Kendall 2014 MFA Thesis Exhibition: First Impressions

I saw the MFA Thesis Exhibition at Kendall yesterday. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time, but it really got me thinking, so I thought I should write down my first impressions. This is not a review. If I have time, I’d like to go back and give the work more time and dig into specifics. There were highlights and lowlights, and these impressions don’t apply to everything I saw.

Overall, I think these MFA grads are trying to make work that does way too much, and they end up getting in the way of themselves. I get the feeling that when these artists are presented with the choice to do either more less, they ALWAYS do more. More colors, more materials, more techniques, more metaphors, more narratives, more characters, more, more, more… The problem with this way of thinking is that these additions quickly succumb to diminishing returns. The work gets so overcrowded with multiple attempts at capital M Meaning that all the elements crowd one another out. I don’t feel I’m being invited to ponder something along with the artist. Instead, it feels like the artist is trying to prove to me they’re capable of working Hard to make something Important that Means Something.

Don’t do that.

Show me what’s unresolved. Show me where your curiosity led you and what you made along the way. Where does it lead that makes you afraid? Then what do you do? What happens when your plan fails? What happens when you cheat at your own game? How little work can you do to achieve the same effect? When you’re working really hard on an object, what are you neglecting? Why?

I think a lot of the work is built on a very traditional notion about what an artist is supposed to be. The artist, this work seems to say, is someone who makes things you cannot make in order to tell you things you do not know.

I want art that makes me curious about the world. Not art that makes me curious about art. I want to be perturbed, delighted, and jolted. I don’t really care about being impressed.

Do less! Focus on smaller things, edited actions, and unknown outcomes. A lot of the work feels like an intense, craft-heavy production of a Big Idea. I get the sense that a concentrated period of thinking precedes the production. An idea is formulated, then objects are made, in that order. I want to see thinking through making. I want to see thinking out loud in materials, not materials coerced into illustrating thoughts.

Note: This isn’t a particularly positive response, I know, but when artwork gets a critical response (positive or negative) that means it’s alive in the world, which is always better than being dead. Also, I should point out that I’m currently a masters student at Kendall, pursuing a MA in Visual and Critical Studies. Here’s a paper I wrote for a class I just completed. So in the spirit of healthy critique, have at it.

Note 2: I intentionally didn’t include photos in this post, because I worried that it would seem like these overall impressions applied mainly to the images I chose to include. When I visited I only photographed the work I liked, which is less guilty of the sins discussed.

First Person History – Social Imaging in the Euromaidan Protests and Beyond

Molotov seflie

With the rapid rise in popularity of image-based social networks such as Instagram, the production and dissemination of political content on social media is becoming an increasingly visual activity. Throughout the Arab Spring and subsequent political upheavals, images captured and shared through cell phones played a key role in the way protest movements conceive of themselves and project that image to the world.

Alongside this phenomenon, social imaging more broadly, including the much-discussed “selfie,” has burgeoned into an enormous new realm of visual culture. People are creating and sharing images of themselves, their experiences, and their friends at a volume that dwarfs what was enabled by previous amateur photography technologies. Social imaging is often an effort to articulate, contemplate, and share the identity of the photographer. This activity takes on new dimensions when the producers of social images are taking part in historic and violent events.

In conflict photography there was once a clear division between subject, photographer and viewer. Now, all three roles blend into one. A single actor in a revolutionary event will act as photographer, subject, and primary viewer of an image. The audience for these images consists of a network of others wearing the same three hats. When the main function of social images is the formation and communication of individual identity, how does this function change when these images double as historical documents? How is history written differently when it’s done instantly and self-reflexively, by the same people driving the historical events?

Taking a selfie during a revolution is not just a way of showing the world what’s happening, it’s a way of creating an image used to contemplate that reality for oneself, which is then shared and archived, allowing that contemplation to continue through socially and through memory.

protester seflie

Euromaidan

On November 21, 2013, protesters took to streets in Kiev, Ukraine, angry that president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly decided against signing an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. The move would have signaled continued Westernization for the former Soviet Bloc state. Instead, Yanukovych opted to strengthen ties to the East, with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The protesters, upset by a stagnant economy and widespread corruption, called for the resignation of Yanukovych.

The protests grew substantially on November 30 as a response to police violence. Protesters and police each claimed areas of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the main square of Kiev. The occasionally violent battles continued through the bitterly cold winter. In late February, violence escalated in the Square, Yanukovych and many of his supporters in parliament fled, allowing for opposition politicians to pass a series of reforms, effectively ending the standoff.

The protest came to be known as Euromaidan, a named coined on Twitter, which combines Euro- (for Europe) with Maidan (for the square). As with other recent protest movements, participants used social media to document and organize actions.

Around the time the Euromaiden protests were nearing their conclusion, I was experimenting with a web service called IFTTT.com, and acronym for If This Then That. It allows users to create “recipes” that allow different web services to interact with each other. A trigger in one service causes an action in another. It’s often used to create automatic back-ups, or small efficiency improvements. I noticed that the Instagram trigger allowed you to collect photos based on the location where the photo was taken. This allows you to essentially follow a location on Instagram, rather than a person. You select a location on a map, and anytime someone takes an Instagram photo there, it triggers the IFTTT recipe. I made a recipe to collect all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square in Kiev and save them to a Google spreadsheet.

