We are delighted to share with you our Spring season of art and blockchain essays, interviews and events, offering a wide spread of exploration and critique.
The blockchain is an evocative concept, but progress in ideas of cryptographic decentralisation didn’t stop in 2008. It’s helpful for artists to get a sense of the plasticity of new technical media. So first we are pleased to share with you Blockchain Geometries a guide by Rob Myers to the proliferation of blockchain forms, ideas and their practical and imaginative implications.
In Moods of Identification Emily Rosamond writes her response to our second DAOWO workshop, Identity Trouble (on the blockchain). She reflects on both ongoing attempts to reliably verify identity, and continuing counter-efforts to evade such verifications.
Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon speak here with Marc Garrett in an interview republished from our book with Torque Editions Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain (2017). Mat and Holly convey a sense of excitement about developments and opportunities for new forms of decentralised collaboration in music.
Finally you can book your place on future events at the DAOWO blockchain laboratory and debate series for reinventing the arts.1 Download the DAOWO Resource #1 for key learnings, summaries of presentations, quotes, photographs, visualisations, stories and links to videos, audio recordings and much more from our first two events about developments in the arts and the trouble with Identity.
The blockchain is 10 years old and is surrounded with a hype hardly seen since the arrival of the Web. We’d like to see more variety in the imaginaries that underpin blockchains and the backgrounds of the people involved because technologies develop to reflect the values, outlooks and interests of those that build them.
Artists have worked with digital communication infrastructures for as long as they have been in existence, consciously crafting particular social relations with their platforms or artwares. They are also now widely at work in the creation of blockchain-native critical artworks like Clickmine by Sarah Friend2 and Breath (BRH) by Max Dovey, Julian Oliver’s cryptocurrency climate-change artwork, Harvest (see featured image) and 2CE6… by Lars Holdhus3, to name but a few.
By making connections that need not be either utilitarian nor profitable, artists explore potential for diverse human interest and experience. Also, unlike on blockchains, where time moves inexorably forward (and only forward) – fixing the record of every transaction made by its users, into its time slot, in a steady pulse, one block at a time – human imaginative curiosity can scoot, meander and cycle through time, inventing and testing, intuiting and conjuring, possible scenarios and complex future worlds. They allow us to inhabit, in our imaginations, new paradigms without unleashing actual untested havoc upon our bodies and societies.
Back in 2008 the global banking system was bailed out by governments with tax payers’ money. Meanwhile a 15 year explosion of web-inspired, decentralised, mutualist-anarchist DIWO (Do It With Others)-style cultural actions and practices ebbed (though its roots remain and go deep). The global network of human attention and resources were, by this time, well and truly re-centralised. The “big five” now owned, and often determined, our communication and expression. Post-Internet artists rejected platform-building as a social artform and instead, took as their materials, lives mediated through social media and corporate owned platforms. Some dived into the marketing vortex, to revel and participate in the heightened commodification of art.
With the introduction of the blockchain protocol on the Internet we see a reversed direction of travel in the artworld, with major developments coming more quickly from the businesses of art, which reassert art’s primary status as an asset class, than from those artists experimenting with new forms of experience and expression enabled by its affordances. Now intermediaries of art world business are moving into blockchains (also sometimes called the “Internet of money”) with a focus on provenance, authentication, digital arts made scarce again with IP tracking, fractional ownership, securitisation and auction4. It is blockchains for art, any art, as long as that art can be owned and commodified. This may be seen as a good thing, generating and distributing increased revenues to ‘starving artists’. Also perhaps inevitable, as that which cannot be owned is hard to represent on a blockchain ledger.
In his new book Reinventing democracy for the digital condition, (2018) Felix Stalder notes that people are increasingly actively (voluntarily and/or compulsorily) participating in the negotiation of social meaning through the “referentiality, communality, and algorithmicity, […] characteristic cultural forms of the digital condition”. In 2015 the Ethereum blockchain launched with a new layer that could run “smart contracts”, pieces of code which act as autonomous agents, performing the function of a legal agreement without the interference of a corruptible or fallible human5. These can be combined to perform as blockchain-based companies called Distributed Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and there are a plethora of blockchain implementations and political agendas now developing. How these unfurl will affect our ability to relate to each other, to deliberate, decide and cooperate with each other as individuals, organisations and societies.
So for us the promise lies in platform-building: by-and-for communities of experimental artists (in the expanded sense of the word), participants and audiences who want to create not just saleable or tradeable art objects6 but artworks that critique the relationship between art and money, and expand the contexts in which art is made and valued.
‘AltCoins, cryptotokens, smart contracts and DAOs [Digital Autonomous Organisations] are tools that artists can use to explore new ways of social organisation and artistic production. The ideology and technology of the blockchain and the materials of art history (especially the history of conceptual art) can provide useful resources for mutual experiment and critique’ – Rob Myers7
While FairCoin (being rolled out by FairCoop with the Catalan Integral Cooperative) puts new forms of decentralised social organisation into practice on the ground, blockchain based art projects such as Terra0 and Plantoid by O’khaos offer examples of governance systems and invite us to critically “imagine a world in which responsibility for many aspects of life (reproduction, decision-making, organisation, nurture, stewardship) are mechanised and automated.”8 Both artworks demonstrate functioning systems and help us to think through how we might determine and distribute artistic (and other) resources, their value, and the rules for their co-governance for the kinds of freedoms, commonalities and affiliations that are important for the arts.
It may take a while. What to value and how to value it is a particularly tangled question. The technical infrastructure of the blockchain is at the stage of development that the Web was at in the early 90s (blockchain technologies are less forgiving, require deeper programming knowledge and are therefore more expensive to build than web pages or platforms) which, along with the get-rich-quick vibe of non-community-platform projects, might be why there are still so few community platforms actually in operation. Resonate.is the cooperatively owned music streaming service is an inspiration in this regard. It is a platform for musicians – creators and listeners – that opens up the governance of its resources to everyone who has ever created or listened to its music. It demonstrates one way in which a DIWO ethos might work.
Helen Kaplinsky is exploring how to bootstrap to the blockchain, Maurice Carlin’s Temporary Custodians project which realises an alternative system of peer2peer art ownership and stewardship at Islington Mill9.
Three preoccupations dominate 2018 New Year blogs and commentary that mark the blockchain’s 10th anniversary: blockchains as cash cults; doubts about the actual utility of blockchains and; the environmental impact of Bitcoin (still, erroneously interchangeable with the blockchain in the minds of lots of people). We add to these our concern about the intensification of control enabled by these infrastructures, AND the simultaneous conviction (shaped by deep collaborations and hard criticisms over the last years) that blockchains have the potential to enable and stimulate new forms of social organisation, resource distribution and collaboration in the arts.
The first two preoccupations match exactly the commentary surrounding the early days of the Web and we know how that turned out. The remaining concerns are grist to the mill of our ongoing programme of publications, films, exhibitions and events. The technologies are only now stabilising to allow more grass-roots infrastructural developments.
We invite you to bring your own lens of constructive critique, gather a crowd to debate and explore how we might pull blockchains into art, on the arts’ own terms, and to gain an understanding of why it is worthwhile.
If you’re interested in Furtherfields critical art and blockchain programmes with various individuals, groups and partners since 2015. You could check out how it all started, watch our short film, read this book, visit this exhibition, or archives and documents of previous exhibitions10, 11, read reviews and debate, and join us at our ongoing DAOWO blockchain lab series, devised with Ben Vickers (Serpentine Galleries) in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London, and the State Machines programme12
Alan Sondheim has been ploughing a very singular furrow through art, music, writing, philosophy and much else since the late sixties. On the occasion of his participation in the Children of Prometheus exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery we present here an interview conducted by the artist and writer Michael Szpakowski in which Sondheim gives a broad overview of his artistic formation, practice and philosophy.
Michael Szpakowski: I first came across your work through the Webartery mailing list in 2001. I remember being knocked out by your productivity, a productivity that seemed to be allied to an incredible intellectual curiosity and restlessness, resulting in in words, images, movies, music – I remember once you started making little programs in some variant of Visual Basic… All of these posted day in, day out, come rain or shine, to the list… And, obviously I preferred some to others and for anyone to follow every piece of work you made would mean doing little else with their lives, but the quality, the variety, of what you made was ( and remains) staggering.
I found this compulsion to make work both admirable and invigorating and I’ve followed your work ever since. I think I even once compared you to Picasso on DVblog because I couldn’t think of anyone working in art for the net (and every such description is problematic, I’ll ask something more specific later) who seemed to come anywhere near to that fecundity allied to quality too…
I think of this interview as a general introduction to your work for someone who maybe has only happened across it for the first time in the exhibition at Furtherfield so I’d like to ask, first of all, for you to give us a sketch of your intellectual and artistic formation and the milieu(x) in which you have worked (I mean right from the beginning – tell us what makes you, you!):
Alan Sondheim: Of course this is difficult to answer; I began with writing and around the age of 19, started making music as well, but I was always restless. The compulsion has personal roots, but also a desire to move into an environment, habitus, and explore its limitations and promises; in all of this, I’m concerned with the interplay of the somatic and consciousness on one hand, and abstraction, the inertness of the real, mathesis (the mathematization, structuring of the world) on the other. So there’s this dialog at the limits. My first production was a book of experimental writing, An,ode ; around the same time I made three recordings, two for ESP-Disk; this was around the late 60s. Clark Coolidge, the poet, was very important to me early on; I met him at Brown; he introduced me to Vito Acconci and shortly after, early 70s, I moved to NY, eventually SoHo in its heyday. I’ve never been a traditional artist/writer/musician/etc. but move among these areas; I’m concerned with what for me are fundamental issues of philosophy, body, and the world. I want to explore at the limits of what I’m capable of doing. How is consciousness in relation to the world? How is the world?
I’m driven to create daily; while teaching at UCLA, I made a sound film (16mm for the most part) a week for 37 weeks; they ranged from a minute to an hour in length and were forms of deconstructed narrative. Now online, I try to make a work daily in whatever medium, including virtual worlds of all sorts; I continue to try to push limits – what I call ‘edgespace,’ – the space where gamespaces/worlds begin to break down, and what then? (By ‘gamespace,’ I mean, literally the space of a game, where rules hold – for example chess or football. The rules may be consensual or enforced, etc.) This is deeply involved with the politics and somatics of these spaces of course, and on the political spectrum, I’m leftist and deeply pessimistic; I don’t see internet or social media as salvation of any sort, but as fundamentally neutral, extraordinarily adaptable to any number of usages. I’ve written on the differences at the finest levels between the analog and digital, areas like that usually taken for granted; what emerges is a kind of granularity situated within an obdurate real world whose biosphere is faltering deeply.
M: Although you are included in an exhibition in a physical space here the vast majority of your output has been presented on the net, usually in the context of one or more mailing lists. Could you say a bit about this. Was this a conscious choice or pragmatism or somehow both? Is there anything you particularly prize about the rhythm of work and presentation that comes with this kind of platform and has the eclipse of many of the old mailing lists with the rise of social media caused problems for you – have you tried to adapt to/utilise these newer modes?
A: It’s pragmatism combined with a desire to explore; edgespace teeters uneasily and tends towards what I call blankspace, where the imaginary exists – for example, the ‘heere bee dragonnes’ in unknown areas of early maps (I haven’t actually seen the expression, but it serves here). I present my work on Facebook and G+; I also used YouTube for a long time until I was banned from it.
M: Banned from it?
A: A long story that would take this too far afield…
I work well in presentation/talk/performance mode online and off. I believe in the depth of email lists of course. I do think my avatar work is really well suited to gallery spaces; I’ve had up to seven projections going at the same time. I’ve also performed live in virtual worlds or mixed-reality situations which are projected/presenced directly, and for a long time Azure Carter, my partner, and I worked with the dancer/performer/choreographer Foofwa d’Imobilite; the physicality of the work was amazing. And another aspect of what I do – what grounds me – is playing musical instruments, mostly difficult (for me) non-western ones; the instruments require tending and close attention. I tend to play fast. Most of them are strings, bowed or plucked; the music is improvisation. Recently I’ve been focusing on the sarangi, for example. And I’ve had something like 17 tapes, lps, and cds issued; the most recent is LIMIT, which was done in collaboration with Azure and Luke Damrosch, who did Supercollider programming based on concepts I’ve had about time reversal in real time – an impossibility in gamespace, but the edgespace is fascinating. The music products excite me; they’re out there in a way that my other work isn’t.
M: I remember when I first discovered internet art or whatever we want to call it (and there have been numerous quasi theological arguments about this) that there was an intense debate about whether the internet was a conduit or a medium – so many artist-scripters/programmer tended to rather look down on those who simply took advantage of the network’s distribution and dialogical properties (although I have to say that my view is that it was in this massive extension of connectivity that the real force of the thing resided – I remember being told in 2001 that moving image was not internet idiomatic which is amusing given the rise of YouTube &c.) Your work, certainly of the last 17 years or so, strikes me as being intimately tied up with the network and with the unfolding possibilities of new media but not necessarily in the sense that you work with the network itself to make objects, works and more in the second sense of the conduit…
A: It depends; for example one of the projects I initiated through the trAce online writing community in 1999-2000 – over the hinge of the millennium in other words – was asking a world-wide group of artists, IT folk, etc., to map traceroute paths and times from the night of 12/31 to the afternoon of 1/1; the internet was supposed to run into difficulties – over timing etc. – and I wanted to create a picture of what was happening world-wide. A second project somewhat later was using the linux-based multi-conferencing Access Grid system to send sounds/images/&c. from one computer to another in the Virtual Environments Lab at West Virginia University – but these images would travel through notes, much like the old bang!paths, around the entire world. So, for example, Azure would turn her head in what seemed like a typical feedback situation – the camera aimed at a screen, she’s in front of it, the result’s projected on the screen, &c. – but each layer of the feedback had independently circled the globe (through Queensland to be specific), creating time lags that also showed the ‘health’ of the circuit, much like traceroute itself. It was exciting to watch the results, which were videoed, put up online with texts &c.
