Not too long ago I was asked to participate in the second issue of publication and exhibition platform Wave Int’l. This iteration will be hosted by Oakland exhibition space Important Projects opening this saturday (the 28th of May) with an accompanying online publication. I was very excited to be involved with this initiative started by Chicago based artists and organizers Brian Khek and Jasmine Lee along with the talented work of Andre and Evan Lenox, Ben Schumacher, and Hayley Silverman. Wave Int’l issue02 will include essays, objects, conversations, projections, and installations represented both in physical space as well in a downloadable pdf. When initially asked to participate, I knew that I had wanted to be able to contribute a piece for the publication that would address some ongoing questions I’ve been workshopping about the over-simplification of the term community. Specifically I’ve been wondering how the academic vernacular of “the community” has effected an emerging field of artists working on or around network technologies.
The best way that I knew how to approach these concerns – one of the most developed ways I have grown into over this past year – has been through an interview format. I decided – with Brian and Jasmine – that being able to talk with Hayley would be a good use of my inquisitiveness, and hopefully allow for both of us to get out into the open some shared anxieties about our burgeoning field and the milieu of unresolved circumstances that screen-space and digital frameworks pose to our respective practices. Our conversation (which I will provide excerpts of in a bit) did provide for some interesting insights, but in a strange way, it also served as a reinforcement of how dire these unresolved questions are for myself, and in a way showed me how my own practice still had much room for growth.
One such instance came when we started to critically examine what it meant to work within a community and how I had come to expect a certain sustainability that a community maintains as a result of shared interests:
Nicholas O’Brien: … I’m curious about how you engage your community or what community means to you since community is such a large part of my practice. In other words, being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me.
Hayley Silverman: Community is complex and usually related to my terrestrial coordinates. I would often think of my community as being the people immediately within my surround and whom I share lived experiences with. When I look at artists work online I process it differently. They are indexed as information.
I sometimes think of community as a veil for a collective understanding. That there is a presumption that we do indeed know each other. The social translated online creates an intense circulation, one that, as I said earlier, magnifies certain personalities. The second self, or the other self produced virtually, seems to be a contemporary project of redesigning “the old man into the new man”- contributing to an obsession with the relevant – the contemporary. Artistic production, curation, and reception will always be dangerously entangled with the social.
NO’B: Do you think the web, as an interface for highlighting the social aspects of creative production, allow for more transparency for these communities to intermingle?
HS: The web helps facilitate modes of engagement that do open up a dynamic space (one that is interlinked) but my primary vehicle in the production of my work is felt reality.
NO’B: Can you elaborate on the term “felt reality.”
HS: I privilege empirical knowledge.
Although probably not originally intended, Hayley provided me with a great insight that I think I had up until now taken for granted: makers and artists working online each have very specific reasons for interfacing with the web as a site of production and distribution. My more critical readers will probably think that this admittance is a sign of naiveté on my part, but instead being able to allow for this realization to wash over me – to let it permeate some of the more immediate expectations I have from any given community – was (and continues to be) a powerful thing for my own sensibility to reconcile. I address this disparity later in my conversation with Hayley:
NO’B: I might want to move on to talk about the importance and relevance community plays within your work. Being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me. What are some of your thoughts on how your peer group effects your work (particularly when you are often grouped together with artists that make work more directly interfacing with online technologies). On that note, I think one of the things I’d like to talk about is a concern I have about the limitations of any given community and how perhaps one of those limitations is revealed in the aesthetics generated through or around those associations.
HS: Communities form as the intermittent and transitory outcomes of coordinates whether that be through geography, gender, race, or a process of filtration. How do we align ourselves with particular subjects or movements? Is it to protect ourselves from the voluminous waves of information that wash over us? At some point we could use convention to narrow ourselves… It is as though identity is the condition of correct anticipation, given these restraints. I think the process of a thinker or maker is to invent places to explode to.
NO’B: Communities then can be mobile?
HS: Well it depends on how you define mobility. Jung’s writing on “herd psychology” speaks about the rootlessness of modern people that results from a disaster not only of primitive tribes but of modern man, in effect, causing a collective psychic injury. The herding of people into major megalopolises caused social and mental pathologies; thinking in large numbers would result in the rise of “mass psychology” also known as mass-mindness. This dependence on the externalization of culture (materialistic technology, commercial acquisitiveness) would enable the loss of spiritual culture. Within this ideology we have never stopped being mobile – it has become extended to another frontier – in this case, cyberspace.