IFTTT

Over the last several days of the protests, I collected thousands of images. In general the images fall into three categories. First, amateur photojournalism, photos that exist primarily to document the scene. These include photos of burning barricades, first aid efforts, damage to buildings, makeshift memorials for the dead, etc. The second type is propaganda. These images are often not photographs, but are drawings or other graphics supporting the cause of the protestors. These are captured because they were uploaded from Independence Square, so they bear the GPS signature. The final type of images are the ones of primary interest to me, social images. I define social images as images that communicate the user’s identity, narrative, and style. These images include selfies, self-portraits taken at an arms length, but they also include portraits of friends, visual narrative, and other explorations of aesthetic identity. An important function of social images is their ability to help the photographer contemplate, archive, and re-contemplate themselves and their surroundings. This function is always present, but it becomes even more crucial when the circumstances surrounding the image become historic, violent, or otherwise hard to come to terms with.

Euromaidan seflie

The Selfie

To better understand social images, lets take a closer look at the ultimate social image, the selfie. In an essay titled, “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie” art critic Jerry Saltz defines and unpacks the form:

A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history.

Saltz points out that while selfies are casual, they are not accidental. Each image must be reviewed before it’s uploaded. This moment between capturing and sharing allows for “control as well as the presence of performing, self-criticality, and irony.” Selfies typically contain a knowing glance, a look of simulated eye contact with the viewer. Saltz compares this to “methexis” in ancient Greek theater, when the performer addressed the audience directly.

Some of the most noteworthy selfies are taken in unusual or inappropriate circumstances. Selfies taken at funerals by teens are common enough to warrant a blog, Funeral Selfies, that does nothing but track the questionable images. Many other examples of selfies in inappropriate situations exist, including touring a gas chamber at Auschwitz, in front of a car crash, and with someone about to jump off a bridge visible over the subject/photographer’s shoulder.

Funeral seflie

The most famous, or infamous, funeral selfie has never been seen. We only have third party documentation of the moment it was taken. President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a group selfie at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Saltz imagines the thoughts going through the heads of these world leaders as they snap this cheery and surreal photo. “It is totally incomprehensible, even to us, to be us … being here.”

These three world leaders, like the protesters in Independence Square, are writing both a personal and an historical narrative at once. In the moment, however, the weight of history only casts an uncanny shadow on the more immediate act of creating the image as a way of contemplating oneself in unbelievable circumstances.

I interviewed Alicia Eler, Selfie Columnist for Hyperallergic since June 2013. I asked her what she thought of my idea that selfies in war zones are first a tool of self-contemplation, and second a communication with the wider world. She said,

Selfies are recognizable as selfies, and those who take them in the middle of conflict zones do so as networked postcards. They at once appear as memories, documentary, and a quick hello, as if to say: ‘I was here. This is me.’ There’s a great selfie from the latest round of protests in Istanbul–protestors are thrown into the back of a van, and together they take a selfie that was instantly associated with Ellen’s academy awards corporate selfie because of the angle, the number of people in the photo, and the timing of both selfies. In this way, no matter where the selfie is taken–in the back of a protest van, at the academy awards, on a vacation, in a bathroom–it is more likely to be considered in relation to the composition of other selfies. And then the protest is against the selfie itself rather than what it captures.

If a selfie automatically situates itself in the wider context of other selfies, it’s worth expanding how this idea relates to social images more generally. Where else do social imaging and violent conflict intersect, and what can they tell us about the nature of each?

Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution

“The Syrian protestors are recording their own death.”

So begins a lecture/performance presented by Lebanese artist and actor Rabih Mroué presented in 2011 and 2012. Near the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Mroué found several clips on YouTube of protestors accidentally filming their own deaths. This was at a moment when the uprising in Syria was still viewed as the latest in a series of revolutions known as the Arab Spring. The violence captured in these videos was the very beginning of a long a brutal civil war that still rages today.

Rabih Mroué

The videos were taken because there was a sense that the crimes of the regime needed to be recorded, with the hope that president Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable. In one video, the cameraman stands on a balcony, franticly panning around in search of a soldier who is firing on nearby protesters. The video find the shooter, they share eye contact for a moment, then the image jerks wildly with a loud bang. Mroué calls the found videos “double shootings.”

One of the videos showcased and discussed by Mroué can be see here (warning, it is disturbing).

In the lecture, Mroué compares the aesthetic of double shooting videos to Dogme 95. Dogme 95 was an independent film movement that was active in Denmark in the mid 90’s. Filmmakers adhered to a strict set of guidelines, using very small budgets. Filmmakers eschewed special effects and other production techniques in favor of grit and veracity. The exchange of filming tactics among Syrian protesters operates as a parallel manifesto. In an interview, Mroué says,

[Dogme 95] stipulates that you should not record violent scenes, or weapons, because they don’t want to fake these things. So it’s not necessary to use them. For the Syrians, they add to this dictate insofar as the violent scenes being recorded are actually for real and the stipulation is also correct – do not record violence – insofar as the weapon could kill them and the scene of killing is thereafter real. There is no attempt to fake death here – it is all too real.