Part of the difficulty I have is being deeply unaffiliated; I need others to give me access to technology. For example, I’ve used motion capture in three different places, thanks to Frances van Scoy and Sandy Baldwin at WVU; Patrick Lichty at Columbia College, Chicago; and Mark Skwarek at NYU. I also did some augmented reality with Mark, and with Will Pappenheimer. To paraphrase, I’m dependent on the kindness of others; I have no lab or academic community to work among in Providence; what I do is on my own. John Cayley gave me access to the Cave at Brown; Eyebeam in NY (I had a residency there) gave me space and equipment to work with, and in both places I was able to create mixed reality (virtual world/real bodies) pieces – those also bounced through the network…
M: Could you talk, then, a bit about the motion capture/avatar work that seems to have been central to what you are doing over the last ten years or so. I also don’t think I’m mistaken in detecting a very decided move back to music making of late (I know this has always been there but it feels foregrounded again)
A: The mocap work has been ‘deep’ for me; it involves distorting the entire process, in other words distorting the somatic world we live in. There are numerous ways to do this; the most sophisticated was through Gary Manes at WVU, who literally rewrote the mocap software for the unit they had. I wanted to create ‘behavioral filters’ that would operate similarly to, say, Photoshop filters; in other words, a performer’s movement would be encoded in a mocap file – but the encoding itself during the movement itself, would be mathematically altered. Everything was done at the command line (which I’m comfortable with). The results were/are fantastic. A second way to alter mocap is by physically altering the mapping – placing the head node for example on a foot. But I worked more complexly, distributing, for example, the nodes for a single performer among four performers who had to act together, creating a ‘hive creature.’ All of this is more complicated than it might sound, but the results took me somewhere entirely new, new images of what it means to inhabit or be a body, what it means to be an organism, identified as an organism. This is fundamental. I’m interested in the ‘alien’ which isn’t such of course, which is blankspace. (The alien is always defined within edgespaces and projections; we project into the unknown and return with a name and our fears and desires.)
Most of what I do, for me all of what I do, is grounded in philosophy – ranging from phenomenology to current philosophy of mathematics to my own writing. So these explorations are also artefactual; I think philosophy is far too grounded in writing as gamespace; writing for me, when it’s touched by the abject, the tawdry, the sleazy, the inconceivable, opens itself up.
As far as music goes, I touched on it above in regard to LIMIT. One thing that concerns me is speed, playing as fast as possible, so that the body and mind move on de/rails that are at my limits; I think of this as shape-riding and the results and internal time dilations involved keep me alive…
M: You are genre/practice/technique promiscuous and you have a high level of skill in all –you could equally (and have been) styled Alan Sondheim ‘writer’ , Alan Sondheim ‘musician’, Alan Sondheim ‘maker of moving image work’ (with a marvellous sub-category ‘Alan Sondheim ‘maker of dance related video works’, for a while). Is one of these, in your heart of hearts, central, and, whether this is so or not, how do you place yourself in respect to the various traditions around these areas of work. How do you fit into the art world, into literature or the experimental film tradition? How do you relate to net art/networked art/new media &c.?
A: I don’t seem to fit into the artworld, net art, poetry world, music world &c. – it’s difficult for me to get my work around as a result. Nothing is central but a desire to see how systems form, coagulate, degenerate, collapse, become abject, &c. in relation to consciousness: How are we in the world? On a concrete level, finance enters into the picture; what can I do given a kind of lack of community around me? How can I push myself?
I’m not sure what ‘net art’ is, but certainly the Access Grid pieces &c. are of that, although not of Web-based protocols. There are so many ports out there to use! I do think of myself as a new media artist or someone burrowing into post-media. I’ve always had a few people who believe in what I do, who have helped or worked with me, and I’m really grateful for that. But in terms of institutions, I feel like an outsider artist and am treated like one. It came to a head for me years ago one day when I was living in Soho; I had a call from Vito who said he had realized that whatever I am, I’m not an artist; the same day Laurie Anderson spoke to me and said she realized that whatever I am, I am an artist. So my identity has been far more fluid than I’ve been comfortable with, and it’s affected my career. (There was that tape Kathy Acker and I made 1974, and I read an interview a few years ago, forget the source, with Edit Deak who said the tape wasn’t art at all; in the meantime, it continues to be shown at various venues.)
M: Finally, could you say a little about the work in this particular show?
A: The work in the show is a group of 3d-printed avatars distorted through the mocap process described above. For me they connect, deeply, with charred bodies, with anguish, with genocide and scorched earth. They appear also in number recent videos created in various virtual worlds, moving/performing etc. The anguish, so close to death and unutterable pain, is there. I’ve talked about the kinds of brutal killings occurring now worldwide, from Finsbury Park to the United States, the rise, not only of racisms, but violent nationalisms, in the U.S. certainly encouraged by the present regime. I’m sick of it. We all have nightmares. I want to understand this, this grounding in the blooded earth that shakes our very ability to speak, to think, to act.
And yet of course we must resist.
The work in the show is also critical, then, of technophilia, technological answers to the world, utopian dreaming. The top one percent benefit most from the results. I see utopian thinking as dangerous here. Our so-called president has his finger on 4000-5000 nuclear warheads. That’s the reality for me, and why I don’t sleep at night.
Michael Szpakowski: 聽琴圖 (listening to [Alan Sondheim playing] the qin), after Zhao Ji
// gravure, urushi lacquer & pigment on found wood // 30.5X7.5″
At first glance networks and the practice of drawing would seem to be worlds apart. However, the diagram, originally a hand-drawn symbolic form, has long been employed by science as a means of visualising and explaining concepts. Perhaps the most important of these concepts is that of relationships visualised as circles and lines that represent nodes and links or effectively what is related. As such networks, that is groupings of relationships, have come to be visualised through the use of the same styles and iconography employed in diagrams. For artists to reclaim the diagram as a part of their own practice and thereby adopt the practice of visualising networks developed within science sees the practice of creating diagrams in a sense come full circle. Artists have time and time again drawn diagrams and networks that explore relationships. For example: Josef Beuys famously used blackboard diagrams as part of his teaching performances concerning art and politics; Stephen Willats has since the 1960s developed drawn diagrammatic works that explore his socially formed practice; Mark Lombardi drew societies’ networks of power relations throughout the 1990s; Torgeir Husevaag has since the late 1990s drawn diagrams of a number of networks within which he participated while Emma McNally draws diagrammatic networks “bringing different spaces into relation [such as] the virtual world, the networked world and the supposedly real world” (Hayward, 2014).
The work of Suzanne Treister resides within this category of artist’s drawing, and in this instance also painting, networks. With a background in painting Treister works across video, the internet, interactive technologies, photography, drawing and watercolour painting (Treister, n.d.). Her work employs “eccentric narratives and unconventional bodies of research to reveal structures that bind power, identity and knowledge” (ibid) within contemporary contexts. As a result of this process of revealing structures, essentially the relationships within the subject matter she addresses and the resulting networks they form, her practice has since the 1990s been closely allied with art that employs or explores technology. She has been repeatedly included in exhibitions and publications that link her work with networks, cybernetics, new media and most recently Post-Internet Art (Flanagan and Booth, 2002; Pickering, 2012; Larsen, 2014; Warde-Aldam, 2014).
HFT the Gardener (2014-15), a recent solo exhibition by Treister at Annely Juda Fine Art in London, is a body of artworks consisting of drawings, paintings, photographs and digital prints supposedly created by a fictional character and a documentary video about the same character. The character, Hillel Fischer Traumberg, is an algorithmic high-frequency trader (HFT) within the London Stock Exchange. After an optically induced semi-hallucinogenic state, Traumberg experiments with psychoactive drugs in order to recreate and further the experience (Treister, 2015). Along the way Traumberg becomes fascinated with botany, experiments with the molecular formulae of drugs as trading algorithms, makes links between the numerological equivalents of plants’ botanical names and the FT Global 500 index, visually documenting all of his research and ultimately becoming an ‘outsider’ artist (ibid). In the process Traumberg transitions from an insider of one network, a trader within the stock exchange, to that of an outsider in another, the contemporary art world.
This juxtaposition of opposites is repeated throughout the exhibition. For example, the drawings and paintings of HFT the Gardener employ illustrations of networks containing nodes and links. These illustrate a number of different sets of relationships that are established by the artist. These include: that of the central character to his concepts, research and environment; the locations where drugs were taken; states of consciousness; the components of an algorithm; different companies within a sector and different aspects of the universe including life and art. Additionally a variety of diagrammatic forms are co-opted in the creation of the drawings and paintings including the Judaic Kabbalah Tree of Life, radial diagrams, flowcharts similar to those used in software design and reference is made to a number of other abstracted forms including star charts, snow crystals, fractals and paisley design. Through both form and subject matter the illustrations of networks and the diagrams gather together combinations of opposites. There is of course the use of what can be considered traditional media to illustrate new media forms, however among others there are also the opposites of painting and software, science and art, corporate and counter-culture, belief and fact, fiction and reality.
To coincide with the creation of the artwork a book of the same name has been published. In the foreword Erik Davis states that there is an “initial shock of Treister’s juxtaposition of esoterica and the financial sector” (2016). The same could be said of the numerous other juxtapositions that occur within HFT the Gardener. However, are Treister’s, or is it Traumberg’s, combinations really contrasts that shock? Treister does more than simply juxtapose opposites. The artist effectively synthesises them into a whole that is indicative of our networked era where individuals routinely select, cut, paste and combine combinations ad-hoc to suit a moment or context. HFT the Gardener is an artwork that could only be created in this era of networks and as such it cannot be considered shocking or out of context with the eclectic recombinatory society that surrounds it.
Not only are drawn diagrams and networks employed extensively throughout the exhibition in a number of ways but a network-like structure is also employed to arrange the artworks within the space of the gallery. Initially on entering the gallery space it seems as if artworks are arranged in no particular order. However it gradually becomes clear that this arrangement is purposefully obliging the visitor to enter into and move through the space as if it were a network; that is entering at any point and navigated in any order. While some series of artworks within HFT the Gardener, such as the Botanical prints, maintain an order to illustrate the ranking of companies employed in their creation, the majority of artworks are experienced out of the order they have been created and the documentary video about Traumberg, presumably from Treister’s perspective, is encountered at the midpoint of the exhibition. As such the artworks are presented as if they are interconnected nodes in a network.
As a result of the diagrams, illustrations of networks, juxtaposed combinations of subject matter and a network-like structure in arranging the artworks within the exhibition Treister successfully manages to make one last combination of opposites, that of non-linearity of experience and linearity of narrative. In doing so the visitor experiences the juxtapositions, combinations and resulting networks formed by Traumberg’s hallucinatory non-linear associations and yet manages to steadily interpret the detailed narrative carefully constructed by the artist. It is in this last combination where the strength of Treister’s exhibition lies as it not only reflects society at large but also suggests that art is and perhaps always has been, a non-linear networked experience that is only now coming into its own.
An exhibition catalogue of HFT The Gardener is available through ISSUU (https://issuu.com/annelyjuda/docs/treister_cat) and a fully illustrated book of the same name is available from Black Dog Publishing, London.
HFT The Gardener will continue to tour throughout 2017 at the following venues. Please see the artist’s website for exhibition updates.
22/10/2016 – 05/03/2017
Selected works from HFT The Gardener exhibited in The World Without Us
Hartware MedienKunstVerein (HMKV),
07/01/2017 – 18/02/2017
HFT The Gardener diagrams exhibited in Underlying system is not known
Western Exhibitions, Chicago, USA.
03/02/2017 – 05/03/2017
Selected works from HFT The Gardener exhibited in Alien Ecologies
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany.
Featured Image: Olia Lialina, My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, at MU. Photo Boudewijn Bollmann
Twenty years ago, in 1996, Russian artist Olia Lialina created My Boyfriend Came Back From The War (MBCBFTW). Using the story of a veteran’s girlfriend who has mixed feelings when he returns, the interactive Web narrative quickly became an iconic work that inspired many artists to create their own interpretations of it. At the moment two exhibitions at HEK in Basel and MU in Eidhoven, pay hommage to MBCBFTW, a tribute to a medium and a new approach to keeping history alive.
Inbal Shirin Anlen, Freya Birren (Jennifer Walshe), Vadim Epstein, Dragan Espenschied, JODI, Olia Lialina, Abe Linkoln, Guthrie Lonergan, Armin Medosch, Ignacio Nieto, Anna Russett, Tale of Tales a.k.a. Entropy8Zuper!, Mark Wirblich. With two new works by Constant Dullaart and Foundland (commissioned by MU).
Educated as a journalist and film critic, and curating experimental film programmes in Moscow, in the mid-1990s Olia Lialina quickly embraced the Web and started experimenting with its unique qualities. She made her first net art piece, My Boyfriend Came Back From The War in 1996. Four years later she set up the Last Real Net Art Museum – an initiative to oppose museums that were presenting the first ‘Internet art exhibitions’, and a place on the Web where she could collect and exhibit the projects that responded to MBCBFTW. Ten years after she made her first net artwork, in 2006, in their popular book New Media Art (Taschen) Mark Tribe and Reena Jana wrote about MBCFTW: ‘One indicator of the historical significance of Olia Lialina’s 1996 Net art project, My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, is the numerous times it has been appropriated and remixed by other New Media artists. (…) Perhaps it resonates with other artists because it is among the earliest works of New Media art to produce the kind of compelling and emotionally powerful experience that we have come to expect from older, more established media, particularly film.’
In the meantime, Lialina had moved on and in addition to her online art practice, wrote about new media, Digital Folklore, the vernacular Web, co-founded the Geocities Research Institute, and became an animated GIF model and a professor at Merz Academy in Stuttgart, whilst the ‘mini-drama in hypertext’ MBCBFTW continued to be of interest to many artists, curators and critics. For its fifteenth anniversary, The Creators Project described MBCBFTW as a ‘charmingly simple yet poignant work’, emphasising its importance for the history of net art and its longevity through its interpretations. At the moment, as Lialina tells me, the project is discussed on Twine – an open source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories – where people communicate with each other about this ‘early Twine’. It is therefore not surprising that 2016 starts with two anniversary exhibitions, opening almost at the same time but in different frames, of My Boyfriend Came Back From The War. online since 1996. In what follows I asked Olia Lialina to reflect on the lasting popularity of the work, her intentions for making it, and her ideas about ways to go forward with it.
Can you tell me something about your background, how did you end up being an artist and a professor?
Twenty years ago I was absolutely happy with what I did: writing about films, curating film programmes, trying to make my own films. But as with many who embrace the World Wide Web (or were embraced by it) when it left academia in the mid-1990s – I was lucky to have a sudden new life and career. I became an artist only because MBCBFTW became a piece of net art. And I could become a professor four years later because of it 🙂
Could you briefly describe what the work is about?
In my teens I came up with the sentence ‘My boyfriend came back from the war, after dinner they left us alone.’
