Highlighted sections from DDDDoomed (w/ notes)

DDDDoomed by R. Gerald Nelson published by Edition MK

R. Gerald Nelson’s DDDDoomed essay has been making the rounds lately and it sparked a healthy amount of curiosity and note-taking on my part that I felt I wanted to share with some reactions. The essay is published as the first volume of eight in Nelson’s Making Known Img Ctrl series based out of Minneapolis. The image heavy text is “crafted as a speculative fiction that unfolds from the perspective of a future commentator reflecting back and theorizing about the factors that brought about the dysfunctional state of the contemporary image world.” The highlights and corresponding notes aren’t presented in their original linear order, but instead I’ve decided to skip around.

As a way of introducing the text, Nelson formulates a biting critique of how web-based image aggregators (abbreviated to “IA” henceforth) such as ffffound.com and tumblr are constantly undermining the cultural task of curation. Nelson points to several projects, including the amazing Voyager Golden Record overseen by Carl Sagan, that at first appear very similar to what IAs provide. Nelson emphasizes, however, that the deliberateness found in the cataloging work by John Baldassari and Ed Ruscha show a particularly accute understanding of the “‘unsexy’ non-visual history” embedded in images that IAs tend to ignore.

As [Cluade] Lévi-Strauss pointed out, ‘painting was perhaps an instrument knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession… Likely to their own regret (or so I hope), like many rich Italian Merchants long before them, many IAs likewise chose to use their collected images as ‘instruments[s] of possession’ rather than ‘instrument[s] of knowledge.’ The fundamental difference was that the IA’s possessions, while still defined by their relative materiality, were not physical in nature. Instead, in relying upon photographers and Internet image producers as their agents, IAs (with their ‘rich’ collection of images) apparently possessed what was commonly referred to as having keen awarenesses for so-called relevant styles and certain esoteric cultural artifacts of a digital nature.

Although Nelson never specifically ties this sense of ownership to the surmounting agency found within digital frameworks (see Janet Murray), the “posting as ownership” tendency within IAs is certainly a dangerous trend. I find it interesting to connect this amassing of content/imagery to the habits and behaviors found within the museum. Generating traffic and distribution through the narrow bandwidth of filtering systems that IAs enable is akin to the selectiveness of the permanent collection exhibitions of contemporary art museums. The “success” of any one image, painting, or object both within IAs and within the museum is dependent on distribution of its reproduction. This can be extrapolated into determining the “wealth” of any particular institution or image-object as being beholden to the traffic that is generated towards, or around, its presences or location.

Something else tucked within the quote above is this determining how IA-like activity can be likened to the collection of “artifacts.” I’m under the impression that this term is not deliberately used to identity these images as having an archeological undertone, but I am nevertheless drawn to the wordplay between artifact and artificial since Nelson does distinguish IA collections being invested in non-material object-images. I’m also considering the play between the non-physical and the superficial since Nelson positions this report as a fictional future-sighted account of a moment in Internet history (a future-artifact itself). This recursiveness is something in and of itself that can potentially undo, or complicate, the otherwise linear, archival, and progress-based mentality of IAs.

As we delve into the meat of Nelson’s text, we find that his primary critique of IAs revolve around the lack of critical inquiry of found material online. “What became evident to many was that IAs were capitalizing only on the aesthetically engaging qualities of imagery circulating online – their activities, increasingly, and eventually completely, dismissed an image’s history and its essential identifying information.” I’m curious to know what capital is being exchanged here other than hipsterism and/or “net-cred.” Although IAs generate revenue from adds on their sites, I’m not certain than any specific user is getting a substantial cut from any of that profiteering, and perhaps the criticism that Nelson is making here is the unconscious participation of capitalism through the guise of “free exchange.” Locating this fault with an engine and not it’s users is an important distinction to make. Although I think there are always alternatives to the default tumblog, the unfortunate consequences of this unwitting cooperation into fiscal market exchange is perhaps something unavoidable at this stage (or something that should be taken to task).

By devaluing each image’s potency as an autonomous object, IAs were effectively exaggerating the worth of their role by convincing the viewers of their websites that their assembled collection – as a whole which fails to properly recognize any of its constituent parts – was, paradoxically, to be the sole object of spectacle.

In this quote near the closing remarks of his publication, Nelson points us to the pivotal flaw of IAs as curatorial devices: namely, these sites rely upon their quantitative material wealth as opposed to a potential qualitative investigation of the contextual/intertextual relationships that images inherently have. Just before this exposition into that failure, Nelson points to a more effective route of image collection that occurs when there is a consciousness involved in “seeking to work in accordance with an image’s ingrained meaning (that is, both its actual and semiotic meaning).” This method, which aims to discover new content from the juxtaposition or compilation of images can combat the otherwise cursory appropriation for the sake of aesthetically likening one image to another.