The Democratic Promise of Social Media

A persistent myth surrounding social media and political conflict since the beginning of the Arab Spring, or before, is that these technologies will have a democratizing effect. Once the world sees the actions of dictators through the eyes of the oppressed, the thinking goes, international condemnation and response will be swift and effective. This has not turned out to be true.

Social media is a propaganda tool that’s free for anyone to use. There’s no better reminder of this than the official Instagram account of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Widely considered to be a war criminal, Assad’s Instagram feed features political rallies, smiling diplomatic meetings in a lavish palace, and plenty of precious photos of the first lady performing humanitarian aid. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Greenhouse considers the ethics of this banal and horrifying stream of images. She asks, “What does a social-media company do when a user known to be attacking civilians is blasting out feel-good content?” To find out, she asked Instagram. They refused to comment on specific users, but still managed to give a response with maddeningly circular logic. In general, Instagram will ban users who upload violent or hateful content. The determination is based largely on context, and “context” is limited to the content uploaded to the site. So as long as Assad’s Instagram feed presents the appearance of a benevolent and just leader—in other words, portrays effective propaganda—Instagram is just fine with it.

Social media as a democratizing force is also undercut by the way content can travel freely, even when it’s divorced from ideology. In the Washington Post, Neil Ketchley observes that revolutionaries share tactics through social media regardless of ideology. Recent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt have studied tactics of the Ukrainian protesters, despite the fact that their political affiliations couldn’t be more different. The Euromaidan protesters were fighting for increased Westernization and closer ties to Europe, while the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting for a return to power for Islamist leaders deposed by a more secular military. Ketchley quotes an anonymous Muslim Brotherhood protester, emphasis mine:

The Ukrainians know how to make big molotovs, so we watch how they use them and in which situations so that we can better defend ourselves against the police. We don’t care about the situation in Ukraine; we only hear a little about it on the news. But they know how to use molotovs to hold their square against the police.

Another revelatory example of social media use in war is the way the Israeli Defense Forces have recently used a number of platforms, including Instagram. A November 2012 assault on Gaza was documented in real time on multiple social media platforms. Updates came at each stage of the assault, announcing the killing of key enemy combatants, statistics on rocket strikes, and warnings to Palestinian civilians to avoid Hamas operatives for their own safety.

Huw Lemmey takes a critical look at IDF’s social media strategy, particularly Instagram, in his essay “Devastation in Meatspace.” This propaganda, like older examples, synthesizes a community that excludes others while protecting you, the intended viewer. Lemmey says the IDF employs a “visual regime based around firmly entrenched, conservative branding techniques.” Instagram has the dual effect of putting the war on a “consumer scale,” as well as positioning the conflict in a visual relationship with wars of the past through Instagram retro filters. The images don’t appear as raw digital evidence of the now. They are not the type of images that impress upon us the duty of deciding the moral culpability of those depicted. That work has already been done. The retro feel places the images safely in the historic narrative of the nation of Israel, alongside wars whose moral questions have already been settled. Lemmey characterizes the aesthetic of these images this way, “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF. We are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.”

IDF soldier on Instagram

Another tactic deployed by the IDF on Instagram is posting photos taken by individual soldiers going about their daily lives. They look sexy, fun, and hip. They suggest to the viewer, we can hang out, we can be friends, even if we don’t know each other, we should. The personal and political completely collapse into one. We’re no longer able to distinguish our feelings about what these soldiers are doing on a moral and geopolitical scale with who we think they are, and how fun it might be to hand out with them. Images of Palestinians, meanwhile, get further from us, less relatable, more other .

The Third Meaning

What distinguishes the IDF’s Instagram feed from my collection of all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square during the final days of Euromaidan is the intentionality with which the images are created and shared. IDF’s Instagram is clearly propaganda. Some of the photos from Euromaidan are as well, but with others it’s hard to know. Who took these photos? Were they uploaded right away, or later? Who was the intended audience? If they conform to our idea of the recent narrative of Ukraine, who ensures that they tell the correct story, the photographer or the viewer?

Collecting and decontextualizing images in this way has a strange dual effect. On one hand, the conflict becomes very real, close, and almost personal. The rage and fear of the protesters becomes as genuine and immediate as everything else I see on Instragram, like my friends’ lunches and trips to the beach. On the other hand, this conflict is very far away and foreign. The images often seem raw and unfiltered, but also somehow conspicuously planned. They carry extra, incidental meanings. While employing smartphones to instantly capture, contemplate and share images of themselves in unbelievable circumstances, these photographers embed layers in these images beyond their intent and comprehension.

In Image Music Text, Roland Barthes identifies three ways images communicate meaning. The first is informational, the objects and people depicted. The second is symbolic. This is what the informational elements communicate through a shared understanding of the meaning of commonly interpreted signs. The third meaning is the obtuse meaning. This is similar to the symbolic meaning, but is open, incomplete, or perhaps broken. There is a sign, but we cannot give the signified a name. We can’t even be sure that it’s intentional. It’s the aspects of an image that point to meanings beyond language. Barthes talks about it this way,

The third meaning also seems to me greater than the pure, upright, secant, legal perpendicular of the narrative, it seems to open the field of meaning totally, that is infinitely. I even accept for the obtuse meaning the word’s pejorative connotation: the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language…

Social Images from violent conflicts are most revealing in the aspects that are beyond their intended meaning. As they blend self-referential and documentary purposes, they gain an obtuse meaning that escapes the intention of the maker. This is because the intended audience of the images is the photographer herself and her social network, not history. They gain the third meaning when they become documents of greater historical and political significance. Signifiers that once pointed to some shared meaning are severed, giving the images an aura that comes from dislocation.

