Searching for Bruce Sterling

April 20, 2009 · Print This Article

Yesterday afternoon I read Virginia Heffernan’s essay, “Let Them Eat Tweets: Why Twitter is a trap,” in the New York Times Magazine, and so interesting did I find it that for a good part of this morning and afternoon I bounced around the internet trying to find a podcast or YouTube video or any other web-style recording of Bruce Sterling’s speech at this year’s South by Southwest Interactive conference so I could listen to his words in context–to no freakin’ avail, I might add.

Heffernan wrote about feeling a certain sense of personal status anxiety ever since she heard Sterling (whose rants are an annual highlight of SXSW Interactive) declare at this year’s conference that, as Heffernan paraphrased it,

“the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on ‘connections’ like the Internet, Skype and texting. ‘Poor folk love their cellphones!’ (Sterling) said.”

Or in other words, as “a friend” quoted in Heffernan’s essay put it, “connectivity is poverty.” Heffernan elaborates on Sterling’s ideas as follows:

“Only the poor – defined broadly as those without better options – are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl – original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.”

Although I’ve yet to find a recording or even a transcript of Sterling’s talk, I did find one blog entry that provided some partial notes on the beginning of the speech (in which Sterling apparently munched on chips and cookies to mirror back what he saw as the inattentive twittering (m)asses in his audience), and that of another blogger named Jim Groom, whose Bavatuesdays blog was referenced in the print version of Heffernan’s article (I think he might have been the author of the “connectivity is poverty” quote, based on the header of his below-referenced blog post), and who summarized Sterling’s argument thusly:

Bruce Sterling’s rant was right on. I was hoping to listen to it again before I talked about it in more detail. In fact, I’ll have to do that cause I can only recall bits and pieces, but there was a point in his stream of thought that really impressed me (well, besides his discussion of the future of publishing as epitomized by survivalist bookstores like Brave New Books-which I loved). He went off about how much we had miscalculated the digital divide theories of the 90s that were to define the digital world of haves and have-nots by whether they were or weren’t connected. It seemed logical to assume that the impoverished would not be connected, whereas the rich would be decadently consuming all the bandwidth.

Well, as he pointed out, it didn’t quite work out that way, connectivity became cheap with cellphones, and he comically noted that “poor folk love their cellphones!” What’s happening is that this increased dependence upon connectivity, rather than being some kind of indicator of privilege, is actually a sign of our increased impoverishment. The fact is that the wealthy are those who can afford not to be connected, not to be pimping their “online brand” so shamelessly, not twittering their asses off at all hours of the day for a quick networking fix.

Note that Groom couldn’t get his hands on Sterling’s talk either, although at least he got to see it in person before writing about it.

Continuing my own search for the elusive Bruce talk brought me to the very, very cool sketchnotes of one Mike Rohde.  Here is a page from Rohde’s sketchnotes on the talk in question:

Mike Rohde, Sketchnotes captured on-site and live in a Moleskine pocket sketchbook while attending SXSW Interactive, March 13-17, 2009 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas.

Mike Rohde, Sketchnotes captured on-site and live in a Moleskine pocket sketchbook while attending SXSW Interactive, March 13-17, 2009 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas.

Cool, no? I like how he got all the good pull quotes from the speech. Note too that Rohde’s notes have Sterling saying, “connectivity will be an indicator of poverty rather than an indicator of wealth,” and not connectivity = poverty.

What Rohde is doing is partly a tweak on Twitter (he even live sketchnoted during one panel) but look at the difference — the drawing/handmade font aspect of Rohde’s notes make it seem so friendly and, well, readable, but also human and therefore subjective. (You can find all of Rohde’s sketchnotes on Sterling’s talk (they’re sketchnotes 51-56) here, and sketchnotes for the entire SXSW interactive conference here.)

