading through the web and overflowing onto my Atlas.

CS: I’d like to address your citing of Introduction: Rhizome by Guattari and Deleuze. They claim that ‘a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be’ and therefore does not follow the same arborescent structure of a book, or tree. However, as mentioned before, there are arborescent nodes within the Internet itself – the ‘heavy players’. Do you believe this may distract multiplicity or enhance the creation of territories within the Internet? Would you also support that in the case of a rupture, where a rhizome breaks or one of the arborescent nodes fall apart, another node responds to replace as if it was always as such?

LD: Yes, that’s a good comparison. I believe that the heavy players saturate and erode Internet space. This idea is supported by the fact that each company creates a personalized arborescence that is really difficult to connect to, by developing its own patterns or ecosystems; like the arborescence of a tree. In this idea they are breaking with the original shape of the network and its interoperability.

About the rupture, actually, I am not sure. I think if a node disappears on the network it will not necessarily be replaced by another node. If a web page goes offline and at the same time a Facebook page has just been created, the new node (from Facebook) does not take its place. The new node is actually created within the Facebook network. And to refer to my hypothesis about the geographic relief of the Internet, the node opens on the slope of a dominant gap.

CS: As a final point, there’s a particular passage from Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation which I find can be quite relative when considering the structure of the Internet:

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map.”

How would you interpret this if we took into consideration Internet territories?

LD: Most people do not consider Internet as a territory. This idea of cyberspace is a bit old fashioned. But, I think it is still pertinent today to study Internet as a real space.

The way we access representations of the Earth today is really magical. Google provides easy access to an extremely precise representation of the Earth through satellite images and maps… But for the territory of Internet, it’s the opposite. Even if there are a few maps of the Internet, there are no basic tools to map the web. The territory still precedes the map. I would love to see what a Google street view of the Internet looks like!

internet-atlas.net


Interview With Domenico Quaranta

Daniel Rourke: At Furtherfield on November 22nd 2014 you launched a Beta version of a networked project, 6PM Your Local Time, in collaboration with Fabio Paris, Abandon Normal Devices and Gummy Industries. #6PMYLT uses twitter hashtags as a nexus for distributed art happenings. Could you tell us more about the impetus behind the project?

Domenico Quaranta: In September 2012, the Link Art Center launched the Link Point in Brescia: a small project space where, for almost two years, we presented installation projects by local and international artists. The Link Point was, since the beginning, a “dual site”: a space where to invite our local audience, but also a set for photographic documentation meant to be distributed online to a global audience. Fabio Paris’ long experience with his commercial gallery – that used the same space for more than 10 years, persuaded us that this was what we had to offer to the artists invited. So, the space was reduced to a small cube, white from floor to ceiling, with neon lights and a big logo (a kind of analogue watermark) on the back door.

Thinking about this project, and the strong presence of the Link Point logo in all the documentation, we realized that the Link Point was actually not bound to that space: as an abstract, highly formalized space, it could actually be everywhere. Take a white cube and place the Link Point logo in it, and that’s the Link Point.

This realization brought us, on the one hand, to close the space in Brescia and to turn the Link Point into a nomad, erratic project, that can resurrect from time to time in other places; and, on the other hand, to conceive 6PM Your Local Time. The idea was simple: if exhibition spaces are all more or less similar; if online documentation has become so important to communicate art events to a wider audience, and if people started perceiving it as not different from primary experience, why not set up an exhibition that takes place in different locations, kept together only by documentation and by the use of the same logo? All the rest came right after, as a natural development from this starting point (and as an adaptation of this idea to reality).

Of course, this is a statement as well as a provocation: watching the documentation of the UK Beta Test you can easily realize that exhibition spaces are NOT more or less the same; that attending or participating in an event is different from watching pictures on a screen; that some artworks work well in pictures but many need to be experiences. We want to stress the value of networking and of giving prominence to your network rather than to your individual identity; but if the project would work as a reminder that reality is still different from media representation, it would be successful anyway.

Daniel Rourke: There is something of Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones in your proposal. The idea that geographic, economic and/or political boundaries need no longer define the limits of social collective action. We can criticise Bey’s 1991 text now, because in retrospect the Internet and its constitutive protocols have themselves become a breeding ground for corporate and political concerns, even as technology has allowed ever more distributed methods of connectivity. You foreground network identity over individual identity in the 6PM YLT vision, yet the distinction between the individuals that create a network and the corporate hierarchies that make that networking possible are less clear. I am of course gesturing towards the use of Twitter as the principal platform of the project, a question that Ruth Catlow brought up at the launch. Do you still believe that TAZs are possible in our hyper-connected, hyper-corporate world?

