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.
Hyperjunk is a new column that I’m starting for BaS to serve as a supplement to the interview works I’ve been doing for the blog over the past 9 months. I’ve been very happy with how those projects have been received by both the netart community and artists working in other mediums that otherwise would not have a familiarity with the type of work that I’m interested in discussing and making. However, a limitation of the interviews that I’ve been feeling is that they have not allowed myself and others enough opportunity to pin-point how this kind of work is in discourse with contemporary art in general. I think there is occasionally an inherent defensiveness about contemporary digital work amongst it’s makers due to a feeling of marginality and a slight lack of critical discourse that wants to bridge the gap between this work and other mediums – something that I share and have acted upon with ill effects. In a way, Hyperjunk serves as an editorial column dedicated to working out/on the conceptual concerns of this emerging framework (and it’s increasing gradations and bifurcations with other mediums) in an attempt to strengthen the discourse for myself and others.
Lately, I have been asking myself how the interface of the screen influences the projects and products that exist within mediated space. In particular, I’m wondering how the periphery of the graphical user interface (ie, the devices we use for interaction in screen space) dictate presence and persona as well as guide action in digital realms. In a way, I’ve become curious with how the movements of the cursor across a digital frames have played such a heavy role in how we embody our activities onscreen.
Part of this question comes from the proliferation of touch based interfaces, and how tablet based computing is quickly making the cursor an obsolete part of the graphical user interface. Even if the cursor disappears from our everyday media-routines, the iconographic power, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s symbolic significance will permanently hold a place in the valhalla of digital culture.
The crux of this inquiry into the status of the cursor is coming from a place of wanting to understand our current relationship to screen aesthetics, especially since contemporary net-based artists are exploring how digital technology can recursively be in dialog with AFK space and work. Looking at the sculpture and installation based works of Kari Altmann and Ida Lehtonen precisely make me wonder how the affect of the screen and its interface are being reflected and digested through non-screen-based disciplines.
The cursor acts as both an object of recording motion/interaction as well as a placement holder for mediated screen identity/presence. These two modes – and their rare combination – imbue the cursor with so much cultural weight and familiarity. This inoculation has become so pervasive in computer literacy that it has infiltrated our non-screen culture as well. Some artists employ the visual power of the cursor and have gone about removing this icon from screen space in order to investigate its significance in other mediums and contexts.
Constant Dullaart, for instance, moves the cursor off-screen and onto the back of a RC floor-runner that chases and is chased around by spectators wanting to catch and/or avoid it’s erratic pointy motions. As a nod to the rich historical overlaps that lie between textiles and computer technology, Micah Schippa hand-weaves the cursor into a cloth, along with other familiar graphical user interface iconography in his Tools@Hand series. In a more humorous gesture, John Michael Boling positions the cursor as something more akin to pestilence in Lord of the Flies by having a flock of cursors float around and seemingly worship the Google logo. Chris Collins elevates – and satirizes – the mediated haptic experience of the cursor in his And So I Touched the Hand of God by likening the user experience of one (your cursor) to many (screen space, social space) to relationships between a disciple and the divine.
By simultaneously being both meditative and funny, Collins’ piece is able to bridge a gap between the cursor as icon, and cursor as experience of embodied device on and off-screen. The cursor can, and should be, thought of as our first information-age avatar. The simplicity of the cursor – and relative standardization between platforms/software – allows users to readily and easily transfer their persona into a spec on a screen.
The psychological and phenomenological relationship between user and cursor should be presented as a space for introspection within an ever increasing rapidly-moving environment. In some sense, the speed at which screen space clips makes it all the more easy for us to forego the otherwise dense transition from touch to interface to screen. This willingness is also in no small part due to how we have developed a digital culture that understands mediation of self through gadgetry (both hardware and software).
Several net-based artists have taken up this concern within their own work online, I think particularly since the cursor is rapidly approaching obsolescence. Ilia Ovechkin embraces the mediated tactility of the cursor to follow (and also trace) the movements of a teenager displaying his head-banging skills in his bedroom. Not only does Ovechkin’s Cursor act as a kind of symbolic intermediary between user and interface, but also between watcher and watched. In this sense, the cursor is a device for documentation and interaction; a reification of screen self through the movements of another device and another body.
Duncan Malashock‘s recent performance pieces record cursor movements within a very specific area or pattern (akin to Bruce Nauman’s Walking pieces). After multiplying and repeating these movements/phrases into a type of rhythmic round, the compounded performance becomes a hypnotic and slightly claustrophobic display. In Malashock’s Sarabande – a type of dance performed in triple metre – three cursors roam across the screen, independent of user guidance and control. The disembodied cursor starts to take on a new role, one that forces the viewer to reflect how the interface might contain inherent properties and stipulations that otherwise get ignored or taken for granted.
Malashock’s work plays with different types of cursor experience; in some pieces we get to engage the cursor directly, using it for its instinctive interactivity, and in others we have to observe the cursor go about it’s movements without having the ability to effect placement or result. We can imagine that these two types of engagement with our digital hand lead to two types of user experience: alienation or identification.