Мой парень вернулся с войны
И вот мы остались одни
And I always wanted to complete it as a poem, but the next lines never came. Years later, still confused about the phrase, I made it into an ambivalent dialogue with the browser: dividing it into frames. It was never about a war, but about a difficult conversation that doesn’t lead anywhere, and of course about the browser. I wanted to make something that people would spend time with and look at in the browser. This was also possible back then because the connection was much slower – so it took time to go through it. This has changed a lot now: HTML adapts to faster speeds, and most of us aren’t used to waiting – or loading time – anymore. You cannot click slowly if something is fast. That is also why we artificially slowed down the Internet connection for the exhibition.
When you started working on the Web, you came from a background in journalism and film. What sparked your interest in HTML frames?
They were very new at the time, not every browser supported them and you had to install the Netscape 3 version that had just been released – although in specifications I see now that it also worked in Netscape 2, but I remember that it didn’t back then. So, at the time it was cutting-edge technology – even though there was already a ‘I-hate-frames’ movement on the net, which I only discovered later. For me, it was interesting to see that a browser window could be divided up: you could assign coordinates, partition the screen and have multiple HTML documents within the same window. It sounds naive now, but at the time it was very empowering: I felt like a hacker, I could decide what it looked like and how it functioned.
And it reminded me of celluloid. I used to work with experimental 16mm film: cutting and pasting frames together. The editing was a way to work with the material, not just a concept. So, the connection between film and browser frames was something exciting. At the time I always talked about MBCBFTW as a net film. Someone more familiar with CD-ROM art, programming or interactive art would probably see it differently, but for me using frames inside the browser was a way to edit – it was a direct transition from being a filmmaker to a net artist.
While preparing the inventory table with all the elements of MBCBFW for the exhibition and reviewing the HTML code, I saw so many mistakes that I felt a bit ashamed. Mona Ulrich, one of my students, and I noticed warning after warning while reading through the code. So, it’s not only an old code, it is also very buggy, but despite all that it still works! That is the great thing about HTML, it has a very high tolerance, and it’s very forgiving if you write ‘bad’ code. It allows you to make mistakes: it’s not even that it was easy to learn, but rather that you didn’t really have to learn it at all.
In 2000 you started the Last Real Net Art Museum, as an initiative to collect and present interpretations of MBCBFTW. Could you explain the context and purpose of the Last Real Net Art Museum?
The Last Real Net Art Museum was a provocation to museums who in the late 1990s and early 2000s started making their own online net art exhibitions and collections – and at first they seemed to succeed, but it turned out they didn’t. In my title, ‘Real’ meant that an online collection should be based on links, because the net was about making links to people, information, etc. A good example was äda ’web designed by Vivian Selbo and curated by Benjamin Weil for the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis between 1995 and 1998. Because this and other projects ended, another phenomenon started with museums like the Guggenheim, Tate and Whitney who acquired copies of Internet art and just kept these somewhere on a floppy or a CD, or showed the work in a pop-up window on their website – for me this was not real, and rather disrespectful of the artworks. And ‘Last’ meant that this previous method was completely disappearing.
The Last Real Net Art Museum was also sort of self-referential because of the First Real Net Art Gallery that I made in 1998, where I sold net art. It wasn’t a gallery selling offline art online, but people could buy online art for the first time. Since the First gallery was still well known in 2000, and to make the connection between the works, the second one became the Last…
Talking about museums and collections, was MBCBFTW ever acquired?
Yes, there is a copy at Telepolis, which was sold for what I thought back then was the amazing sum of 300 German Marks, but it was above all a statement. It’s also in a museum collection, MEIAC (http://www.meiac.es/) in Spain, and has been bought by a private collector, too. There is one more edition left. For this one I think it makes sense to sell the complete package: a computer, a monitor with the right resolution (800 x 600) a slowed-down server connection, an emulator with the old Netscape browser and all the other settings. Everything is emulated, simulated and fake, but the work is alive in its most precious state.
I have also adapted the work at certain times, for example around 2006 I added Google Ads to the website, not to become rich, but to reflect the Web of that time. Without the Ads it seemed old-fashioned and I wanted it to be alive and contemporary. About a year ago I removed them, because they made the work look outdated. It was interesting to see what Google thought suited the site – mostly non-governmental sites. Unfortunately, I never captured this version. That’s the irony – part of me is very much involved in preserving the Web, but when it’s about my own work, I change things immediately and forget how it was before.
The adaptations to the medium are striking in all the different interpretations. Seeing all the works next to each other illustrates a historical technical lineage of online practices: from HTML frames to blogs, games, video and VR. In a sense the Web seems almost to be little more than a constantly changing technical environment. Many have argued that this emphasis on medium specificity is one of the reasons why it took/is taking so long for net art to be taken seriously by the traditional art worlds. How do you view the relationship between the concept and the technical or formal aspects of the work?
For me the main concept and message of the work is the medium specificity. When thinking about the MBCBFTW exhibition we noticed now that it is also about the development of the Web. Yes, it has many technical translations. For example, the work by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (previously known as Entropy8Zuper!) was made in Flash; it was interactive and had sound, and for that time it was the most obvious software to use. Then Blog and Twitter versions were made, people kept changing it to other realities of the Web. What is interesting though is that the last interpretation, by Inbal Shirin Anlen, brought it back to its original classic HTML structure. The variations are some sort of tribute to the medium: these can range from manifestations of particular elements, to an aesthetic message or a personal statement in the medium.
I strongly believe that there is no contradiction between medium specificity and a mature conceptual message. For that reason I also think that it’s important to always emphasise how the work is made – it just being ‘art’ is not enough; I cannot forget about the Web or the net. In my article ‘Flat against the Wall’ of 2007, I wrote that while it is fine that Web art is part of the art market now, it would be a tragedy if we lost its connection to the Web. It can be a topic of contemporary art but it should stay part of the new media art scene.
For the exhibition you choose specific interpretations. What were your criteria for this selection?
We had to make a selection because some things have been lost. At the time of the Last Real Net Art Museum I thought it was important to just have the links to the works rather than showing copies of the works. So, unfortunately now some works are missing because nobody saved them, the Internet Archive didn’t capture them, and the artists (some of them students at the time) said they didn’t have their work anymore. For example, Web comics were popular at the beginning of the century and someone made a version in that style, which unfortunately didn’t survive either.
In the exhibition we left out works that had a similar structure, but almost all of them are featured in the book that was made for the show by House of Electronic Arts (HeK) in Basel, for example, Don Quichote Came Back From The War (2006) by santo_file group. But we also left some out of the exhibition that – perhaps surprisingly – were just too difficult to show such as the beautiful animated gif by Mike Konstantinov. He made this animated gif in 2000 and it was widely used for and known as a website banner. This work was a typical banner, 468 x 60 in size, and because it doesn’t use any of the images from the original work is also mimicked the cheesiness of banners. In the book it is printed frame-by-frame, but it’s difficult to show the banner phenomenon in an exhibition. We thought of several ways: put it on a random website, or against a black background, but in the end we decided not to present it at all. It just didn’t work.
Another example that isn’t included in the exhibition is Roman Leibov’s work. Leibov is the unofficial father of the Russian Internet. In the mid-1990s the Web in Russia had a strong literary tradition, it was all about games with words and meaningful and innovative hypertexts, including of course many references to Russian literature. I made MBCBFTW in English to intentionally distance myself from this tradition. I wanted to create something very formal because I’m very interested in the structures of the browser, the frames, etc. Had I made it in Russian it would have ended up in a different culture. At the time it was a massive effort, because English wasn’t my language. Then I asked Roman Leibov to make a text version and post it on the Russian Internet, which he did. He took every frame and described it like a film critic, and it ends with a monologue, making it into a piece of literature.
How do you see this type of approach now? To me at times it seems there is much less experimentation with templates or in the browser.
Yes, it’s more difficult to be curious now. The browser is still generous, you can open the source code and look at it, but it’s very complicated to change the code, if you can do it at all. The gap between people looking at and those making the pages has become enormous now. At the time it was easy to copy and modify other people’s pages, but now it is much more difficult to do this.
In this sense, perhaps, Blingee is my favourite place to go at the moment. It is a creative community where people fulfil their wish to make something themselves, where they can construct something from other people’s material. It isn’t because they can’t afford Photoshop, it’s about finding things made by others and reusing them such that they become completely different, and also that those layers can be made visible again, showing the elements that have been used. All the layers in the images have value and they are there to be admired. You can also see the tricks people use to fool or misuse the system. Unfortunately, there isn’t a Blingee version of MBCBFTW yet.
What I like about the work from an historical point of view that it consists of two types of archives: the table with all the information and components that are necessary to reconstruct the work, and the living archive of different people’s interpretations. Which method do you prefer?
The archive is an interesting part. MBCBFTW consists of many files, yet it is only 72 KB in size, which is smaller than a small image today. In the early 2000s I wanted to write about the life of a work of art, its making, what is important to keep and its preservation, even though I didn’t think it was necessary for net art. Now I see that it does make sense to write down all these details, so Mona Ulrich and I updated the old table for the exhibition. The table shows all the files, their sizes and which one is used in what frame. Even if someone has never seen the work, it could be reconstructed by following the information on the table. Maybe someone should try it sometime.
However, thinking about the future of the work, I prefer the interpretative approaches, because they are closer to my way of working. I’m also happy, and proud, that people take it as a structure and build something else out of it. I also think it’s interesting to see to what extent it can still be recognised as being an interpretation of MBCFTW, what are those elements? For example, Ignacio Nieto made a tribute for the Chilean soldiers who died in the mountains, it’s his story, and he merely used the same frame structure, but he asked me whether he could make and show the work. It is a bit strange of course, because I don’t have a patent for the frames, yet the specific use of the frames is one of the work’s main characteristics. I also noticed that most people keep the left frame intact and the frames to the right proportionally become smaller. Perhaps it’s similar to the golden ratio in design, but then for frames. A final characteristic is that all the interpretations always end with nothing, with black frames.
The Wrong Biennial, organized by David Quiles Guilló, is possibly the largest internet-based exhibition to date. With a flexible roster of 90 curators and 1100+ artists, this estimation of the exhibition may just be correct. However, as with any project of such a size, The Wrong may serve to be, as well as an overwhelming survey of contemporary media art, it could also be a mirror of individual critics and curators’ desires. But what it also represents for me is a grand bazaar of the current state of media art, and what I would like to discuss, along with a couple of the ‘pavilions’, which are the meta-effects of the exhibition.
But when I talk about The Wrong being a mirror for the hopes and desires of the curators and critics is that the reviews to date are as broad as the exhibition, and sometimes shaped to that critic’s interests or familiar territory. One critic recuses himself as more of a brick and mortar type, looks at a couple pavilions, and then addresses Lorna Mills’ post-internet satire of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as a possible move to currently familiar territory.Conversely, the business magazine Fast Company, asks if The Wrong will finally allow digital art to sell. A virtual worlds blog hails the FrancoGrid SecondLife-like pavilion as yet another chance for “the art world to finally see the brilliant work happening inside virtual worlds”.
On Facebook, a thread with post-internet & glitch artists muse as to whether the non-institutional nature of The Wrong might constitute some dilution of the work in galleries. The views of The Wrong seem to be, in light of its sheer scope, more a reflection of what the critic finds familiar than tackling the overall project.
These are cursory cross-sections of the discussions happening online. From one review to the next, as important as the art and the artists, is the fact that Guilló has undeniably blown open a gigantic conversation about the nature of electronic art.The Wrong Biennial, regardless of its composition, structure, etc., has proven and a disruptive moment in this moment of hyperprofessionalized media art practice, and has created an online/offline archipelago larger than any festival, such as Ars Electronica, ISEA or Transmediale. And it’s free. But with the size and open nature of such an event in light of professional pressures from student loans to art fairs one asks, what good is being exceptional when you open the gates for undifferentiated curatorial practice? But conversely, art critic Jerry Saltz mentioned that the work he saw after the last art crash in the late 2000’s was more and better after the flattening effect of the crash. Could the rhizomatic effect of the bazaaring of net art created by the sheer scope of The Wrong have created one of the greatest analogies for the current explosion of media art today by giving a lot of it to the online public and creating an agora for discussion as well?
While the effects of The Wrong I am explaining may seem like the title of the Performa ’09 biennial in saying, “Everywhere, All at Once”, Guilló took a flexible, but very rigorous approach to constructing the exhibition. In the beginning, Guillósought funding for the project on Indiegogo, and set up bienniale and curator group pages on Facebook, as well as an extensive exhibition catalogue website. These set a framework for the numerous on/offline “pavilions”, all linked through the biennial online sites. And, periodically, there are docented online “tours” of the Biennial every week or so that attempt to make sense of the content onslaught that The Wrong presents. In a way, this biennial uses the aesthetics of the Long Tail to situate itself somewhere between “snack culture” (Wired, 2007) and recursive self-curation/the “curated life” in its structure to mirror the current cultural sociological terrain. In other words, what is as impressive regarding The Wrong is its structure as much as its content.
In allowing myself to peer into the abyssal mirror of content implicit in The Wrong and see my own reflection in it, I see a project I did in 1998. I curated a show called Through the Looking Glass for the Beachwood Center for the Arts in Cleveland, a 3000+ sq. foot space. More or less, there were a number of kindly locals who were curious about digital art. For this show, I got 80+ physical artists and 40 or more online artists to show the breadth of the current scene from every continent (there was even an Antarctican photo installation…) Artists included Michael Rees, Scott Draves, Helene Black, RTMark, and many more. The show included a physical space as well as the show website (http://voyd.com/ttlg/) which also included a number of other artists. The exhibition was promoted/discussed on sites like The Thing and Rhizome, and was documented in Christiane Paul’s New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, (UC Press, 2008), somewhat mirroring Guilló’s discursive hydra. The importance was that it got a regional and international dialogue going about the state of media art at the time, much like The Wrong, but only at a fraction of the latter’s scale.
Guilló’s project transcended the museum, as in conversation online he was enroute to one of the museums he has spoken on the subject, including sites Europe, North America (SAIC) and others. In this regard, the reach of the project, while theoretically only possible as something like Ars Electronica’s Net.Condition or the Walker’s Art Entertainment Network in the late 90’s, has engaged the many social media layers from Facebook, Twitter, as well as net.distribution and reached a much wider audience. In this way, I feel Guilló has sidestepped the institution to make an exhibition that reflects the cultural terrain and social practices of its milieu – the Internet. In some ways, I feel that The Wrong could be the first true net.biennial.