So, from the high of discovering Rohde’s hand-written sketchnotes I descended to the low of Twitter itself, to see what would come up if I searched “Bruce Sterling.” Ooh, now this is kind of interesting. Lots of initial reaction to the Heffernan piece, many seem to be wrongly assuming that the article was written by Sterling himself. Here are a few examples of Tweets related specifically to the Heffernan piece and/or the talk itself (make sure to follow the link to Dan’s blog given in the first Tweet – it gets a comment that’s apparently from Sterling himself, criticizing the blogger for critiquing a talk he didn’t actually attend):

natdefreitas: Dan from @peekinc took on Bruce Sterling‘s comment that “poor people sure love talking on their cell phones”

jedibunny: good grief, tweeting makes me feel so impoverished now. darn you Bruce Sterling.

jtzl: great article about twitter is for poor people – reeks of insecurity. Bruce Sterling is the ultimate troll.

marcad: “Futurists” like Bruce Sterling who live high on foppish universities, city budgets, & grand pronouncements are just another symbol.

Argh, I didn’t realize you can only search the past 7 days of Twitter, so recent chatter is all I get, that sucks. So no Tweet-notes on Sterling’s talk, just some quick (and often ill-informed) reactions to the “Poor folks love their cellphones!” quote from Heffernan’s piece.

And last, via Google, I come up with this little sketch, from what I think may be Bruce Sterling’s own flickr stream, though I’m not really sure. The caption under the photo reads: “In Austin, even the 12-year-olds get it about Twitter.”

So what does this all mean? Heck if I know. But I do find it incredibly ironic and stupid and maybe brilliant–but maybe not so much–that Sterling gave this talked-about talk at one of the biggest freaking INTERACTIVE conferences in the country, he’s one of the cultural cognoscenti whose opinion, on certain issues anyway, drives the discourse forward. He puts ideas on people’s agendas, makes writers like Heffernan rethink their assumptions and publicly question them, etc. But I can’t even find audio or video of his talk anywhere online that would allow me to form my *own* opinion about what he said firsthand (well, a recording would make it sorta second-hand, but you know what I mean). As a result I’m forced to depend on other people’s truncated versions, reliable though they may at first appear. Maybe SXSW will eventually post a podcast of Sterling’s 2009 talk, although the conference took place over a month ago, which is an eternity in internet time. Even I probably won’t care about it anymore by the time they post it. Who knows, maybe Sterling didn’t want to give them permission to reproduce his talk in the first place, in an effort to preserve some semblance of ‘the old days’ of which he is said to have spoken.  From live talk to magazine editorializing to blogger’s notes to Tweets…social networking isn’t worth much if all it comes down to is gossip. I want access to the real stuff, not just everyone’s opinion, commentary and tweets about it.  In other words, if anyone finds a link to Sterling’s speech at the 2009 SXSW Interactive conference, please let me know! Thank you.

Friday Clip Show

April 3, 2009 · Print This Article

Are re-blogged links the blogger’s version of the sitcom flashback episode? Uh, maybe, but in any case, here’s a partial and purely subjective roundup of the past week in art, culture, etc. in Chicago and beyond, via a whole mess o’ handy links, of course….

*Artists selected for the 53rd Annual Venice Biennale have been announced; find the list here.

*New City art editor Jason Foumberg has a nice recap along with some thoughtful analysis of last week’s “The Invisible Artist: Creators from Chicago’s Southside” panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute. UPDATE 4/4: There is some very interesting, enlightening, and pretty damn sharp back-and-forth going on in the comments section of this article by panel participants and others who strongly disagree with (or have misunderstood) Foumberg’s assessment of the panel and the issues it addressed.

*The mass firings of adjunct fine art faculty at Parsons The New School for Design: blogger Hrag Vartanian’s coverage has been some of the most thorough thus far. Check out his posts here, here and here as a start.

*Time Out Chicago writer Lauren Weinberg has a piece this week on the ways in which Musuems in Chicago and elsewhere are using social media.

*Big yawn: on the Twitter front, an update on @platea’s Twitter happening I blogged about a few weeks ago. UPDATE 4/4: NewCity reported on what happened during the Twitter Island project discussed in that same blog post, here.