NO’B: This injury is probably linked to how I’m skeptical of the overuse of the term ‘communities’ and how using that buzz term poses potential limitations. If we have constant mobility – or have a history of it – creative content would then suffer from a kind of transience. However, people latch onto momentary glimpses within that haze and form small niches around them. I fear these pockets of communication and exchange don’t lend themselves to further extension outside their immediate sphere. Do you see an inherent limitation within the establishment of these types of communities?
HS: I’m not sure that’s true. I do believe that people act as if history has ended. That nothing is connected to a lineage – which encourages people to behave not as historical actors but by living out their own demography.
My initial skepticism of the term community – which could be located in my own overuse of the term as a catch-all for a grouping of people that might only be working with similar technological approaches – was (and maybe still is) unfortunately contributing to misconceptions about net-based practices instead of undoing or realigning those expectations. In this way, I was finding ways in which the interview is not always a viable format, and was reminded of a quote from Guthrie Lonergan reacting to harsh criticisms that Bring Your Own Beamer events recently had undergone after mounted stateside exhibitions: “I think the real deal happens online for many.” I felt at that moment that what Guthrie was trying to express was that often times an exhibition or show (even ones with promising premisses and multiple iterations like BYOB) cannot possibly hope to resolve everything within their physical manifestation, and that artist find that the location where the dialog gets fleshed out the most is through shared networks of exchange and conversation (like message boards, comment thread, gchats, group blogs, etc.).
In this way, I felt that being able to re-evaluate my initial questions, and the intentions behind them, could still be an effective way for me to continue to foster my own creative practice. I hoped that doing so would also enable an exposure of my process with others. I decided while in the midst of editing the material for Wave Int’l to try and take these anxieties I was finding about my own sense of participation amongst the community of my peers and formulate them into new questions for Brian and Jasmine:
Jasmine Lee: I was thinking about how Wave Int’l is contextualized… within what “community” It’s difficult to locate, since it falls somewhere between an academic discourse, a critical discourse, and an artistic discourse.
Nicholas O’Brien: I think that these borderlands of discourse is something I struggle with, personally. Or not struggle, but feel anxiety about.
JL: There seems to be some understanding that those said discourses, or at least their titles, are somewhat arbitrary.
Brian Khek: Yeah, I feel our style of execution is something in an international context. Not representing any specific city, per say.
JL: Global, not international.
NO’B: That distinction seems important.
JL: It’s global in the sense that the discourse is united — our interests and what not — but we are still reconciling borders, names, nations, territories. Which is not far off from titles of “communities” or what/how individuals choose to align themselves with.
BK: Right. I feel like international assumes defined communities (i.e., nations).
JL: Yes, and those definitions are very important in distinguishing where the differences become similarities.
BK: Maybe that’s why the abbreviation in our name is more appropriate. I feel “int’l” plays with that.
JL: I think we’re… interested in illuminating, or hinting at distinctions; in structuring content, subject matter. The same way an abbreviation might.
BK: Maybe [the abbreviation of the name] recognizes those distinctions. I feel like the name is supposed to make you think of corporate identities but the abbreviation makes you question what it really means. It serves as an abstract to the familiar. I think it’s important or successful in that we get to talk about it so often.
JL: I guess that’s also what I meant by those distinctions of community/discourses being arbitrary.
Seeing how this distinction was important for the organizers of this project gave me more pause about the use of community – as Jasmine says – as an arbitrary grouping of persons. When I had initially decided that discussing community and shared experiences within a given material or environment, I had unintentionally accepted that the similarities within delivery of content would extend backwards into the original conceptualization of a project or work. To that end, I decided to explore an alternative route and was curious to see if acknowledging shared influences might be a location to discover how community and aesthetic are generated and supported:
NO’B: This kind of actually brings me to a question that I had early on in thinking about this project. In thinking about naming and drafting an identity, could you talk about some of your main non-art influences? For instance, how does “general web content” influence your practice?
My reason for asking is that I think when working online, in particular when working with a publication, there is an aesthetic that gets referenced both consciously and unconsciously.
JL: Well, to list off some recent influences off the top of our heads… Joseph Grigely‘s exhibition prosthetics, Katja Novitskova’s post internet survival guide, Kari Altmann’s r-u-in?s.