With nearly a hundred “pavilions” to view, writing on any one cannot address the scope and structure of The Wrong. Perhaps I am less enthralled with ones that deal with individual artists, moreso with thematic pavilions, and more with the open call ones, as they create a generative basis for expansion of the biennial itself, creating more diversity within it.
One of the open calls that I liked well enough to volunteer for was Brazilian Gabriel Menotti’s Approximately 800 cm³ of PLA, which was an open, print-til-we-run-out, Fluxus-reminiscent, “give us a file and we’ll print it exhibition”. The resultant models were put on display at Baile, in Vitoria, Brazil, and included pieces from veteran Chicago 3D print artists Tom Burtonwood and Taylor Hokanson. Another pavilion of interest (again using the mirror metaphor, as I have been known to do work in virtual worlds) is that of the Wronggrid Pavilion in FrancoGrid, a Francophonic OpenSim (read: open source Second Life) that hosted a 6-month residency with sixteen artists. The WrongGrid Pavilion has generated a great deal of content, especially from Jeannot GrandLapin (Frère Reinert?) as the big avatar rabbit GrandLapin, and another Chicagoan, Paul Hertz. The WrongGrid virtual vernissage was one of the more memorable events in The Wrong as it gave one of the few opportunities for people to meet in the virtual across continents and share in the work in real time. But these are only two of nearly 90 sites that constitute this massive undertaking.
David Quiles Guilló has created a juggernaut – significant enough to get the #3 nod from Hyperallergic for top shows in 2015. From its size and scope, it represents a breadth of artists and themes that shows a fantastic cross-section of the current electronic media art ecosystem. In addition, The Wrong engages avant practices of open curation, nested participation, and relational organization while challenging the necessity of institutions and art fairs. While The Wrong may be as hard as Benjamin’s Arcades Project to get through, most sites give rich experiences, and some give empty links. What is important about The Wrong Bienniale is that it appears to be one of the few projects that is a true net.biennial in terms that it is about the net, how its links with the physical, and how it refers to projects like the Fluxus-inspired Eternal Network that explore how we create through social and technological networks. The Wrong Bienniale is a disruptive site of cultural engagement in a social milieu complaining of malaise and cynicism. It’s time to consider what media art is; how our communities interact; how we operate as a community; and what it means to be a media artist in a mediated culture.
The new project by Guido Segni is so monumental in scope and so multitudinous in its implications that it can be a bit slippery to get a handle on it in a meaningful way. A quiet desert failure is one of those ideas that is deceptively simple on the surface but look closer and you quickly find yourself falling down a rabbit-hole of tangential thoughts, references, and connections. Segni summarises the project as an “ongoing algorithmic performance” in which a custom bot programmed by the artist “traverses the datascape of Google Maps in order to fill a Tumblr blog and its datacenters with a remapped representation of the whole Sahara Desert, one post at a time, every 30 minutes.”1
Opening the Tumblr page that forms the core component of A quiet desert failure it is hard not to get lost in the visual romanticism of it. The page is a patchwork of soft beiges, mauves, creams, and threads of pale terracotta that look like arteries or bronchia. At least this morning it was. Since the bot posts every 30 minutes around the clock, the page on other days is dominated by yellows, reds, myriad grey tones. Every now and then the eye is captured by tiny remnants of human intervention; something that looks like a road, or a small settlement; a lone, white building being bleached by the sun. The distance of the satellite, and thus our vicarious view, from the actual terrain (not to mention the climate, people, politics, and more) renders everything safely, sensuously fuzzy; in a word, beautiful. Perhaps dangerously so.
As is the nature of social media platforms that prescribe and mediate our experience of the content we access through them, actually following the A quiet desert failure Tumblr account and encountering each post individually through the template of the Tumblr dashboard provides a totally different layer to the work. On the one hand this mode allows the occasional stunningly perfect compositions to come to the fore – see image below – some of these individual ‘frames’ feel almost too perfect to have been lifted at random by an aesthetically indifferent bot. Of course with the sheer scope of visual information being scoured, packaged, and disseminated here there are bound to be some that hit the aesthetic jackpot. Viewed individually, some of these gorgeous images feel like the next generation of automated-process artworks – a link to the automatic drawing machines of, say, Jean Tinguely. Although one could also construct a lineage back to Duchamp’s readymades.
Segni encourages us to invest our aesthetic sensibility in the work. On his personal website, the artist has installed on his homepage a version of A quiet desert failure that features a series of animated digital scribbles overlaid over a screenshot of the desert images the bot trawls for. Then there is the page which combines floating, overlapping, translucent Google Maps captures with an eery, alternately bass-heavy then shrill, atmospheric soundtrack by Fabio Angeli and Lorenzo Del Grande. The attention to detail is noteworthy here; from the automatically transforming URL in the browser bar to the hat tip to themes around “big data” in the real time updating of the number of bytes of data that have been dispersed through the project, Segni pushes the limits of the digital medium, bending and subverting the standardised platforms at every turn.
But this is not art about an aesthetic. A quiet desert failure did begin after the term New Aesthetic came to prominence in 2012, and the visual components of the work do – at least superficially – fit into that genre, or ideology. Thankfully, however, this project goes much further than just reflecting on the aesthetic influence of “modern network culture”2 and rehashing the problematically anthropocentric humanism of questions about the way machines ‘see’. Segni’s monumental work takes us to the heart of some of the most critical issues facing our increasingly networked society and the cultural impact of digitalisation.
The Sahara Desert is the largest non-polar desert in the world covering nearly 5000 km across northern Africa from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, and ranging from the Mediterranean Sea in the north almost 2000 km south towards central Africa. The notoriously inhospitable climate conditions combine with political unrest, poverty, and post-colonial power struggles across the dozen or so countries across the Sahara Desert to make it surely one of the most difficult areas for foreigners to traverse. And yet, through the ‘wonders’ of network technologies, global internet corporations, server farms, and satellites, we can have a level of access to even the most problematic, war-torn, and infrastructure-poor parts of the planet that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.
A quiet desert failure, through the sheer scope of the piece, which will take – at a rate of one image posted every 30 minutes – 50 years to complete, draws attention to the vast amounts of data that are being created and stored through networked technologies. From there, it’s only a short step to wondering about the amount of material, infrastructure, and machinery required to maintain – and, indeed, expand – such data hoarding. Earlier this month a collaboration between private companies, NASA, and the International Space Station was announced that plans to launch around 150 new satellites into space in order to provide daily updating global earth images from space3. The California-based company leading the project, Planet Labs, forecasts uses as varied as farmers tracking crops to international aid agencies planning emergency responses after natural disasters. While it is encouraging that Planet Labs publishes a code of ethics4 on their website laying out their concerns regarding privacy, space debris, and sustainability, there is precious little detail available and governments are, it seems, hopelessly out of date in terms of regulating, monitoring, or otherwise ensuring that private organisations with such enormous access to potentially sensitive information are acting in a manner that is in the public interest.
The choice of the Sahara Desert is significant. The artist, in fact, calls an understanding of the reasons behind this choice “key to interpret[ing] the work”. Desertification – the process by which an area becomes a desert – involves the rapid depletion of plant life and soil erosion, usually caused by a combination of drought and overexploitation of vegetation by humans.5 A quiet desert failure suggests “a kind of desertification taking place in a Tumblr archive and [across] the Internet.”6 For Segni, Tumblr, more even than Instagram or any of the other digitally fenced user generated content reichs colonising whatever is left of the ‘free internet’, is symbolic of the danger facing today’s Internet – “with it’s tons of posts, images, and video shared across its highways and doomed to oblivion. Remember Geocities?”7
From this point of view, the project takes on a rather melancholic aspect. A half-decade-long, stately and beautiful funeral march. An achingly slow last salute to a state of the internet that doesn’t yet know it is walking dead; that goes for the technology, the posts that will be lost, the interior lives of teenagers, artists, nerds, people who would claim that “my Tumblr is what the inside of my head looks like”8 – a whole social structure backed by a particular digital architecture, power structure, and socio-political agenda.
The performative aspect of A quiet desert failure lies in the expectation of its inherent breakdown and decay. Over the 50 year duration of the performance – not a randomly selected timeframe, but determined by Tumblr’s policy regulating how many posts a user can make in a day – it is likely that one or more of the technological building blocks upon which the project rests will be retired. In this way we see that the performance is multi-layered; not just the algorithm, but also the programming of the algorithm, and not just that but the programming of all the algorithms across all the various platforms and net-based services incorporated, and not just those but also all the users, and how they use the services available to them (or don’t), and how all of the above interact with new services yet to be created, and future users, and how they perform online, and basically all of the whole web of interconnections between human and non-human “actants” (as defined by Actor- network theory) that come together to make up the system of network, digital, and telecommunications technologies as we know them.
Perhaps the best piece I know that explains this performativity in technology is the two-minute video New Zealand-based artist Luke Munn made for my Net Work Compendium – a curated collection of works documenting the breadth of networked performance practices. The piece is a recording of code that displays the following text, one word at a time, each word visible for exactly one second: “This is a performance. One word per second. Perfectly timed, perfectly executed. All day, every day. One line after another. Command upon endless command. Each statement tirelessly completed. Zero one, zero one. Slave to the master. Such was the promise. But exhaustion is inevitable. This memory fills up. Fragmented and leaking. This processor slows down. Each cycle steals lifecycle. This word milliseconds late. That loop fractionally delayed. Things get lost, corrupted. Objects become jagged, frozen. The CPU is oblivious to all this. Locked away, hermetically sealed, completely focused. This performance is always perfect.”
Guido Segni’s A quiet desert failure is, contrary to its rather bombastic scale, a finely attuned and sensitively implemented work about technology and our relationship to it, obsolescence (planned and otherwise), and the fragility of culture (notice I do not write “digital” culture) during this phase of rapid digitalisation. The work has been released as part of The Wrong – New Digital Art Biennale, in an online pavilion curated by Filippo Lorenzin and Kamilia Kard, inexactitudeinscience.com.
Choose Your Muse is a 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.
Annie Abrahams was born in the Netherlands to a farming family in a rural village in the Netherlands. In 1978 she received a doctorate in biology and her observations on monkeys inspired her curiosity about human interactions. After leaving an academic post she trained as an artist and moved to France in 1987, where she became interested in using computers to construct and document her painting installations. She has been experimenting with networked performance and making art for the Internet since the mid 1990s. Her works have been exhibited and performed internationally at institutions such as the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, New Langton Arts in San Francisco, Centre Pompidou in France, Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and many other venues.
Through the years we have got to know Annie Abrahams via various online, networked artistic collaborations. In 2010, she had a her first one woman show If not you not me in the UK at Furtherfield’s earlier gallery space, the HTTP Gallery. Since then, she has shown at another mixed show at Furtherfield’s current space in Finsbury Park, London. This exhibition, Being Social included other artsists such as Karen Blissett, Ele Carpenter, Emilie Giles, moddr_ , Liz Sterry, and Thomson and Craighead.
She is known worldwide for her net art and collective writing experiments and is internationally regarded as a pioneer of networked performance art. She creates situations that reveal messy and sloppy sides of human behaviour; capturing real-time moments to illucidate a reality and opening it up, making it available for thought. In an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2014 Abrahams said “My first online performance was my first HTML page. Even then I considered the Internet to be a public space, and everything that I did in that public space asked for a reaction.” 
Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?
Annie Abrahams: Life itself, the people I meet. Until now my basic needs in life have hardly been threatened and so the only real problems I encountered were relational problems. Who are you? Why are you different from me? What does it mean to respect you? Is opposing you necessary? And if so, how can I do that?
MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?
AA: My practice was always based on the difficulty of having to live in a world where I don’t understand anything. Every person I meet opens up another view on this impossibility. Sometimes I write short posts about my encounters. Lately I did one on Shirley Clarke and one on Ed Atkins’ No-one is more “Work” than me. aabrahams.wordpress.com
MG: How different is your work from your influences and what are the reasons for this?
AA: My work is made from these influences. In the beginning I thought this was not ok, because I was educated with the idea that you have to be “unique” and make unique artworks. But now I am proud of my sensibility for what others say and do and the way I work with that.
MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?
AA: Last summer I made a book called from estanger to e-stranger. Ruth Catlow described it as “all-at-once instruction manual, poetry and a series of vignettes of contemporary encounters in language-less places”. There you can find ideas and art works that inspire me, but in general I am not driven by inspiration, my acts are driven by irritation, my art by incomprehension. Art works sooth, make things bearable and sometimes incite to look beyond habits. Btw I am still continuing my research on how language shapes culture, society and me. http://e-stranger.tumblr.com/
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?
AA: Stay close to your own concerns, to things you can have a concrete influence on, observe the results of your actions, pay attention, adapt, and always smile to your neighbour in the morning.
MG: Could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for readers to view, and if so why?
AA: For years now every now and then I’ve come back to Darren O’Donnell’s book “Social Acupuncture” and always again I say to myself, “yes, you can think and act art and politics together. Please have a look at the Mammalian Diving Reflex group’s (he is their artistic director) methods. http://mammalian.ca/method/
Featured image: A is for Art, B is for Bullshit: A history of conceptual art for badasses, book by Guido Segni 2015
“Outside of the Internet there’s no glory” Miltos Manetas”
Guido Segni, is an Italian artist whose activity began in the fields of hacktivism and Net Art in the 90s. As part of his practice he questions the nature of identity that resides on the Web (acting under many fake identities, like Dedalus, Clemente Pestelli, Guy McMusker, Angela Merelli, Anna Adamolo, Guy The Bore, Umberto Stanca,Silvie Inb, Fosco Loiti Celant, Guru Miri Goro, Leslie Bleus, Luther Blissett) and the value of digital activity with projects like 15 Minutes, anonymous, and The middle finger response.
The Internet and lists are two things that have always been together, especially now many of us use social networking platorms such as Twitter and Facebook. We can’t track how and when the first “Top 25/10/5” appeared on the Web, but it’s for sure one of the most frequent ways to gain a lot of attention from Internet users, and it can make you feel as if you’re trapped in a never ending, online fast-food loop. However, when I found out that Guido Segni had created his own version of a top 25 list I was naturally intrigued, so I decided to ask him what it was all about.
Filippo Lorenzin: How and when did you start working on Top 25 Expiring Artists?