Domenico Quaranta: In its first, raw conceptualization, 6PM YLT had to come with its own smartphone app, that had to be used both to participate in the project and to access the gallery. The decision to aggregate content published on different social platforms came from the realization that people already had the production and distribution tools required to participate in the action, and were already familiar with some gestures: take a photo, apply a filter, add an hashtag, etc. Of course, we could invite participants and audiences to use some specific, open source social network of our choice, but we prefer to tell them: just use the fucking platform of your choice. We want to facilitate and expand participation, not to reduce it; and we are not interested in adding another layer to the project. 6PM YLT is not a TAZ, it’s just a social game that wants to raise some awareness about the importance of documentation, the power of networks, the public availability of what we do with our phones. And it’s a parasitic tool that, as anything else happening online, implies an entire set of corporate frameworks in order to exist: social networks, browsers, operative systems, internet providers, server farms etc.

That said, yes, I think TAZs are still possible. The model of TAZ has been designed for an hyper-connected, hyper-corporate world; they are temporary and nomadic; they exist in interstices for a short time. But I agree that believing in them is mostly an act of faith.

Daniel Rourke: The beta-tested, final iteration of 6pm YLT will be launched in the summer of 2015. How will you be rolling out the project in the forthcoming months? How can people get involved?

Domenico Quaranta: 6PM Your Local Time has been conceived as an opportunity, for the organizing subject, to bring to visibility its network of relationships and to improve it. It’s not an exhibition with a topic, but a social network turned visible. To put it simply: our identity is defined not just by what we do, but also by the people we hang out with. After organizing 6PM Your Local Time Europe, the Link Art Center would like to take a step back and to offer the platform to other organizing subjects, to allow them to show off their network as well.

So, what we are doing now is preparing a long list of institutions, galleries and artists we made love with in the past or we’d like to make love with in the future, and inviting them to participate in the project. We won’t launch an open call, but we already made the event public saying that if anyone is interested to participate, they are allowed to submit a proposal. We won’t accept anybody, but we would be happy to get in touch with people we didn’t know.

After finalizing the list of participants, we will work on all the organizational stuff, basically informing them about the basic rules of the game, gathering information about the events, answering questions, etc.

On the other hand, we have of course to work on the presentation. While every participant presents an event of her choice, the organizer of a 6PM Your Local Time event has to present to its local audience the platform event, as an ongoing installation / performance. We are from Brescia, Italy, and that’s where we will make our presentation. We made an agreement with MusicalZOO, a local festival of art and electronic music, in order to co-produce the presentation and have access to their audience. This is what determined the date of the event in the first place. Since the festival takes place outdoor during the summer, we are working with them on designing a temporary office where we can coordinate the event, stay in touch with the participants, discuss with the audience, and a video installation in which the live stream of pics and videos will be displayed. Since we are expecting participants from Portugal to the Russian Federation, the event will start around 5 PM, and will follow the various opening events up to late night.

One potential reference for this kind of presentation may be those (amazing) telecommunication projects that took place in the Eighties: Robert Adrian’s The World in 24 Hours, organized at Ars Electronica in 1982; the Planetary Network set up in 1986 at the Venice Biennale; and even Nam June Paik’s satellite communication project Good Morning Mr Orwell (1984). 


Left to Right – Enrico Boccioletti, Kim Asendorf, Ryder Ripps, Kristal South, Evan Roth

Daniel Rourke: Your exhibition Unoriginal Genius, featuring the work of 17 leading net and new media artists, was the last project to be hosted in the Carroll/Fletcher Project Space (closing November 22nd, 2014). Could you tell us more about the role you consider ‘genius’ plays in framing contemporary art practice?

Domenico Quaranta: The idea of genius still plays an important role in Western culture, and not just in the field of art. Whether we are talking about the Macintosh, Infinite Jest, a space trip or Nymphomaniac, we are always celebrating an individual genius, even if we perfectly know that there is a team and a concerted action behind each of these things. Every art world is grounded in the idea that there are gifted people who, provided specific conditions, can produce special things that are potentially relevant for anybody. This is not a problem in itself – what’s problematic are some corollaries to our traditional idea of genius – namely “originality” and “intellectual property”. The first claims that a good work of creation is new and doesn’t depend on previous work by others; the second claims that an original work belongs to the author.

In my opinion, creation never worked this way, and I’m totally unoriginal in saying this: hundreds of people, before and along to me, say that creating consists in taking chunks of available material and assembling them in ways that, in the best situation, allow us to take a small step forward from what came before. But in the meantime, entire legal systems have been built upon such bad beliefs; and what’s happening now is that, while on the one hand the digitalization of the means of production and dissemination allow us to look at this process with unprecedented clarity; on the other hand these regulations have evolved in such a way that they may eventually slow down or stop the regular evolution of culture, which is based on the exchange of ideas.

