[Image: Ole Worm, Cabinet of Curiosities, Musei Wormiani Historia, c. 1650] Performative Materiality and Theoretical Approaches to Interface by Johanna Drucker: ABSTRACT - This article outlines a critical framework for a theory of performative materiality and its potential application to interface design from a humanistic perspective. Discussions of the materiality of digital media have become richer and more complex in the last decade, calling the literal, physical, and networked qualities of digital artifacts and systems to attention. This article extends those discussions by reconnecting them to a longer history of investigations of materiality and the specificity of media in critical theory and aesthetics. In addition, it introduces the concept of performative materiality, the enacted and event-based character of digital activity supported by those literal, physical conditions, and introduces the theoretical concerns that attach to that rubric. Performative materiality is based on the conviction that a system should be understood by what it does, not only how it is structured. As digital humanities matures, it can benefit from a re-engagement with the mainstream principles of critical theory on which a model of performative materiality is based. The article takes these ideas into a more focused look at how we might move towards integrating this model and critical principles into a model of humanistic interface design.
From Chop Suey.
Developed in 1994 and published the following year, Chop Suey was a cunning piece of multimedia edutainment, suited just as well to grown-ups—smirking hipsters and punk rockers, probably—as it was to the prescribed "girls 7 to 12" crowd.
But it wasn't a computer game. It was something else: a loosely-strung system of vignettes; a psychedelic exercise in "let's-pretend"; a daydream in which the mundanity of smalltown Ohio collides with the interior lives of its two young protagonists.
As the game opens, the Bugg sisters are idling on a grassy knoll, counting clouds and recalling the day's events. Lily and June Bugg, we are informed, have spent the afternoon with Aunt Vera. The narrator—a yet-unknown David Sedaris—sets the scene in nasally twee, occasionally grating reeds.
When Sedaris concludes his opening narration, our player immediately regains control of her cursor. From here, she can survey Cortland's landmarks in any order she chooses, repeating anything she likes. She might revisit lunch at the Ping Ping Palace, where the food is so exotic, it's often tinted cyan or hot pink. She might play dress-up with Aunt Vera—whom, we suspect, is something of a lush and a man-eater.
The player might go to the carnival to have her fortune read; she might play Bingo. Perhaps she might visit Aunt Vera's second husband, Bob, or else she could visit Vera's third husband, also Bob. (Tragically, it is impossible to visit Bob #1, except through occasional flashbacks.)
Most in-game stories are delivered secondhand from a reminiscing grown-up, while Lily and June's own imaginations illustrate those stories in happier, more magical idioms. The game never oversteps, never makes "regret" its central concern; after all, this is a children's game. But an adult player might be surprised at how wistful the game actually is.
Wry flourishes give Chop Suey its teeth: Dooner, an unemployed Gen-X slob, hides his girly mag in the dresser's top drawer. And if our player puts on a pair of X-Ray Spex, Aunt Vera and boyfriend Ned are both reduced, tastefully, to their undergarments.
Were Chop Suey a literal, physical picturebook, it might resemble Richard Scarry's Busytown as revised by Bratmobile. Alternatively, we might go along with Entertainment Weekly's description: "a little like Alice in Wonderland as performed by the B-52s for NPR." (The magazine went on to name Chop Suey 1995's CD-ROM of the Year.)
Chop Suey's nearest analog, though, is a very different edutainment title, Cosmology of Kyoto. Released the same year as Chop Suey, Kyoto is another interactive storybook designed to make good on the early-'90s' promise of CD-based "multimedia." But Kyoto is technically limited by Macromedia: the game itself feels strangely static, and while there's lots to explore, there's little to do.
Chop Suey suffers these failings and worse. All told, it takes only an hour to see everything in the game once, and then there is little incentive to play again, except to remember how the game went. The player can't "save" her "progress," because there is no such thing as progress. In 1995 at least one reviewer worried Chop Suey might frustrate children with its circular narrative.
But the game's perpetual loop of story is deliberate: "It works the same way that Alice in Wonderland does, where she leaves home and then she has adventures," designer Theresa Duncan explained in 1998, "but if you took everything in between the beginning and the end of Alice in Wonderlandand scrambled up every chapter, it would make no difference to the development of the story." Every moment in the game, however connected, is also suspended in time.
In an industry glutted by worthless "games" for "girls"—the mid '90s begat a tide of titles like McKenzie & Co., Let's Talk About Me!, and Barbie Fashion Designer—Chop Suey really did get it right.
Wired's Greg Beato was certainly impressed. “With its sly whimsy and tactile, folk-art imagery,” Beato writes, “Chop Suey brings a whole new sensibility—quirky, poetic, almost bittersweet—to a medium that's often lacking in such nuance.”
The game's visual charm owes no small debt to collaborator Monica Lynn Gesue, whose handmade art is at once childlike and sophisticated. Every screen is a frenetic hodgepodge; every animated painting, all squiggles and loop-de-loops.
Credits from Smarty
Nevertheless, Chop Suey's main star was Theresa Duncan, whose competence as a game designer inspired a flurry of magazine profiles. But Duncan was celebrated as much for her audacious wardrobe as she was for her intellect. Salon, in 1998, called her "a predatory businesswoman," taking extra care to note how well-dressed she was. In a 2000 issue of Shift Magazine, she was heralded "Silicon Valley's It Girl"; this proclamation was accompanied by a photo spread. Paper profiled Duncan as well: "Theresa wears a top by Ashley Pearce."
In a 1997 issue of Bitch Magazine, Doreen Hinton—who presumably had never seen a glamor shot of Duncan—succeeded in praising Chop Suey itself, saying, "This is the least gender-specific game of all the ones labeled 'for girls' by marketers and writers."
Indeed, where many developers were briefly, madly obsessed with giving pre-teen girls their own tier of games, Chop Suey's real accomplishment was that it seemingly targeted nobody. It's "feminist," albeit in a 1990s way: subtly, subversively. Not so long ago, girls' books, girls' music, and girls' games demanded to be taken as seriously as the boys', simply by being better than the boys' stuff. A '90s kid could opt to trade Sweet Valley High for Weetzie Bat or a Blake Nelson novel, say.
"[Duncan is] clearly the one to watch among developers of any gender," Hinton's article continued. "I can't wait to see and hear and play her next offering."
But Theresa Duncan managed only two more games. Smarty (1997) starred an eponymous heroine, Mimi Smartypants, and garnered a fast cult-like following. Zero Zero was released the very same year ("It's good," conceded the Associated Press, "but it's no Chop Suey").
Still frame from Chop Suey.
Why isn't Chop Suey better remembered?
Even as Duncan struggled to market her next two games independently, the 1990s edutainment craze had staggered to a halt.
Despite all its critical acclaim, it's tough to say whether Chop Suey ever sold well. Anyway, how could it have? By 1997, when I first started searching for a copy, the disc was completely out of production. (I did eventually find the game, in its original box, eight years later.) Tech journalist Sam Machkovech explains that contemporary educational software has no shelf life: "Edutainment sellers quickly realized families would pass CD-ROMs along to friends once their kids had grown out of them," he told me, "like used baby clothes."
Computer gamers, too, had lost patience for so-called interactive fiction. The genre was quaint at best; at worst, adventure games were boring.
In the end, though, the Internet's memory is not too long. A search for Chop Suey uncovers almost nothing, redirecting instead to endless, looping coverage of Theresa Duncan's 2007 death—a suicide, and a salacious one at that. Circular narratives really are frustrating, it turns out.
By 2007, 40-year-old Duncan had reinvented herself as a blogger and filmmaker. As a result, most obituaries blithely skim Duncan's contributions to children's edutainment. New York Magazine remembers the erstwhile visionary as a "woman spurned by success." Another article, this one from Vanity Fair, describes a party at which Duncan "dragged out of a closet her old CD-ROMs": the writer recasts Duncan's computer games as some ancient football trophy the woman ought to have been embarrassed about. (The article continues,"'Everybody kind of looked at each other like, Oh no, what is she doing?'")
When Duncan reappeared in the news cycle, I thought Chop Suey might finally elicit more attention. I was wrong. A terrible, titillating death is far, far more interesting than an author or artist's creative output.
Theresa Duncan's death was assuredly a tragedy. But Chop Suey, like Duncan herself, was a critical darling of its time. The slow retcon of Chop Suey into anything less than a towering achievement is, in itself, tragic. The Internet has been an unkind documentarian, slowly turning Chop Suey from a "has-been" into a "never-was."
In some ways, Chop Suey is very much a product of the '90s. It banked on that decade's "girl game" boom. Its soundtrack screams alternative radio. Ornate scribbles and doodles glow as if they were lifted from MTV.