Guido Segni: It all started in 2013 after a discussion with Luca Leggero, an artist friend of mine who was working on a piece about the ephemerality of internet art pieces, and it stimulated in me many thoughts on the subject. In the beginning I just wanted to create a sort of memento mori, a list of all artists’ expiring websites. It was only a few months later I introduced the idea of it as a competition, transforming the work into an ironic top artists ranking list, based on the expiration date of their websites.
FL: Could you tell us how it works and how are artists ranked on the list?
GS: It works as many of the other ranking lists you can find on the web. The difference stands on the criteria. While many lists circulating on the web (Top 10 young artist to follow, Top 5 internet artist, etc) are often based on unintelligible criteria, in TEIA (Top Expiring Internet Artists) the criteria are as clear as useless and absurd: the whole list is in fact ordered by the expiration date of the artist website. The nearer is the website expiration date, the better ranking the artist website will obtain. It’s a democratic but very competitive race where everyone can reach the first position even if just for a day. Top 25 Expiring Artists is automagically updated every day – you can only see the top 25 but actually the project counts more than 50 artists. To be included in this list an artist just needs to make an email submission sending the URL of his/her/its website.
FL: This work has many interesting points to talk about, but I would start with lists-related questions. Does ranking artists on the basis of their aim to be not forgotten mean to highlight a typical behavior of all online users or does it specifically relate to web-based artists?
GS: Actually, the piece is mainly focused on web-based artists. Working with digital based technologies, I’ve always had to face the problem of ephemerality: every year I need to renew the subscription to the hosting service of the many website I own, I periodically have to upgrade the technical environment of my works and often I also need to recode them from scratch in order to keep them all working. That’s why I decided to transform this everyday battle with technology into an ironical and nonsense race for artists, aiming to survive to time.
FL: In the list there are only artists mostly interested in digital issues and I know most of them by person. I have even worked with some of them in previous years and this makes me quite comfortable, like if it was more a sort of reunion with old friends, rather than a competitive race. Is this part of the project or would you like it to be more harsh?
GS: Remember the list is a top 25 Internet artists, so it was natural for me when I started the project to choose the first group of artists mainly involved in digital issues. That said, apart from that memento mori feeling which I’ve discussed before, I was also interested in creating a believable and ironical representation “of the state of hypercompetition and anxiety of contemporary artists inside (and outside) of the Internet.” Probably it’s because I’m a nostalgic of the early days of the Internet – the period of the net utopia – but what I see today is more and more a rising feeling of egotism and selfishness. So what I tried to do is just to stress this contraposition between the brotherhood – what you call the reunion with old friends – and the competition, a perpetual struggle between peers for not being forgot.
FL: This project is ironic. You can say this just by seeing how you mimick aesthetic and text styles of online services like Klout or Google Rank. It seems to me that this is a recurring feature in your works – like in The Middle Finger Response. Is it true?
GS: It maybe depends on the fact that I’m from that particular area in Italy (Tuscany) where you can’t either take yourself too seriously. Or maybe it depends on the fact that irony itself is an important feature you can find over all the formats on the Internet. But I agree with you that willing or not the use of irony is a recurrent and strong component of my works.
FL: I’m interested in how people (me too, yes) sign to online services that promise them to rank their online lives on the base of their influence capacity. It’s like watching a mirror made on quantification premises, built by the same system that push you to post more and more about yourself and your incredibly unique existence. In which way this project is related to this phenomenon?
GS: The main intent of the project is to ridicule lists of any sort. But said that, I think the reason why lists – as a cultural form – are so popular is that they have the power to simplify the representation of complex phenomena of reality. So the various “Top artists to discover”, “Top 10 rock bands” or the “Most influential person in the world” are just examples of a fictious narration which give the apparent comprehension of the real. And this is particulary true in an over-polluted space like the Internet.
FL: In the brief conversation we had previously on Twitter, you said to me that you would like to make other versions of this project. Can you tell me something about this?
GS: I have many ideas about these new versions but unfortunately I’m a very slow man and I still don’t know how and when they will be released.
FL: You worked on the branding of people also with 15 Minutes, anonymous. Could you tell us if and how there is a connection between that work and Top 25 Expiring Artists?
GS: To be honest, at that time I hadn’t in mind these connections. From a certain point of view I think they are very different form each other, but it’s true that they both implicitly move around the concepts of fame and anonymity in opposite directions. While in Top 25 Expiring Artists the expire date is an ironic way to reach a sort of fame – even if only for a day – in the case of 15 Minutes, anonymous I focused on the algorithmic aspect of transforming a very large number of pictures of pop symbols into anonymous and abstract pictures.
FL: Again, the anonymity and the individual are two of the main questions in your research. This happens also with Proof of existence of a cloud worker, and I recall me Middle Finger Response. What do you think?
GS: Between 2013 and 2014 I made several experiments with crowdsourcing and, yes, Proofs of existence of a cloud worker and Middle Finger Response have many points in common apart from that they are projects based on Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. Basically they both document and display what crowdsourcing is from the point of view of the workers dispersed through the new digital frontiers of leisure and labour. I think you got the point when you talked about anonymity and individual. As all the efforts of crowdsourcing platforms are to hide and anonymize the crowd, what I tried to do is to give them back a face and a voice. In The Middle Finger Response I focused on the spontaneous pose and gesture captured by the webcam, while in Proofs of existence of a cloud worker I used a more abstract and apparently nonsense approach as I asked them to re-enact a clip found on YouTube which shows a person claiming “Pics or it didn’t happen”.
FL: What will you be doing in the future?
GS: As I’ve already said I’m a very slow guy and I’ve been working on this particular project for almost 2 years. But I think we’re almost there and in a few months I’m going to release it. It’s a project about failures, datacenters, space/time travels and desertification of communications. Stay tuned 😉
Featured: Toast McFarland
Synthetic bodies, mediated selves. What themes become relevant in a technoprogressive world – as objects proliferate, what do the inundated people talk about?
You are alone, at a computer. You talk to people but they are not around. There is no bar, no village square, no space in which you speak. There is your device and your physical presence. The social location is your body and its interface with the communicative device. What is the language for landscapes which can’t be seen, and yet which predicate subjectivity?
You express yourself. You are certain state statistics, a resume, you are a myspace profile long defunct. We require your legal name. Certain cards, from when you were born, from when you became qualified to drive, define you, make or break you. You are an ok person provided your paperwork is in order – morality is preceded by bureaucracy.
What’s the relationship between a legitimated self and that person’s body? The more modes of documentation we have the greater possibility for fictional aberration. The disparities between someone’s situated life and the records which make up their memory proliferate.
The image above by artist Toast McFarland was taken in a cartoon world. It is a selfie, a socially streamed validation of presence, but it is also a meticulous reframing of that practice. Everything is subtle, deceptively common, and yet the composition is entirely irreal. Flat colours, almost abstractly plain costuming, this is what happens when a vector world invades your computer room. It exists between personal expression and the self as actor within the surreal.
Leah Schrager‘s modelling-inspired self-portraits covered over with bright streams of paint. The model image professionalizes the act of self-representation in image form. In the profession there are industry demands – self-validation may be about confidence and friendship, where industrial success might tend towards epitomization and abstraction. Are you a good model – do you meet the sexual and aesthetic demands of the collective consumer unconscious? Schrager’s work combines a toying with such psychological implications with a background in their material underpinnings – the body in dance, the body in biological study. This combination allows for work and commentary that penetrates the relationship between the vessel you are indelibly given and the psychological relationship it develops mediated for oneself and a public.
Do you view Schrager’s images out of an interest for her or for the type of beauty she represents? Once the image is painted over, is there any interest left? Through different personas, she delivers these in a variety of web contexts, each time asking us to reconsider who we’re looking at, and who we are to look.
Screens, correspondents, professional speakers. We are happy to take your call. These two screenshots are taken from two videos by media artist Aoife Dunne. Both combine a juxtaposition of found broadcast footage, the enveloping commercial TV world, and her own crafted filming sound stages. They are installations, videos, and imagist combinations that take our question of the self directly to the media world. In the second, Dunne acts directly over top found footage, performing as doppelganger of the telemarketer in the projection. Her simultaneously comic, retro and coolly provocative aesthetic places her into an 80s infomercial dream world. She acts her own fiction, the selfie is the superlative thought experiment, and yet the proliferation of doubles buries her subjectivity in an imagined space of marketed image sheen. In the first work we only have a double, and Schrager’s biological world is fleshed out and externalized. This is what you really look like. Dunne’s own medicalized outfit says that this telecommunication is also a biological translation. For your image, we need your face, but for your face, we need organs and cells. Between the public and economic demands of the screen, and the material demands of your body, where are you?
Dafna Ganani‘s work, through a combination of images, code, social internet art and theoretical reflection, gives us an exemplar of how self-representation meets technical distortion. Her own performative presence proliferates in her work, yet always accompanied by animations, entire interactive worlds complicating any personal space. In this image, self-reflection is directly addressed – at first glance it mirrors what is represented but on closer inspection nothing of what that would look like quite match up. Where are the dragon head things located, where is she, before and after mirroring – the almost comical comparison is undermined by a disquieting sincerity. She appears intent on knowing where she is, however much the dragon doesn’t have her best interests in mind. And the right hand, reaching into the animation cloud on the left, nowhere to be seen on the right.
Dunne’s world of media culture screens is made specific and celebratory in Georges Jacotey‘s self-portraiture as Lana del Ray. An internet performance artist whose work explores media culture and self-image, the picture’s combination is both nearly seemless and parodically collaged. We all participate on some level in commercial culture, but we can never admit it. We might genuinely like aspects of it, we might hate aspects – but the popular bent of this culture means that as long as it is pleasing to a common consumer base it will gain a cultural existence. You know so much about iconic entertainers you never asked to know about. Jacotey takes on this conundrum, joins in on it, participates – what if instead of merely liking a celebrity, you seek to emulate and become them? Some people like del Ray’s albums, Jacotey’s the one who sang them. Capitalism asks that you buy, what if you take the role to sell? Human images make for great products, before we make the necessary transactions let’s make sure we know how to transform ourselves into them.
Good self-representation requires good media savvy. Before you think about your online identity simplify the process by becoming a celebrity. They’ve already figured out all the questions of the self in society – the right names, dress, mannerisms, the right look. Everything is acceptable, everything is inspiring, nothing is quite familiar.
Rafia Santana further draws out Jacotey’s comparison of the celebrity image and the selfie. Two different trajectories are taken up here – one is to deconstruct the fictions of the “real celebrity image”. The second is to fictionalize and play with one’s own portrayal. The result is layered, offering multiple points of entry for both observation and critique. If the digital image is just bits and bytes, what happens to ethnic history, to situated lives and experience? Putting herself repeatedly in her own work, Santana asks the basic question at hand – what, in re-representation, am I? And, with Jacotey, she probes the obverse of media celebrity existence and identification. If I like a celebrity, am I participating at all in their imagery or life? If so, in what way – what right to I have to their life, or in turn, what right do they have to be omnipresent in mine?
Subjectivity is the sentence, objects the fetish – be sure to glamour up.
Be sure to dress things up so you can recognize them well. Try not to mix up hair with noses, and composure with distortion. Each act of mediation further twists and reinvents our own images. You thought you knew where your lips were, what your skin looked like, but everything that goes through the machine comes out different, strange. It’s not a human, it’s a landscape. There’s an eye at the top, but you have no idea what it’s for. In the work of Sam Rolfes, the self is almost abstract, technical distortions take over any recognizable vestige of a human. Technique is everything, humanity nothing.
The self is painted, photographed, symbolized. It’s not a live image on the phone. Sometimes people in canvases try to get out. There are a few people here, all the same, that have nothing to do with one another. In Carla Gannis‘ selfie series, we return to a cartoon realism – but this time with a few added mirrors. Is the skull in the background also her? What is that a memento of?
Death in the image, life in its reproduction. You are now invisible, but we know more about what you look like than ever. Technological proliferation upends and eliminates traditional context but can never efface bodies and their identities. Indeed its societal saturation emphasizes these presences, their inevitability and all their embodied ties that digitize incompletely.
These practices work to situate the self, the body. Physiological maps are now more important than ever – they give us the image of the virtual. Mythology says we are in an immaterial age, that humans are obsolete and will be succeeded by machines. Reality says something far more disturbing – that our own materiality is the means of that obsolescence.
Featured image: Stern, Body Language
Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body As Performance by Nathaniel Stern. ISBN 978-1-78024-009-1 (printed publication), Gylphi Limited, Canterbury, UK, 2013. 291 pp., 41 Colour Stills.
Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to sit in on a talk given by Simon Penny on May 6th 2014 at the University of Exeter. Penny, not unlike Nathaniel Stern, is best known for his praxis, writing and teaching on interactive (and robotic) installations focusing on issues of embodiment, relationality and materiality. So as unorthodox as its inclusion is to start off a review, Penny’s reflections are pertinent here (in this case, Penny’s famous installations Fugitive (1997) and Traces (1999) .
The purpose of Fugitive and Traces (if you can say they had one) sought to ‘embody’ virtual reality through multi-camera infra-red sensors, visual models and real-time movements. At that time, Penny’s unique theoretical take was to distance human-computer interaction away from “a system of abstracted and conventionalised signals” to where the user would “communicate kinesthetically”: instead of investigating the non-human or “inhuman” formal qualities of its medium, or some vague VR future that leaves the body behind, the system itself would “come closer to the native sensibilities of the human.” (Penny) 
In his Exeter talk, Penny momentarily reflected on a weird and altogether disturbing seventeen year feedback loop. The loop in question relates to how, in 2014, Penny’s early avant-garde ideas and theoretical ambitions have largely been desecrated by their replication in big business. With regard to Traces, Penny cited Microsoft’s Kinect as being the most salient example of this desecration: Kinect’s technology – marketed for the Xbox console brand – carries within its insidious techniques the ability to also “communicate kine[c]thetically”, but do so within pre-packaged, patented, IP-driven, focus-grouped-out-of-existence, commercial vacuities of gamer experience.
As an early practitioner and developer of these technologies, Penny was somewhat visibly infuriated with this, and understandably so. For him, it unintentionally reduced his aesthetic experimentation, philosophical insight, technological futurity and theoretical complexity into consumer speculation for the technology market, commandeering the tech but without the value. It transposed the artistic technological avant-garde necessity of Traces into a flaccid ‘tech-demo’ demonstration of novelty limb flailing and high-end visuals devoid of anything. It was, Penny lamented, “a very weird situation” to be in. Part of that weirdness has to do with the fact that Penny hadn’t done anything especially wrong, because there wasn’t any tangible aesthetic qualities that separated his pioneering work from Microsoft’s effort. Neither had Penny’s work brought financial success with its value intact (because its value wasn’t patentable). Instead technological development had overwritten the aesthetic value of Traces, trading technological obsolescence with aesthetic obsolescence.