The Best Articles I Read in 2013

Each December I post a list of the best articles I read of the year. It’s a way to reflect on the year past and the ideas that influenced me. This year’s list is pretty long, enjoy!

 

1. Dave Hickey’s Politics of Beauty

A great piece about one of my favorite art critics.

“His argument amounts to a not-so-stealthy attack on the whole profession of art professors, who, not able to make a living from their art, rely on college employment. It also upsets idealistic young art students who, understandably, find it hard to accept that their art possesses no intrinsic value. In fact, Hickey’s ideas about beauty question the validity of the entire American M.F.A. system, which protects thousands of artists from having to truck with capitalist markets in which the value of their art would be determined by the tug of war between the desires of the buyers and the needs of the sellers.”

 

2. COVER STORY: “THRESHOLD”
by CHRIS WARE
The New Yorker

Chris Ware’s essay about Newtown perfectly distills the confusion and terror I feel as a parent when I think about how our country thinks about guns and schools.

“Education is the very foundation of civilization and cannot be undermined or undersold. That we now have to somehow consider an unchecked population of firearms as part of this equation seems absolutely ludicrous and terrifying.”

 

3. Creative Blocks: The very laws of physics imply that artificial intelligence must be possible. What’s holding us up?
by David Deutsch
Aeon Magazine

A dense meditation on artificial intelligence. We need to better understand what intelligence is before we have any hope of recreating it.

 

4. Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax
by TIMOTHY BURKE AND JACK DICKEY
Deadspin

The unraveling of one of the weirdest stories of 2013. It’s about sports, inspirational narratives, and how the internet can do deeply weird things to how we understand truth.

 

5. UTOPIAN FOR BEGINNERS: An amateur linguist loses control of the language he invented.
by JOSHUA FOER
The New Yorker

A middle-age man who works at the DMV creates an elaborate language in his spare time called Ithkuil. “Ithkuil has two seemingly incompatible ambitions: to be maximally precise but also maximally concise, capable of capturing nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible.”

Then, despite its creator’s intent, Ithkuil is enthusiastically adopted by a group of ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic Russians.

 

6. On the Virtues of Preexisting Material

by Rick Prelinger

Contents Magazine

Pioneering archivist Rick Prelinger offers a 14 point manifesto on using old stuff in creative ways.

 

7. International Art English: On the rise—and the space—of the art-world press release.
by Alix Rule & David Levine
Triple Canopy

Why does so much art writing sound like hollow attempts at Continental philosophy sucked through a bad online translator? I’m glad you asked.

 

8. Saltz Revisits the 1913 Armory Show
By Jerry Saltz
New York Magazine

It’s always fun to see how people freaked out about new ideas in the past. Gives present day freak-outs some perspective.

“When the show reached Chicago, art students tried Matisse in absentia for “artistic murder, pictorial arson … criminal misuse of line,” and burned copies of his paintings. They tried to burn him in effigy, too, but were thwarted by local authorities. Critics opined that Matisse’s were “the most hideous monstrosities ever perpetrated” and “poisonous.” The former president Teddy Roosevelt barked that the art was “repellent from every standpoint.'”

 

9. For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of WWII
By Mike Dash
Smithsonian.com

The title says it all. Really remarkable tale. My favorite part is when they loose nearly their entire wheat crop and they have to grow it back slowly from a single seed.

 

10. Dictionary + algorithm + PoD t-shirt printer + lucrative meme = rape t-shirts on Amazon
by Pete Ashton

Why would Amazon sell a t-shirt with a joke about rape? And who would make such a thing? They don’t know they’re selling it, and no person consciously made it. Welcome to the future, where theoretically infinite, zero-cost product supply is created by algorithm.

 

11. Let’s Save Great Ideas from the Ideas Industry
by Umair Haque
HBR Blog Network

2013 was a year when popular opinion seemed to turn against TED. Here’s a critique of “TED thinking.” “TED thinking assumes complex social problems are essentially engineering challenges, and that short nuggets of Technology, Edutainment, and Design can fix everything, fast and cheap.” Which is a problem because, “Great Ideas aren’t just ‘solutions’. Indeed, many of the Greatest Ideas are problems.”

 

12. The Accidental Audience
By BRAD TROEMEL

Troemel talks about The Jogging, a Tumblr-based art project that people don’t always realize is an art project, and that’s kind of the point.

 

13. Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong

By Jerry Z. Muller

Foreign Affairs

The root of so much political disagreement is the question of how much markets should, or shouldn’t, be regulated. This discussion is so often driven by such extreme actors on either side, we often forget the importance of what’s right under our nose: a blend of the free market and a welfare state. This piece does a great job of helping us consider what that blend should look like, rather than feeding ammo to the war between two extreme positions.