BK: With our exhibitions we try to extend the content/subjects in the publication and vice versa.
JL: We learned some really important things working with Joseph, in regards to protheses, which are not limited to general web content. In this way, it’s the careful consideration of all components of an idea as extensions of the thing itself, which is why we stress both the exhibition and it’s subsequent documentation. As well as the printed publication and the web publication.
BK: We try to make it clear that neither is the premier object of focus. We are as interested in presenting the physical works as we are a pdf or printed publication and I think we attempt to achieve a harmony between them to communicate something more faceted.
JL: Often times, digital work may be made to trump – replace – reconcile the matters of the physical, or material, or vice versa. We see all components as beneficial on the same plane, but I’m not sure if that is completely developed yet.
This last quote from Jasmine speaks very strongly with a concern of mine that I think other artists within the so-called netart community are also addressing through a movement back – or sideways – to more traditional frameworks and mediums. One of the best examples that I can come up with in recent memory could probably be observed in a group show entitled Rhododendron curated by Harm van den Dropel at W139 in Amsterdam. In this exhibition artists that have used the internet as a site for production and distribution in many early works have chosen to create objects using more traditional fine art materials (or have continued a practice that I am unfamiliar with from pre-net projects). This example is just one of many of the signifiers of a reversal of the potential “trumping” that digital contexts provide within the community that I aim to represent and be in dialog with.
Last month Mike Goldby and Jillian Kay Ross curated and organized the launch of a new virtual gallery project space called Barmecidal Projects with an inaugural showcase called FREE 4 ALL. The release of this project occurred in conjunction with an opening at Butcher Gallery in Toronto by projecting a virtual walk-through of a 3D rendered fictional space modeled after Mathew Marks Gallery in NYC.
Although Barmecidal Projects is not the first of it’s kind to present online works in this fashion (notable precursors include Chrystal Gallery curated and rendered by Timur Si-Qin, and An Immaterial Survey of our Peers curated by Lauren Christiansen and Brad Troemel), this recent exhibition reignited questions I’ve been mulling over regarding this model of presentation. I addressed some of these concerns with Goldby and Ross last week and will interweave our conversation into an ongoing debate I’ve been having with myself about the future and current potential of the virtual gallery space.
Although I had visited the project site and gone through the walk-through a handful of times, it was only after I read a critical response/review to FREE 4 ALL on it’s not about the art that made me decide to try to put some of the thoughts I was having about this work into a more solid frame of reference. I applaud moderators/authors Joanna Sheridan and Ginger Scott on their taking to task some of the technical aspects of the project by delving into the infrastructural short-comings that Barmecidal suffered as a result of appearing to do too much with too little (in ways of time, resources, rendering power, etc.) I do, however, disagree that these lacking elements influence my overall appreciation for what this project aims to explore.
In one particularly instance I thought it unfair to pit the efforts of Goldby and Ross against the virtual gallery tools developed by Google’s Art Project. Measuring the scope of each exhibition is in itself a gesture that undermines the fact that exhibitions like Barmecidal Projects can even be mounted through the limited DIY resources available to the artists represented. Galvanizing and organizing the work shown in FREE 4 ALL is a task all on it’s own, especially since a portion of the artists participating in the exhibition have never even attempted to work in 3D before or are forced to use unstable bootleg versions of animation software. Goldby and Ross expressed to me that some of the most exciting parts of putting together this exhibition came from the dialog generated between themselves and artists whose work they had to render.
G+R: we wanted a wide range
N O’B: i see
G+R: people who use the language of 3d rendering, people who use the language of net art, people who work exclusively IRL (offline)
we really enjoyed working with them
they gave us an idea or sketch and we produced a piece
N O’B: interesting
G+R: it was fun working with them because we would send them renders and they would tell us if they liked it etc.
but there’s also something to be said about the idea that we are “re-creating” their works
N O’B: so you guys facilitated the production of works
G+R: yeah, we facilitated their works
I cannot fault inata for not knowing how Goldby and Ross committed themselves to incorporating non-net-based artists into this exhibition, but I do take issue with neglecting to take into consideration how the decisions and outcomes that occurred as a result of the feedback between artists and organizers (a working methodology that good artists, curators, and cultural commentators engage with as often as they can) appear evident in the presentation of this exhibition. In this way, I felt as though this comparison made between Barmecidal and Google typifies how inata had missed the point of Barmecidal’s initial objective.