Penny’s retroactive predicament is not unique in the history of digital art: for all the visionary seeds of potential in Roy Ascott’s legendary networking project, Terminal Art (1980) we now recognise how those salient characteristics have somehow ended up as Skype or Google Hangouts. Still in the 80s, one might evoke Eduardo Kac’s early videotext works (1985-1986) where visual animated poems were broadcast on the online service exchange platform Minitel (“Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique” or “Interactive medium by digitalizing telephone information” in its French iteration): a proprietary precursor to the World Wide Web . The retroactive weirdness accompanying these developments is something I’ll come back to: suffice to say that what counts is the direction (and sometimes hostile return) of infrastructure, not just as the background collection of assemblages artists rely on to experiment with at any historical moment, but the shifting ecological foundations to which technology emerges, affords, and now overwrites such practices. No-one likes to play devil’s advocate and yet one must ask the question specific to Stern’s text: what, or maybe where, is the tangible point at which ‘art’ becomes historically valued in these works, if that latent aesthetic potential becomes just another market for a series of Silicon Valley, or startup conglomerates?
Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.
Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.
“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)
Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.
One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:
“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)
Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).
Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)
Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.
Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.
Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration . Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.
Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential. Such flaws only arise in relation to what Stern thinks is valuable in interactive art, and to the extent that the intervention posed may require readdressing. The flaws in question are composed from two different angles, but stem from one objection. The first is philosophical, or at least a problem pre-packaged with relying almost entirely on relational ideas of embodied emergence. The second is more tied to infrastructure and technical expropriation as outlined in Penny’s predicament given from the outset.
In his introduction, Stern makes clear that this is an “art philosophical book” (4), not a philosophy of art as such: only one that “understands art and philosophy as potential practices of one another” (4). Following Brian Massumi, philosophy “tells us the stakes”, whilst “art brings those states to the table” (5), such that the type of art he values and constructs, (digital interactive art) is precisely that which melts away in its interactive encounter when constructed as work. Later on we discover that interactive art “interrupts relationality” (66), making present an “intervention that brings a situated moving-thinking-feeling to a higher power.” (66) Further on, interactive art does something else, when it “intensifies features of […] the ongoing transformation of the ‘living’ body”, and “gifts us with a state to practice being and becoming.” (73) Reflecting on the infamous Bourriaud/Bishop relational aesthetic ruckus a decade ago, Stern outlines how they focus on the explicit body (82) (how we understand ourselves or challenge explicit social/economic positions in the world), whereas artworks which privilege the implicit body have us “encounter how we move, transform, and are (continuous)” (82) in the world. The former takes on the materiality of social relations, the latter (endorsed by Stern) takes on the whole materiality of “embodied relations” (83). And again to reiterate, art operates as “the practice of contemporary philosophies, where we investigate, and further research on, embodiment and relationally together.” (83).
Now, one should admire how Stern blends philosophy and art praxis together precisely by not shoehorning authoritative philosophical accounts into art praxis where they aren’t needed. This works, precisely as the ontology expressed here actively resists such authoritative accounts as well as being cemented with the sort of sincerity with which Stern has such a keen literary grasp. More importantly, Stern cites works which seem to fit the stakes of his ontological conviction perfectly.
However the reliance of process-based philosophy dampens exactly how these works intervene to bring about the values he so desires. The simplest objection comes from asking how Stern might value anything at all, if our entire relational embodiment with the world is constantly in process – or that “[b]odies and matter are change” (220) – and must be always affirmed as such: why should every process and every bodily interaction be affirmed? Moreover why is it art’s place to give primacy to the ontological events of bodily material change?
This is one of the key infrastructural problems that surface, once a theory of art totally subscribes to a process-based ontology, let alone one focusing on embodiment: why should an artist like Stern feel compelled to present an intervention in the first place? If the dominant ontological movement of interactions is a becoming-event, by what standard or eruption should interactive art be said to work on? If, as Stern believes, “the interactive process in interactive work is the ‘work’” (159), it becomes unclear what value interactive artworks are purported to convey, if that process is all there is. To say that embodied processual events make the work “work”, because they underscore our situational intelligibility (or make it effective – so to speak) speaks nothing of what differential criteria should apply to make that aesthetic intervention intelligible. To hazard a guess, the problem is one of articulating how convention exists in a process ontology: because if everything is always emerging as an interactive event of change, the act of rupturing or intervening in convention becomes a real problem. The criteria for valuing these important works is only affirmed it seems, because every process is already affirmed: and if that’s the case you don’t need artists to make an intervention – there is no intervention required, other than the events that already exist, as change in themselves. To put it another way: why should (and how can) a work effectively gift us heightened states of being and becoming, if our entire situational relationship with the world is already situationally related in being and becoming?
I am reminded of Adrian Johnston’s 2001 review of the newly republished English translation of Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit (first published in 1978). Whereas most Foucaultians and Althusserians were disconcertingly vague in pointing out the concrete material conditions for subjectivity and economical production, Laporte boldly contended that the genealogical hypothesis to all modern civilisations was tied to one concrete material condition: the infrastructure of bodily waste management, or, the desire to control and sublimate our need to defecate. In his usual Žižekian repartee, Johnston suggested that Laporte’s bizarre history of modernity implicitly accepted the anti-Cartesian embodiment thesis (that cognition cannot be separated from the actions of the body), but pushed its logic to the end. That for all the affirmative, encompassing, sensual, emergent, potential images embodiment philosophy prefers to agree and discuss, it completely ignores one of our central and basic bodily requirements: to excrete our bodily waste or fecal matter, and remove it from sight and smell (and we don’t need to remind the reader of art’s fascination with this area).
Whilst Johnston’s tongue was firmly planted in his cheek, he did happen to put a psychoanalytical finger on the central problem with process based embodiment. That often enough, sincere accounts of embodiment designed to affirmatively depict and encompass implicit environment material engagements leave behind an unacknowledged stain: one which says more about these accounts than their proponents actually do. And it is precisely because Stern focuses on the most aesthetically agreeable areas of bodily engagement in interactive art, that something as habitual and ritualistic as the excretion of digested matter, or the infrastructure of sewage networks exposes that image.
In terms of materiality this is doubly important. Laporte’s intervention brings into conflict two competing performative materialisms which disclose our own bodily relationships with non-human processes (in this case, computational and networked material): the first is Stern’s own account of the material body as some sort of ‘nebulous material’ which is always emergent, lived, relational and thinking with its own engagement in the world of humans and non-humans. The second is Laporte’s material body seen as ‘brutal material’ – an explicit input-output, complex, evolutionary processing machine, strictly determinate and bounded in its biological function. Despite Stern arguing earnestly for the nebulous form, it doesn’t appear to me that he can hold off the brutal form, or at least prevent the latter from antagonising the former. And often enough, this happens because Stern’s accounts of embodiment, and the philosopher’s accounts he relies on, are already meant to be nebulous in themselves.
This logic unravels by chapter seven, when Stern expands the implicit body framework to analyse other examples of new media art which aren’t preoccupied with bodily participation to work, as work. He terms this “potentialized art” (206) where “audience members do not *make* the work directly through their interactions (207) but are subject to visual performances of potential movement and relation mediated by generative computation and networks. In citing Gordan Savičić and Jessica Meuninck-Ganger – amongst others – Stern argues that these ongoing performances harness generative information participating in embodiment relations, and invite metaphorical sensory change and bodily movement (in the case of Savičić’s performances, quite literally inflicting pain and suffering onto his own body using network data and social media).
However when Stern cites John F. Simon. Jr’s infamous work Every Icon (1997), (227 – 230) (a cellular automation piece which takes approximately several hundred trillion years to complete) it becomes clear to me that the aesthetically agreeable areas of embodiment start to break down. It might be that my own reading of the piece is fairly unorthodox  (I don’t consider the work to be primarily conceptual for a start), but Every Icon eschews what Stern writes as giving “both the corporeal and incorporeal a present and future presence as time and sign” (230) or something that generates attention to our “sensual and conceptual experience of temporality” (230).
Yet, isn’t it the case that Every Icon is probably one of the least potentialised artworks ever made? It doesn’t actually generate anything, (in the strict sense of unpredictable outcomes from simple rules) it simply enumerates configurations of pixels one by one. Neither can we be said to “feel the potency of several hundred trillion years” (230) than we feel the cold, indifferent execution of a real java applet function to which we are forever limited in experiencing directly. If anything, Every Icon is deliberately constructed to forgo a relation with us.
To conclude: this is perhaps why Penny’s predicament with the Kinect is so stark. To demand, as Stern does, that we treat digital interactive art as setting a stage for examining how we “per-form” with our bodies within media, material, conceptual frames and selves, is no longer enough of a stage to give voice to the technological ecologies we find ourselves in: nor of the art that satisfies intervening in it. Credit must be given to Stern for writing over interactive art’s emancipatory myth of disembodied immateriality, but his endorsement of embodiment only serves to realise that the problem isn’t forgetting to focus on material engagement, but forgetting the cold, hard and brutal materiality of procedural performance of infrastructure, that often moves faster than we do. When Microsoft’s Kinect co-opts all the same values of Traces, it does so not because embodiment is totally flawed, but that bodily movement has now become ecologically implicated in deceptive infrastructure.
Just as Penny’s Traces may once have evoked a renewed attention to moving-thinking-feeling, such engagements are now suitably tracked and are in service of non-transparent infrastructures of geo-social activity, which propagate themselves beyond our sensory engagement, yet paradoxically they also indirectly sustain that ordinary engagement. For example, this is now a world where Google funds a 60tbps undersea cable connecting the West Coast to Japan, in order to propagate the reach of their services. The technological engagement of our bodies cannot be restricted to how we move-think-feel, but now weaves itself within layers upon layers of platforms and pervasive surveillance structures. And I don’t disagree with Stern that the implicit body is, perhaps, deeper than the account I give here. But maybe that’s because the body is also another type of performative infrastructure, tightly bound into other formations that are just as deep, complex and engaged. We now live in a time where digital interactive art has to intervene in the performances of geo-social infrastructure: where our bodies have curiously taken on their self-directing performances, rather than our own.
Featured image: Curt Cloninger’s ‘Twixt The Cup And The Lip #3
“A glitch is more than an error: It is a rupture in our collective techno-hypnosis, a herald of underlying realities.” – Paul Hertz
If you haven’t heard about Chicago glitch, you haven’t been paying attention to all the “noise” emanating from the Windy City. The self-proclaimed “dirty new media” crowd in Chicago has captured the imagination of artists around the world with their funky (as in Chicago blues), punk-inspired disruptions and hacked creations. As of this writing, glitChicago: An Exhibition of Chicago Glitch Art at the Ukranian Institute of Modern Art is about to close after an impressive two-month run, with works, performances, and discussions involving 22 artists heralding from Chicago and beyond.
While glitch may have a raw, subversive, outlier sensibility, it has also catalyzed a cohesive and collaborative group of artists that has organized an impressive array of community-based conferences, DIY workshops, exhibitions, and spontaneous happenings within the local media culture over the past five years. Ironically, the Chicago high-art academy is also a co-conspirator, as many of the glitch artists are based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which has become the de facto experimental laboratory for the study and practice of glitch.
I spoke via web-conference with the show’s main organizer, artist and historian Paul Hertz, along with two of the artists and co-organizers, Nick Briz and Jon Satrom, in a collective effort to unpack the glitch phenomenon.
Randall Packer: Nice to meet everyone in the third space. I am going to begin with Paul because you were primarily responsible for organizing glitChicago. There are many artists in the show who do not reside in Chicago. Is the work intended to demonstrate Chicago glitch tendencies and influences, or perhaps to situate Chicago as a spiritual home of glitch, like say Chicago blues?
Paul Hertz: I think the latter to some extent, but it’s also a joke about location in a networked society.
RP: From the perspective of being outside of Chicago, I can’t think of another place in the world right now that has a more cohesive community of artists working together, building things together, breaking things together, it’s quite an extraordinary moment in time in Chicago. So my question is: how much diversity, difference of opinion, even polemical positioning is there between the artists who are part of the glitch community.
PH: He wants us to wash our underwear!
Nick Briz: I’m glad it looks so cohesive on the outside, there is disagreement, but it’s a respectful community kind of disagreement.
RP: Nick, as the author of the Glitch Codec Tutorial, in which you describe a method of making glitch, is the idea of a “glitch tutorial” perhaps contradictory to glitch as accident, mistake or rupture?
NB: No, I think it’s the most appropriate format, because it’s not a glitch tutorial, it’s a glitch art tutorial and that’s an important distinction for me. Glitch is this unexpected occurrence within a system that we come to with a certain set of expectations, and a glitch is when those expectations are broken. Glitch art is when that happens intentionally. For me, this is a personal thing. What’s really special about glitch art as a practice are the realizations you come to when you instigate those moments, the political potential for drawing certain connections, for exposing certain invisible politics within a system. That happens in process. So to produce a tutorial is not only, technically, how you produce glitches for your work, but also for people to have those realizations themselves, really experiencing glitches.
RP: So, how does that relate to the idea of intentionality, accident, and indeterminacy in glitch. Is there a right or a wrong way of doing glitch?
Jon Satrom: No, I don’t think there is a right way to do the wrong thing. I think Nick said it in his performance: “do it wrong the right way.”
NB: Do it wrong, but also doing it wrong. As in doing it wrong is the way that you do it. And then I quoted you, Jon: “there are no right ways to provoke the glitch, only the wrong ways prevail.”
JS: I think the right way to do it wrong is to always cycle back or “level up” or go “meta” to a point where you are able to view what you are doing as a structure so that you can then glitch it again.
PH: Once you have a formula though, in a sense, you’ve captured something, but it is no longer glitching when you start saying that there is a right way and a wrong way.
RP: I am curious about this problem of glitch as style, glitch as genre, glitch as a pre-determined method. It seems there is a need to avoid stylization, avoid the predictable, to avoid the preset. So it does seem as though there are boundaries to glitch, there is an area where you don’t want to go.
JS: I feel like everything is fair game.