*A huge Pose slideshow available on The World’s Best Ever.

*Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes provides an excellent, two-part summary of a rare Robert Frank public talk this week with National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough; part one and two.

*Via C-Monster: The Architecture of the Drug Trade. A fascinating look at  the landscape of weed and the architecture of the grow house. Especially loved the comparison of the latter to Max’s bedroom in Where the Wild Things Are.

*Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City writes for The L Magazine on why Jenny Holzer is not the patron saint of Twitter in her review of Holzer’s Protect Protect Project, which originated at the MCA and is now at The Whitney.

*Via ArchitectureChicago: iTunes offering free download of the first movement of John Cage’s 4’33”.

* Get your art on at Chicago Artist’s Resource (CAR)’s Creative Chicago Expo tomorrow (Saturday) from 10-4. Workshops and Consult-a-thons galore for individuals and arts organizations.

*And finally, the hermeneutics of “pin diplomacy”: via Artnet Magazine, Madeleine Albright’s pin collection to be shown at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York.  Pins weren’t mere jewelry for Albright, they added a subtle layer to her diplomatic efforts.  She wore a bee pin when talks were getting pointed, a balloon pin when she felt hopeful, and a snake pin after Sadaam Hussein’s people called her a serpent. I’m so there!

Twit Twat Twut, The Art of Twitter

March 23, 2009 · Print This Article

What do you call an artist who uses Twitter as their main medium–a Twartist? Ugh, forgive me; I’ve been exposed to too many stupid Twitter puns lately and I still haven’t had enough coffee this Monday morning. As part of my ongoing (if admittedly somewhat half-assed) efforts to track the intersection of contemporary art and social networking technologies, I present for your consideration a couple of interesting upcoming Twitter-related art projects that have crossed my screen of late. The first is “Twitter Island,” a social networking experiment and art performance piece that will take place here in Chicago this Saturday, March 28th.

Organized by Seth Gershberg and Lauri Apple for The Chicago Art Department, the project is limited to 30 volunteer Twitterers who will convene at the Chicago Art Department with their laptops and/or cell phones and be given an anonymous Twitter account. The volunteers will be divided into two groups of fifteen; the control group will be asked to respond to specific questions from a moderator, the other group allowed to tweet to their heart’s content without outside influence. The experiment will last for ninety minutes, after which both groups will be invited to “create something” (as the press release puts it) based on their experience.

Notes Apple, again from the project’s press release:

“What I’m most curious about is the tension that will inevitably be created as people are required to use Twitter to communicate with people who they could just walk over and say hello to — how will this manifest in how the participants act, and what they say? I’ve seen people texting at crowded parties and social functions; why not talk to the people who are already in the room? Also, I have friends who live down the street who don’t call me, but will tweet or Google chat me to tell me how lonely they are. What is driving these choices we’re making, and are we cognizant of the emotions that result from these choices? With Twitter Island, we’re telling people they don’t have a choice to talk to each other — they have to use technology. Will they rebel? Get bored? Get angry? Or will it seem perfectly natural to stay at their computers and phones?”

Secondly, @platea is a still sorta nebulous something that sounds somewhat similar to the Twitter Island project (without the control group part). Spearheaded by artist An Xiao, it’s an ongoing public art meets social media project. On the project’s blog, Xiao offers this description of @platea:

“a stweet art collective consisting of artists and non-artists who share an interest in the power of public art carried out in the digital megacity. “Platea,” from the Latin for “street”, came to signify in medieval theatre a neutral space on stage. It morphed and changed as necessary, depending on the actors’ actions and the assumed setting. I find it a fitting analogy for the swiftly-evolving, redefining nature of social media, whose tenors change with the tide of user activity but whose effect–discussion and connection–remains overall the same.”