Through exhibiting these works in such a manner, Barmecidal Projects is attempting to make audience members “suspend certainty” in a way that calls into question the arbitrary distinction between what is considered real and virtual. If we allow ourselves to quickly let go of the visual gimmick of this show – albeit a somewhat difficult task given the deliberate direction and perspective of the camera angle in the video – then we can hold FREE 4 ALL to the same traditional success standards we would regard non-virtual galleries sites. Thus I think the show is successful by the standard that Ralph Rugoff has suggested in that it the works “engage in a dialogue with one another,” in way that allows for “artists [to] offer us their talent for making unexpected connections.”
Without that consideration, one can see that the concentration on craft and render quality found within the above mentioned review are evidence of an over-emphasis on technique as a way of not discussing the content and concept behind a singular piece or a group dynamic. To that end, one of the more interesting aspects of the project can be found between the discrepancies between the varying rendering engines and their native lighting environments. By exposing differing skills sets and aesthetic acumen, Goldby and Ross highlight a tension that spaces like Barmecidal Projects can very purposefully embody in way that a physical representation cannot. For instance, the stark contrast between Georgia Dickie‘s Fusilli with Rachel Milton‘s Malador should be observed as a bridging of a gap between the rhetorics that inform the production of works made on or around the web. The diversity of works, and their subsequent levels of rendered “believability,” point to the variety of perspectives and influences that shape the content of contemporary net-based artworks. In the instance above, we can see how minimalism and manga hold equal places of interest within the vernacular of the contemporary community represented within FREE 4 ALL.
However, there are some technical aspects of the project that do have some interesting considerations to take into account. For instance, the walk-through loop creates an unintentional structural narrative as a result of the sequences visible beginning and end. In this way, viewers aware of this (knowledge that might not occur in the Butcher Gallery installation) can mistake that continuity as containing crescendoes and moments of rest. As a result, a viewer of the loop must would have to take into consideration that certain pieces are unintentionally prioritized over others.
Goldby and Ross admit that rendering limitations prevented a more dynamic viewing situation. Allowances for wandering and lingering around any given piece might prevent these hindrances, but I am still curious what this visual guidance/dictation does to the pieces included in this show. Although the camera view that we get roams the various rooms and objects in a relatively democratic way, the static-ness of that perspective speaks to some of the incumbered limitations contemporary artists are facing when deciding to work within and around screens. Whenever an artist choses to emulate three-dimensions, regardless if your medium is computer rendered imagery or 16mm film, one is still faced with the consequence of working with a singular image surface/plane.
This quandary plays itself out – even if only accidently – in the visual framework that Barmecidal Projects provides in their tour. One would think that browsing could be a guiding paradigm to try and tackle this problem, either through the inclusion of multiple screens or through multiple offered perspectives. In our conversation, the curators seemed to agree that a more interactive approach would help solve some of these constraints. They also stressed the fact that in future iterations there will be more emphasis made in making the theme more evident through specific selections of artists working in around similar content:
G+R: in the future
briefs and themes [like “FREE 4 ALL”] will be more directed
working with smaller groups on tighter themes and taking advantage of the immaterial space
N O’B: this was more like an inaugural show
sort of like a showcase
N O’B: i see
after the first show was finished
i started to really think about the idea of the space (mike)
as a showcase, using the space as a vessel worked
but when themes become tighter the space will become increasingly important
it’s exciting to have a mutable space
N O’B: rite
G+R: and also exterior space to the gallery as well
N O’B: like a whole building?
G+R: exactly, and it could be placed in any location
it becomes a lot to consider
In some ways these concerns that Goldby and Ross shared with me are recapitulations of some of the more poignant parts of the inata review, but instead of pointing to potential failure on that part of the orchestrators of this exhibition, I’m instead wanting to consider what alternatives and options might be available for future iterations of this gallery and others. In particular, the question regarding the decision to use familiar iconography found within a traditional gallery is an acute critique that also speaks to my own curiosity:
… there are monitors in the Barmecidal gallery that represent installations of video work. This is perplexing because they serve no utilitarian function besides standing in for recognizable objects. All the same, why adhere to this standard when the virtual model renders it completely unnecessary and when there are seemingly infinite alternative possibilities? Without having to adhere to the confines of physical space, and other annoyances like gravity, why do monitors have to stand in to separate the video work from any other media in this transitory space?