PH: There were places we had already gone where we weren’t likely to go again and so you could say farewell to jpeg glitching, farewell to png glitching, jpeg2 glitching, to datamoshing. I have argued that those are more like tools that we have and it’s about the new technologies. Going into the show I was quite prepared actually to say that glitch is now art historical, that’s why I was doing the show. But I was surprised at how lively the subculture is, how lively the artists are who have gone on to do new things. I think glitch belongs in many ways to an earlier tradition of noise, and in that sense, it has a history, it has a future in all kinds of directions.
RP: The idea of history seems like a dark cloud that hangs over the practice of glitch, to avoid becoming rigid or formed. In regard to the roundtable discussion you just had, Paul asked the question: “once we induct glitch art into art history, is glitch art dead?” What was the outcome of this discussion? Is glitch as we know it history, has it already become part of the art-historical discourse?
PH: We did shift the conversation a little and started by talking about glitch as having a memory and glitch as having a potential future. And I think we sidestepped the history question by and large. But it was stated by a number of people, including Curt Cloninger in his essay for the show that as long as there are new technologies, there are going to be new glitches.
RP: So is there a reason why the historical question was avoided?
PH: I think it became uninteresting as time went on. We’re having so much fun just doing it, it doesn’t seem like such a serious question. It seems like a question an art historian would ask.
RP: But Paul, you’re an art historian!
PH: We all got around to being artists again.
JS: I think that when you look at history as a rigid structure and if you take a glitch perspective towards a rigid structure you’re looking at it as something that isn’t as static as may come across. Histories are presented in different ways, different agendas, different people, and I think it’s more interesting to consider our job as glitch artists to create structures that are radically inclusive, and experimental, and have enough space for agency, and individuality moving forward, rather than considering whether or not it is dead.
RP: Returning to the glitChicago show, which aspired to the inclusive, open source, community-based, DIY nature of glitch: Nick, you’re project is called 0p3nr3p0…
NB: It’s pronounced “open repo,” short for open repository.
RP: How does this project involve the local community as well as expand itself through the network to engage a more globally social reach?
NB: 0p3nr3p0 is at the moment a project that myself and Joseph Yolk Chiocchi maintain, an unfiltered, open port for uploading glitch art. It was an offspring of the GLI.TC/H conferences in 2010, 2011, and 2012 in Chicago. It was a result of our paranoia to be radically inclusive as a conference. So we didn’t do a call for works that last time, instead what we did was a call for threads, which is we tried to carve out spaces for other people to bring in certain conversations. And while we showed and exhibited work in the evening, all that work as best as we could was actually the result of those communities coming together. There is only so much space, there are only so many people who could show, but there are a lot of people online who we could recognize and include and so 0p3nr3p0 would become that back door entrance to the physical exhibition via the network.
RP: It seems to me that there is something about the nature of glitch that encourages democratization and inclusivity in terms of the accessibility of its practice and the techniques involved.
JS: It comes back to social structure. One way to get around the hierarchies of a social structure is to try and present things in a more populist, more open, more democratized way.
PH: There is also this transgressive aspect to glitch. Glitch itself represents a rupture, instability, of images and media. And that instability has an ideological function, as Nick is very careful to point out in the Glitch Codec Tutorial. If we are transgressing both the technology and exposing the ideology, there are reasons for us to want to expand that kind of rupture to online communities.
RP: I spoke with jonCates in an earlier interview for Hyperallergic about dirty new media. I would like to get your perspectives. Jon (Satrom), it seems like your work particularly reflects this idea as a reaction against the clean, glossy, polish of technology, a reaction against the fetish of the technological object.
JS: Yes, it is a reaction to the sleek, brushed metal of new technology. When I think of dirty new media in terms of Chicago, there is an organic quality to it, literally you can think about dirt. This dirty style: it’s the grit, it’s the rust, it’s the realization of a false promise of technology that many of us just accept and are fine with. We’re purchasing things that are broken and need updates, and yet our agency of not being part of these updates has been stripped from us. Things are changing under our feet all the time. With dirty new media, you don’t bother hiding the cords, you don’t bother sweeping up, there’s a sense of realism to it, there’s the grit, and there is also a kind of a comfort in that. It’s not trying to hide behind these mirrored surfaces.
RP: Perhaps it’s a critique of our relationship with technology in terms of humanizing that relationship.
NB: Maybe trying to take agency back in that relationship. In the computer industry, a very specific relationship has been imposed, we’re told how we’re supposed to use these things, both as consumers and as producers. As consumers we’re told this is what you are supposed to do with your technology, to have a kind of reverence for technology. Dirty new media is an irreverent response to that. And then as producers they’ve imposed a certain relationship. There are “right” ways to do things as programmers, and “right” ways to do things as media artists and dirty new media tends to be kind of punk: how can you finagle the technology. It’s through experimentation that you learn how to do things with these systems. And just like the punk ethic, once you learn those first three chords you can start a band and you’ll learn the rest of them along the way. Once the reverence is defused, and it’s OK to break things and experiment, all these things become possible.
PH: I would also say there is a differentiation in dirty new media between an aesthetic and a capture of instability. There are the pleasures of the glitchy image but at the same time it’s very much about the underlying systems. It seems to me that they play off of one another and there is a certain tension there, and a healthy one.
RP: I believe there is also a tension in glitch in terms of constantly needing to move forward. This leads me to a question about Rosa Menkman, a significant artist and writer in the international glitch community. She’s written some very influential pieces such as The Glitch Moment(um) and the Glitch Studies Manifesto. Her writing critiques this tension while theorizing glitch, putting it into an art-historical perspective, perhaps encouraging its formalization. Is glitch now an actual genre, to be taught in art schools? What’s going on in Chicago seems very healthy because that’s where the locus of glitch is, but what happens when glitch is taught in all the other art schools around the world and everybody is imitating it?
JS: I think it becomes a powerful moment and I think it can be utilized very well in education, just in terms of giving students agency to break something and learn about its guts.
NB: But are you asking, what if glitch becomes a kind of Adobe Photoshop class? Here’s how you reproduce that exact artifact? Because that would be cool in its own sort of way if it happens, but I wouldn’t necessarily call that glitch art. You can perhaps draw a line between glitch artifacts and certain aesthetics and then glitch as a process, or as an ethic, as a practice, as an impetus for triggering these unexpected moments within systems for the plethora of reasons that artists like to do that. But glitch is not necessarily wedded to any particular aesthetic. Sure, if you search glitch art on Google, you get certain things that look the same, but that’s just because that’s what glitch art happens to look like now. But as technology and as systems change, and as the methods for exploiting those systems change, it will look, sound, taste, feel, and augment in totally different ways.
RP: So how do you feel about datamoshing, for example, which is working its way out into popular culture, where mainstream musicians, media artists are using glitch techniques straight out of the book.
PH: Kanye West’s Welcome to Heartbreak is the example most people think of. Datamoshing is used as a preset of a certain kind, which is OK, but it also means those problems were already solved. We know if we “hit” the header of a jpeg there are all kinds of things we can do. Once you go through the process, then it’s another effects module in a certain sense. But there is a point in which it’s all a surprise. Datamoshing is no longer a surprise for us, but it’s probably a surprise for nationwide television audiences. And even for them it’s going to eventually cease to be a surprise.
RP: Then what do you do in Chicago to stay on the edge, when everybody is practicing glitch?
NB: You can only stay on the edge if everybody is practicing glitch. The Kanye West example is a beautiful moment as initially I was upset because I felt co-opted, the pop culture aesthetic is going to destroy it. A lot of folks had that sort of sentiment and rhetoric. But the reality is that people are introduced to the aesthetic and look of glitch through that video and then are curious to know how to do that and then they fall down that rabbit hole. So more people join the conversation and like any conversation it gets better when more people join and there is more to talk about. And when everybody knows how to bend a jpeg, it means the general literacy level is up, the glitch literacy level is up. You can’t get into more complicated concepts, the next chapter, until everybody can have that conversation.
PH: And on the aesthetic side, it broadens the lexicons that people have to think about images, to think about media. It means that the aesthetics of punk, the aesthetics of noise creep in as something we should get used to. The popularization of glitch makes it possible to say, yes, we’re going to learn to live with the instability of technology, because we have to.
glitChicago: An Exhibition of Chicago Glitch Art, Ukranian Institute of Modern Art, with works by: Melissa Barron, Benjamin Berg aka Stallio, Nick Briz, jonCates, ChannelTWo, Joseph Yolk Chiocchi, Curt Cloninger, James Connolly, Kyle Evans, Paul Hertz, shawné michaelain Holloway, Nick Kegeyan, Jeff Kolar, A. Bill Miller, Pox Party, Rob Ray, Antonio Roberts, Alfredo Salazar-Caro, Jon Satrom, Lisa Slodki, Jason Soliday, Ben Syverson, I “heart” Presets, and OP3NR3PO.
Randall Packer is an artist, educator, and writer who critiques the unfolding media culture from his underground studio bunker in Washington, DC. Follow him at Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge.
JENIFA TAUGHT ME
CONSTANT Dullaart’s solo show Stringendo. Vanishing Mediators, Caroll/Fletcher.
Occupying both floors of the ultimate O’Doherty white cube of Carroll/Fletcher, Dullaart’s first solo UK survey show Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators consists of 27 works – many of them newly commissioned. The works have in common Dullaart’s pervasive aspirational tactic of queering and laying bare the architecture – both physical and virtual – of our networked yet doggedly analogue broadcast lives. Retaining a sense of sepia-tinted nostalgia for the Pong era Internet, many of the works in the show pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the revolutionary and democratic aspirations placed on the web at the beginning of its popular adoption – albeit primarily by white, male middle class Americans. Throughout the exhibition, Dullaart forensically tracks, seeds and traces remnants of our digital past and places them in direct dialogue with the power relations embedded in the terms and conditions of how these technologies have remediated the way we encounter and interpret our world now. This unveiling and excavating of the digital gesture – whether personal or brand mediated – and the freezing of the smoke and mirrors affect of software semantics isolated on the plinth of the gallery. It will be familiar ground for many of us in the business of the aestheticization of our precarious position as prosumers in surveillance society. However, as Dullaart lays bare the soft terrorism of the interface and the slowly encroaching disillusion of the clunky binary “digital” and the “physical”, he points towards a new way of visualising the architecture of our messy public/private, social/political pathological states of disarray by introducing The Balcony as a newly envisaged site of resistance and broadcast.
Stepping off the street and into Constant Dullaart’s recent solo show Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators at Carroll/ Fletcher on a sweltering summer afternoon I am immediately transported into a trippy AC’d noughties Snappy Snaps.
Dullaart’s signature, and now Guardian-famous, eponymous series Jennifer in Paradise acts as the hero image for the immersive world of blissfully glossy software-mediated wallpaper and slickly produced lenticular prints hanging in the entrance gallery. A Miami-hued display of software’s extensive lexicon of brushstrokes, filters and masks is flamboyantly demonstrated on the lonely yet aspirational image of a beautiful woman sitting on the beach looking out onto the tropical horizon. The promiscuous past of this image is well rehearsed; from its origins as a 1987 holiday snap – taken by co-creator of Photoshop John Knoll – to its use as crash test dummy for his ground-breaking popular software and its voracious adoption by the newly indoctrinated Photoshop masses as a subject of visual vivisection frames the staging of this exhibition. Dullaart’s archeological impulse to sniff out the rare software artefact of Jennifer points towards a general fetishization of the magic tipping point of the analogue/digital past –conjuring up a time when photography’s authenticity was still a battle to be fought. In a conversation with the artist at the appropriately ambiguous location of The Photographers Gallery shortly before his show opened, Dullaart emphasises the enduring pull of the image in his own practice. Describing the logic of the exhibition’s strategy, he sees the pasting of the Jennifer wallpaper as a “doubling” , or colonisation of his ongoing Jennifer experiment.
Dullaart’s Jennifer journey through the lexicon of data manipulation started when he embedded a secret stenographic message in the first re-appropriated images of Jennifer as a kind of “prize” for his growing online viral public. The first iteration(s) of Jennifer in Paradise explored the Internet’s opacity, highlighting the extent to which onscreen data is manipulated and controlled, enhanced or deformed. By celebrating and transporting the cyber-famous Jennifer into the gallery context in the form of selective editions, copies, or “abbreviations” of the digital, networked manipulation of the image, these artefacts act as both signifiers of the artists’ practice and as tempting photographic editions in their own right. A fact the artist is well aware of. However, the overarching social commentary implied in the freezing of this signifier of mass viral circulation is that the image became a coded Trojan horse for the prosumers’ 2.0 hypermarket as it was seeded, tracked mediated, remediated and mimetically distributed through the newly democratised digital commons.
It is in this mimetic gesture of versioning – a trope embedded in the very DNA of software development – that the artist does not just reference and make visible software’s surface gestures, but actually performs software’s versioning impulse, exposing it as a form of corporate cultural imperialism and spotlighting the newly negotiated role of authorship in the process. The artist’s persistent and persuasive disruption of the role of authorship is a common and recurring obsession running through his practice – from objects, to online queering of domain names, to his performances. A personal/impersonal example of this is played out in the exhibition by a row of seemingly innocuous family photographs. The series of family pictures from the 1980s are, according to Dullaart, the cleanest example of performative authorship. The photos were simply sent to Apple co-founder Steve Wozinak for him to sign and send back to the artist – resulting in the “re-authoring” of Dullaart’s childhood memories. This simple performance of capital control and authorship of so-called private identity is mainlined into Dullaart’s practice, and speaks to the artist’s core impulse: “this is exactly what I do – I take what isn’t public and I re-posses and reprocess these artefacts and re author them into a different spectrum”. 
In another act of ambiguous reverie of the commercial canon of software are the three pieces entitled Bill Atkinson demonstation drawing, (no.5, 12 and 18) hanging on the other side of the gallery, positioned against the Jennifer-tiled wallpaper. These drawings from the 23 stages of the first drawing made by Macpaint creator Bill Atkinson are printed in monochromatic hues sandwiched between photopolymer plates. These meticulously restored physical gestures of one of the first drawings executed by commercial software are particularly important for the artist. He sees this attempt at drawing made in the “strong consumer software” of Macpaint as a kind of totem or signifier of the emerging lexicon of the new canon in art history.
Beautiful fetishistic rubbery objects in themselves, the physicality of these works demonstrates the materially-dependent, performative intent in Dullaart’s practice. As these monochromatic objects react and change to UV light – hardening and cracking – any collector of his work needs to embrace the precarious temporality of the objects themselves. This is true of all of his work – including domain names, websites, his own online identity etc. and Dullaart emphasises that the conscious situating and staging of his works in the framework of time is one of the most vital components of his practice.