We – and creators in particular – have to fight against this situation. But Unoriginal Genius shouldn’t be read in such an activist way. It is just a small attempt to show how the process of creation works today, in the shared environment of a networked computer, and to bring this in front of a gallery audience.


Left to Right – Kim Asendorf, Ryder Ripps, Kristal South, Evan Roth

Daniel Rourke: So much online material ‘created’ today is free-flowing and impossible to trace back to an original author, yet the tendency to attribute images, ideas or ‘works’ to an individual still persists – as it does in Unoriginal Genius. I wonder whether you consider some of the works in the show as more liberated from authorial constraints than others? That is, what are the works that appear to make themselves; floating and mutating regardless of particular human (artist) intentions?

Domenico Quaranta: Probably Museum of the Internet is the one that fits best to your description. Everybody can contribute anonymously to it by just dropping images on the webpage; the authors’ names are not available on the website, and there’s no link to their homepage. It’s so simple, so necessary and so pure that one may think that it always existed out there in some way or another. And in a way it did, because the history of the internet is full of projects that invite people to do more or less the same.


Left to Right – Brout & Marion, Gervais & Magal, Sara Ludy

Daniel Rourke: 2014 was an exciting year for the recognition of digital art cultures, with the appointment of Dragan Espenschied as lead Digital Conservator at Rhizome, the second Paddles On! auction of digital works in London, with names like Hito Steyerl and Ryan Trecartin moving up ArtReview’s power list, and projects like Kenneth Goldsmith’s ‘Printing out the Internet’ highlighting the increasing ubiquity – and therefore arguable fragility – of web-based cultural aggregation. I wondered what you were looking forward to in 2015 – apart from 6PM YLT of course. Where would you like to see the digital/net/new media arts 12 months from now?

Domenico Quaranta: On the moon, of course!

Out of joke: I agree that 2014 has been a good year for the media arts community, as part of a general positive trend along the last few years. Other highlighs may include, in various order: the September 2013 issue of Artforum, on “Art and Media”, and the discussion sparked by Claire Bishop’s essay; Cory Arcangel discovering and restoring lost Andy Warhol’s digital files from floppy disks; Ben Fino-Radin becoming digital conservator at MoMA, New York; JODI winning the Prix Net Art; the Barbican doing a show on the Digital Revolution with Google. Memes like post internet, post digital and the New Aesthetic had negative side effects, but they helped establishing digital culture in the mainstream contemporary art discourse, and bringing to prominence some artists formerly known as net artists. In 2015, the New Museum Triennial will be curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin, and DIS has been announced to be curator of the 9th Berlin Biennial in 2016.

All this looks promising, but one thing that I learned from the past is to be careful with optimistic judgements. The XXI century started with a show called 010101. Art in Technological Times, organized by SFMoMA. The same year, net art entered the Venice Biennale, the Whitney organized Bitstreams and Data Dynamics, the Tate Art and Money Online. Later on, the internet was announced dead, and it took years for the media art community to get some prominence in the art discourse again. The situation now is very different, a lot has been done at all levels (art market, institutions, criticism), and the interest in digital culture and technologies is not (only) the result of the hype and of big money flushed by corporations unto museums. But still, where we really are? The first Paddles On! Auction belongs to history because it helped selling the first website ever on auction; the second one mainly sold digital and analogue paintings. Digital Revolution was welcomed by sentences like: “No one could fault the advances in technology on display, but the art that has emerged out of that technology? Well, on this showing, too much of it seems gimmicky, weak and overly concerned with spectacle rather than meaning, or making a comment on our culture.” (The Telegraph) The upcoming New Museum Triennial will include artists like Ed Atkins, Aleksandra Domanovic, Oliver Laric, K-HOLE, Steve Roggenbuck, but Lauren and Ryan did their best to avoid partisanship. There’s no criticism in this statement, actually I would have done exactly the same, and I’m sure it will be an amazing show that I can’t wait to see. Just, we don’t have to expect too much from this show in terms of “digital art recognition”. So, to put it short: I’m sure digital art and culture is slowly changing the arts, and that this revolution will be dramatic; but it won’t take place in 2015 🙂


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Cyberformance in the Third Space: A Conversation with Helen Varley Jamieson

“Overlapping and fluid spaces… spaces emerging between physical realities and the ethereal digital / electric space: a third space grafted from the real-time confluence of the stage + remote locations.” – Helen Varley Jamieson

Cyberformance artist Helen Varley Jamieson is creating a new Internet performance work, “we r now[here]”* for the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium (March 31 – April 2). The title and description of the work poetically articulate her thinking on networked space (third space) as a medium for online theatrical experimentation: “‘we r now[here]’ is about nowhere and somewhere: the ‘nowhere’ of the Internet becomes ‘now’ and ‘here’ through our virtual presence.” (* Special thanks to Annie Abrahams who provided the title for the work: “we r now[here],” and to Curt Cloninger who inspired it.)