In other ways, Chop Suey is timeless. The technology holds up: the disc runs well, even on the latest computers. Duncan's writing is still fresh, and Gesue's artwork seems so alive. I'd venture to say that the game has aged "gracefully," except that it has barely aged at all. Chop Suey is several perfect moments, suspended—"like shiny-dull pearls on a long, long necklace."
Above all, Chop Suey was brave. It dared to represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12.
Originally published at Vice Motherboard.
James George at the DocLab Interactive Conference. Photo by Nichon Glerum
The conference (ridiculously interesting and accompanied by an exhibition i wish i could see all over again but more about all that next week) looked at how practitioners redefine the documentary genre in the digital age. In his talk, artist James George presented artistic projects that demonstrate how fast computational photography is evolving. Most of the project he commented on were new to me but more importantly, once they were stitched together, they formed a picture of how innovations are changing our relation to the essence, authorship and even definition of the image. Here are the notes i took during his fast and efficient slideshow of artistic works:
Erik Kessels, 24hrs of Photos
Erik Kessels printed out every photo uploaded on Flickr over a 24-hour period. Visitors of the show could literally drown into a sea of images.
The work, commented George, functions more as data visualization than as a photo installation.
Penelope Umbrico, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006-ongoing. Installation view, SF MoMA
In 2006, Penelope Umbrico searched for 'sunset' on Flickr back. She then printed the 541,795 matches and assembled them into one wall-size collage of photographs. She said. "I take the sheer quantity of images online as a collective archive that represents us - a constantly changing auto-portrait."
With 9 Eyes ongoing work, Jon Rafman shows that you don't need to be a photographer to create photos. The artist spent hours pouring over google street view to spot the inadvertently eerie or poetic sights captured by the nine lenses of the Google Street View camera cars.
Clement Valle, Postcards from Google Earth
Clement Valle fortuitously discovered broken images on Google Earth. The glitches are the result of the constant and automated data collection handled by computer algorithms. In these "competing visual inputs", the 3D modellings of Earth's surfaces fail to align with the corresponding aerial photography.
Google Earth is a database disguised as a photographic representation. These uncanny images focus our attention on that process itself, and the network of algorithms, computers, storage systems, automated cameras, maps, pilots, engineers, photographers, surveyors and map-makers that generate them.
Teehan+Lax Labs, Google Street View Hyperlapse
Teehan and Lax created a tool that taps into Street View imagery and pulls it together to create an animated tour. Pick the start and end points on Google Maps and Hyperlapse stitches together a rolling scene of Street View imagery as if you were driving the GSV car.
Living Death Camp, by Forensic Architecture and ScanLAB, combines terrestrial laser scanning with ground penetrating radar to dissect the layers of life and evidence at two concentration camp sites in former Yugoslavia.
But how about the camera? When is the camera of the future going to emerge? What is it going to be like? It will probably be more similar to a database than to an image. In his keynote speech concluding the Vimeo Festival + Awards in 2010, Bruce Sterling described his prediction of the future of imaging technology. For him a camera of the future may function as follows: "It simply absorbs every photon that touches it from any angle. And then in order to take a picture I simply tell the system to calculate what that picture would have looked like from that angle at that moment. I just send it as a computational problem out in to the cloud wirelessly."
In mid-2005, New York City MTA commissioned a weapon manufacturer to make a futuristic anti-terror surveillance system. The images were to be fed directly into computers, watched by algorithm and alerts would be sent automatically when danger was detected. However, the system was plagued by "an array of technical setbacks", the system failed all the tests and the whole project ended in lawsuits. Thousands of security cameras in the New York subway stations now sit unused.
One month later after Sterling's talk, Microsoft released Kinect. The video game controller uses a depth sensing camera and computer vision software to sense the movements and position of the player. Visualizations of space as seen through Kinect's sensors can be computed from any angle using 3D software. James George and Collaboration with Alexander Porter decided to explore the artistic use of the surveillance and kinect technologies. "We soldered together an inverter and motorcycle batteries to run the laptop and Kinect sensor on the go. We attached a Canon 5D DSLR to the sensor and plugged it in to a laptop. The entire kit went into a backpack.
We spent an evening in the New York Union Square subway capturing high resolution stills and and archiving depth data of pedestrians. We wrote an openFrameworks application to combine the data, allowing us to place fragments of the two dimensional images into three dimensional space, navigate through the resulting environment and render the output."
The OS image capture system, which uses the Microsoft Kinect camera paired with a DSLR video camera, creates 3D models of the subjects in video that can be re-photographed from any angle virtually.
James George, Jonathan Minard, and Alexander Porter, CLOUDS
George and Porter later worked with Jonathan Minard and used the technology again for CLOUDS, an interview series with artists and programmers discussing the way digital culture is changing creative practices.
New and old media collide in Sophie Kahn's work. The artist uses a precise 3D laser scanner designed for static object to create sculptures of human heads and bodies. Because a body is always in flux, the technology receives conflicting spatial co-ordinates and generates irregular results.
Marshmallow Laser Feast, MEMEX | Duologue
MLF worked with a 94-camera high resolution scanning rig, to create the full body scan of an old lady and explore what filmmaking for the virtual-reality environment could be like.
Introducing the Source Filmmaker
Source Filmmakers, produced by Valve, is a tool to create movies inside the Source game engine. George finds their work relevant to his own practice because although Valve comes from a video game culture, they investigate the same ideas.
Naked scene from Beyond: Two Souls (image)
Beyond: Two Souls, by Quantic Dream, is an interactive drama action-adventure video game for PlayStation 3. At some point in the game, character Jodie Holmes (played by Ellen Page) is taking a shower. All in a perfectly politically correct fashion.
After the release of the game, nude images of Jodie Holmes leaked online, and were published by several gaming blogs. The "nude photos" were a result of hacking into the files of a debug version of the game and manipulating the camera. The game's publisher, Sony Entertainment, got these posts taken down. "The images are from an illegally hacked console and are very damaging for Ellen Page," the rep reportedly told one site. "It's not actually her body. I would really appreciate if you can take the story down to end the cycle of discussion around this."
But if the nude images were "not actually her body," how could they be "very damaging" to the actress? Whether or not the answer to this question is a convincing one, the little scandal shows the kind of challenge that filmmaker will have to face when dealing with this kind of hyper realistic technology.
Selfiecity by Lev Manovich and Moritz Stefaner analyzes 3,200 selfies taken in several metropoles around the world and looks at them under theoretic, artistic and quantitative lenses.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists whose work makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Zachary Kaplan: A few months back, I was on my way to your studio just as you posted a picture of Anna Wintour walking down the street (maybe at Prince and Thompson?). At first I thought, "Why is Anna Wintour skulking around SoHo alone, and how great is this photo?". But then I worried, "Jeanette's not going to be at her studio; she's out in the world capturing this picture that seems so 'on brand.'" When I arrived at your studio in Nolita, though, you were there working on some stuff for New Hive. That all of this seemed to be happening at once—the instagram of Anna Wintour, the in-progress montages, the general thrum of your studio—felt very specific.
Your practice, and its reception, seem fully embedded in social media feeds: Instagram, Twitter, Vine, etc. Can we begin by you guiding me through a day of your work, describing how all of these feeds and networks flow into and out of your practice?
Jeanette Hayes: I have a few shows coming up, and my studio is in my apartment, so I try to keep as "normal" as a schedule as I can. I wake up around 8 or 9, go downstairs to get a coffee and come back up, do a lil email and then start painting. My feeds come into play because I can't sit still for too long. So after a while I start checking the 'gram, twitter, etc. while working.
Then by the time it's night time, who knows. Every day is different. I feel like this is pretty much how everyone works? Everyone tweets or posts to fb and Instagrams constantly in between whatever else they're doing. Everyone just has a cool life and is down to share it, including me. I think living in NYC gives me an advantage because I see and experience great things all of the time.
I'm not precious with my social media. I stay very busy IRL and take pictures of everything, but I'm not always a post-as-I-go kinda girl. I don't have any rules or formula to this — sometimes I post something right away and other times I'll save something for later. Some things might be from that morning, others might be from 2 years ago, others might be from Paris Hilton's Instagram yesterday. And if I post it and I then decide I'm not into it, I'll j delete. I have no problem with deleting something if it's not working for me. I know this is another thing ppl are sometimes precious about (I know not you, Rhizome. Re: Rhizome today ;] ).
