Essays

Tumblr, Art, and Web 2.0 Ecologies: The Medium Is Still the Message

by Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint on March 8, 2013

Cary Peppermint and Leila Nadir, “Overexposed Dancing” (2000) (click to enlarge)

Cary Peppermint and Leila Nadir, “Overexposed Dancing” (2000) (click to enlarge)

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

The Age of Web 2.0 Art

On the eve of web 2.0, there were a few sites emerging like Zing.com, an early place for photo sharing. The technology of self-surveillance wasn’t up to speed at that point to make them stick though. Facebook and smartphones would go on to complete the social shift to “sharing.” “Overexposed Dancing” was one of our early works that anticipated this change.

From 1997 to 2003, we worked together on a series of internet art performances, all of which were archived on Cary’s website, Restlessculture.net. Our performances took place on eBay, Evite, Ofoto, MySpace, and a host of other early social media sites that no longer exist. Taking off from Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the readymade, we called these performances “digital readymades.” In an article written for Leonardo, Cary defined what this meant:

I prefer to work within a protocol of what I call “digital ready-mades,” including GNU and commercial software, found code and web-based apps that allow for the quick use or plug-and-play creation of modular instruction-sets for the organization and reorganization of diverse media … Through my practice, I have developed a concern for the continuance of free and creatively infused information that interrupts hysterical modes of consumerism through networked theater. Evites to parties that neither begin nor end, Ebay auctions for wood and balloons, and [eventually] hundreds of movies posted to YouTube wherein I can’t ever stop dancing because of my excitement over low APRs.

(A link to this article, along with documentation of our ready-made performances, is available here.) Our digital readymades anticipated the culture of web 2.0. They took place at the origins of social networking, predicting the complete dissolution of the boundaries between the private and public spheres. But works like Rachel Green’s “Internet Art,” one of the first works to study net art at length, didn’t know how to deal with practices like ours. The language wasn’t there; it still needed to be invented. Reappropriation and remixing, of course, were always a part of internet art, but this didn’t usually extend to the platform. Artists were still using personal websites to exhibit their creations, not commercial ready-mades. When we posted hundreds of images of us dancing with our faces burned out on Zing, when we co-opted Evite to invite friends and artists to “A Happy Hour For Every Hour Between Right Now And The Unbelievable Yet Forthcoming Hour When All Happy Hours Are Over For Good And Discontinued Through The Entire World,” nobody was sure what was taking place. So it’s ironic to be providing this essay about the significance of Tumblr art. The once-unrecognizable form of social media art has officially entered history.

Art, Media, + the Environment

We are environmental artists now — new-media environmental artists. It’s a long story as to how we got here, but part of the process involved our belief that, at this point in history, the environments that humans dwell in include media spaces like Tumblr. In the work of Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined the term “global village” and predicted internet culture back in the 1960s, the environment is integral to understanding communications technologies. McLuhan talked all the time about space, time, nature, and the globe and their intertwining with the human body. Although McLuhan is known as a media theorist, we think of him as an environmental theorist, too.

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

This does not mean that he was an environmentalist, trying to save the planet or fight for a more sustainable society. What it does mean is that he saw media and environment in constant relation to one another. Any change of media transforms our bodies by extending our senses and capabilities. That, in turn, revolutionizes the way we understand our place on the earth. “All media,” he explained in a 1969 interview with Playboy, “from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment.” With a ladder, one no longer regards an un-climbable tree as an impossible vertical challenge; its fruits become food in our stomachs. With a lightbulb, the sun no longer rules the rhythm of our lives; the dark, mysterious night becomes ours, to do with it what we want.

Every technological innovation, for McLuhan, involved a transformation of the human species, as if our tools rewire us: “My definition of media is broad,” he said. “It includes any technology whatever that creates extensions of the human body.” The lightbulb is an extension of the eye. Clothing, an extension of the skin. The wheel, an extension of the foot. The radio, an extension of the ear. Modifying his popular slogan, “the medium is the message,” he asserted that the medium is the massage: “it literally works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio.” Electronic media, for McLuhan, involved an entirely new epic in the technological-environmental evolution of humans: they “extend our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

Santa Fe Railroad bridge and train, over Canyon Diablo. Coconino County, Arizona. 1885. - ID. Hillers, J.K. 109 - hjk00109 - U.S. Geological Survey - Public domain image

Santa Fe Railroad bridge and train, over Canyon Diablo. Coconino County, Arizona (1885) (image via the U.S. Geological Survey)

Perhaps this is why humans get so excited about new communication devices and new technological innovations, from Google glasses to Tumblelogs. Perhaps we know, somewhere, through an ancient, primordial memory, that every new tool is reworking us, giving birth to a new, sensory human, providing new ways to convey information and express creativity while also making the earth more navigable and consumable — more ours. All technologies are on a continuum, performing the same task of overcoming the limits of the human body and the obstacle of being stuck in our immediate environment. This makes Rebecca Solnit’s words in River of Shadows, a book about the 19th-century inventions of photography, film, and the railroad, just as applicable to the digital age:

“Annihilating time and space” is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome. Annihilating time and space most directly means accelerating communications and transportation. The domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel sped up the rate and volume of transit; the invention of writing made it possible for stories to reach farther across time and space than their tellers and stay more stable than memory; and new communications, reproduction, and transportation technologies only continue the process. What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.