However, I take issue with the sweeping gesture of lumping all of IA activity into one uniform unaware monster. Even though Nelson gives us specific examples of users and trends within “debased” venues of image distribution (like the “obligatory image [of the] skinny, half-naked, tousled-haired, Brooklyn-girl, shot Terry Richardson style”), I’m not convinced that the unintentional cumulation can’t show us something about our need to interface with visual culture. The fact that there is this sense of urgency and immediacy found within IA communities can speak volumes about the insecurity we suffer as a result of the image bombardment we undergo everyday. In other words, the power (and draw) to the IA spectacle is that we need to be able to create filters of exchange and distribution as a method of delineating preference and personality. That being said, the potential for undermining or circumventing image culture saturation is still folded into the mass-market appeal and commercial apparatus that IAs provide; a problem that could be addressed through moving away from the convenience of default systems and investing in personal customization.

Nelson employs the still incredibly relevant criticism of of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to locate the technological skepticism within the scope of contemporary art history as well as it’s relationship to traditional/historical fine arts. He quotes Berger at length when discussing how IAs use distribution as an unknowing/unintentional destructive force:

What the modern means of reproduction have done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it – or, rather, to remove its images which they reproduce – from any preserve. For the first time ever, images of art [and now, also documentary images that epitomizes our cultures] have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as language surrounds us. They have entered the mainstream of life over which they longer, in themselves, have power.

I would argue that the unfolding of once sacred, kept, or owned imagery from the museum into the mainstream has not rendered their power useless, but instead has shifted their power to be more akin to the power found – as Berger himself suggests – in language (although I think that Berger is actually arguing that the object itself has lost power and not the visual information that the object once held). Language is an everyday utility that hasn’t yet lost it’s power for subversion, poetry, and emotional evocation. Similarly for all the power that the reproduced cultural image has potentially lost in being widely distributed, it has likewise gained through accessibility. I’m not crediting IAs with facilitating this shift of power, but I do wonder if/how the filtering/quasi-curatorial methods of IAs have positively effected our ability to take these once inscrutable images and reformulated them in order to understand their relevance in contemporary image culture. Although IAs have possibly done more harm then help in directing or dissecting how we socially engage with images, they have – in a semi-oblique way – enabled a discourse of understanding our current Ways of Seeing.

The Artists Hand… Kinda

Lately, I have been asking myself how the interface of the screen influences the projects and products that exist within mediated space. In particular, I’m wondering how the periphery of the graphical user interface (ie, the devices we use for interaction in screen space) dictate presence and persona as well as guide action in digital realms. In a way, I’ve become curious with how the movements of the cursor across a digital frames have played such a heavy role in how we embody our activities onscreen.

Part of this question comes from the proliferation of touch based interfaces, and how tablet based computing is quickly making the cursor an obsolete part of the graphical user interface. Even if the cursor disappears from our everyday media-routines, the iconographic power, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s symbolic significance will permanently hold a place in the valhalla of digital culture.

The crux of this inquiry into the status of the cursor is coming from a place of wanting to understand our current relationship to screen aesthetics, especially since contemporary net-based artists are exploring how digital technology can recursively be in dialog with AFK space and work. Looking at the sculpture and installation based works of Kari Altmann and Ida Lehtonen precisely make me wonder how the affect of the screen and its interface are being reflected and digested through non-screen-based disciplines.

The cursor acts as both an object of recording motion/interaction as well as a placement holder for mediated screen identity/presence. These two modes – and their rare combination – imbue the cursor with so much cultural weight and familiarity. This inoculation has become so pervasive in computer literacy that it has infiltrated our non-screen culture as well. Some artists employ the visual power of the cursor and have gone about removing this icon from screen space in order to investigate its significance in other mediums and contexts.

Tools@Hand, Micah Schippa 2008

Constant Dullaart, for instance, moves the cursor off-screen and onto the back of a RC floor-runner that chases and is chased around by spectators wanting to catch and/or avoid it’s erratic pointy motions. As a nod to the rich historical overlaps that lie between textiles and computer technology, Micah Schippa hand-weaves the cursor into a cloth, along with other familiar graphical user interface iconography in his Tools@Hand series. In a more humorous gesture, John Michael Boling positions the cursor as something more akin to pestilence in Lord of the Flies by having a flock of cursors float around and seemingly worship the Google logo. Chris Collins elevates – and satirizes – the mediated haptic experience of the cursor in his And So I Touched the Hand of God by likening the user experience of one (your cursor) to many (screen space, social space) to relationships between a disciple and the divine.