Posting on these different outlets is kind of just the sprinkles on top of the ice cream sundae that is my life. At the end of the day when I'm tired of painting or when I come home from whatever and can't sleep, after I've gone through all of my RSS feeds and social media feeds, I go through who I follow's feeds and their followers' feeds and my followers' feeds and who they are following's feeds. I've seen everyone's everything on every outlet. If you're reading this right now, I've seen everything you've ever posted anywhere. I promise you that.
So you're following everyone, everywhere—a claim I kinda actually believe looking at 13k+ favs on Twitter—and you're making your digital work in relation to and to be embedded in that feed, right? Can you detail your development on those feeds where you've made so much work—tumblr, dump.fm, Twitter, etc.?
When I started college, I got into tumblr. My first non pre-fab-themed tumblr was major trolling (I think it was 2008?). When I learned about Tino Sehgal in contemporary art lecture class, I was appalled at an artist who, as a practice, was not to be identified, and I thought it was like a challenge. [Sehgal stipulates that his performances, or "constructed situations," should not be documented - Ed.] Idk why but my response was to make him a discrediting tumblr (just for my professor to see). It was a total troll move, but it was LOL. On this tumblr "Tino" re-invented himself as a gossip-blog-loving, acronym-using, hater-hating contemporary artist with the aesthetic of a livejournal girl who has decided to get with the times and just be famous. I emailed it to my professor and asked for extra credit. I was reprimanded — lmao. Worth it.
I made more traditional tumblrs (je4nette.tumblr.com, justshutty.tumblr.com, and some others that don't exist anymore) where I made gifs, posted screen shots to, and also reposted things that I just liked.
And then dump.fm rolled around. I always considered participation with internet somehow artistic, even just in appreciation, but now it was like an internet contest of surfing and meme-ing and giffing. So my surfing and gif making skills got really fast here. This grew into me getting lucky/skilled enough to work with companies to make gifs. Now, I make gifs for companies pretty regularly, but my relationship with technology and the internet has taken a social media twist.
As an artist, you emerged and developed alongside the social web—you point to 2008 as the beginning of what's now your practice, and, of course, that was Twitter's breakthrough year and when Facebook launched the profile wall. That you've continued to find new things to mine in the social web points at its neverending becoming: that is, making things online and sharing them and having that conversation changes so much so frequently, is always changing.
There has always been the social aspect of the internet, but, to me, that's what seems to have taken over. Well, not just for me, but I think with everyone. The internet is now just for news, looking things up and telling everyone in the world... something. And then seeing what everyone else has to say. I feel like it used to be more about pure exploring and we were all hunters, unsure of what we were even looking for. This was when exploring the web was a special thing, when you could just look through insane found websites for hours and comb through the outer links and find true secrets of beauty and weirdness.
The internet doesn't have that in the same way anymore; it's no longer the wild wild west world wide web. It's kind of like Starbucks bought it and all effort is really just put towards people's Facebooks. The craziest links you can find are found by Buzzfeed and turned into clickbait. Community-based threads don't have the power they used to anymore. It's all a bit watered down imo. Of course, there are exceptions, but overall, it doesn't have that same special magic. But Instagram might have that magic…. I love finding Instagram secrets. On Instagram, I can go through hashtags for days and find things unlike I've ever seen before.
The real internet exploring is there for me these days. I wish IG would let you search multiple hashtags or even just captions that aren't hashtagged. Or by color. But maybe it's because you have to work for searching that it remains a bit elusive and precious.
Come si Dice Webcam Girls, 2013, oil on canvas, 50x27 inches
You're always online, but you're also often in your tightly-apportioned Nolita studio making paintings, perhaps with CNN on in the background and the device on elsewhere, but still more or less alone making marks on canvas. In a way, this is a very traditional painting practice, and yet the subject-matter with your new work seems to function in relationship to fan communities, artworld and pop? And the subject of the old works seem to involve the shifting of a paradigm for painting away from the window on the world, and toward the screen?
Last year, I did a show at Motelsalieri in Rome, and all of the paintings I did for this show were direct juxtaposition between old master paintings and current day technology. I liked these paintings, but they suddenly became too one-to-one for me, and I decided that maybe it's better to just keep the internet on the internet, for now at least. As much as I was and am still trying to keep my painting practice separate from my interweb life, they're very connected. I'm still interested in correlations in art history and contemporary living, but I wanted to make it more about pure painterly painting.
For the last year I've been creating large scale paintings about the similarities in abstract expressionism (specifically Willem de Kooning) and anime (specifically Sailor Moon). This all started from this gif I made in photoshop:
And from this, I've now made an extensive series of these paintings. But they're all composed in Photoshop, and then I project and draw and paint and build layers over a few weeks until they are beasts. Here are a couple of them:
DeMooning 2, 2014, oil on vinyl, 50x60"
DeMooning 6, 2014, oil on vinyl, 50x60"
As for fan art, all portraiture is fan art. But, I did also send these to Sailor Moon fan art pages, and I'll tag these on Instagram #sailormoon. They'll say "I love this." It's just a very supportive space, any time there's a fan posting anything, and these are in no way degrading the characters.
I've been really enjoying painting these, and now, I'm moving into even more into abstraction with them. I've never painted like this so it's very fun to explore. I'll keep you updated.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
The first html I ever customized in the slightest was my xanga page in high school. I didn't think of it as a creative move at the time, but some of the pages I made were sick—I wish I had screenshots.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Pratt, studying painting and art history.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
For a living, I am an artist.
When I was in college—for all four years—I did a work study job as a lab monitor in the computer labs.
When I was a sophomore, I interned at SculptureCenter in Long Island City.
And then, when I was a junior and senior, I started working for artists as an assistant.
That lasted for about a year after I graduated, and then, I was lucky enough to be able to support myself just via my own work. Oh also, right after I graduated—I made mini paintings for FAO Schwarz dollhouses. That was a good job tbh.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
Right now I have an iMac and a MacBook Pro. The desktops on both are disastrous. The laptop is a bit more organized, but only because my startup disk is almost full, so I keep having to clear it out.
My actual desktop that my computers sit on is usually pretty tidy: usually lots of papers around though lol. I keep my computers in the middle of my painting studio so I spend a lot of time very close by even when I'm away ;)
Chubz: the Demonization of my Working Arse is the first book by Huw Lemmey (aka Spitzenprodukte)—a work of fanfiction inspired by young Labour party member, author, and Guardian columnist Owen Jones. First person accounts of protagonist Chubz' hookups with Jones are interspersed with depressingly funny episodes recounting UKIP leader Nigel Farage's poppers-fuelled campaign. Sex and politics—contemporary cruising, self-representation, and brand identification—have underpinned the majority of Lemmey's work prior to Chubz, including "Digital Dark Spaces" and "Devastation in Meatspace" (both The New Inquiry). A book launch for Chubz was held recently at Jupiter Woods, London (October 28), featuring readings from the book and from earlier material, including a poem by Timothy Thornton (found here as two PDFs). I spoke with Lemmey about his book in person and over email. The book can be purchased here.
LH: Over what period have you been writing Chubz, and what motivated you to use the mode of fanfiction to develop concerns about sex and politics that you'd previously expressed in journalistic fashion?
HL: I don't know when I started; I left London for a summer in 2012, during the Olympics, to live in Dublin. I guess when I was there I started putting down some ideas for what the book was going to become, but I was very much writing some sort of speculative futurist thing, trying to think about the city through a language of future branding. It felt very strange being out of the country that summer. I was sure the place would try to erupt like the year before, and worried about how that would play out given that there were literally soldiers on the street when I left in June. When I got back that autumn, and there weren't more riots, I was surprised, and now there's this point at the end of every summer where I'm still surprised they haven't happened.
It is certainly a book related to a lot of my earlier writing; it's about twin territories, an online social space and the city, and about how the two overlap, which is a preoccupation of mine. In this case it's Grindr, it's about how you can use Grindr to read the city and the city to read Grindr. They're two territories superimposed on each other, a digital augmentation of reality. I started writing fiction about it because the tools at my disposal for non-fiction just weren't sufficient, or I wasn't good enough at it. The way people use hook-up apps is too subjective, and I felt like the only way I could talk about it honestly was to talk about it partially, in both senses of the word. I talk to a lot of guys about how they use Grindr. I like to go for long walks through the city with people and it normally takes about an hour before guys stop talking about the things everyone talks about—the overt racism and homophobia, the aspects of timewasting and wanking and stuff—and start admitting to sometimes thinking quite deeply about how the whole process from download to hook-up affects the way they live in the city, and how they construct their own sexual desire within that.