This juxtaposition and synthesis of these two states of interaction happen within Portrait of a Youngman by Shunya Hagiwara. In this piece we are able to control and participate with the objects on screen, but we also are subjected to a kind of cursor theft as the objects move through a specific frame of interactivity. This limitation of participation is similar to Malashock’s recorded performances in that they show how the constraints of the interface dictate engagement and expression within the screen. The inherent hindrance of the cursor, and our reliance upon its mechanism and behavior, highlights our growing frustration and desire to move away or beyond this framework of interactivity into more intuitive hardware (i.e. wetware).
Rafaël Rozendaal also investigates this dichotomy of user experience through single-serving-site pieces that have variable amounts of interactivity and control. Although the mouse plays an essential role within many – if not most – works in Rozendaal’s oeuvre, two works in particular, annoyingcursor.com and outinthewind.com, exemplify the two distinct ways that the cursor can be employed as a phenomenological tool. The irritation in annoyingcursor.com (which you can imagine is self evident by the title of the work alone) reprograms the cursor to no longer abide by the typical utility that we normally expect. In doing so, Rozendaal reinforces our reliance upon the limitation of interface, and perhaps unintentionally points to our ever-growing movement away from the established hardware used for screen interaction.
Through the simple and playfully poetic outinthewind.com, Rozendaal counters our frustration in annoyingcursor.com with a much more sentimental view of how we embody screen space. In this work the pixels of our cursor are blown off by randomized gusts from unseen digital gales. An almost immediate reaction I have with this work is to make sudden movements of impatience in order to regain my cursor’s form, but this on further it’s deterioration, and eventually renders the cursor into scattered slowly-fading dots in a void. Once the cursor has disintegrated completely, viewers are forced to either navigate away from the work, refresh the page, or close the browser altogether. The sense of loss within this work that occurs when we fully adsorb our absence of a graphical self on-screen. In doing so we recognize the level of investment we’ve made in the interface as a representation of personal belonging and dependancy.
Our demanding agency over digital interfaces crumbles when we realize that the series of interactions we have on-screen are based on computational situations that are occasionally beyond our control. This type of interactivity is not only unpredictable, but it is also so far removed from our everyday understanding of technology that our only way of digesting this process of translation is through a series of complex and subtle abstractions of self. As a result, the plug-and-play expectations of our hardware and software have gradually turned us into disembodied or estranged users. We are now faced with the difficulty of having to combat and understand the contradictory burden of the simultaneous frustration (when things don’t work right, for reason we don’t understand) and profound attachment (feeling loss when graphic representations of self disappear or are stunted) amidst being inundated with a whole new set of problems that touch screen hardware has already started to bring.
Editors note: The translation of our text follows the initial dialog
I asked artist and designer Nicolas Sassoon to participate in a model swap with me in order to investigate and explore some of his working methods and artistic practices. While exchanging the images below (and the accompanying model files) over the past several weeks, I also posed questions about the background, influences, and potential questions Sassoon’s practice poses to both netart and architecture cultures.
NS: I’m sending you a Sketchup model based from a USGS DEM file. The USGS DEM standard is a geospatial file format developed by the United States Geological Survey for storing a raster-based digital elevation model. A simple way to put it would be to say that a 2D image is used as a source of data for a 3D model. A dark zone on the image means a high area on the map, a bright zone means a low area. It is something comparable to a topographic map.
What’s interesting about this format is that it has been used to record the entire territory of the United States, which is downloadable online through an infinite number of maps at this address. Today I downloaded one of these maps. I picked a letter in the alphabetical list and went for a map called BLUEFIELDS. The name sounded very promising and romantic…
NO’B: When looking at the abundance of the UGSG DEM files that are all available, does “data” as a source material play into the work, or are you more interested in how these elevation maps represent a kind of de-contextualized space that you have been creating in your other work. In looking at the “Geodes” series for example, there seems to be a Buckminster Fuller influence that infiltrates your work. I’m wondering if there is a connection for you between the modular architecture that he constructed and designed and the ready-made landscapes that are provided by these UGSG DEM files?
These maps represent an interesting base to work with, they correspond to existing spaces, but they potentially become subject to a lot of modifications, just like a 3D model of a geodesic dome. The architecture of Buckminster Fuller will inevitably be re-used and altered when translated to a 3D environment. I’m interested by this sense of freedom and the romanticism involved in the making of 3D models. When I use a 3D program like Sketchup, I see it as a vector of fantasy, a platform to manifest any kind of utopic project.
I want to go back to the idea of modularity that has come across in the last model you sent me. Does the malleability and flexibility of these 3D environments inspire your process, or has your work always contained a element of repetition and combination?
I’ve always been excited to insert elements of repetition and combination into architectures, landscapes, human environments in general. When I started drawing architectural shapes, I realized that copy/ pasting a building was very easy. Any kind of architectural fantasy is stimulated in a 3D environment. It’s something scary and exciting at the same time, but I think it’s also something that we have a lot to learn from.