So what does Tumblr do, and what can art produced on tells us about the human species? How “Tumblr artists” reflect the latest means of annihilating space and time? McLuhan had this to say about the role of artists in modern industrial societies:

Inherent in the artist’s creative inspiration is the process of subliminally sniffing out environmental change. It’s always been the artist who perceives the alterations in man caused by a new medium, who recognizes that the future is the present, and uses his work to prepare the ground for it.

McLuhan suggests that artists recognize and prepare — verbs of conscious action — but he also uses terms of unconscious, bodily awareness. What is a “subliminal sniff”? How does one perceive and feel information — say, the mood of a particular media environment — without necessarily being aware of what is sensed? If one of artists’ most valuable contributions to society is their capacity to act as unconscious gages, as sensitive vessels, as bodily mediums for environmental change, and if Tumblr is one of the latest, newest platforms for art to emerge in the digital era, what does Tumblr art “subliminally sniff out” about our current environment? What can it tell us about our globe, our earth, our planet, and what about our consciousness, as human beings, of the world that we have shaped and that continues to rewire us as ecological animals every day? Can we even read this “message,” or are we unprepared, in the same way that early internet art critics couldn’t grasp the future participatory culture of the web even while artists were beginning to sniff it out?

View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon (image via Wikipedia)

View of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 17 crew traveling toward the moon (image via Wikipedia)

Let’s go back in time, back to McLuhan’s heyday again, to 1972. December 7, 1972, specifically — the day the crew of Apollo 17 photographed the Earth from outer space. This single image transformed the human imagination and the course of history. Imagine the human species, for thousands and thousands of years, dwelling on a planet they couldn’t see. Suddenly witnessing this beautiful blue sphere launched the environmental movement of the 1960s, sparking philosophies of global connectivity and of the Earth as a living organism, despite the intense cultural upheaval of that time. The image was so influential that it was cited, fifteen years later, in the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, as the cause of one of the most radical historical transformations.

In the middle of the 20th century, we saw our planet from space for the first time … this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century … From space, we see a small and fragile ball dominated not by human activity and edifice but by a pattern of clouds, oceans, greenery, and soils. Humanity’s inability to fit its doings into that pattern is changing planetary systems fundamentally … This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized — and managed.

From 1972 and 1987 to 2013, the media representing this iconic image has shifted from television and print to the internet, from single-channel news reports to tumblelogs. If, as McLuhan explained, every new medium “works over and saturates and molds and transforms every sense ratio,” our relationship to the “Blue Planet” has changed along with our digital revolution. The Apollo 13 photo required numerous powerful entities to work together to get it into the eyes and hands of the public, vast scientific resources that took the astronauts to the moon, editorial hierarchies in magazine offices and television studios that decided when and where to publish. What we are about to say next may sound dramatic, but it’s also quite fascinating: The “Blue Planet” is now part of cut-and-paste culture, probably hidden somewhere in all of our computer caches, and it is part of the “digital landfill” of the “Cloaque” Tumblr project by Claudia Maté and Carlos Sáez. Metaphorically speaking, the Apollo 13 image is trash.

In an interview with Ben Valentine, Sáez explained that “Cloaque” started as a “Digital Landfill”:

Constantly trolling Google images and Tumblr gave me this concept or idea of digital trash: thousands and thousands of nonsensical, stupid, and beautiful images floating on the internet. I thought that, in the same way the garbage of a house can define the family that lives inside, a Digital Landfill could be a reflection of contemporary society or our visual culture.

As Valentine explains, “‘Cloaque’ attempts to give a hint of curation to this mess, without ever pretending it is anything but that — a giant, beautiful mess.” The piece doesn’t purport to attach meanings to its creations; rather, the creators see the tumblelog as a mirror of society, a collection of unclaimed detritus analogous to the trash we discard at the curbs of our streets. However, by foregoing carefully intended meanings, the “Cloaque” creations don’t become only a “beautiful mess.” Their style and structure also highlight what McLuhan claimed was the real “message” of media: not informational content, such as feelings, the latest news announcement, or the words in an email, but rather the way in which extending the body with media technologies has “psychic and social consequences.” The “message” of media, McLuhan argued is “the change of scale or pace or pattern … introduce[d] into human affairs.” (McLuhan made many television appearances to explain this to a wide audience. Check out some of the footage archived on YouTube, including this 1976 interview on Tom Brokaw on the Today Show.)