The one piece that actually comes quite close to challenging the austerity of the artificiality of the space is a very quiet piece by Lee Ormerod entitled Bulldog Clip #7. This piece uses an enlarged, almost Oldenburg-esque, bulldog clip to pinch and elevate the floor of the gallery is a gesture that shows the otherwise hidden mutability to the conventional white cube. Ormerod’s piece is almost like a wink to the viewer, reminding audience members that the strict standard geometry of a space meant to disappear is only a visual launching pad for a potential plethora of subversive statements. Work that immediately addresses and challenges what is considered the “standard” within a screen-only based gallery can be the segue into turning a conversation about technique into a discourse of aesthetic breakdown of technical expectations within computer rendered environments.
I’m convinced that the excitement Goldby and Ross expressed to me has been able to translate into a strong reaction to FREE 4 ALL that enthusiasts of net-based practices have been able to share with their non-net cohorts. This being said, I still think that the occasionally anecdotal and “so close of non-art” tight-rope walking has a long way to go before any kind of agreed upon model of presentation can be found. The proximity to “the real thing” needs to be more critically examined as not just a by-product of lack of government of gallery funding, but instead as a way of critically examining how the whole model of production and distribution of works online has forever changed the face of the gallery world (both visually and conceptually). Even though Barmecidal Projects is not the first of it’s kind, its wide exposure and current spotlight provide a telling example of how contemporary digital artwork can potentially be exhibited in a way that simultaneously uses and challenges the familiarity of the idealized white cube gallery system.
While in New York a couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure of hanging out with artist Michael Manning and visiting the New Museum’s Linda Bengalis exhibition. While navigating the show, I turned a corner to be faced by the above work, looked back to Michael and quipped, “Looks like netart.” Although Michael and I had a brief laugh about this while walking out, we lingered on the topic for a while longer and reflected on how we both felt that certain visual tendencies within the netart community were honestly located in a larger art historical context. I think we both (sorry Michael if I’m speaking for you) felt a sense of weighing the immediacy of network exchange/activity against the distance of history within our work, and attempting to navigate a synthesis between these two considerations is a daunting task for art produced and distributed online.
Since then I’ve given my joke a bit more thought and was reminded of the sentiments Michael and I shared when I read Karen Archey’s recent review of the Read/Write show at 319 Scholes. Specifically I was brought back to that conversation when I read:
I’d argue the worst end of the show looks like a bunch of poorly aestheticized inside jokes originating on the web… Herein lies the failure of this newer generation of internet art, emblematized by Read/Write: curating exhibitions or creating work based on social networking privileges the agitating and personal while occluding the conceptual and political, especially to an audience outside that social network. Further, the insularity of that network has bred likeminded aesthetics rather than a shared politics—while the most successful works reach outside this trajectory.
I can’t speak for all of the work at Read/Write or even the original work presented by jstchillin curators Parker Ito and Caitlin Denny, but while being present at the venue during the installation, I had very few moments of feeling as though the work shown was generated from an isolated locations of net-humor or facebook comment threads. I completely understand that this privilege skews my perspective of the work, and I don’t think I can reasonably expect critics and cultural commentators to always have this type of access to a community. In fact, I agree with Karen about net-based work being hindered by it’s narrow vernacular and at-times obscure methodology (although I think this opaqueness is mythologized more by the rest of the art-world then the makers themselves). However, I’m not convinced that this perceived exclusivity is limited to Read/Write. This being said, I’m also not willing to claim the entire art world is at fault. But since my conversation with Michael (and, truth be told, with many others), I’ve been attempting to draw aesthetic and ideological similarities between work/ideas/jokes in Read/Write and other recent (or distant) art histories that exist offline.
I must admit that the following pairings should not be taken as factual evidence for net-based practices consciously working within a larger scope of art history. But I do think these comparisons could help identify some visual frequencies that continue to resonate within contemporary screen-based practices. By giving this contemporary work some benefit of the doubt, I hope to bring the visual elements that exists between communities and generations into a conversation about the potential political and conceptual underpinnings that these works also share. This is not to say that the ideological concerns of contemporary art are still mired in the politics of a previous movement, politik, or fad. However, exposing shared conversations and conventions might help elevate and promote the work made by a new generation under heavy scrutiny.