You’ve mentioned how observing and searching play a large role in the work. Are there areas of study and observance that you participate in that haven’t manifested in your work yet?
I like to observe how technology is integrated in my environment. That includes architecture, landscape, domestic interiors, industrial areas, etc. Most of these fields have already manifested in my work as digital drawings or animations, which is a starting point. A lot of my work is driven by the possibility of being translated physically.
In these sketches, and your other work, there seems to be a great demand for order and symmetry. Is this just a stylistic undertaking, or is there some other concern, like say form an architectural perspective?
When I draw architectural shapes, I find it exciting to think of a house as an abstract geometrical shape. Looking at architecture from its beginnings until today, it is something that really stands out to me.
I think I’m also interested in how the translation of the fantastic structures and landscapes you’ve made here are starting to manifest themselves in real space. Can you talk a little bit about how you are planning on realizing these virtual works into physical objects?
There is something very romantic about the potential of technology integrated in our daily environment and I would like to explore more that potential. I want to address domestic spaces and daily areas where we use technology. My work generally takes the shape of a building, a landscape or an object; these are 3 elements I’m working a lot with when it comes to physical objects.
As this exchange has developed, I’ve noticed a reintroduction of “natural” elements to counter, or otherwise balance, the geometry of the architecture. Do you view architecture and landscape as having separate or competing aesthetic concerns? Or are they more intertwined?
I think architecture is always meant to create a relationship with landscape; an articulation to a natural or artificial environment. I integrated elements of nature because I wanted to give a more specific context to that 3D model. Now it could be land art in an artificial forest, the ruin of a building, a housing project…
Do you think the copy/paste mentality you’ve mentioned before has permeated artistic expression in non-net based practices? If this is the case, what do you think we can, as you say, “learn from?”
Copying/pasting a building is one of many changes that computer technology have brought in the process of making architecture. Today most architectural projects are promoted through animated walk-throughs, 3D panoramic views, CNC scale models, etc. I feel like this has also influenced a lot the process of conceptualizing architecture. I don’t think for example that the buildings of Zaha Hadid would have been the same without computers. Every technological revolution brings new aesthetics; 3D environment has a huge seductive energy, it has the potential of making dreams visible. What we can learn from that probably resides in the possibility to define what part technology plays in our dreams and what part we actually play in these dreams.
You say that the work has an inherent drive for physical translation, do you think that there might be certain qualities of the work that would be lost in that translation (ie some of the fantasy)?
Some qualities and intentions within the work can actually be enhanced with a physical production. The programs I use are meant to send images to print, models to build, objects to assemble, and I enjoy following that process. Some of my work can also find a form ‘in between’, like Hot Springs, which were printed on mirrors and to the scale of the physical objects they represented.
In mentioning the interest in exploring specific environments, do you think that you’d be interested in site-specific installation? Or do you consider the work you are already making as a kind of site-specificity?
A large part of my work is already site-specific, but I’m also drawn to work with contexts of other natures. I see the evolution of my work off-line as a natural order of things, still fed by my online practice. Projects expanding both online and off-line is also something I’m excited to think about.
I often wonder whether a given piece of architecture enhances the landscape, or does anything to respond to it, especially because of the cut-paste cooperate architecture that emerged out of the designs of the Bauhaus. Are there contemporary architects or buildings that you think achieve that balance?
I look at architecture as something that can potentially generate ideals and fantasies, which makes me look more towards utopic or excessive projects that aren’t always realistically successful. As an example, I have been very curious of the Farnsworth House by Mies Van Der Rohe, which seems to have influenced a lot of contemporary architectures and ideals of modern living. Dan Graham mentions this house in his essay Kammerspiel, saying that the house was a source of stress for its original owner. The building is placed in the middle of a huge park, and the windows give the house a feeling of vulnerability, especially at night. The inclusion of human habitat within a landscape seems to have its own limits; it often implies changes in terms of comfort, lifestyle. I feel like a successful architecture would be a building that takes in consideration those types of changes.
When showing your work, is it important that viewers acknowledge that these spaces are meant to be fantastical or otherwise impractical?
When I draw a shape that looks like a house or a building, I enjoy that it can be interpreted as something fantastical or realistic. I name a lot of my drawings Studies. A study is something potential, transitory in the process of making. It either leads to a final project or to another study.
What do you think the largest hurdle for translating online/screen based works into a gallery/physical space?
Online/screen based pieces are working in a specific context, showing them in a gallery seems to imply the information of that context. I’m always excited about that perspective, but it is something that really depends on each work and each artist to me.
What is coming up for you in the next couple of months?
I’m showing a new piece this month in a show called GETTING CLOSER at Fe Arts Gallery in Pittsburgh (curated by Lindsay Howard) and in show at Helen Pitt Gallery in Vancouver. It’s a really exciting project based on a new format for me, and it’s also a collaboration with Sara Ludy and Krist Wood. Many online and off line projects too, the only issue being to be able to make them all.