Essays

In Memory of Dump.fm, an Endlessly Collaborative Image Poem

Dump.fm died a quiet, seemingly definitive death this month, after having survived a number of rumored deaths over the years.

Screenshot of a typical dump.fm visual collage by dumper kiptok (image courtesy of dumper larsdk)

Dump.fm died a quiet, seemingly definitive death last month, after having survived a number of rumored deaths over the years. This pleasant monster would sometimes sputter and refuse to take on all the junk it was fed — seemingly without remuneration or institutional support. But never would it definitively enter unto the 404 and scroll no more. Until now.

Dump.fm was a real-time imaging sharing site that took its cue from the transmissional aesthetics of radio, perhaps ham radio in particular. Since its inception in 2010, the ragtag group of amateurs and auteurs of digital junk space who participated fulfilled the site’s mission of “talking with images” by adding these images to a single chat stream, much as one would add multiple mixing channels to a single broadcast mix. The gifs, pngs, and jpgs inevitably became spliced, remixed, broken, minced, enlarged, interlinked, and eroded, elaborately arranged in gif altars or parsed into animated rebuses by the site’s semi-anonymous users.

Screen capture from dump.fm window. Online users, both those participating and lurking, can be seen on the right; hearts on top of an image indicates that a fav has been made. In this image, a troll is in the process of posting long Christian rants below. (image courtesy of larsdk)

Unlike the multiply niched and customizable web at large, there was only one window for adding dumps. You could change it to black-screen or full-screen mode, you could mute users if boring or offensive, and there were some secret and rarely used alt rooms (the /art room, the /sex room, the /lisafrank room), but that was about it. At the bottom there was a field in which you could paste image urls end-to-end to form a collage, plus an upload button, and a webcam button. To the right, you could see all the users currently online and their dump score based on accumulation of favs, access to their favs, their top dumps, and the entire dump stream of each. A leaderboard greeted new logins with the best dumps of the day. Most of the time, even the best of the best barely reached ten favs.

Image of the dump.fm front page/leaderboard (courtesy of dumper goatmilk)

Depending on one’s taste — and one’s interpretation of the site’s raison d’être — you could say that this scrolling image flow was either interrupted or enhanced by more typical chat conversations, trolling, and obsessive webcamming. (A common, and sometimes ironic, dump was “this is an art space, not a teenage hangout.”) But the charm of this window was that it merged both webcam cheesecaking and intricate net-arting into an improvisational mega-assemblage, a particular exploitation of the real-time potential of the web that one surprisingly sees very little of. In an email to me, veteran surf-club denizen and dump regular tommoody described the difference between the “live”-ness of dumpspace versus that found in more regulated and infinitely scalable online spaces, “Dump had horizontality — the ability to compose ‘inline’ image groups on the fly, writing a sentence in pictures — and there is no surrounding framework for posts, such as Twitter’s … which imposes a kind of rigid logic and reminds you at all times that someone else is the boss.” Everybody present on dump had to share the chat window with everyone else, with speed of response being more valuable than quality. Whether or not you decided to directly communicate with others, you were all together in one compositional space, “fave”-ing with hearts that did not seem a creepy imposition (as with Twitter) but a show of genuine affection for those with whom you shared this space, at all hours, for years. Neither an art-world-ish “internet surf club” nor a monetized zeitgeist sump pump, dump seemed to harken back to a pre-1997 internet era, when it was possible to imagine that the users you met online were a small enough cohort to seem communitarian, but not large enough to merely replicate the social structures and hierarchies of the world at large.