One visual similarity that has peeked my interest as of late is between Sara Ludy‘s Projection Monitor project and the paintings of Edward Hopper. Ludy uses Second Life to photograph empty foyers, vacant windows, awkward textures plastered on obtuse geometry, and poorly modeled house plants. When viewing all these spaces together, or in their sequence of presentation, one observes a delicate investigation into the interior spaces of the virtual world and how alienating they can be. Hopper likewise utilizes the streets of Brooklyn and remote scenes by the beach as locations for a similar kind of isolated introspection that Ludy investigates. In some sense the artificiality of architecture and space flows through the pictorial plane of each artists work. With Ludy, the artificiality is a a inevitable characteristic of the infrastructure of SL whereas Hopper’s portrayed contrivances are of a failed American urban planning. This being said, when the remoteness of Ludy’s depictions rely on a absence of fellow users Hopper instead uses shrouded models and characters that face away from the easel as his chosen instrument for illustrating distance.
Coincidently on the same New York trip, I went to PS1 and had the pleasure of sitting in the small yet intimate Modern Women: Single Channel exhibition of women artists working in video between the 60s and the 90s. Although less than a dozen women are represented on the 20 some-odd TVs, I had the immense joy of re-watching videos that I had seen many years ago with somewhat fresh eyes. Combined with the lingering conversation from the Bengalis show still at the front of my mind, I couldn’t help but immediately link the meditative and hypnotic similarities between a recent work by Brenna Murphy and Steina Valsuka’s Violin Power from 1978.
In this particular instance I find it hard not to draw a comparison between the ideological and structural components that the two makers have with one another. The technological experiments that Brenna and Steina explore are each very indicative of their time; they show attempts at grasping a current location in technological times through experimentation with “the new.” Even though Steina clearly has a technological (and virtuosic) advantage over Brenna, this limitation of gadgetry and lab facilities doesn’t dissuade the younger artist from experimenting with the available technology of her immediate surroundings (namely a webcam or consumer/prosumer camcorder and a simple non-linear editing program). In this way, Brenna’s piece exemplifies one of the most telling aspects of work made under the netart moniker: using available, often times consumer-based, technology to critique the defaults of visual culture that occur as a result of constant digital saturation. Through abstracting the self, both artist take on the role of engaging what they know to be biological – their bodies – and attempt to find an equilibrium of feedback between themselves and the appliances of their time.
Although Michelle Ceja and El Lissitzsky have very little in common when it comes to cultural and ideological creative production, the similarities between their aesthetic is unmistakable. Ceja’s work repeatedly draws from the visual vernacular of the early Russian avant-garde movements that later heavily influenced the Bauhus and De Stijil schools. Both Lissitzsky and Malevich provide ample visual cues for many net-artsits working with three-dimensional forms and installations. The angularity, stark color palette, and use of negative space that Supermatism artists employ reoccur in many instances of net-based visual works. Ceja just so happens to be the best example to illustrate this point, probably because her work is so visually refined. The relationship between these two histories is dubious, especially when considering the propagandist tendencies of Lissitzsky and his peers, but the correlation is too striking for me to avoid.
In preparation for this article, my research led me down a number of interesting tangents and speculations about the common visual tendencies cropping up outside of the domain of what is considered netart. I feel that some of the frustration, hesitation, and angst about work coming offline and into space comes from the constricting categorization that plagues netart as a term. The “post-undergrad” artists that Karen identifies might be struggling with the concept of migrating conversations between screen space and white cubes, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the conceptual frameworks that guide and support these contemporary practices. In a way, it’s hard to concretely say how one can “solve” this dilemma, or even if it’s something demanding explanation and deciphering. However, being able to make these historical connections might provide cultural commentators, art enthusiasts, and makers with some leverage and accessibility that can alleviate some of the current criticism.
Tonight marks the opening of jstchillin‘s final act, READ/WRITE, an exhibition staged at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn. Over the past year an a half founders Caitlin Denny and Parker Ito presented works by thirty-five international artists into an ongoing online exhibition. Many within internet based art communities have repeatedly pointed to the jstchillin’s efforts and projects as some of the most enlightened and exciting contemporary work made online. Through videos, interactive works, installations, essays, and various fabricated ephemera, the site generated a sense of community that other more sterile institutions could only hope for. The playful sincerity of Denny and Ito’s enthusiasm for the projects presented on their site make jstchillin stand out as an easily approachable and incredibly rich resource. Their deliberate sense of curation of the site also seperates it’s from the typical blog fair of “things people like” which in turn creates a more telling and also more faithful testament to art online.
