Hypermedia: Critical Issues in Contemporary Media Art is a column written by artist Artie Vierkant for Hyperallergic. Each article discusses an existing or emerging theme in practices at the intersection of electronic media and the arts, drawing from the contemporary and the historic, the pervasive and the obscure.
A young artist in school used to worship the paintings of Cézanne. He looked at and studied all the books he could find on Cézanne and copied all of the reproductions of Cézanne’s work he found in books.
He visited a museum and for the first time saw a real Cézanne painting. He hated it. It was nothing like the Cézannes he had studied in the books. From that time on, he made all of his paintings the sizes of paintings reproduced in books and he painted them all in black and white. He also printed captions and explanations on the paintings as in books. Often he just used words.
And one day he realized that very few people went to art galleries and museums but many people looked at books and magazines as he did and they got them through the mail as he did.
Moral: It’s difficult to put a painting in a mailbox.
– John Baldessari, “The Best Way to Do Art” (from Ingres and Other Parables, 1971)
It is no longer difficult to put a painting in a mailbox. The key is selecting the right mailbox.
The Internet has bred a certain degree of cultural democratization — citizen journalism, revolts aided by the use of Twitter, the rise of rapper Soul’ja Boy, etc. The same is true (to a degree) in art, but for the most part older methods of working stay cribbed in older methods of distribution. Paintings and sculptures are displayed in physical spaces, some video artists still routinely attempt to maintain the object aura by limiting their distribution to a production run of 5 discs, even digital media-based performances often occupy physical space (see Elle Mehrmand and Micha Cardenas’ Technésexual).
This is not to say that exposure to these artworks is not aided by digital media but instead to say that the full experience of the actual artworks still depends on viewing in a gallery, museum, or conference context. To use Baldessari’s commentary on the technological state of art exposure in the 1970s as a benchmark, we haven’t proceeded quite as far as we’d like to think in terms of bringing access to the experience of viewing a work of art. Many Internet- or technology-based artists, reading Baldessari’s comments, would likely feel either sympathy or a hint of familiarity in words that may echo their own reasons for turning to a more decentralized practice.
Still, the improvement of our artistic tools can’t be overlooked. A far cry from the stunted pace of print magazines and books, digital forums have been creating new channels for young and contemporary artists to build notoriety and become subsumed into the behemoth corpus of the “professional art world.” Two common examples can be found in this year’s Younger Than Jesus show: Whitney-Biennial-J-Paul-Getty-Saatchi-Gallery-Guggenheim-Museum-shown artist Ryan Trecartin, so the story goes, was first discovered through Friendster, and AIDS-3D (collaborative group Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas) have said previously in an interview that one of the ways their images first began to spread was through people posting their work to MySpace profiles.
Where things really start getting interesting, however, and where exposure becomes both more easily attained and more difficult to make palpable, are in the work of artists who step away from the object. Guthrie Lonergan’s guthrielonergan.com [link NSFW] references the communicability of memes by sampling one directly (tetka.swf) and performing the Cindy Sherman/Tseng Kwong Chi-esque action of inserting himself as the central figure. Entering net.art go-tos JODI’s website (JODI.org) presents you with a home page that looks like complete gibberish in a browser, but when the source code is viewed it is revealed that the underlying structure of the page is a series of schematic ASCII drawings. Both of these projects are instantly accessible in their entirety on the Internet, and thus endlessly communicable, linkable, shareable and can be analyzed instantly by anyone from any community and for any reason.
But web page as art, despite its existence as one successful liberation of art from (physical) object, is not something I am propheting as a critical thinking point in the discourse of media art at the moment. These developments have happened, they are continuing to happen, and the discourse around them will continue to evolve. What I want to talk about specifically is an artwork that addresses the ability for digital-only objects to gain exposure, that exists and is important only because of systems of discourse and notoriety enabled by the Internet.
ISSUE 1, THE POETRY BOT ANTHOLOGY
At the end of summer 2008, Stephen McLaughlin released a piece of conceptual poetry on the Internet dubbed Issue 1. Written entirely by a poetry-generating bot (ETC, standing for Electronic Text Composition), which was created by Jim Carpenter, Issue 1 was a .pdf comprised of thousands of pages and thousands of (dismal, mundane, clearly algorithmically-generated) poems. However, the content of the piece was not the inner contents of the .pdf but the manner in which it was released on the Internet.
Each page of Issue 1 contained a different generated poem attributed to a different real poet (though some other cultural figures, notably Lawrence Lessig, make it onto the list as well). When the .pdf was finished the thousands of poems were attributed to thousands of different names culled from poetry listserves and poetry blogs.
McLaughlin then posted Issue 1 on the Internet under the guise of being a curated anthology of contemporary poetics. When he released the .pdf on forgodot.com (a site that is now defunct) and published a blog post listing the names of each poet used in the publication, it made a significant portion of the contemporary and conceptual poetry world immediately take notice. As McLaughlin explained that the milieu he and many of the names on the list were working in was small enough that it was necessary for many of the writers to set up a Google Alert for their own name so that they could track down any press mentions or else they may otherwise never be noticed.
By the end of the year Issue 1 was completely exposed and articles about the project appeared everywhere from the Harriet Poetics Blog to an online-only edition of The Nation.
The poets themselves responded thunderously: some called for lawsuits, one said happily, “I’m pretty pleased with my poem…I think I’ll put it in my next book.”
However the most poignant comment may be one poster who simply asks: “I haven’t ever heard of any of these people. Are they really famous?”