To set the “stage” for this new work, we discuss Helen’s pioneering achievements in the genre she has coined as cyberformance: the combination of cybernetics and cyberspace with performance. Helen has created a rich body of online theater work dating back to 1999, when dial-up modems were still the operable connection, long before Skype and Google Hangout became popular Web-conferencing tools. As one of the founders of UpStage, an open source platform for online theatrical presentation, Helen is a leading catalyst, researcher, director, and maker who for years has been reimagining the Internet as a global space for theater and performance.

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Randall Packer: You coined the term cyberformance in the early 2000s after discovering the potential of the Internet as a medium for live performance. What were your first steps in rethinking live theater for ethereal, networked “third space?”

Helen Varley Jamieson: When I first started working with Desktop Theatre and experienced the intense liveness of our interactions despite being physically separated by thousands of miles, I understood that it was possible to feel a quite visceral sense of presence and real-time connection via the internet. We were improvising and performing in The Palace, a graphic-sonic chat application, and our audiences were mostly other “Palatians” – who weren’t always particularly interested in what we were doing. I began to think about how we could bring this work to a theatre audience, people who wanted to see a performance. The first time I tried this was at Odin Teatret in Denmark at a Magdalena Project festival, with a short performance that aimed to demonstrate the possibilities of cyberformance. Adriene Jenik and Lisa Brenneis from Desktop Theatre were performing with me from California, in The Palace which was projected onto a screen. I was using someone’s mobile phone for the internet connection as this was 2001 and there wasn’t internet throughout the building at that time. Afterwards, a heated debate erupted amongst the audience (who were theatre practitioners) about whether or not this could be called theatre. This experience challenged me to question whether or not cyberformance was “theatre” (which of course required first answering the question, what is “theatre”?): how is technology changing our definitions of “theatre”? and what place does cyberformance have within theatre?


Online meeting preparing for the CyPosium – organisers discussing facilitation and moderation (2012). From left to right: Annie Abrahams, Helen Varley Jamieson, Suzon Fuks and Christina Papagiannouli

RP: You define cyberformance as “utilizing Internet technologies to bring remote performers together in real-time for remote and or proximal audiences.” How does the distributed nature of cyberformance differ from live, traditional theater that situates actors and audience in a single, physical location?

HVJ: Obviously there are many interactions that are not possible, and the entire context is different: instead of sitting together in a darkened auditorium, hearing the rustles and breathing of your fellow audience members and smelling whatever smells, you are (usually but not always) alone in front of a computer. There are time and seasonal differences, as well as cultural and linguistic, for individual audience members. There might be a knock at the door or a phone call or other outside events that intrude on someone’s experience while online. So there is much more variety in how the performance is received than there is in a proximal situation. To give one example, during the 101010 UpStage Festival, one performer and some audience were located at a museum in Belgrade; it was the same day as the gay pride march there, which was disrupted by rioting anti-pride protestors, and the museum staff had to lock the doors to keep everyone safe – cars were burning in the street outside. Inside the locked museum, the performer kept going and the festival continued with the riot raging outside, and those of us online were getting updates about the situation from those in the museum.

There is also a different kind of relationship between audience and performers, at least in performances using platforms such as UpStage, where the audience have the possibility to chat with each other and with the artists. There is a level of familiarity and equality, as opposed to the separation of the 4th wall in traditional theatre. Different codes of behaviour apply – for instance it can happen that the online audience might start chatting about something unrelated to the performance, which then becomes a part of the performance; people seated in a theatre auditorium wouldn’t normally strike up a general conversation, audible to all, in the middle of a play. The response from the audience to the performance is in some ways more direct – they can comment in the chat and will often be very honest in their comments; and in other ways more distant – a standing ovation has to be typed into the chat, which is less of a loud emotional outpouring.


Dan Untitled streaming a DJ set from Wellington, New Zealand (top left) for the After Party of the 121212 UpStage Festival of Cyberformance (December 2012)

RP: I find it ironic that you named your performance group “Avatar Body Collision,” which seems to complicate the idea of net space as a virtual medium for disembodiment. How do you see “avatar bodies” colliding on the Internet?

HVJ: I don’t think of virtual space as being disembodied. We are still in our bodies, we are using our bodies to create the performance – primarily our hands and fingers (digits – we say “break a digit” before our shows instead of “break a leg”). The collision in the name is not about bodies colliding with bodies, but avatars colliding with bodies. Where does my body end and my avatar begin, and vice versa? And how do other bodies, e.g. the audience, respond to my avatar? The collision is one of flesh and technology, sweat and pixels.