As for the fanfiction; well I think Owen Jones as a public persona is kinda an interesting avatar. To be honest, he's completely instrumentalised in the book, devoid of real agency as a character, and totally 2-D. But his book [Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (Verso, 2012)], and the way he has produced himself as a public figure from the publicity surrounding it, is for me a really interesting hook to talk about the disconnect between class, sex, and politics as a Question Time debate, and as lived experience in streets and shops and bedrooms. That's the worst thing about public gay identity today; it's total fucking Ken-doll sexuality, reasserting categories for behaviour and binaries, full of these aspirations for acceptance and assimilation with men like Sam Smith banging on about husbands and puppies. It's boring and gross and violent.
Chapter 3, 20-21:
I'd done two hours overtime; my boss was acting the cunt all afternoon
– you do realise this is the sort of thing that's linked to your bonus Andrew
– I know and
– And I'll be writing your 6 month appraisal soon. Look I know it's a pain Andy, really, but it'd be really helpful if you could
Alright alright; two hours later, no pay guaranteed, I'm sick of this job already and I push my face against the window and feel the warm vibrations of the glass and the girls in front talking who each other are fucking. We stop at lights; days like this make me dizzy, my eyes too hot, tired and in need of instant response.
My smartphone needs to be squeezed from my pockets, and I swipe through my social networks. I load Grindr, ping through my messages; no, no, would suck but no, I load the feed, a mosaic of torsos; one wears a t-shirt and I can see a dark fleck I take for nipple through the white cotton. Lips are visible, just and a blue box appears in the corner. A message from the boy; this is how I met him, early in that summer heat, face worn out from work, beads of sweat meeting in my lower back. His name was Owen, and he sent me a facepic; cute, boyish, blonde hair surfing over delicious blue eyes.
LH: Why did you decide that the Grindr profile encountered by Chubz should coincide with the official portrait the public are likely conjure when they think of Owen Jones? I also wondered if your references ("field of blue checks" (61)) to the shirt Jones wears in his press image are intended to reinforce the reader's perception of him as an establishment "straight acting" figure, or moreover to associate him with the grid of Grindr's homepage.
HL: I guess because I think one of the key themes of the book is about men with opinions. Men, and specifically white straight men, have this role within the mainstream of comment journalism which allows them to be almost disembodied with their opinions; they serve as an avatar of a political position, whether it's the muscular liberalism of men like Rod Liddle or Brendan O'Neill, the compassionate conservatism of Peter Oborne, the soft left liberalism of Dorian Lynskey and so on. But their position within society means they never have to perform their subjectivity in order to get that voice, in the way many women and trans journalists (who are often much sharper political and cultural brains) do. And I think Owen Jones fills a really interesting position on that spectrum, as an openly gay socialist, where he has to be clear and open in referring to his identity as a gay man without ever having to dip into deeper subjective reflection of his desires and desirability in print. I think the constant insistence that women have to recount themselves through this personal, subjective lens is a really abusive tool of dominance and control, so I can well understand why he steers away from it, but as the basis of a character for a novel I think it's really rich precisely because it's a public sexual image itself, totally disembodied. It's about removing sexual politics from being about the interaction of fleshy, meaty bodies contesting spaces and identities and manifest in both joyful and traumatising physicality, and making it this private, bourgeois politics of rights and contracts.
It's Jones' public avatar that's used here, because I don't know anything about him as a person. My interest is to put the flesh and fluid back into that avatar, but what better place to start than a literal avatar as the object of fantasy.
Chapter 6, 70-72.
I try to talk to him, but he's gone now, to a better place; blood is returning to his face, and his stoned eyes flicker with comprehension. I bite my lip, I love the sleaze. He smiles at me, and in that moment I know he trusts me, he trusts my ass. It could do anything to him, anything at all, he's convinced. He smiles, and I smile, and he does it, he fucking does it, he forces his head between my legs. His hair bristles against my buttcheeks but there is no pain. Just pleasure, as my butt gulps him in, and I rock forwards and back, the greatest power bottom ever bred, a prizewinner, a destroyer of the penis.
The noise of the train is quieting, my butt is finishing the job, and within minutes he is pulled deep inside me, ingested, brewed, stewed by my ass till all that is left is his trousers trailing from my arsehole, his black socks coiled lifeless like used rubbers on the floor. I pant and breathe in victory, so proud of my heroic butthole. It plans its conquest. If I had my way it'd never stop. I'd let my anal juices, that seem to make my insides so desirable to all these ball havers, these swinging-totem poles, these bureaucrats and these penised shitehawks who insist on mouthbreathing round the city like little princes, I'd let my anal juices digest his skin and bones and all this fleshy matter like a flytrap, like a serpent. And now I've ingested Owen I don't want it to stop, I'd move onto the next man with my siren's buttocks, and one by one I'd suck them in and chew them up till one by one I'd hovered them all into my ever more muscular rectal cavity and before I'd realized I've destroyed the male sex, destroyed them all, in their entirety, one by one, every man who writes and speaks and passes laws and checks documents and has an opinion, and I'd let this hot acidic anal syrup digest me from the insides and eat me up too so that no man survives, no more men, even myself, one by one, just to make sure.
LH: In comparison with Nigel Farage, who appears in humorous episodes between Grindr hookups, and the abhorrent dad of Chapter 12, Jones is really very progressive. Sex with him leads Chubz to fantasize the destruction of all men, however. What is it about Jones that made him the ideal victim of symbolic sacrifice in your book?
HL: Well I think maybe there you're implying that the anal feasting is somehow an act of sexual-political violence? I couldn't disagree more; Jones' consumption by Chubz' rectum isn't some sort of punishment, it's a generous act of gift-giving, not symbolic sacrifice but the symbolic welcoming in to a corporeal community, isn't it? I suppose that's a matter of interpretation but I think the tension between the physical and the avatar is a tension that is the only thing that humanises the Jones' characters completely dull and uninteresting identity on the page. Orgasm is a moment of transference, a ceding of masculine power...
But in many ways Jones is supposed to be dull here; what's really interesting about IRL Owen Jones' interactions with those who claim a more radical position than him is his constant willingness to engage with them, which speaks volumes about his political project as I think he sees it, one of bringing together various different political positions into a cohesive leftist challenge to a dominantly right-wing or liberal media environment. I don't think he gets enough credit for that position, to be honest, and I think a lot of people to the left of him do him a disservice by not at least tacitly acknowledging that that's his political project. That's not to say their criticisms of him are often not very valid though; the point is the tension doesn't come through the different political positions but through the different attitudes towards communicating that politics. He's been proved right about that strategy, to a certain extent; there's definitely a gap in the public discourse for a reasonably traditional, stout socialist position. But whether that reflects on political change is something very different.
So then part of the subtext of the book is really about watching this public battle played out online between these two groups, two strategies of public acceptability, engaging on the terms of public argument, or more vicious, lived experience, the practice of a sort of online witness to the obscene inhumanities and fucking snowballing injustices of the UK today. I'm horribly indecisive but coming down on the side that what's actually important is making the real, visceral cruelties of the moment legible, and even unavoidable, and highlighting the complete lack of options, the dissolution of hope in any sort of socialist redemption.
Chapter 8, 89-91
In my mind I make a composite of Faron from the photos on his profile. How his head fits his body, how the skin from one photo, distorted through a dirty mirror, blends with the skin on his torso, bleached dry from the flash and the low voltage lighting of the gym shower rooms. He's a collage of iPhone shots, a frankenstein top I'm piecing together from bits of grindr and second-hand sensations.
Whatever happens, he cannot know how much I would give to take that drop of him alive on my tongue. I'm a different boy online, I write out his fantasies, what he needs to hear to bring me over. This is how I live. I project in type the form he needs me to take. Each bright red message betrays a new falsehood to him.
I get a particular thrill from sex organized online. I measure the hookups in data involved, uploaded or downloaded. I can trace the development of our social tension and sexual thrill through datestamps, and I can count them in bytes. I have never heard this man's voice. I have never seen his flesh bristle and twitch; every hint, insinuation, every targeted pause, I can account for as data. I never do. I never run the analysis. Quantifying is not the thrill. Disembodiment is the thrill, mediation, running desire through culture. Description, narrative. His hands are coded to his body, his body coded into flesh as the front door peels open.
LH: Can you talk more about the ideas of disembodiment and writing desire expressed in the above extract, as well as in the final pages, where these ideas are framed politically? (For example: "my strategy is bodily love," "The breakdown of security for the rich and powerful in London was tied so closely to our feet and legs and chests and arseholes I could only marvel" (177), "we used [our bodies] together like a diagram, a diagram of a process all linked, how my body worked with the body of the boy I'm next to—that became our politics because that's where power was." (178)).