The “Cloaque” anniversary video

To celebrate the first anniversary of “Cloaque,” and in keeping with the blog’s collage aesthetic, Maté and Sáez invited five artists to create 30-second videos to be woven together into one video, “to create a fluid story.” The opening animation begins with the “Blue Planet,” featuring Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, just like the astronauts’ image, with the same background of blackness suggesting an infinite expanse of space. The planet on “Cloaque” is also a spinning globe with the sun reflected on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean (near the site of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, incidentally).

As the Earth turns, a transparent, water-like substance begins to pour over the sphere. Perhaps this is part of the “fluid story.” When the world is just about coated, we hear the sound of a camera shutter, the spinning stops, and a box pops up to announce that the image is printing. The video cuts to the “Blue Planet” image (sans dripping water) coming out of a home printer, amid a collage of household products — a banana, an artificial-looking potted plant, a plastic ball, and a prism displaying animated clouds blowing through blue skies. The mono-channel image, that singular photograph of the planet created through vast forces of power, is now manipulatable and printable at home, one of many mundane goods, completely accessible and discardable at the same time. A hand appears, picks up the print-out, holds up the Earth, turns the sheet of paper over, and then the next animation begins, seamlessly. On to the next thing. The Earth is the fluid beginning of the video series at the same time that it is the disposable start. The origin of origins, necessarily forgotten in the quest of the human species to overcome its biological limits. As Solnit says in the aforementioned quote, “What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.”

Cloaque map of collaborating artists (via Digital Media Tree)

Cloaque map of collaborating artists (image via Digital Media Tree)

There are many moments when the environmental “message” and the “psychic and social consequences” of web 2.0 culture are conveyed through artistic tumblelogs. “Cloaque” provides a map of the project’s contributors. This linking together exposes the interconnections of digital culture and what it does to place and earth, including the unprecedented human connections and collaborations that make the world smaller, in the process “annihilating space,” to use Solnit’s words.

Giordano Matteo’s “Sony HD” tracks the proliferation of Sony objects around the world. Whereas once, more primitive humans consumed and discarded organic, biodegradable materials from their immediate environs, now mega-corporations like Sony are able to spread their monolithic brand around the earth — in the form of advertisements, electronic gadgets, and e-waste. The Sony symbol even appears in decorative cupcake icing. Like a colonizing bacteria, Sony is shaping local practices and values without actually being connected to them, except through consumer products. The distant and the near collapse together, as do workers and consumers, factories and homes. As Valentine explains in his essay, “Matteo has compiled ads, promotional event images, products, and more from the global technology superpower to create a truly unsettling experience that’s eerily hard to turn away from …. An image of impoverished children facing a new Sony package brings this unease to the fore, all while the burning distribution center looms in the background.” In “Sony HD,” the technologies that “annihilate space and time,” in the process liberating immense creativity and global interactions, require manipulative advertising campaigns and exploited workers.

Valentine also discusses Joe Hamilton’s “Hyper Geography,” which creates an endless collage of recycled images. In an interview with Valentine, Hamilton reported that he “was attempting to create a visual landscape that spoke of our notion of nature and the changing and overlapping definitions of natural, built, and networked environments.” Humans’ latest ecological web of connections is the Tumblr landscape of GIF collage.

Image from Sony HD Tumblelog

Image from “Sony HD” tumblelog

Reading the Future

Yet it’s impossible to articulate the full message of any medium in such early stages, whether we are talking about web 2.0 technologies in general or Tumblr in particular. Our early readymade performances seemed slightly out of step in the late 1990s; even we were not sure how to express what we were doing. Now, looking back, we can say they anticipated questions about the boundary of private and public space in the age of social networking. We were oversharing our private dance party, performing the assumption that our friends (and other viewers) would appreciate seeing hundreds of photos of us having a drunken good time.

Before Facebook or Twitter, before the ubiquity of mobile networked media, our overexposed faces were asking whether the sharing of personal info would become so vast that the authors themselves would disappear altogether, thereby creating a sort of anonymity. Could there be a return to privacy amidst all the noise? How will our new participatory web culture transform the environments in which we live, and how long will artists be able to critique the way their work now dwells in commercial-media-spaces like Tumblr? When will we ever know the true “social and psychic consequences” of annihilating space and time with constant technological innovation — and if artists can sniff out these consequences subliminally, at what point will it be too late?

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

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