“Dress The Nation” by Avatar Body Collision, 2003,
The Palace (response to the USA invasion of Iraq)

RP: Online, the audience or “cyberformience” plays a participatory role in the event, like the early Happenings from the 1960s. How does this non-hierarchical approach to theater impact the works you have created for the medium: how do you incorporate the audience into the work?

HVJ: It varies from show to show; some are designed for the audience to watch and respond, while others aim to actively involve the audience (cyberformience) to the point of co-authoring. One example at the first end of the continuum is “a gesture through the flames“, which was a webcam performance I created in 2008 for Annie Abrahams‘ “Breaking Solitude” series. I used a Victorian toy theatre and a soundscape to tell a story, and the online audience improvised a narrative in the chat. I didn’t interact with them during the performance (I was too busy to type) and it was fascinating to see how they read what I was doing. At the other end of the spectrum are works like “make-shift” or the series “We have a situation!” which can’t happen without the active participation of the audience. In “make-shift” (2010-12, with Paula Crutchlow), the audience were involved in writing texts, operating the webcam, answering quiz questions, building kites from recycled plastic, and ultimately performing on webcam. The event was structured so that they were “warmed-up” for their participation, and because we were located in someone’s home there was a very informal and comfortable atmosphere which made it possible for people to do these things.

RP: You are currently creating a new work entitled “we r now[here]” for the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium. The title can be read as no(where) or now(here). Tell us about your concept of Internet space and time.

HVJ: Space and time in the online world are very fluid for me. I frequently work with people in different time zones, and travel physically between time zones myself as well, so I’m often calculating time differences and negotiating meeting times around all of this. In some ways time is irrelevant. In other ways, it’s highly significant – for example, precise timing is very difficult to achieve. Lag is unpredictable, sometimes it can disrupt a carefully planned sequence but at other times it can make something unexpectedly brilliant.


Helen Varley Jamieson performing “make-shift,” Brisbane, 2012; photo by Suzon Fuks

RP: A recent work, “make-shift,” unites domestic environments via the Internet in live, free-form conversation between online and onsite participants. How do you achieve a sense of intimacy and play in the online social space of the work despite geographical separation?

HVJ: I think of cyberspace as a space; apart from all the common spatial metaphors that are applied to it, when I’m working or communicating with people online in real-time it feels to me that we create a space through our shared presence, words, and whatever else we are using. It’s a space that extends into and absorbs a little bit of the physical environment of everyone present. “make-shift” did this very explicitly – we asked the audience (online and on site) to describe where they were, and this built a collaborative space or environment that everyone had a shared sense of.

In “make-shift” we created intimate and playful environments in two separate houses. the participants in the houses arrived half an hour before the show began, and during this time we warmed them up with a few activities and explained things about what was going to happen. Usually there was also food and drink, and often the people already knew each other so it was already quite friendly and informal. At the start of the show we began by introducing everyone. Each house called out a greeting to the other house and the online audience (which we’d practiced as part of the warm-up activities), and then we invited the online audience to tell us “what’s it like where you are?” This question was deliberately a bit open-ended, so people could describe their surroundings, the weather, their day, their mood and so on. The online audience are already seated at the keyboard and ready to interact; often they would make jokes, add other comments and respond to each other. We had regular online audience members who knew the format so inserted their own commentary or embellished others’. From this beginning, we continued throughout the piece to give the audience tasks that encouraged their sense of empowerment and ownership within the piece, such as operating the webcam, and we encouraged those in the house to interact in the chat with the online audience. Some people were a bit shy or worried about doing the wrong thing, but they usually got into it fairly quickly and became so involved in the piece that they lost any self-consciousness. In the final scene, the group in each house performed a song to the webcam and created a tableaux vivant of a painting we had referenced throughout the performance, and when we reached this point in the show they were always keen to do this.


Performance of Samuel Becket’s “Come & Go” by Avatar Body Collision,
070707 UpStage Festival (2007)

RP: With the Avatar Body Collision performance group, you have restaged Samuel Becket’s minimalist theater work “Come & Go.” Your approach to cyberformance has always been very free and open, and yet Becket is the opposite: highly structured with precise directions for actors. How do you reconcile these differences?

HVJ: It was a lot of fun to do “Come & Go“; from the outset we accepted that we had a strict set of instructions to follow, and made that our task – to render Beckett’s directions in cyberformance as faithfully as possible. So we didn’t reconcile those differences, rather we saw it as an opportunity to work differently for a change. We worked on small but precise avatar movements, which is harder than you might think, and used simple gestures that very effectively added emotion, such as a turn of the head or holding a hand up to the mouth. We played with the text2speech voices of our avatars: I was Flo, who at one point has the line, “Dreaming of … love”, and we discovered that the “…” created an emotional quaver in the computerised voice when it said “… love”. This was both funny and tender. So having a script and such precise directions meant that we spent time on details like this.