Though in Chubz these themes are approached from a gay perspective, they resonate with the text read at the launch by Aimee Heinemann, who entertains a moment beyond orientation, gender and even the category of human, also facilitated by the internet:
In the future nobody will ask ASL, we will ask AVM—animal, vegetable, or mineral? Spit-and-sawdust internet cafe, the beings who have decided not to be people, linguistic post-humanism, the revolutionary potential of the intersex friendly ghost, chaotic good dragon kin, deaf transatlantic mermaid, ALL GODS NO MASTERS, the post body is the most body, be a dragon and a queen. (via)
HL: I don't know. I can't speak for Aimee. But speaking for myself, my body and the bodies of lovers is not something I've begun to come to terms with. I've never felt forced to encounter my own body like I think a lot of people, especially women, are. You can just ride around in it at as a bloke. So it's only begun as a conscious process since I started to acknowledge that. And it's much easier to come to terms with bodies through mediation because there's just so much access to mediated bodies. I do dream in drop-down UIs. I do feed upon the pornographic image as a building block of my own desires. I do think the iPhone is the country's most popular sexual prosthesis. I can't theorise beyond my immediate feelings about this any more than to say that communist politics is always, has always been and will always be a politics of bodies; of the mass worker, of the body at work, of the abject body, of bodies as tools and of the utopian ideal of the body as ours to decide. And I remain a communist, albeit one unable to coherently express a single practical political vision other than that we must get there through some sort of process of bodily self-direction.
You can't forget the panic of consummation, the burning streets, the 1000 ski masks with fat penises where the eyes of the loser militia should be.
The key to a happy, healthy life and sense of wellbeing is ensuring an intelligent relationship with your key life-brands. Keep your personal portfolio of brands fresh and balanced.
The feeling of being part of a mob bears little relation to its representation. At least, that's my experience. If you want to feel like an individual who has importance, join a mob. I enjoy situations of civil disorder because I enjoy watching people trying to kill each other.
The looter and the online pirate are the subjectivities with the clearest, most intuitive comprehension of the nature of contemporary semio-capitalism; they are the brand ambassadors, and if they cannot be harnessed they will overrun and destroy it. A strategy must be had for disempowering and utilising us: and it cannot be legislative.
The strains and insults incurred through the day, the working day, that are pushed between the two of us. We can rework the social tensions of him, the white-collar yuppy, the buy-to-let landlord, the ethicist in the supermarket aisle, the profiteer and the privateer, the bastard, the nice guy, Mr Nice Guy, the nice guy who means well, and me, the 6-month let, 6-month contract, managed and manager—we can rework those tensions between thumb and forefinger when we peel off clothes, like blu-tak.
The working life of the new European millennial is not regimented according to time-and-motion studies; it is teased by the psychological rudder of management. It is nudged, silently, friendly-like.
The future extends to the end of my contract.
LH: The temporal space occupied by Chubz is very interesting, both in terms of the near future political portraits of Farage's rise juxtaposed with his backward looking policies and hand in getting the country "gripped by 1950s fever" (79), and the postscript's allusion to "No Future," (the Sex Pistols' slogan, the title of Lee Edelman's book, and a way of describing the idea of non-reproductivity that I see in your book, both in terms of refusing to rear children, and in terms of resisting a capitalist logic of culture and labor) which sets the book's concerns in a historical context of gay culture and the gay relation to futurity in different moments. Can you comment on this?
HL: I can't help but find the idea of "No Future" dispiriting, disempowering. I suppose it's how I feel right now, how I think a lot of people, especially young people feel, so within Chubz it's a rootless, disaffected, terrified sense of no future. Part of this is the lack of any coherent public political vision of alternative, something fostered by both the government and the Labour Party in order to continue the regime of austerity, of course. But I can't find it in me to buy into an aggressive queer notion of no future as being a stand against biopolitical domination. It's a powerful piece of invective, a weapon against the totalising, aggressive dominance of the family. And I've certainly bought into it in the past, especially when put up against so much "hard-working families" bullshit. But it cedes too much. What queer people (especially young queers) need to survive, I think, and have always needed, in the face of a gender and economic system which has only ever offered an injunction of no future, is the opposite: solidarity and hope. We just need to continue our work in building that. The no future of Chubz is descriptive not prescriptive.
Chubz launched on 28 October at Jupiter Woods, London, with readings from Huw Lemmey, Aimee Heinemann, Timothy Thornton, Jesse Darling, Adam Christensen and Onyeka Igwe.
Published by Montez Press.
Chop Suey (1995) in its original packaging.
Rhizome is pleased to announce that, beginning in April 2015, it will preserve and present three CD-ROM works created by artist and writer Theresa Duncan (1966-2007): Chop Suey (1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1998). These colorful, expressive adventures address young girls in a way few games did, or still do—and they've fallen into obscurity. Through its digital conservation program, Rhizome will make the original, unaltered games playable via web browser, for everyone, for free. In order to make this possible, we have launched a Kickstarter campaign.
A scene from Chop Suey (1995)
Confronting a videogame culture lacking diversity of digital experience (shoot-em-ups and fantasy adventures for boys, prom role-play and dress-up for girls), Theresa Duncan's CD-ROM work was something markedly different: uniquely personal, passionately invested in the creative possibilities of her medium, and daring (in the words of critic Jenn Frank) to "represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12."
Duncan drew on her childhood in the Midwest and a deep interest in literature, art, music, and children's stories for her work on Chop Suey, an offbeat, interactive daydream set in Cortland, Ohio, Smarty, an educational archaeology, and Zero Zero, an adventure set in Paris at the turn of 1900. All of these titles were intensely collaborative, involving a whole community of creators: Monica Gesue, who co-created Chop Suey, Ian Svenonious and Jeremy Blake, who contributed illustrations and more, Brendan Canty, who contributed a great deal of the music, and voice-over artists including David Sedaris.
Duncan's titles are notable for dreamlike, expressive illustration, vivid, hallucinatory colors and textured soundtracks. Their stories unfurl in sinuous, lilting vignettes, building out a world through language and atmosphere in which players are encouraged to explore freely, building connections among complex, drawn-from-life casts of characters. Her work was not about celebrities or superheroes, but the richness of a child's imagination as they react to their everyday lives in the world around them. And these games encouraged their users—particularly the young girls who would have identified with her protagonists—to be disruptive, adventurous, and whip-smart.
Videogame culture is at its best when it supports the narration and elaboration through play of a diversity of experiences. Unfortunately, as it was when Duncan made these games, this truth continues to be contested. So it remains essential that these games be widely known and played—not for the sake of the history of gaming, but for its future.
All three works will be presented via "Emulation as Service," an innovative system that Rhizome is developing with University of Freiburg, Germany. This approach involves the use of server-side software that duplicates the functions of outdated operating systems, giving users the experience of running, say, Windows98 in their normal web browser, with no additional software or plugins required on their end. For an earlier test of this approach, see the Cory Arcangel work Bomb Iraq (2005).
Additionally, Rhizome will work with its affiliate, the New Museum, to organize a public event and online exhibition celebrating Duncan's work and contextualizing it within feminist histories of gaming. Alongside this, we will commission articles and educational materials to further deepen public awareness of these CD-ROMs and the broader history of women gamemakers.
This is a significant undertaking. To enhance capacity, underwrite programming, and support this award-winning development program, Rhizome has launched a project funding campaign. Please visit this project's Kickstarter page.
Lance Wakeling, still from Field Visits for Chelsea Manning (work in progress).
Field Visits for Chelsea Manning
Sunday, December 14, 2014, 5:45pm
Peter Jay Sharp Building, BAM Rose Cinemas
As part of Migrating Forms—presented at BAM and co-organized by BAMcinématek Film Programmer Nellie Killian and Los Angeles-based writer and curator Kevin McGarry—Lance Wakeling's completed Field Visits for Chelsea Manning will be given its world premiere.
A 2014 Rhizome Commission, Field Visits is the final video in Lance Wakeling's trilogy on the physicality of the internet. This first-person travelogue maps the places that former Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was held in Kuwait, Virginia, Kansas, and Maryland. Rather than telling a straightforward story of Manning's detainment, the narrative instead visits a series of what Wakeling calls "serendipitous collisions between the filmmaker and current events," including a Civil War reenactment, a barbershop quartet dressed as prisoners, and drinking coffee in a business park for national security contractors.
A Q&A with Wakeling will follow the screening.
The Rhizome Commissions program is supported, in part, by funds from Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Special project support is provided by Michael Cohn and the American Chai Trust.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists whose work makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Wickerham & Lomax, BOY'Dega: Encore in the AFTALYFE (Season 2) (2014).