 

14. More Losers Than Winners in America’s New Economic Geography
by RICHARD FLORIDA
Atlantic Cities

A really great piece by Richard Florida that his critics seem to ignore. He re-examines, and in many ways refutes, the ideas he’s known for from his book Rise of the Creative Class. As it turns out, making cities attractive to the creative class helps creative class workers, but not many others. A key quote: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

 

15. The Bitcoin Bubble and the Future of Currency
by Felix Salmon

An epic Bitcoin explainer, written right when the exchange rate starting really ramping up.

 

16. SIMCITY’S EVIL TWIN
BY GABRIEL WINSLOW-YOST
The New Yorker

On the occasion of both titles being added to the design collection of MoMA, a comparison of Sim City 2000 and Dwarf Fortress. (Yes there was a Dwarf Fortress article on last year’s list.)

 

17. Hunger Striking at Guantánamo Bay
New York Times

An op-ed by a prisoner hunger striking inside Guantánamo Bay prison. This piece, and the hunger strike in general, probably would have gained more attention if it hadn’t coincidentally overlapped with the Boston Marathon bombings.

 

18. A Senate in the Gun Lobby’s Grip
by Gabrielle Giffords
New York Times

A passionate and furious take down of a legislative body unwilling to protect its own people.

 

19. Why does America lose its head over ‘terror’ but ignore its daily gun deaths?
Michael Cohen
The Guardian

A sobering perspective from across the pond. The Boston lock-down and manhunt in the wake of the marathon bombings happened the same week the Senate failed to enact tougher gun laws. To Brits who survived IRA terrorism but whose risk of dying by a gun is orders of magnitude less than Americans, this just looks bat-shit insane.

“The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns.”

 

20. Just Following Orders: Bradley Manning and Us
By Molly Crabapple
Creative Time Reports

Chelsea (Bradley) Manning is a controversial figure to be sure, which is why her story is worthy of careful consideration.

“Like any whistleblower, Manning may have betrayed his institution, but he did so out of loyalty to humanity.”

 

21. Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive
by Boris Groys
e-flux journal

This one is difficult to summarize, so I’ll just drop in this quote: “Politics shapes the future by its own disappearance. Art shapes the future by its own prolonged presence. This creates a gap between art and politics—a gap that was demonstrated often throughout the tragic history of the relationship between left art and left politics in the twentieth century.”

 

22. Goodbye, Miami
By JEFF GOODELL
Rolling Stone

As sea levels rise over the next century, what will happen to Miami? Well, it’s not good.

 

23. Kanye West And His “Thirty White Bitches”
Cord Jefferson
The Awl

Kanye raps a lot about white women on Yeezus, and not always in the kindest way (to put it mildly). In one sense, this is pretty offensive stuff, but there’s more going on. I learned a lot reading this.

 

24. Woman’s work: The twisted reality of an Italian freelancer in Syria
Columbia Journalism Review
By Francesca Borri

A firsthand account of being a freelance journalist in Syria. Gripping and unreal.

 

25. Some Thoughts On Mercy
by ROSS GAY
Sun Magazine

A really thoughtful and moving account of being a black man in America today.

 

30. The Ecuadorian Library or, The Blast Shack After Three Years
by Bruce Sterling

Everyone’s favorite rambling sci-fi author/futurist on Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. “Americans don’t even know how to think about characters like Snowden — the American Great and the Good are blundering around on the public stage like blacked-out drunks, blithering self-contradictory rubbish. It’s all “gosh he’s such a liar” and “give us back our sinister felon,” all while trying to swat down the jets of South American presidents.”

 

31. Number Crunching Shows Old Movies Are More Creative Than New Ones
BY ADAM MANN
Wired

An interesting read. What really sold me was the description of something called the Wundt-Berlyne curve, which explains a lot more than just why people like movies. “The amount of pleasure someone derives from a creative piece goes up as its novelty increases. But at a certain point, there is a maximum of enjoyment. After that, something becomes too unfamiliar to stomach anymore.”

 

32. TED talks are lying to you
by THOMAS FRANK
Salon

Why is the literature of creativity so banal and formulaic?

 

33. Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures: Who decides what makes art good?
By Grayson Perry
Financial Times

A surprisingly frank and intelligent look at the question of what good art is, and who gets to say.

 

34. THE WRITER AS MEME MACHINE
BY KENNETH GOLDSMITH
The New Yorker

Poetry without poets and “conceptualism in the wild.” It’s an exciting time. I love this, “Poetry as we know it—sonnets or free verse on a printed page—feels akin to throwing pottery or weaving quilts, activities that continue in spite of their cultural marginality. But the Internet, with its swift proliferation of memes, is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of.”

 

35. Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?
by Hito Steyerl
e-flux journal

A dense and oddly fun read. Hard to summarize. Here’s a good quote:

“But here is the ultimate consequence of the internet moving offline. If images can be shared and circulated, why can’t everything else be too? If data moves across screens, so can its material incarnations move across shop windows and other enclosures. If copyright can be dodged and called into question, why can’t private property? If one can share a restaurant dish JPEG on Facebook, why not the real meal? Why not apply fair use to space, parks, and swimming pools?”