RP: You have produced your own online symposia, the Cyposium, the latest from 2012 culminating in CyPosium the Book, an edition of essays and transcriptions. How has your experimentation with the online symposium format altered your view of what a conference gathering can fulfill given global access via the Internet?

HVJ: The CyPosium was very successful and generated an exciting buzz. I think one reason for this was that everyone was online. When there is a stream from a proximal conference, it’s very easy for people at the physical venue to forget about those online. It takes very thoughtful planning to ensure that the online participants are fully included. So in the CyPosium, everyone was online and therefore equally included. Most people commented quite freely – at times it was quite dizzying to see the chat scrolling up at great speed, there was so much discussion. This made it quite difficult for the moderators to field questions – we had planned as best we could for this and it went pretty well, but there were so many people actively engaged in the discussion that at times we couldn’t keep up. Many people stayed online for most of the 12 hours, and the response was very enthusiastic the whole way through, which made it clear that there is a desire for this kind of event.


From the launch of “CyPosium the Book”, Munich, Dec 2014, Helen Varley Jamieson presenting and Annie Abrahams on webcam; photo by Andrea Ass

RP: In your years of performing and creating online performance, what do you think is missing in the liminal space of the online medium due to distance and non-corporeality? What do you yearn for? What do you still want to accomplish?

HVJ: At an absolutely practical level, I yearn for better funding, for funding opportunities that are not tied to geographical locations, as nearly everything still is. The distributed, non-corporeal and ephemeral nature of this work means that it’s always on the periphery – which in some respects is a wonderful place to be, but it’s usually the least-funded place.

There are many things that I imagine and would like to realise but can’t technically; some of these things may become possible if/when we manage the rebuild of UpStage that we are planning. But often what interests me most is experimenting with the resources I have and discovering what’s possible; what tricks or hacks I can do, what surprises there are when we push a technology in a way it wasn’t intended to be pushed or when we use a tool differently.

What I would still like to accomplish in my work is to further develop the intentions of shows such as “make-shift” and “we have a situation,” where a creative process shared by audience and artists can ultimately effect real change, at the individual level and socially/politically. I’m interested in how cyberformance can facilitate meaningful discussions and encourage people to think about alternatives and make actual changes in their lives. I’m interested in how connections between remote and apparently unrelated people and contexts can open up new possibilities.


“swim – an exercise in remote intimacy,” Avatar Body Collision, at the City of Women Festival, Ljubljana (2003), photo by Nada Zgank


Randall Packer is an artist, composer, educator, and writer. He is currently Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Art, Design & Media at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the co-chair of the Art of the Networked Practice | Online Symposium. You can follow him at Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge, his blog critiquing the unfolding media culture.


Mechanisms of Exclusion: “We Are All Faceless Mobs Now, Dawg.”

[Trigger warnings for just about everything goes here. Please Do Not Read the following if you’re sensitive, or concerned about trigger(ing)s.]

“An uproar of voices was coming from the farmhouse. They rushed back and looked through the window again. Yes, a violent quarrel was in progress. There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials…Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

– George Orwell, Animal Farm.

OUR ANTAGONISTIC CESSPOOL

Today’s online spaces are communication minefields. When interacting in multiplayer games or social media niches, networks come drenched in reactivity bile. And although we might seem to bile-dilute, instead we intellectually saw at each other through a polite veneer. Here, civil discourse is label-trotted. Discourse bile may also erupt in balls-to-the-wall screaming matches. Such bouts involve trollbaiting, d0xxing, and Internet Rage Machine power-ups. Whatever the magnitude/form, online dialogues appear to be flooded with antagonistic commentary.

MUDITA VS SCHADENFREUDE

Truncated attention spans rage-burst. Such anger pockets are far from static: fuelled by such shameblood, the righteous degrade. We humiliate in order to inflate. We confront-tar and belittle-feather. The [s]urge for relevancy is sycophantically baked. We mobilize to unearth, to finger-point: we present affectivity as fact. Hate groups spread across factions, divide-blurring.

NUANCE REMOVAL + THE RUBRIC OF ABUSE

The search for sodalities is constant. Nuances are fudged. Contexts are ignored. Catharsis mutates through a checklist that reduces, confines, and truncates. We are force-fed trauma anecdotes as reality fulcrums. Baggage is exposed in painful lumps. We are not consideration-encouraged: we are expectation-drilled. We must agree. Must acquiesce. Must uncritically support. Anything else denunciation-equates.

“IN-AND-OUT”RAGE

Public shaming is the norm. We bully. We armchair-critique. Bipartisan voices lynchmob-morph, all-indignation-like. Roughshodders censor and context erase. Power drugs the inflamed and injects the underdog[s] with sudden shifting surges. Reference frames are smashed, then reiterated repeatedly till they become a thing of horror, of replication thrown from “side a” to hit “side b”. Such targets are then mirror-captured and magnified. Empathy is to be derided as weakness. Barbs are flung at all who seek to ponder “isms” or reclaim them. We must not listen in order to comprehend, to understand: we must shout.