JG: DUOX started as a collaboration between the two of you, and collaboration seems completely central to your practice even though you're now working under the name Wickerham & Lomax. You've worked closely with DIS Magazine and other high-profile sponsors, and even the feel of your new work seems deliberately corporate and commercial. What is the shape and direction of this collaboration? Where did DUOX end, and how does Wickerham & Lomax extend?
Lomax: I think aside from using the language of surface which is one of our subjects—appearances, mirrors, screens, reflections, storefronts, sheen—we employ the language of accessibility, and that gets foregrounded explicitly in corporate and commercial imagery which isn't really an idea we investigate but an aesthetic we employ. I think the corporate and commercial for us is really a mask, not an interest.
Excerpt from BOY'Dega: Encore in the AFTALYFE (Season 2) 2014. Full video.
As a collaborative we seem to sit in each other's thoughts in an intimate way, similar to people in romantic relationships. There is something vulnerable about that privilege and that noted intimacy is shaping the new work. The collaboration is moving back towards the physical aspects of making things, which we had to forego in the production of the site. I hope what we're doing can gather a greater sense of economy so we can have more time to read, enjoy our friends, and gossip. Sometimes one has to live vicariously through their output and I think that's what Dan and I had to do to get the project done. We want to be able to take the city of Baltimore and have it function in a mutable way inside of our practice, whether that means interfacing with the public, making public works, twisting any historical narrative into a lived-in digital one. We want full agency to use the city as a platform.
DUOX ended around December 2013 with the release of Beyoncé's self-titled, and not because of that but in proximity to it. I'm obsessed with reading about DNA, particularly the essay "The Double Helix and Other Social Structures" and collaborative discoveries (Watson and Crick), so Daniel and I started contemplating the future of the project. I suggested we have the coding of the website DNA sequenced when all the Seasons [of the BOY'Dega series] are finished along with a round of acceptance speeches, which would be an internalizing of something one puts out into the world and a continued metaphor on reproduction / proliferation. DNA leads back to our surnames which will allow us to do more faithful investigations into subtopics of the practice like familial narratives and the biological prompts employed to make certain works. I think we wanted to take ownership of our work and we didn't set as a mission for ourselves a conversation about the anonymity of a collaborative to destabilize the individual genius or a complicated example of a brand, so we let it go. Personalizing.
JG: Your new project is BOY'Dega, which extends from your previous piece at Artists Space, DUOX4Larkin. The project follows the life of a child named BOY'D that was created as part of the exhibit and continues to transform and evolve in the digital. The project includes a website, BOY'Dega Edited4Syndication (2014) that is modeled partly on promotional sites for summer blockbusters or TV shows, but overburdened with interactive features, 3d graphics, and sheer narrative excess, all revolving around this central character..The figure of the boy seems present in a lot of your work: as an object, a backdrop, a character, a twink. Are you developing a "theory of the young boy"?
Wickerham: Our relationship to a boy or Boy'd was to create a shell as the main character for the tv show. This was the central character that would be all smoke and mirrors. This central shell would help direct attention towards our real interest, which was a show informed mostly by supplemental. The idea of raising a child allowed us to rethink what collaboration meant for us. It gave us the opportunity to be male and pregnant-parents towards the work we were trying to make. And we thought there was something long-term and difficult about raising a kid that perfectly mapped itself onto the long-term nature of this web project. Which in many ways is also about developing/raising 8 cast members in relation to us as creators. We all switch roles, so maybe by the end BOY'Dega will really be a parenting guide.
JG: Across all of your projects I'm struck by the use of layers to create complex surfaces. Of course layering is one of the most visible traces of digital production. Layers are most often enabled by frame buffer Alpha channels and Adobe Creative Suite software, but are also ubiquitous on the web and in the design of most all user interfaces. Where does this fascination with layers come from?
Installation views of "DUOX4Larkin." Artists Space, 2012. Photo: Daniel Pérez.
Wickerham: I never thought about it as a fascination, maybe it was informed by observation—but I know what you are referring to. This observation of layers was something you picked out when reviewing our Artist Space show, which strangely was a show partly about how screens hold images—so we must be a little fascinated! We've had an evolving relationship to how we present layers of information. When we started working together in 2009 we had the same intensity towards our interests as we do today but were less sensitive about how to organize two people's languages, whether into an exhibition or even a press release—so little was edited out. The viewer could feel accosted by what might look like a lot of signifiers. And the ideas could be indecipherable but the layers remained visible. So we had this reputation that we simply liked information. Now I think we've found a way to kept the complexity of our interests by refining how they get presented. Sometimes this is a matter of creating the right problem. For example in an upcoming show we asked ourselves what an image would look like if it were getting ready to go out. Another example is the form of a website which we can keep filling with information across time and space (experience). We are also seeing a variety of new projects in the studio develop together allows some to be simple and calm and direct. It's nice to let something be calm, that's part of our reality too.
JG: Your work seems to me explicitly digital. Maybe because everything feels that way now, or because a lot of your work feels like it's about “everything,” a frenzy of images, icons, text, and color. Your new project takes the shape of a website and video series, but the Artists Space exhibition of DUOX4Larkin involved a great deal of sculpture and painting that evoked a digital aesthetic. Would you describe your work as post-internet? Post-medium? Post-gay? How does your brand identify, or are you totally over it?
Wickerham & Lomax, BOY'Dega Edited4Syndication (Season 1) (2014).
Lomax: Over it would be an understatement. I don't know if classifications are really helpful anymore. These articulations are helpful for discourse, but really do a disservice to experiencing things. The viewer lives in that "I got it" phase far too quickly and I think people make things in an illustrative way far too often when they can function under the labels. It's hard for me to reconcile the taxonomies/classifications when what we really are doing is crafting experiences for a viewer that seeks to complicate their viewing, not of our work but of their encounter with the form we've taken on as a subject. I venture to describe our work as a temper tantrum of two people living with the access to everything but in the confines of reality. The work is full of fan boy hissy fits, unapologetically. We can describe it as part post-it note part posted up. This is a long way to say I don't know. We're not a brand, but I agree about the digital permeating the other forms.
Age: 28 and still getting carded. Boy'd is very young and wants to see us as a peer.
Location: West Baltimore
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Wickerham: I would say when people started pointing out to me how I used my Blackberry camera. Nathan Lee wrote a paper about how I used my phone which was shocking because I'm not high on high technology. This was maybe 2008 so it's going to sound strange now but remember when you could post on Facebook before the feed was an algorithm. I would post so much that people could get a pretty clear picture of how I was seeing. It was a very positive experience. Now I hardly share anything as unmediated, it seems less necessary to both me and whoever is looking.
Lomax: I remember as a preteen being obsessed with our home printer, but mainly using it in conjunction with clip art to rename rooms by making large banners. It took me quite sometime to convince my parents to get web tv, which sucked, so having a computer and printer was everything. I suppose I could've done exciting things with the phone. Yet as an artist I think I was consciously using digital technology in high school but to little effect. I was also on that xerox machine like a zine girl feeling myself trying to make it work.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Maryland Institute College of Art BFA Painting 2009
Maryland Institute College of Art BFA Painting 2009
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Previously we've held our breath while working our boyfriends last nerve.
Trust >No funds.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Marlie Mul, Dirty Soap Dish (Did you mean: naughty soap dish), 2014, courtesy of the artist.
(Welcome) Home: that daily practiced space and mental image which has accompanied mankind through centuries. Ever our shelter from the rain as much as the fortress of our dwelling selfs. The abode of our constructed identities and repository of our material treasures. Home is where the day begins, home is where it ends. Enduring with the clichés, home is where we belong; where we are safe from the daily struggles of the outside world. Home is among those universally accepted places which we refer to without specifying a geographical location or a defining activity. Where are you?—I'm home. It is as simple as it spells...
Like many other social constructs which have endured through centuries, though, the home is a concept in constant change: It varies in space and time according to personal experiences, to social models, to the political forces by which it is governed. And even more so, it varies in relation to the technologies in which it is enmeshed. At present, the internet falls into that long strand of innovations which, in one way or another, leave their mark on domesticity. Whether in its fostering of global mobility or in how it has blurred boundaries between public and private, the internet is progressively diluting those typically bourgeouis traits which have sedimented over the last few centuries and which still inform our current, westernized, understanding of the home as a stable entity.