This animated relationship to instability and time- dependency is clearly demonstared in his player paino piece Feedback with Midi Piano Player at the heart of the exhibition. An algorithm interpreting polymorphic songs is played out through the grand piano in the gallery in an apparent circus-like celebration of the computer’s magical powers. However,as the recital unfolds, it is full of little mistakes – the songs are too complex for the computer to relay in a coherent feedback loop. For Dullaart, the inaccuracy and amateur quality of the computer/piano recital delivers a quasi -human quality of cuteness – an increasingly desirable quality in our popular technology, and an indication of the drive towards the synthetic anthropomorphism of digital objects and structures in general. This inevitably recalls Marx’s highly questionable use of anthropomorphizing comparisons of the commodity to children and women to underscore the “fetish character”  of commodities – the phantasmatic displacement of the sociality of human labour onto its products, as they appear to confront each other as if operating independent social lives of their own. In this sense, the “cuteness” in Dullaart’s piece might be seen as an intensification of commodity fetishism’s logic redoubled (like Jennifer) – as the viewer is connected to the unavoidable fantasy of fetishism, itself already an effort to find an imaginary solution to the irresolvable “contradiction between phenomenon and fungibility”  in the commodity form.
However, if this “cuteness” maintains fetishism’s overarching illusion of the object’s animate qualities – in this case the clumsy performance- at the same time it wants to deny what, in Marxian terms, these animated commodities articulate as “Our use-value may interest men, but is no part of us as objects…We relate to each other merely as exchange values.” 
Dullaart then shifts his attention to the main focus of the exhibition – the conscious construction and showcasing of his proposition of a new way of entering into a contract with our networked, hyper-published -selves: the balcony. The two physical balconies presented in Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators (one of which is accompanied by a digital ticker-tape text of his Balconism manifesto) are both visual prompts and, in a sense, demos, of Dullaart’s concept of balconisation. In direct acknowledgment of the hyper- mediated image of Julian Assange standing on the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London – Dullaart starkly illustrates this liminal, politically charged space where we bear witness to a clear slippage between UK and Ecuadorian territory. To Dullaart, the balcony represents a ‘space outside society’ , and this new space of public address marks a shift in responsibility in self-broadcast/publication in the digital commons and the social media sphere. According to Dullaart, we all need to recognise our position on the balcony in our hybrid public/private pathology and modus operandi of quasi-addictive self-broadcast.
On the balcony we should be ready to escape the warm enclosure of the social web, to address people outside our algorithm bubble. In the context of the show, the balcony is positioned as a higher order theory for how we should respond to the process of digitalisation as a whole, to how corporations and programmes structure our understanding of the world. We need to stand on our particular balcony ‘and choose to be out in public and we have to define cultural codes of how to do that’. 
What Dullaart’s exhibition Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators offers anew is an alternative proposition of spatial code through which to understand our steadily (re) negotiated locations of private and public space and the possibility of somewhere inbetween from which to enact a certain kind of everyday De Certeauian  tactic – the Balcony.
Dullaart’s solo exhibition ended at Carroll / Fletcher on 19th July 2014.
Jonas Lund’s artistic practice revolves around the mechanisms that constitute contemporary art production, its market and the established ‘art worlds’. Using a wide variety of media, combining software-based works with performance, installation, video, photography and sculptures, he produces works that have an underlying foundation in writing code. By approaching art world systems from a programmatic point of view, the work engages through a criticality largely informed by algorithms and ‘big data’.
It’s been just over a year since Lund began his projects that attempt to redefine the commercial art world, because according to him, ‘the art market is, compared to other markets, largely unregulated, the sales are at the whim of collectors and the price points follows an odd combination of demand, supply and peer inspired hype’. Starting with The Paintshop.biz (2012) that showed the effects of collaborative efforts and ranking algorithms, the projects moved closer and closer to reveal the mechanisms that constitute contemporary art production, its market and the creation of an established ‘art world’. Its current peak was the solo exhibition The Fear Of Missing Out, presented at MAMA in Rotterdam.
Annet Dekker: The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) proposes that it is possible to be one step ahead of the art world by using well-crafted algorithms and computational logic. Can you explain how this works?
Jonas Lund The underlying motivation for the work is treating art worlds as networked based systems. The exhibition The Fear Of Missing Out spawned from my previous work The Top 100 Highest Ranked Curators In The World, for which I assembled a comprehensive database on the bigger parts of the art world using sources such as Artfacts, Mutaul Art, Artsy and e-flux. The database consists of artists, curators, exhibitions, galleries, institutions, art works and auction results. At the moment it has over four million rows of information. With this amount of information – ‘big data’ – the database has the potential to reveal the hidden and unfamiliar behaviour of the art world by exploring the art world as any other network of connected nodes, as a systemic solution to problematics of abstraction.
In The Top 100 Highest Ranked Curators In The World, first exhibited at Tent in Rotterdam, I wrote a curatorial ranking algorithm and used the database, to examine the underlying stratified network of artists and curators within art institutions and exhibition making: the algorithm determined who were among the most important and influential players in the art world. Presented as a photographic series of portraits, the work functions both as a summary of the increasingly important role of the curator in exhibition making, as an introduction to the larger art world database and as a guide for young up and coming artists for who to look out for at the openings.
Central to the art world network of different players lies arts production, this is where FOMO comes is. In FOMO, I used the same database as the basis for an algorithm that generated instructions for producing the most optimal artworks for the size of the Showroom MAMA exhibition space in Rotterdam while taking into account the allotted production budget. Prints, sculptures, installations and photographs were all produced at the whim of the given instructions. The algorithm used meta- data from over one hundred thousand art works and ranked them based on complexity. A subset of these art works were then used, based on the premise that a successful work of art has a high price, high aesthetic value but low production cost and complexity, to create instructions deciding title, material, dimensions, price, colour palette and position within the exhibition space.
Similar to how we’re becoming puppets to the big data social media companies, so I became a slave of the instructions and executed them without hesitation. FOMO proposes that it is possible to be one step ahead of the art world by using well-crafted algorithms and computational logic and questions notions of authenticity and authorship.
AD: To briefly go into one of the works, in an interview you mention Shield Whitechapel Isn’t Scoop – a rope stretched vertically from ceiling to floor and printed with red and yellow ink – as a ‘really great piece’, can you elaborate a little bit? Why is this to you a great piece, which, according to your statement in the same interview, you would not have made if it weren’t the outcome of your analysis?
JL: Coming from a ‘net art’ background, most of the previous works I have made can be simplified and summarised in a couple of sentences in how they work and operate. Obviously this doesn’t exclude further conversation or discourse, but I feel that there is a specificity of working and making with code that is pretty far from let’s say, abstract paintings. Since the execution of each piece is based on the instructions generated by the algorithm the results can be very surprising.
The rope piece to me was striking because as soon as I saw it in finished form, I was attracted to it, but I couldn’t directly explain why. Rather than just being a cold-hearted production assistant performing the instructions, the rope piece offered a surprise aha moment, where once it was finished I could see an array of possibilities and interpretations for the piece. Was the aha moment because of its aesthetic value or rather for the symbolism of climbing the rope higher, as a sort of contemporary art response to ‘We Started From The Bottom Now We’re Here’. My surprise and affection for the piece functions as a counterweight to the notion of objective cold big data. Sometimes you just have to trust the instructionally inspired artistic instinct and roll with it, so I guess in that way maybe now it is not that different from let’s say, abstract painting.
AD: I can imagine quite a few people would be interested in using this type of predictive computation. But since you’re basing yourself on existing data in what way does it predict the future, is it not more a confirmation of the present?
JL: One of the only ways we have in order to make predictions is by looking at the past. Through detecting certain patterns and movements it is possible to glean what will happen next. Very simplified, say that artist A was part of exhibition A at institution A working with curator A in 2012 and then in 2014 part of exhibition B at institution B working with curator A. Then say that artist B participates in exhibition B in 2013 working with curator A at institution A, based on this simplified pattern analysis, artist B would participate in exhibition C at institution B working with curator A. Simple right?
AD: In the press release it states that you worked closely with Showroom MAMA’s curator Gerben Willers. How did that relation give shape or influenced the outcome? And in what way has he, as a curator, influenced the project?
JL: We first started having a conversation about doing a show in the Summer of 2012, and for the following year we met up a couple of times and discussed what would be an interesting and fitting show for MAMA. In the beginning of 2013 I started working with art world databases, Gerben and I were making our own top lists and speculative exhibitions for the future. Indirectly, the conversations led to the FOMO exhibition. During the two production phases, Gerben and his team were immensely helpful in executing the instructions.
AD: Notion of authorship and originality have been contested over the years, and within digital and networked – especially open source – practices they underwent a real transformation in which it has been argued that authorship and originality still exist but are differently defined. How do see authorship and originality in relation to your work, i.e. where do they reside; is it the writing of the code, the translation of the results, the making and exhibiting of the works, or the documentation of them?
JL: I think it depends on what work we are discussing, but in relation to FOMO I see the whole piece, from start to finish as the residing place of the work. It is not the first time someone makes works based on instructions, for example Sol LeWitt, nor the first time someone uses optimisation ideas or ‘most cliché’ art works as a subject. However, this might be first time someone has done it in the way I did with FOMO, so the whole package becomes the piece. The database, the algorithm, the instructions, the execution, the production and the documentation and the presentation of the ideas. That is not to say I claim any type of ownership or copyright of these ideas or approaches, but maybe I should.
AD: Perhaps I can also rephrase my earlier question regarding the role of the curator: in what way do you think the ‘physical’ curator or artist influences the kind of artworks that come out? In other words, earlier instructions based artworks, like indeed Sol LeWitt’s artworks, were very calculated, there was little left to the imagination of the next ‘executor’. Looking into the future, what would be a remake of FOMO: would someone execute again the algorithms or try to remake the objects that you created (from the algorithm)?
JL: In the case with FOMO the instructions are not specific but rather points out materials, and how to roughly put it together by position and dimensions, so most of the work is left up to the executor of said instructions. It would not make any sense to re-use these instructions as they were specifically tailored towards me exhibiting at Showroom MAMA in September/October 2013, so in contrast to LeWitt’s instructions, what is left and can travel on, besides the executions, is the way the instructions were constructed by the algorithm.
AD: Your project could easily be discarded as confirming instead of critiquing the established art world – this is reinforced since you recently attached yourself to a commercial gallery. In what way is a political statement important to you, or not? And how is that (or not) manifested most prominently?
JL: I don’t think the critique of the art world is necessarily coming from me. It seems like that is how what I’m doing is naturally interpreted. I’m showing correlations between materials and people, I’ve never made any statement about why those correlations exist or judging the fact that those correlations exist at all. I recently tweeted, ‘There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and Big Data’, anachronistically paraphrasing Mark Twain’s distrust for the establishment and the reliance on numbers for making informed decisions (my addition to his quote). Big data, algorithms, quantification, optimisation… It is one way of looking at things and people; right now it seems to be the dominant way people want to look at the world. When you see that something deemed so mysterious as the art world or art in general has some type of structural logic or pattern behind it, any critical person would wonder about the causality of that structure, I guess that is why it is naturally interpreted as an institutional critique. So, by exploring the art world, the market and art production through the lens of algorithms and big data I aim to question the way we operate within these systems and what effects and affects this has on art, and perhaps even propose a better system.
AD: How did people react to the project? What (if any) reactions did you receive from the traditional artworld on the project?
JL: Most interesting reactions usually take place on the comment sections of a couple of websites that published the piece, in particular Huffington Post’s article ‘Controversial New Project Uses Algorithm To Predict Art’. Some of my favourite responses are:
‘i guess my tax dollars are going to pay this persons living wages?’
‘Pure B.S. ……..when everything is art then there is no art’
‘As an artist – I have no words for this.’
‘Sounds like a great way to sacrifice your integrity.’
‘Wanna bet this genius is under 30 and has never heard of algorithmic composition or applying stochastic techniques to art production?’
‘Or, for a fun change of pace, you could try doing something because you have a real talent for it, on your own.’
AD: Even though the project is very computational driven, as you explain the human aspects is just as important. A relation to performance art seems obvious, something that is also present in some of your other works most notably Selfsurfing (2012) where people over a 24 hour period could watch you browsing the World Wide Web, and Public Access Me (2013), an extension of Selfsurfing where people when logged in could see all your online ‘traffic’. A project that recalls earlier projects like Eva & Franco Mattes’ Life Sharing (2000). In what way does your project add to this and/or other examples from the past?
JL: Web technology changes rapidly and what is possible today wasn’t possible last year and while most art forms are rather static and change slowly, net art in particular has a context that’s changing on a weekly basis, whether there is a new service popping up changing how we communicate with each other or a revaluation that the NSA or GCHQ has been listening in on even more facets of our personal lives. As the web changes, we change how we relate to it and operate within it. Public Access Me and Selfsufing are looking at a very specific place within our browsing behaviour and breaks out of the predefined format that has been made up for us.
There are many works within this category of privacy sharing, from Kyle McDonalds’ live tweeter, to Johannes P Osterhoff’s iPhone Live and Eva & Franco Mattes’ earlier work as you mentioned. While I cannot speak for the others, I interpret it as an exploration of a similar idea where you open up a private part of your daily routine to re-evaluate what is private, what privacy means, how we are effected by surrendering it and maybe even simultaneously trying to retain or maintain some sense of intimacy. Post-Snowden, I think this is something we will see a lot more of in various forms.
AD: Is your new piece Disassociated Press, following the 1970s algorithm that generated text based on existing texts, a next step in this process? Why is this specific algorithm of the 70s important now?
JL: Central to the art world lies e-flux, the hugely popular art newsletter where a post can cost up to one thousand dollars. While spending your institution’s money you better sound really smart and using a highly complicated language helps. Through the course of thousands of press releases, exhibition descriptions, artist proposals and curatorial statements a typical art language has emerged. This language functions as a way to keep outsiders out, but also as a justification for everything that is art.
Disassociated Press is partly using the Dissociated Press algorithm developed in 1972, first associated with the Emacs implementation. By choosing a n-gram of predefined length and consequently looking for occurrences of these words within the n-gram in a body of text, new text is generated that at first sight seems to belong together but doesn’t really convey a message beyond its own creation. It is a summary of the current situation of press releases in the international English art language perhaps, as a press release in its purest form. So, Disassociated Press creates new press releases to highlight the absurdity in how we talk and write about art. If a scrambled press release sounds just like normal art talk then clearly something is wrong, right?