 

36. Killing Conspiracy: Why the best conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination don’t stand up to scrutiny.
By Fred Kaplan
Slate

Maybe we want to believe there is an elaborate conspiracy beyond JFK’s death because that would make the universe more knowable, and therefore less terrifying.

 

37. Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality
by Clay Shirky

What happens when bureaucrats who believe “failure is not an option” manage an incredibly complex web development project? They fail, of course. This is the most interesting read about a story that I usually find pretty excruciating.

 

38. STATE OF DECEPTION: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community?
BY RYAN LIZZA
The New Yorker

As maddening as it is informative. This line: “[Senator] Feinstein maintains that data collection is not surveillance.”

SERIOUSLY??

 

39. Chicago’s Opportunity Artist
by Ben Austen
New York Times

A great profile of Chicago artist and activist Theaster Gates. One of the most fascinating and inspiring people I’ve met.

 

40. Edward Snowden, after months of NSA revelations, says his mission’s accomplished
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post

“All I wanted was for the public to be able to have a say in how they are governed.”

Do those sound like the words of a traitor or a patriot? You decide.

 

Creative Time Summit and the Boogieman

Anne Pasternak welcomes the crowd at the 2013 Creative Time Summit.
Anne Pasternak welcomes the crowd at the 2013 Creative Time Summit.

The theme for this year’s Creative Time Summit, held at NYU last week, was Art, Place, and Dislocation in the 21st Century City. The two day event featured keynotes, panels, short films, and on-stage interviews. With any event like this, there’s an odd paradox of information overload on one hand, and a feeling that the presentations are too short on the other. There’s never quite enough of the interesting stuff, but there’s too much of everything.

Another feature of a forum like this is that the speakers use a shared shorthand for some pretty complex concepts. Partly this is out necessity, due to short time slots, but it can also feel lazy. It’s a way of playing to the crowd, if you know your listeners are sympathetic to a certain idea or line of reasoning, it’s easy to lean on it too heavily without bothering to justify it.

One of these shorthand terms that stood out to me was the way a number of speakers referred to “capital” as a diabolical autonomous force. Capital wants this, capitol destroys that, we must resist the influence of capital and on and on (Neil Brenner’s keynote is a good example of this). This is a pretty typical way of speaking in left-leaning community of socially-engaged art, and I don’t normally have a problem with it. I was well aware of the political positions and goals of many of these projects, and of Creative Time as a whole, well before I decided to attend the conference. I get it, and I (usually) agree with what these projects are trying to achieve. But something about the way the word capital was used with such an ominous tone bugged me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was the on-stage conversation between Creative Time’s chief curator Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses. Project Row Houses is a community art initiative in Houston that has combined artist residencies and affordable housing for twenty years. Their conversation was frank, funny, and provocative in all the right ways. One line that stuck with me came up when Rick was speaking critically about creative place-making, the umbrella term that seems to have usurped the older and less sexy notion of community art. He said, “It’s easy to go to the place, it’s harder to go to the people.”

This sentiment was echoed later in Lucy Lippard’s keynote, where she made the point that “place” as a concept has been cheapened. If you want to do a project that engages place in a meaningful way, it requires more that just loving the place, it requires immersion. I took this to mean that only when you’re immersed will you begin to truly understand a place, mediated through genuine relationships with the people who make the place what it is. This idea, touched on by both Lowe and Lippard is both inspiring and challenging. For those of us working to cultivate new ways for art to occupy cities, it’s a reminder that this is difficult, complicated stuff.

I also like this idea because I think it taps into a much deeper truth, one that goes way beyond creative place-making and social art projects. The warning here is that people are always more important and complex than ideas. We can have wonderful ideas, but if the implementation isn’t responsive to people, they probably won’t amount to much.

Then it dawned on me why the tendency to speak about capital as a community-destroying boogieman was bothering me so much. It replaces a complex constituency of people with a simple idea. Simple ideas, no matter how well-intentioned, will never be a substitute for getting to know people and understanding their motivations. Characterizing capital as a unified force glosses over the fact that businesses are run by actual people. The people who run businesses have diverse, nuanced, and conflicting motivations, just like artists, activists, and everyone else. Some businesses really are predatory and awful, others genuinely want to make their communities a better place, and there are plenty who fall somewhere in between. To echo Rick Lowe’s statement, it’s easy to demonize businesses, it’s harder to demonize the people who run them.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m speaking in defense of bank CEOs, brutish condo developers and architects of the subprime lending crisis. I’m not. What I’m against is the tendency to lump bad actors together with honest, hardworking people who run commercial ventures. This more nuanced approach is not a semantic exercise. If we’re serious about the goals presented throughout the conference–creating places that are just, equitable, and inclusive–we’ll do a much better job if we work alongside businesspeople who share common interests than if we demonize everyone who’s trying to make money.

The Mysterious Case of Carlos Bustez

carlos bustez

When I was 16 I created fake identity. It was one part joke, one part experiment. 15 years later, my parents are still getting mail for Carlos Bustez, who does not exist.