Though much is being said about the effect of the internet on daily lives, a less visible topic is how the home appears on the WWW, and how this, in turn, shapes domestic architecture. The web has, in fact, allowed for new representations of the home to proliferate, and the effects of this effusion on the spaces we inhabit are far from obvious. If, on the one hand, the home's fetishized representations in commercial online practices such as real estate websites and IKEA catalogues are now deeply ingrained cultural conventions, an entirely different "way of seeing" the home is discreetly emerging in the less polished repertoire of amateur photography.
Here we can think of how the home makes its appearance in the casual selfie, the Snapchat, the Skype tour around the living room, leaked images of VIPs, amateur porn, Grindr profiles, and others— instances where home-ness is no longer performed for the capitalist mechanisms of property and exchange and is thus free from the pictorial conventions which ubiquitously characterise our epoch: wide angles, sleek surfaces and the highest possible resolutions. In these forms of representation the home is relegated to the background, is seen yet not appreciated as a home, even though its image is no way more spontaneous ("clean your room before you take your dick pic"); in these particular instances, the home amounts to the place in which another body stands and in this new, disguised position its connotative potential can be refreshingly disruptive.
Oscillating between the two, the website Airbnb proves to be a powerful case study in showing how particular modes of representation are forced upon its users as instrumental assets to global capital and its consumption-based economy. One need only to consider how its Photography Department came about to gauge the importance the medium has had in making the American company's experience-based enterprise financially productive:
One afternoon, the team was poring over their search results for New York City listings with Paul Graham, trying to figure out what wasn't working, why they weren't growing. After spending time on the site using the product, Gebbia had a realization. "We noticed a pattern. There's some similarity between all these 40 listings. The similarity is that the photos sucked. The photos were not great photos. People were using their camera phones or using their images from classified sites. It actually wasn't a surprise that people weren't booking rooms because you couldn't even really see what it is that you were paying for." …. The three-man team grabbed the next flight to New York and upgraded all the amateur photos to beautiful images... A week later, the results were in: improving the pictures doubled the weekly revenue to $400 per week. This was the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months. They knew they were onto something. (Source)
That "something" is what Pablo Larios describes as "the doxa of digital circulation and image saturation" in contemporary image culture—i.e. "recognizability, translatability, clarity." In a nutshell, the company had to equip its users with a fairly uniform set of pictorial norms to make their homes an appetible commodity for its international service buyers.
"Taking crisp, well-lit and composed photographs that accurately convey the look and feel of the space is the most difficult part of creating a listing, so we make it easy." — Airbnb
The response to this exigency was the 2008 founding of Airbnb Photography—a free service provided by the company which users can apply for gaining "more visibility" (like), "verified watermarks" (like), ￼￼￼￼ and "high quality" imagery (multiple likes) to better monetize their spaces. Ensuring higher rankings in search results and guaranteeing that an Airbnb representative has visited the property, a few years ago the company stated that hosts with professional photography would be "booked 2.5 times more frequently than those without," rendering it a vital component in Airbnb's business model.
Since its birth in 2010, Airbnb Photography has been performed by "experienced" freelance photographers from all around the globe hired on the basis of a portfolio and their capacity to match the standards required to be part of the company's iconographic stockpile. This is not to say that as photographers they have any degree of artistic license in the job—on the contrary, the images which are sent back to Airbnb's headquarters are heavily curated and subjected to a series of rather rigorous conventions involving make and lens of the camera used, brightness and contrast relations, lighting conditions and most strikingly a rather recurrent series of vantage points from which the photographs are taken. With the camera set up in one corner, Airbnb photographs often feature an expanse of floor in the foreground. Such photographs will make the apartment look at its most spacious when a room's furnishings are crowded in the far corner. Much has also been made of the website's predilection for photographs that are well-lit to the point of overexposure. Super-white walls always hold up best to overexposure.
Ioana Man, 30 listed bedrooms. London, Brighton, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Mumbai.
In aligning to these doxas, the redundancy of Airbnb photography is characteristic of a series of conditions which are increasingly epitomic not only of how home-ness is represented in order to be commodified but even more of how our homes themselves are being affected by this imagery: most evidently, it highlights (and in so doing also fosters) the current homogenization of middle class households all around the world—something which is rendered in a similarly problematic way across the CGI renderings found in IKEA catalogues and other providers where particular room configurations and combinations of furnitures are applied unchanged to distinct hosting spaces. Of course there are exceptions to this norm which can be found in Airbnb listings such as the American trailer, the sailing boat, the tree house and other exotic venues, but if we limit our analysis to the general substratum (i.e. homes of middle class city dwellers on a relatively tight budget) the uniformity is very apparent. Airbnb sees such uniformity as an anomaly to correct, as a temporary impasse until every home on the website becomes highly individualized and "special," as acknowledged by Airbnb employees at the panel we organized at Swiss Institute. Given the aesthetic standards stringently imposed by the company, it is a highly circumscribed kind of individualism, one which "must be as special as possible, while remaining understandable as an image to an international audience of potential guests," as we wrote in a text for Fulcrum.
The sheer quantity of photographs Airbnb has collected since its Photography department was founded reinforces this condition while opening new perspectives on how the market operates. With over 3,000 photographers and more than a million photographs taken in the 192 countries the company operates in (2012), co-founder Gebbia unsurprisingly claims responsibility over the construction of what is "arguably one of the largest repositories of interior photography on the planet." If this momentous endeavour is reminiscent of early 20th century anthropological studies in which photography provided new descriptive means to show the world, Airbnb's agenda is of an entirely different sort. While that photographic genre was used to critique the miserable housing conditions of the working class, it also served a pedagogical function to teach us how to live (we can think of Walker Evans as much as post- war documentaries on the new middle-class households), Airbnb protects itself from the risk of being politically overt by certifying its pictures and ensuring that its merchandise remains morally decent. Its website, in this sense, can be termed as an interiorized cosmology where viewers can safely meander amidst a vast territory of verified (or, better, censored) material. In German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk's terms, a pampered space for contemporary globetrotters imbued with mainstream parochialism and "cosmopolitan romanticism."
The company's recent shift from a search-based model (you find what you need) to a browse-based one (you find as you wander) is not only symptomatic of how this new way of experiencing capitalist space operates; even more, it reflects the general diffusion across the whole of the WWW of a tumblr-ish modality based on immersive interfaces and erratic navigation. Think for example of how IKEA's interface has changed throughout the years to become more and more akin to a lifestyle magazine one skims through in a café rather than a furniture catalogue. Or of British Real Estate agency Foxtons' new Home Interior & Design Inspirations section where you can browse through listed properties according to the style in which they're built, the color on their walls or the features they present, independently of price and location.
But perhaps the determining factor which differentiates the image of the home on Airbnb from that on visually similar platforms is the enduring transience of the offers on display. The company's cofounder Brian Chesky (problematically) suggests that "today's generation sees ownership also as a burden. People still want to show off, but in the future I think what they're going to want to show off is their Instagram feed, their photos, the places they've gone, the experiences they've had. That has become the new bling." Analogous to how fashion and online shopping operate, the appreciation of the home or that of the objects which characterize it is freed from the burdens of property and immobility and now ventures into more volatile domains. What prevents Airbnb from building buildings is that its clients aren't interested in purchasing a house or its appliances, but the experience of an immediately disposable image which is nonetheless "authentic" and idiosyncratic. So that as much as you are renting a house or a room inside it, you are also renting an image of the host and their persona, their tastes, their biography. No wonder, then, the company's new policy is that of encouraging hosts to become even more "hospitable" attaching their own personality and habits to the trip experience, even as they (seemingly paradoxically) mandate a generic air of carefully censored "quality."
When Airbnb tells you "Belong everywhere," what it really reveals is that in our rarefied dwelling patterns, the contemporary urban dweller has long belonged Nowhere. If on the one hand this may be praised on the form of emancipation, on the other, mechanisms of expropriation - the primordial act at the origin of capitalism - have left us all in a state of permanent uprootedness, even when we are in our homes. It is as if man had finally inherited the properties of the commodities he's cherished: forever in flux and always present where they can be sold. To be able to feel home in any one's home, to be pleased when pseudo-appropriating the life of a stranger anywhere in the world shows what the home ever was: a myth, a dream. That theorist of the bourgeois interiors of the 19th century, Theodor Adorno, has less famously argued that being Modern was to be homeless, that Modern man was bound to be eternally looking for a home, a safer and more comfortable world to live in. If Adorno was using the home in a rather metaphorical way, the comparison adequately transposes to the homes we live in. It is disconcerting to realise that this "better world" which makes us wake up and work every day belongs to somebody else, or is computer generated. The artificiality and codification of the image of the home is the distracting safeguard which hides the real, carefully policed condition of housing. By producing its own home-image, one is tricked into the simulacra and becomes the catfish deceiving themselves into a more profound narcosis.