[PIGEON]HOLE[D]-IN-ONE

We word weaponise [“…getting all soul-rapey on SJWs”/”…gut-cutting misogynistic neckbeards“/ “You are either with us or against us”]. Gator-screams and “die-cis-scum“-roars rule the day. We obliterate and issue-compress. We communication strangle. Equality is attainable through force. Aggression trumps assertion. Sarcasm blights compassion. Rudeness rewrites decency.

SUCH TERRIBLE WHITEWASHING SEALIONS

Image Credit: David Malki/Wondermark

Power-grabs blind the sensitive. To destroy/troll/shame/swamp/embarrass/belittle/d0xx is to “win”. Sense of perspectives lose while extremisms gain. Dialogue is gamed: the loudest voices squash and rip, tear and silence. Threats echo the noose. Implications drive output. The end-goal is attention, ratification, dis[e]ruption: a pendulum power swing designed to flatten and redress. We obscure and vilify. We replicate exclusion ethics. We buck-and-doe-pass.

THE VICTIM[IZED] TURN

Online purging results in strange social crevices. Encouraged to instantaneously blurb our stream-of-tweeted-consciousness, we are off the chain. We spontaneity-bark and bleat [at] everything and all. Cohesion shatters. We no longer rely on institutions to dictate, to guide, to sanction. Moral Absolutists war-trawl Moral Relativists. The Arab Spring has turned us inside out. Unsure, we turn on each other. We emoji expose and deride. We [slut]shame and attack: all within banners born from psychologies spouting the benchmark worth of individualisation. Selfies become our egocentric standard.

HOLIER-THAN-THOU + YOU + YOU

We once attempted to codify, to restrain. But now, all gloves are off. We scrabble and lunge. We showcase-badge based on our version of “the categorical truth”. We bang and bleed against these corners, these intersections of emotion and intellect. Of private and public. Of control and openness. There is no room for reflection, for consideration, for clarity.

RIGHTING OUR SELF-RIGHTEOUS WRONGS

We refuse anything that calms. Online spaces are for battling. Playfulness and cohesion are sacrificed. Righteous mobs insult fling: they ratify rather than reappropriate. Alternates gleefully spout these insults as proof, stamp-ammo-ing all the while. There are, however, those who stay and observe. We await the wind-down. We desire an eventual dissolve: a fundamental shift. They can’t last, these discourse patterns. We wait for rage to course-run, for rage-fatigue. We await the next mediation bump.


Neither Here Nor Then: Thomson and Craighead at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery

Visiting Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead’s survey exhibition, Never Odd Or Even, currently on show at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, I found myself confronted with an enigma. How to assemble a single vision of a body of work, impelled only by the dislocated narratives it offers me? ‘Archaeology’ is derived from the Greek word, arche, meaning ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’. The principle that makes a thing possible, but which in itself may remain elusive, unquantifiable, or utterly impervious to analysis. And so it is we search art for an origin, for an arising revelation, knowing full well that meaning is not something we can pin down. Believing, that the arche of a great work is always just about to take place.

The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order

In an essay written especially for the exhibition, David Auerbach foregrounds Thomson and Craighead’s work in the overlap between “the quotidian and the global” characteristic of our hyperconnected contemporary culture. Hinged on “the tantalising impossibility of seeing the entire world at once clearly and distinctly” [1] Never Odd Or Even is an exhibition whose origins are explicitly here and everywhere, both now and anywhen. The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a video work projected at the heart of the show, offers a compelling example of this. Transposing the 1960 film (directed by George Pal) into the alphabetical order of each word spoken, narrative time is circumvented, allowing the viewer to revel instead in the logic of the database. The dramatic arcs of individual scenes are replaced by alphabetic frames. Short staccato repetitions of the word ‘a’ or ‘you’ drive the film onwards, and with each new word comes a chance for the database to rewind. Words with greater significance such as ‘laws’, ‘life’, ‘man’ or ‘Morlocks’ cause new clusters of meaning to blossom. Scenes taut with tension and activity under a ‘normal’ viewing feel quiet, slow and tedious next to the repetitive progressions of single words propelled through alphabetic time. In the alphabetic version of the film it is scenes with a heavier focus on dialogue that stand out as pure activity, recurring again and again as the 96 minute 55 second long algorithm has its way with the audience. Regular sites of meaning become backdrop structures, thrusting forward a logic inherent in language which has no apparent bearing on narrative content. The work is reminiscent of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, also produced in 2010. A 24 hour long collage of scenes from cinema in which ‘real time’ is represented or alluded to simultaneously on screen. But whereas The Clock’s emphasis on cinema as a formal history grounds the work in narrative sequence, Thomson and Craighead’s work insists that the ground is infinitely malleable and should be called into question.