It’s been so long that my memory of how this began is fuzzy. What I recall is that one day in high school my classmates and I were required to fill out some type of form that was clearly not just for use within the school. It wasn’t a standardized test, but it was something similar. The teacher passed around a stack of the forms and told us to fill them out. The form asked for our names and addresses, as well as demographic info, including ethnicity (and more info that I don’t recall, such as the actual purpose of the form). There were more forms floating around than there were students, so I took two and hatched a little plan. I wondered what would happen if I filled out one with my real information, and one where everything was the same except I would use the name Carlos Bustez and mark “hispanic” instead of “white” in the ethnicity category. The idea at the time was to see if that would make any difference. I still used my real address, so if Carlos got mail that I didn’t, I would know.

Within a few months I did get mail for Carlos Bustez, but the fact that my alter ego was hispanic made no difference. I just got twice as much junk mail, one for me and one for Carlos.

The Carlos Bustez experiment did have two interesting outcomes: One, it showed just how much junk mail and unwanted solicitations were generated from that single form (whatever it was). We have a sense that when we write our address or e-mail address on something and give it away it somehow falls into the hands of marketers, but since your contact info is always the same, it’s really hard to know exactly how it spreads. Carlos was like the radioactive dye that allows blood vessels to show up on x-rays. Every single piece of mail I got for him had a single source, an inocuos form filled out by a room full of bored teenagers.

The other lesson is just how long it has lasted. I moved out of my parents house long ago and changed my address, but Carlos never changed his. Is it typical for ITT Technical Institute to send a recruitment letter to someone who graduated high school 13 years ago? Is it a fluke? Will I still get them a decade from now?

It makes me wonder about other experiments that could allow us to put tracers on our identity. Is there a way to track the digital breadcrumbs we drop as we travel the Internet?

(As a postscript, it turns out that ITT Technical Institute is a pretty shady private university, according to Wikipedia. It has the highest rate of loans that go into default within two years of attendance, and grade inflation is a problem, illustrated by this lovely tidbit: “In one instance, a student got 100% on a computer forensics assignment by emailing the professor a noodle recipe.”)

A Proposal: Library of Babel the Video Game

 

Still from Youtube user superadvancepet's "Minecraft: the Library of Babel"
Still from Youtube user superadvancepet’s “Minecraft: the Library of Babel”

I read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel in college. Like most people I know who read it in college, it bent my mind in a way that cannot be unbent. It’s not a story as much as a description of a setting. He describes a universe that consists of a series of hexagonal chambers. The rooms are joined by doorways at the sides, and stacked and joined by stairs above and below. No one knows how many chambers there are, and many believe they continue infinitely. The denizens of this universe wander the chambers, trying to make sense of the countless books that line shelves in every room, most of which appear to be nonsense. One wanderer describes the nature of the random books this way:

This thinker observed that all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. He also alleged a fact which travelers have confirmed: In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

I got to thinking about The Library of Babel while playing Minecraft. Minecraft, as you may know, is a sandbox game, meaning that there’s not a set narrative or purpose. Players are placed in a blocky, randomly generated world, and they can explore and build things as they like. The topography of a Minecraft world is not designed like levels of a typical video game, instead it’s generated by an algorithm. This generation is both random and theoretically infinite. According to Minecraftwiki, each unique world played has a surface area over 9.3 million times that of Earth before the limits of the terrain generating algorithm prevent it from getting any bigger.

Not surprisingly, someone used a Minecraft mod to create an in-game approximation of Borges’ Library universe. It’s not infinite, and not as big as a randomly generated world, but it is sizable. Youtube user superadvancepet, who uploaded a clip of the world, says, “it’s big enough that it runs the game out of memory if you don’t modify the view distance, which is kind of philosophically close enough.”

 

I’d like to mess around in the Minecraft version, but there’s one huge problem: you can’t read the books. I would really like to see someone build a video game version of The Library of Babel that applies Minecraft’s terrain generation concepts to the texts of the books. I’m no programmer, but it seems like you could write code that would randomly generate and save the text of each book as your avatar picked it up, ensuring that the next random generation would not be identical. The point of the game would be the same as the point of the story, try to find something that makes sense without going mad.

To stay true to the story, the game would need to be a massively multiplayer online game, where hundreds or thousands of players could explore the chambers at once. It would essentially be a huge chatroom, where I’m sure many players would abandon reading in favor of joking around and trolling one another. Which is something that happens in common areas and chat channels of MMOs anyway, even when there’s fun quests to do and people are paying to play the game. MMOs provide something that other art forms do not, they become sites of community, and these communities breed new cultures as a collective response to their surroundings. Borges imagines and describes this process, as literature does, but a game could actually create a space for it to happen.

The more I think about it, I’m becoming convinced that The Library of Babel as an idea is better suited to the medium of a video game than to the medium of a short story. It may be that existential dispair of the library, and its comment about our own attempt to make sense of the universe, would be better communicated through a first hand experience. Literature is a mature art. I think we’re only beginning to see the power of games to create inhabitable spaces that support not only the experience of a player, but the organic development of new cultures.

The Best Articles I Read in 2012

Thanks to Instapaper, I keep track of all the articles I read digitally. At the end of each year, I compile a list of the best articles, essays, and blog posts. This is the first time the list has appeared here, on my new blog (as the first post, no less).