Projects on jstchillin had various motivations and inceptions; some were made in response to each other, others to prompt outside engagement, but most can be observed as detailed attempts at gaining a more fulfilling understanding of net-material. Undoubtably jstchillin built off the surf-club mentality of projects like nasty nets and spirit surfers, but the format of their month long presentations created a more honed perspective of working being made in response to screen cultures. The inherent social infrastructure of the web was something that Denny and Ito both acknowledge as playing a large part in the initiation of their project. In some ways they wanted to translate, and perhaps elevate, the activities they were already doing online, into an artistic act that others could share and revel in together.
In the above video the three of us get a chance to talk about the origins of the project and how it has changed throughout it’s duration. We discuss some of the difficulties of translating work offline into physical space and how to address the growing gallery attention that work like this is gaining in traditional art markets. Denny suggests that a direct lifting of the personal computer screen into gallery projection of mounted faltscreens is not the ultimate answer. Both Denny and Ito charged artists with the challenge of translating the mood of their work into an object or installation scenario to avoid the underselling of the content that often happens when work from the web migrates to the gallery. This tactic is addressed through various different methods within the show, including live performance (Ida Lehtonen performance starts at 9pm), painting, appropriated snuggies, interference-running computers, documentation of off-site installations, and telepresence kiosks.
With most of the artists present during the evening, the space will be packed with new and exciting projects that artists have made in order to continue the discussion that Denny, Ito and myself address in our conversation. Undoubtably READ/WRITE will not only help facilitate moving the sentiment of screen-based work into a more fruitful discourse with other mediums, but it will also be an excellent and apropos send off for jstchillin.
R. Gerald Nelson’s DDDDoomed essay has been making the rounds lately and it sparked a healthy amount of curiosity and note-taking on my part that I felt I wanted to share with some reactions. The essay is published as the first volume of eight in Nelson’s Making Known Img Ctrl series based out of Minneapolis. The image heavy text is “crafted as a speculative fiction that unfolds from the perspective of a future commentator reflecting back and theorizing about the factors that brought about the dysfunctional state of the contemporary image world.” The highlights and corresponding notes aren’t presented in their original linear order, but instead I’ve decided to skip around.
As a way of introducing the text, Nelson formulates a biting critique of how web-based image aggregators (abbreviated to “IA” henceforth) such as ffffound.com and tumblr are constantly undermining the cultural task of curation. Nelson points to several projects, including the amazing Voyager Golden Record overseen by Carl Sagan, that at first appear very similar to what IAs provide. Nelson emphasizes, however, that the deliberateness found in the cataloging work by John Baldassari and Ed Ruscha show a particularly accute understanding of the “‘unsexy’ non-visual history” embedded in images that IAs tend to ignore.
As [Cluade] Lévi-Strauss pointed out, ‘painting was perhaps an instrument knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession… Likely to their own regret (or so I hope), like many rich Italian Merchants long before them, many IAs likewise chose to use their collected images as ‘instruments[s] of possession’ rather than ‘instrument[s] of knowledge.’ The fundamental difference was that the IA’s possessions, while still defined by their relative materiality, were not physical in nature. Instead, in relying upon photographers and Internet image producers as their agents, IAs (with their ‘rich’ collection of images) apparently possessed what was commonly referred to as having keen awarenesses for so-called relevant styles and certain esoteric cultural artifacts of a digital nature.
Although Nelson never specifically ties this sense of ownership to the surmounting agency found within digital frameworks (see Janet Murray), the “posting as ownership” tendency within IAs is certainly a dangerous trend. I find it interesting to connect this amassing of content/imagery to the habits and behaviors found within the museum. Generating traffic and distribution through the narrow bandwidth of filtering systems that IAs enable is akin to the selectiveness of the permanent collection exhibitions of contemporary art museums. The “success” of any one image, painting, or object both within IAs and within the museum is dependent on distribution of its reproduction. This can be extrapolated into determining the “wealth” of any particular institution or image-object as being beholden to the traffic that is generated towards, or around, its presences or location.