I’m still cringing over the term “stweet art,” just give me a few seconds to get over that….ok, better. Xiao was interviewed recently on the blog smArts&Culture (oh yeah, today is gonna be shitty pun day) about her thoughts on Twitter as a medium; she also did a “Twitterview” with art blogger Hrag Vartanian last March 18th that’s hard to follow when read only in retrospect, but a summation of the conversation is supposed to be forthcoming on Vartanian’s blog soon here. In addition, @platea’s first large-scale online “happening” is slated for this week; apparently, you can join in by following @platea on Twitter.

If you wind up participating in either of these events, I’d  love to hear your take in the comments.

Re: Should Bad At Sports Twitter Art Reviews?

March 13, 2009 · Print This Article

Remember the days of the email love letter? I do. They were lovely–you could secretly compose long screeds to your beloved while at work and pretend it was just business. I’ll bet a lot of you kids are nodding your heads right now and saying, well, yeah…but for me textual flirtation was all about instant messaging. Perish the thought, I say. A proper love letter should be lengthy, sometimes even ridiculously so, filling pages of loose-leaf paper, scrolls of screen, however long it takes to come even an iota closer to capturing in words that ineffable feeling that you’re shyly, determinedly, bursting to convey.

To me, writing about art is a lot like writing a love letter. I’m sure many of you are snorting with derision at that statement, but I don’t care; I really mean it. Why else would those of us who still bother to write about art keep doing it, if not for the sheer stupid pleasure of using exorbitant language to capture that which words can never adequately convey?

That’s why I’m kind of aghast at the rise of Twitter and Facebook as a growing forum for art criticism these days. Now, I totally get the social aspects and benefits of these applications, and to the way they provide increased and enriched  opportunities for argument and back-talk, along with a gossipy sort of zing to art discourse in general, I say right on. But I mourn the passage of long-form art criticism (can we please just call it art writing? The term ‘criticism’ always feels much too, well, critical to me). The blogosphere still allows people to write about an artwork or a show at some length, but even that is changing: some bloggers who’ve held their fingers to the wind for far longer than I are noting (in decidedly hopeful tones, I should add) the drastic streamlining of the blog form, or even, as Deanna Isaacs surmised a few weeks ago in the Reader, the death of text itself.

Art, like any object of affection, deserves extravagant prose devoted to it, damn the word count. Even work that may not be all that great is worthy of elaboration in my book. Do we really want Peter Schjeldahl and the museum curators to be the only ones given the space and opportunity to write about art at length? Personally, I think that would be a fucking shame.

That being said, I’m not against Twittering art reviews at Bad At Sports–I  think we should try it. I’m well aware that blogs are not the place to try and resuscitate long-form criticism, and I’m continually fascinated with the different ways people use words to grapple with art. The — what is it — 140 words? — that Twitter allows can provide a good exercise in summing up a work of art or an exhibition concisely and with, as the genre seems to require, just the right amount of deadpan irony. I myself possess none of the pith required to Twitter well, but I genuinely look forward to seeing what those who have a knack for it will do with this emerging form.

Crowd-Sourced Curation

March 2, 2009 · Print This Article

I don’t Tweet, and no one can convince me that Wikipedia is a fundamentally reliable source of knowledge, but I’m definitely intrigued by gallerist and 20 x 200 impresario Jen Bekman’s experiment in “crowd-sourced curation.”  Bekman asked fellow Twitterers to recommend artists they’d like to see participate in  20 x 200, and received a deluge of suggestions in response. Get the full story here.

Did any of you New York readers see Bekman’s talk “Overcrowded – How crowd sourcing is ruining everything” at Ignite NYC III last week? If you did, can you give us the lowdown in the comments? Bekman’s take on the issue is of interest, as she’s one of only a few dealers to develop a successful model for marketing affordable contemporary art to the masses. Makes me wonder if or how phenomena like micro-blogging and crowd-sourcing will affect the future of art criticism as well as institutional curation. I’m sure there’s a number of art critics already twittering out there (are there any who now use Twitter exclusively?), and you know some enterprising curator will find a way to Tweet out an art show, it’s only a matter of time.