Note: These are articles I read this year. Some may have been written before 2012.

The list, in the order I read them, with a thought and/or quote from each:

Y Combinator: Kill Hollywood

SOPA and PIPA caused a huge stir around net neutrality in January of 2012. There was plenty of hang-wringing from tech folks, but this simple blog post from Y Combinator was the best response I read.

 

Club Kids: The Social Life of Artists on Facebook

This is a great piece about the way networks fundamentally change how artwork is collectively produced (or intentionally not produced). The essay was collaboratively written by three authors, each using a different color text.

 

The Ballad of @Horse_ebooks

The link I shared more than any other in 2012. This post explains the phenomenon behind my favorite twitter account, a spam-bot set up by a mysterious Russian to sell crappy ebooks about horses (with 143,000 followers).

 

Puppies, Paintings and Philosophers

New York Times profile of a someone I know and look up to a great deal. Adam Lerner is the director of Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. He’s reinventing what an art museum is.

 

Brian Eno’s 1995 Opening Speech for the Turner Prize

Old, obviously, but posted to Art Fag City in 2012. A quote:

“Why is it that all of us here – presumably members of the arts community – probably know more about the currents of thought in contemporary science than those in contemporary art? Why have the sciences yielded great explainers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould, while the arts routinely produce some of the loosest thinking and worst writing known to history? Why has the art world been unable to articulate any kind of useful paradigm for what it is doing now?”

 

31 Notes on the Breakdown of Practically Everything: The case of the “crazy” athlete

I don’t normally read about sports, but some of the writing on Grantland is so good I can’t resist.

 

Christianity in Crisis

Andrew Sullivan on Christianity getting mangled by politics.

 

An Essay on the New Aesthetic

Bruce Sterling at his rambling best on the New Aesthetic. (If you don’t know what the New Aesthetic is, he starts off with a link that explains it well). If this interests you, you should also check out two other posts: In Response To Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic” and The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder. I really love this stuff. I’m bummed that is seemed to fall off the radar pretty quickly last spring.

 

The Tribal Mind: Moral Reasoning and Public Discourse

If you lean left politically (as I tend to), don’t be put off by the fact that this is from the American Enterprise Institute (a Conservative think tank). This is a really good explanation of how moral reasoning erodes useful political discourse.

 

All Eyez on Not-Me 

An excellent critical take on the Tupac hologram at Coachella. Seriously.

 

The End of the World: The State vs. the Internet

Will the state destroy the internet, or will the internet destroy the state?

 

The Collapse of Complex Business Models

Clay Shirky on what the Internet is doing to the television business, but it easily translates into lessons about what the internet is doing to nearly everything else.

 

Echo Chamber: Is today’s art too self-referential?

I tend to like writing about art that points out why so much other writing about art is so easy to ignore.

 

The Believer interview with Dave Hickey

This is from 2007, but I read it this year and it knocked my socks off. Dave Hickey quit the art world in 2012.

 

Welcome to the Future Nauseous

This post introduces the idea of manufactured normalcy, defined this way: “There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.” Have you ever noticed that what your body experiences on a plane isn’t that different that what it would experience on a boat 2000 years ago, even though you’re traveling 400 miles per hour 20,000 feet above the ground?

 

Five facts about achieving the American Dream

Fact one: “If you want to achieve the American Dream, America is actually not a very good place to try to do it.” Data to back that up, and more real talk.

 

Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math

A long and frustrating read from Rolling Stone.

 

Dear Young DFW Whippersnapper Artists

This is a post imploring Dallas/Fort Worth artists to get over themselves and get weird, but it applies to artists everywhere, especially in cities that are not major art centers.

 

Americans Want to Live in a Much More Equal Country (They Just Don’t Realize It)

A fascinating read about income inequality. Americans across the political spectrum want a far more equal society than we have. How we get there is another story.

 

The Veil of Opulence

How do we assess whether a government policy is fair? By imagining its impact on everyone it effects, or only on ourselves or some idealized version of ourselves?

 

Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art

Peter Schjeldahl talks honestly about what we like about art and why. He cuts through great swaths of bullshit.

 

Speech, Lies and Apathy

Truth in politics probably died a long time ago. Here’s a good obituary spurred by the 2012 presidential campaign.

 

How Capitalism Can Save Art

Camille Paglia on art’s “airless echo chamber.” I don’t agree with everything here, but it’s a fun provocation.

 

A Modest Proposal: Exhibit ‘Bad’ Modern Art

Every art collection has tons of terrible stuff. I think the most memorable painting in the Grand Rapids Art Museum permanent collection is also the worst. (I’ll have to write about that later, stay tuned.)

 

Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win

This is incredible and a little creepy.

 

Seizing ‘Forward’: 3 Steps Obama Must Take to Fight Corruption and Gridlock

Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons, on what Obama needs to do now.

 

As Not Seen on TV, Restaurant Review: Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square

A brutal New York Times review of Guy Fieri’s touristy restaurant. I read somewhere else that the controversy surrounding this review has made the restaurant even more popular. Viva la criticism!

 

Where Do Dwarf-Eating Carp Come From?

The story of Dwarf Fortress, the most difficult and complex video game ever made.