Something else tucked within the quote above is this determining how IA-like activity can be likened to the collection of “artifacts.” I’m under the impression that this term is not deliberately used to identity these images as having an archeological undertone, but I am nevertheless drawn to the wordplay between artifact and artificial since Nelson does distinguish IA collections being invested in non-material object-images. I’m also considering the play between the non-physical and the superficial since Nelson positions this report as a fictional future-sighted account of a moment in Internet history (a future-artifact itself). This recursiveness is something in and of itself that can potentially undo, or complicate, the otherwise linear, archival, and progress-based mentality of IAs.
As we delve into the meat of Nelson’s text, we find that his primary critique of IAs revolve around the lack of critical inquiry of found material online. “What became evident to many was that IAs were capitalizing only on the aesthetically engaging qualities of imagery circulating online – their activities, increasingly, and eventually completely, dismissed an image’s history and its essential identifying information.” I’m curious to know what capital is being exchanged here other than hipsterism and/or “net-cred.” Although IAs generate revenue from adds on their sites, I’m not certain than any specific user is getting a substantial cut from any of that profiteering, and perhaps the criticism that Nelson is making here is the unconscious participation of capitalism through the guise of “free exchange.” Locating this fault with an engine and not it’s users is an important distinction to make. Although I think there are always alternatives to the default tumblog, the unfortunate consequences of this unwitting cooperation into fiscal market exchange is perhaps something unavoidable at this stage (or something that should be taken to task).
By devaluing each image’s potency as an autonomous object, IAs were effectively exaggerating the worth of their role by convincing the viewers of their websites that their assembled collection – as a whole which fails to properly recognize any of its constituent parts – was, paradoxically, to be the sole object of spectacle.
In this quote near the closing remarks of his publication, Nelson points us to the pivotal flaw of IAs as curatorial devices: namely, these sites rely upon their quantitative material wealth as opposed to a potential qualitative investigation of the contextual/intertextual relationships that images inherently have. Just before this exposition into that failure, Nelson points to a more effective route of image collection that occurs when there is a consciousness involved in “seeking to work in accordance with an image’s ingrained meaning (that is, both its actual and semiotic meaning).” This method, which aims to discover new content from the juxtaposition or compilation of images can combat the otherwise cursory appropriation for the sake of aesthetically likening one image to another.
However, I take issue with the sweeping gesture of lumping all of IA activity into one uniform unaware monster. Even though Nelson gives us specific examples of users and trends within “debased” venues of image distribution (like the “obligatory image [of the] skinny, half-naked, tousled-haired, Brooklyn-girl, shot Terry Richardson style”), I’m not convinced that the unintentional cumulation can’t show us something about our need to interface with visual culture. The fact that there is this sense of urgency and immediacy found within IA communities can speak volumes about the insecurity we suffer as a result of the image bombardment we undergo everyday. In other words, the power (and draw) to the IA spectacle is that we need to be able to create filters of exchange and distribution as a method of delineating preference and personality. That being said, the potential for undermining or circumventing image culture saturation is still folded into the mass-market appeal and commercial apparatus that IAs provide; a problem that could be addressed through moving away from the convenience of default systems and investing in personal customization.
Nelson employs the still incredibly relevant criticism of of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to locate the technological skepticism within the scope of contemporary art history as well as it’s relationship to traditional/historical fine arts. He quotes Berger at length when discussing how IAs use distribution as an unknowing/unintentional destructive force:
What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art [and now, also documentary images that epitomizes our cultures] have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they longer, in themselves, have power.
I would argue that the unfolding of once sacred, kept, or owned imagery from the museum into the mainstream has not rendered their power useless, but instead has shifted their power to be more akin to the power found – as Berger himself suggests – in language (although I think that Berger is actually arguing that the object itself has lost power and not the visual information that the object once held). Language is an everyday utility that hasn’t yet lost it’s power for subversion, poetry, and emotional evocation. Similarly for all the power that the reproduced cultural image has potentially lost in being widely distributed, it has likewise gained through accessibility. I’m not crediting IAs with facilitating this shift of power, but I do wonder if/how the filtering/quasi-curatorial methods of IAs have positively effected our ability to take these once inscrutable images and reformulated them in order to understand their relevance in contemporary image culture. Although IAs have possibly done more harm then help in directing or dissecting how we socially engage with images, they have – in a semi-oblique way – enabled a discourse of understanding our current Ways of Seeing.