And So I Touched the Hand of God, Chris Collins

By simultaneously being both meditative and funny, Collins’ piece is able to bridge a gap between the cursor as icon, and cursor as experience of embodied device on and off-screen. The cursor can, and should be, thought of as our first information-age avatar. The simplicity of the cursor – and relative standardization between platforms/software – allows users to readily and easily transfer their persona into a spec on a screen.

The psychological and phenomenological relationship between user and cursor should be presented as a space for introspection within an ever increasing rapidly-moving environment. In some sense, the speed at which screen space clips makes it all the more easy for us to forego the otherwise dense transition from touch to interface to screen. This willingness is also in no small part due to how we have developed a digital culture that understands mediation of self through gadgetry (both hardware and software).

Several net-based artists have taken up this concern within their own work online, I think particularly since the cursor is rapidly approaching obsolescence. Ilia Ovechkin embraces the mediated tactility of the cursor to follow (and also trace) the movements of a teenager displaying his head-banging skills in his bedroom. Not only does Ovechkin’s Cursor act as a kind of symbolic intermediary between user and interface, but also between watcher and watched. In this sense, the cursor is a device for documentation and interaction; a reification of screen self through the movements of another device and another body.

Duncan Malashock‘s recent performance pieces record cursor movements within a very specific area or pattern (akin to Bruce Nauman’s Walking pieces). After multiplying and repeating these movements/phrases into a type of rhythmic round, the compounded performance becomes a hypnotic and slightly claustrophobic display. In Malashock’s Sarabande – a type of dance performed in triple metre – three cursors roam across the screen, independent of user guidance and control. The disembodied cursor starts to take on a new role, one that forces the viewer to reflect how the interface might contain inherent properties and stipulations that otherwise get ignored or taken for granted.

Malashock’s work plays with different types of cursor experience; in some pieces we get to engage the cursor directly, using it for its instinctive interactivity, and in others we have to observe the cursor go about it’s movements without having the ability to effect placement or result. We can imagine that these two types of engagement with our digital hand lead to two types of user experience: alienation or identification.

Portrait of a Youngman, Shunya Hagiwara 2008

This juxtaposition and synthesis of these two states of interaction happen within Portrait of a Youngman by Shunya Hagiwara. In this piece we are able to control and participate with the objects on screen, but we also are subjected to a kind of cursor theft as the objects move through a specific frame of interactivity. This limitation of participation is similar to Malashock’s recorded performances in that they show how the constraints of the interface dictate engagement and expression within the screen. The inherent hindrance of the cursor, and our reliance upon its mechanism and behavior, highlights our growing frustration and desire to move away or beyond this framework of interactivity into more intuitive hardware (ie wetware).

Rafaël Rozendaal also investigates this dichotomy of user experience through single-serving-site pieces that have variable amounts of interactivity and control. Although the mouse plays an essential role within many – if not most – works in Rozendaal’s oeuvre, two works in particular, annoyingcursor.com and outinthewind.com, exemplify the two distinct ways that the cursor can be employed as a phenomenological tool. The irritation in annoyingcursor.com (which you can imagine is self evident by the title of the work alone) reprograms the cursor to no longer abide by the typical utility that we normally expect. In doing so, Rozendaal reinforces our reliance upon the limitation of interface, and perhaps unintentionally points to our ever-growing movement away from the established hardware used for screen interaction.

outinthewind.com, Rafaël Rozendaal 2009

Through the simple and playfully poetic outinthewind.com, Rozendaal counters our frustration in annoyingcursor.com with a much more sentimental view of how we embody screen space. In this work the pixels of our cursor are blown off by randomized gusts from unseen digital gales. An almost immediate reaction I have with this work is to make sudden movements of impatience in order to regain my cursor’s form, but this on further it’s deterioration, and eventually renders the cursor into scattered slowly-fading dots in a void. Once the cursor has disintegrated completely, viewers are forced to either navigate away from the work, refresh the page, or close the browser altogether. The sense of loss within this work that occurs when we fully adsorb our absence of a graphical self on-screen. In doing so we recognize the level of investment we’ve made in the interface as a representation of personal belonging and dependancy.

Our demanding agency over digital interfaces crumbles when we realize that the series of interactions we have on-screen are based on computational situations that are occasionally beyond our control. This type of interactivity is not only unpredictable, but it is also so far removed from our everyday understanding of technology that our only way of digesting this process of translation is through a series of complex and subtle abstractions of self. As a result, the plug-and-play expectations of our hardware and software have gradually turned us into disembodied or estranged users. We are now faced with the difficulty of having to combat and understand the contradictory burden of the simultaneous frustration (when things don’t work right, for reason we don’t understand) and profound attachment (feeling loss when graphic representations of self disappear or are stunted) amidst being inundated with a whole new set of problems that touch screen hardware has already started to bring.