All that lies scattered in the brightness of the hall now bears
a single price,
each object enclosed in its soullessness.
Each thing cries out to us how young and important
it is, as wanton as cheapness feigning expense.
Oh the thing today no longer finds its
For to be buyable means: having forgotten how to belong
to the living,
and buying means lightly inviting things
like guests for a single occasion whom one greets,
and never regards again.
Rainer Maria Rilke
AIRBNB Pavilion is a project by fálo, a collective of interior decorators based in London founded by Fabrizio Ballabio, Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega Govela, and Octave Perrault.
"You can have the party. Give us the power!"
Andrea Fraser had already been onstage in front of a packed house at the New Orleans Museum of Art's auditorium for more than half an hour. Dressed in a black suit, she was delivering a monologue based on the transcript of an epic 1991 city council meeting. In that meeting, an ordinance was discussed that would ban discrimination in any of the social clubs that apply for parade permits in New Orleans. The discussion opened up into a marathon airing of thoughts and grievances on racism, heritage, and the role of the carnival in a city defined, in many ways, by its Mardi Gras.
Fraser's performance was astonishing. In one moment, she would be raising her voice in anger, playing the role of an activist speaking on behalf of marginalized black communities in a largely white district. In the next breath, she would be stridently castigating that activist, channeling the presumably white woman who represented these affluent uptown neighborhoods. Then, a nervous bumpkin who hadn't been to a council meeting since elementary school, interspersed with drawling asides from a dry, imperturbable council president. The performance wasn't just based on city council archives; it seemed to tap into an archive of gesture and voice and facial expression and lived experience, brought together, through performance, in the body of the artist.
The line paraphrased above was from one particularly powerful speaker, who made the argument that the economic benefits of Mardi Gras were unevenly distributed. Who, she asked, owns the hotels and restaurants? Who even gets to work in those establishments? If Mardi Gras generates $400 million in economic activity, and $35 million of that ends up in city and state coffers, then where was the rest of it going? Not to the city's many disintegrating black communities, who are so important to the city's culture. It was at this moment that the performance began folding back on itself. It was at once a profoundly moving testament to what art can do, to what it can be, and a critique of its own context. It was impossible not to draw a parallel between the unevenly distributed benefits from Mardi Gras and those derived from Prospect.3, the Biennial that commissioned it. And it did this while paying devastatingly powerful tribute to the city and its people.
Artists who attempt to grapple with the ethics of their host institutions would do well to look hard at Fraser's work. This week, another performance work (this one playing out in a hotel room, by email, and on social media, with a series of drawings generated as part of it) has garnered a great deal of discussion. Ryder Ripps' ART WHORE was made in response to an invitation from a hotel to stay in a room and make art for one night, and be reimbursed up to $50 in supplies. Ripps' response to this appraisal of his value, which he has characterized as exploitative in his online discussions of the project, was to hire people who were advertising sexual services on Craigslist and commission them to make drawings and pose with them for his Instagram feed, where they became fodder for a social media shitstorm in which Ripps has avidly participated.
Comparing and contrasting this work with Fraser's performance is instructive. Both works involved people who were in a position of less power than the artist. Both works made use of content created by these people.
But the differences are instructive. Fraser did not put any words in their mouths apart from their own; Ripps did, often making the claim that they were fine with the experience or enjoyed it. Fraser did not use labels except those used by her subjects; Ripps seems only ever to refer to his participants as sex workers. Fraser's work did not visually represent her subjects' bodies, but Ripps' did. Fraser used her own body in her performance as a way of making her own position (of power) visible; Ripps depicted his own body in the full documentation video, but not in the more widely circulated photographs.
By choosing to narrate the experiences, define the identities, and depict the bodies of those in a less powerful subject position than him, Ripps acted in a way that was ethically unsound: It reinforced and did not interrogate inequitable power relationships. (The argument has been made that no one was hurt and that there was therefore no ethical problem, but this is actually beside the point, and also, the only ones who can say that for sure are Ripps' "sex workers.")
This claim shouldn't be controversial; it seems pretty much aligned with Ripps' intentions going into the project. The work was framed as a response to the often asymmetrical power relationship between brands and the artists they hire; this asymmetry was performed in the relationship between artist and the "sex workers" he hired.
Some defenders have bandied about the name Santiago Sierra, which offers us another useful opportunity for compare and contrast. Sierra has staged spectacles in which participants are hired to perform exhausting, painful, and demeaning tasks for menial pay; this labor is made visible as a performance, often in a gallery or museum. For his work Nine Forms of 100x100x600cm Each, Constructed to Be Supported Perpendicular to A Wall (2002), a series of crude rectangular volumes are displayed in the gallery, supported at one end on the gallery wall and on the other by several dozen workers. This work was shown at Deitch Projects in 2002, with a press release consisting only of Sierra’s proposal for the work. In it he demands that: "The workers will always remain facing the wall and have to be Mexican or Central American."
One reviewer described the experience of seeing the work in the gallery as follows:
The workers in the gallery were neither exclusively from his two areas of preference, nor were all facing the wall. They were slightly bemused, somewhat pissed and eager to voice their opinions about the work, which were polite, but, as might be expected, negative. The workers were also very good at getting around their absurd job, and asked viewers to stand in their place to see what it was like. One pulled down his shirt to show me the bruised shoulder on which Sierra’s large minimalist forms were supported. At that point, the white, thrift-store-clad gallery attendant came over and asked if everything was OK. (Menick)
Sierra's work and Ripps' both involve paid workers, from sectors of the labor force that are undervalued and not infrequently in harm's way, in the production of a work or exhibition. Both make the economic transaction behind this involvement explicit. Both reveal the bodies of the participants. Both reveal the specifics of the underlying economic transactions.
One central proposition of Sierra's work is that the gallery visitor is prompted to confront his or her own role in the perpetuation of inequity and oppression: What cause could there be for imposing such discomfort on the workers, except to present this situation to an audience? It's not just the institution; the visitor is the root cause of this exploitation. In order to do this, Sierra not only foregrounds the economic transaction, he also makes it explicit that the job required will be painful and is only available to people of a more marginalized racial group.
In contrast, by playing down the role of race and downplaying the potential negativity of his participants' experiences, Ripps makes it less obvious to the viewer that inequity is in fact being perpetuated, and many have argued that his actions were not unethical. Thus, the work can't be defended on the basis that it reminds the viewer of their complicity. If measured by the standard of Sierra's work, it is a miserable failure.
To be perfectly clear, giving this project positive attention, and to some extent any attention at all, does make one complicit in Ripps' unethical actions. I'd rather not write about it, because this makes us even more involved, but it became necessary to do so because we are already complicit in the attention this project has received, thanks to our support of his earlier work and our public statements on Twitter yesterday, in response to requests for comment.
I once tweeted that no one understands the "biopolitics of branding" better than Ripps, in other words, that he understands the way that brands get inside you. Someone who understood the biopolitics of branding should understand that, as a curator and writer who has previously bought into and supported on a personal and organizational level, the brand of Ryder Ripps became a part of me and of Rhizome, and our public knows this. In fact, our support for Ripps' earlier work, most recently with a prominent nomination in the Prix Net Art, is one small reason why people have felt all fucked up about his project for the past few days. ART WHORE essentially forced us into taking a position. On the one hand, silence, which would be (and was) interpreted as tacit approval of the project; on the other, public disavowal of the work.
If the project was intended as an elaborate troll, which is the most generous possible interpretation, then it was still not interesting. A more nuanced troll would have forced us to confront contradictions in our own position, making it difficult to make any statement at all. The lines drawn by Ripps' project are just a little too clear; we have little doubt about our own position, and binary opposition seems like the only possible result.
Right now, we are seeing a crisis resulting from the perceived erosion of the internet (and of technology in general) as a white male-dominated space. The effort to police that space in subtle ways or via outright harassment in order to retain control will inevitably fail, but it is already clear that the effort to foster an internet culture that supports a diversity of digital experience will take persistence over years, in the face of bitter opposition.
Fraser offers us a glimpse of how bitter arguments can suddenly open up into moments of possibility, yielding real social change. In the meeting that came to life again in her performance, antagonistic viewpoints were expressed, voices were raised, names were called, people were ejected forcibly. And yet, in the end, something happened that made things a little less unjust in the Crescent City, and the vote was unanimous. I still get chills thinking about it.
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ripps did not appear on camera; as corrected above, he did not appear in still documents, but he was prominent in a webcam stream.