Dump chat (courtesy of larsdk)

Consequently, while the site was in conversation with the world of the meme and social media, it seems to have developed in ways that challenged the blithe replication of meme products and also worked against the slicker aesthetic of the cinemagraph gif or the Tumblr-ready net-art object. (The majority of makers of the latter use Tumblr more as an aggregator and exhibitor than a compositional and performative space.) Dump did have its standalone classics, like the following, which seems to parody a kind of 4chan conspiracy meme but clearly marks itself, perhaps only half-seriously, as for-dump-only:

Standalone dump gif by user reneabythe puts itself “outside the spin zone”

The fact that reneabythe’s dump object sets itself apart, in however tongue-in-cheek a manner, from the “sharing” culture of Tumblr and the web at large is important on a number of levels for thinking about the particular magic of dump. As an insider remix joke that doesn’t release itself into the mass-culture of remix memes and multiply recontextualized images, the dump opts for the “democracy” of a small community rather than the chaos of the commercialized web that threatens to detour détournement at every turn.

You were more likely, however, to see dumps like the one that heads this article, which is a combination of premade repeating units, screenshots, screenshots of screenshots, gifs, and collages of gifs. What started in the above example with user tommoody posting science gifs of squiggly protein-folding simulations soon became, through additions by five or six other dumpers, a kind of asemic poem on the question of language in general and dump language particularly.

Gif or gif collage of originally by user pepperII. Each object here has its own url, so the pieces can be instantly rearranged with other urls to form a new dump. (images capture by the author, gif by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Weird fragments, heavy dithering, pieces of images or text floating without context. Inaction gifs as opposed to reaction gifs. The quasi-syntactical combinations of these crappy objects were only possible if participants were more interested in treating the combinations like a language — one for which they would both have to amass the vocabulary and then be willing to speak with it. The rapidity of these combinations allowed for the unexpected, as if Breton’s automatic writing had finally found its imagistic counterpart. While many dumpers were content to aggregate their dumps out of appropriated urls and other dumps, some artists, like anndunham, have created vast archives of images from scratch to combine and recombine new image fields, pulling on this idiosyncratic dataset with miraculous speed and energy — what he described in a Facebook message to me as “rapid serial moods.” You can get a sense of what this dump grammar could look like when expanded to other media via his “open field” web-based projects.

Screenshot from anndunham’s DUNP in the link above, and also accessible here

Here, on a vast scrollable field of white — which turns out to be a YouTube video containing a tiny window with a dump poem en-abyme — we see anndunham’s signature dump style and, among other self-recycled images, some of his most popular dump combinatorials. We also see some reference to dump space — the open white field, sometimes crossed with pink stripes to signify that a “fav” has been made — becoming like the prismatic blanks of Mallarmé’s notorious spaced-out poem “Un Coup de Dés.” In this, anndunham is uniquely exploiting (or perhaps the better term is “de-exploiting”) the negative space of dump. One of the reasons the dump process differed from meme products is that in meme creation, any blank space is filled, translated, detoured, morphed. It’s no longer that the emperor has no clothes but rather that the queen’s coat is a green screen. With viral culture, overloading the space of composition and exploiting any void in image and attention is key. Conversely, what we saw on dump was that there was a communicative modesty in letting the blank be — not manically informatic but rather, even in its speed and overload, pointing to the whole, the absolute creative duration in things. In the strangest of ways, dump seemed to approximate the ideals of experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, who thought of the relation of images neither as narrative nor montage, but rather based on a spacing, an “aeration.” The single live chat thread calls for indiscriminate dumping, yes, but also for collaboration, call and response, spacing, a rhythm. This is what Dorsky calls “intermittence” — to be closer to the rhythm of the being of the spectator. To create a “vibration.” To respect the gaps of life. Between a media object that rudely imposes its reality and one that imposes the egotism of the artist, intermittence provides a third way. “It occurs through someone’s inspiration to put something into the world that is uncompromisingly present, which, in turn, invokes our innate ability to share in that presence.” But the trick is that this presence comes from absence and incompletion.

It might seem patently ridiculous to compare the types of devotional experiences Dorsky finds with experimental film to new media experiences that are more compatible with getting zonked on Red Bull. However, should we see the likes of dump.fm again, with images composed of mixtures of slices — moving, glitched, or almost-not-there — we might find that it is still the flicker that threatens to go out which calls our greatest care and attention.

Screenshot of screenshots of screenshots of an ill-fated navigational tool used for dump, recomposed in the dump window (courtesy larsdk)
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