Belief (2012)

Another work, Belief (2012), depicts the human race as a vast interlinked, self-reflexive system. Its out-stretched nodes ending at webcams pointing to religious mediators, spiritual soliloquists and adamant materialists, all of them searching to define what it means to be in existence. Projected on the floor of the gallery alongside the video a compass points to the location each monologue and interview was filmed, spiralling wildly each time the footage dissolves. Each clip zooms out of a specific house, a town, a city and a continent to a blue Google Earth™ marble haloed by an opaque interface. Far from suggesting a utopian collectivity spawned by the Google machine, Belief once again highlights the mutable structures each of us formalise ourselves through. As David Auerbach suggests, the work intimates the possibility of seeing all human kind at once; a world where all beliefs are represented by the increasingly clever patterns wrought through information technology. Instead, culture, language and information technology are exposed as negligible variables in the human algorithm: the thing we share is that we all believe in something.

More Songs of Innocence and of Experience (2012)

Never Odd Or Even features a series of works that play more explicitly with the internet, including London Wall W1W (2013), a regularly updated wall of tweets sent from within a mile of the gallery. This vision of the “quotidian” out of the “global” suffers once you realise that twitter monikers have been replaced with each tweeter’s real name. Far from rooting the ethereal tweets to ‘real’ people and their geographic vicinity the work paradoxically distances Thomson and Craighead from the very thing twitter already has in abundance: personality. In a most appropriate coincidence I found myself confronted with my own tweet, sent some weeks earlier from a nearby library. My moment of procrastination was now a heavily stylised, neutralised interjection into Carroll / Fletcher gallery. Set against a sea of thoughts about the death of Margaret Thatcher, how brilliant cannabis is, or what someone deserved for lunch I felt the opposite of integration in a work. In past instances of London Wall, including one at Furtherfield gallery, tweeters have been contacted directly, allowing them to visit their tweet in its new context. A gesture which as well as bringing to light the personal reality of twitter and tweeters no doubt created a further flux of geotagged internet traffic. Another work, shown in tandem with London Wall W1W, is More Songs of Innocence and of Experience (2012). Here the kitsch backdrop of karaoke is offered as a way to poetically engage with SPAM emails. But rather than invite me in the work felt sculptural, cold and imposing. Blowing carefully on the attached microphone evoked no response.

The perception and technical malleability of time is a central theme of the show. Both, Flipped Clock (2009), a digital wall clock reprogrammed to display alternate configurations of a liquid crystal display, and Trooper (1998), a single channel news report of a violent arrest, looped with increasing rapidity, uproot the viewer from a state of temporal nonchalance. A switch between time and synchronicity, between actual meaning and the human impetus for meaning, plays out in a multi-channel video work Several Interruptions (2009). A series of disparate videos, no doubt gleaned from YouTube, show people holding their breath underwater. Facial expressions blossom from calm to palpable terror as each series of underwater portraits are held in synchrony. As the divers all finally pull up for breath the sequence switches.

Several Interruptions (2009)

According to David Auerbach, and with echoes from Thomson and Craighead themselves, Never Odd Or Even offers a series of Oulipo inspired experiments, realised with constrained technical, rather than literary, techniques. For my own reading I was drawn to the figure of The Time Traveller, caused so splendidly to judder through time over and over again, whilst never having to repeat the self-same word twice. Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ original novel the protagonist stumbles into a crumbling museum. Sweeping the dust off abandoned relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that the Time Traveller has a revelation. The museum entombs the history of his own future: an ocean of artefacts whose potential to speak died with the civilisation that created them. [2] In Thomson and Craighead’s work the present moment we take for granted becomes malleable in the networks their artworks play with. That moment of arising, that archaeological instant is called into question, because like the Time Traveller, the narratives we tell ourselves are worth nothing if the past and the present arising from it are capable of swapping places. Thomson and Craighead’s work, like the digital present it converses with, begins now, and then again now, and then again now. The arche of our networked society erupting as the simulation of a present that has always already slipped into the past. Of course, as my meditation on The Time Traveller and archaeology suggests, this state of constant renewal is something that art as a form of communication has always been intimately intertwined with. What I was fascinated to read in the works of Never Odd Or Even was a suggestion that the kind of world we are invested in right now is one which, perhaps for the first time, begs us to simulate it anew.


[1] David Auerbach, “Archimedes’ Mindscrew,” in Never Odd Or Even (Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London: Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London, 2013), 4, http://www.carrollfletcher.com/usr/library/documents/thomson-and-craighead-essays/essay-from-tc-final-low-res.pdf.

[2] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso, 2005), 100.