Raiders of the Lost ArtBase
During March and April 2005, Michael Connor tunneled through the
Rhizome ArtBase, hunting for buried treasures both ancient and new.
Once a week, he posted his findings on this weblog, and kept a list of
bookmarks online at http://del.icio.us/connor/artbase.
The Rhizome ArtBase is an online archive of more than 1400 new media
artworks. The archive has been nearly six years in development. If you
want to have a look, check out Rhizome.org for a free trial.
It’s a big night: my last post to Raiders of the Lost ArtBase, Liverpool beating Chelsea in the European Cup semifinals. I’ve recently decided to move to London, and so I’m retroactively reinventing myself as a Liverpool fan. Just so I can really wind up all those flash Chelsea types down South. After the match tonight, I got to shake Rafa Beni’s hand. I’ll never walk alone.
In a recent talk at FACT, Vito Acconci said that what drew him from writing to art in the late 60s was its status as a ‘non-field field’. Likewise, I was initially attracted to new media art because of its status as a field that enjoyed that same ‘non-field’ status, a sphere of activity without rigidly defined borders, coming from multiple origins and headed for uncertain territory. Yet many of us in the field are now making attempts to throw the boundaries of this field into sharp focus, creating more transparent frameworks for understanding the History of New Media and How to Curate New Media. These days, it seems like everyone’s asking, ‘where are we now?’ and ‘how did we get here?’ instead of ‘where do we go from here?’
Maybe these are the right questions to ask. Nabokov said, ‘the future is but the obsolete in reverse.’ Smithson used this quote when he talked about his favourite subject, entropy – the tendency of organised systems to disintegrate over time. Entropy is a subject that computer types know well. It is a force that affects my inbox, my desktop, and my drawer o’ CDs. While many people in new media art simply want to revel in this entropic drift, others think it might be a good idea to get organised.
Despite the problems of historicisation, the new media salvage heap is yielding plenty of interesting stuff. While new media types have been prominently implicated in proposing futures based on techno-utopias or sophisticated control systems, the idea of proposing a future in which a ragtag band of digital misfits are left to wade through ruins of hardware and software civilisations past in search of meaning seems to be more recent on the scene. This dream of extracting use from obsolescence intersects nicely with nostalgia for the machines of my youth in the work of TreeWave, a band based in Dallas, Texas created by Paul Slocum and Lauren Gray.
‘The band uses unique instrumentation: music is performed using obsolete computer equipment for instruments. Currently they are using a 1977 Atari 2600 game console, a 1986 portable 286 PC, a 1983 Commodore 64 computer, and a 1985 Epson dot matrix printer. The equipment runs custom music software written by Paul designed specifically for the band.’
One of these unique instruments, Paul’s Dot Matrix Synth, can be found in the Rhizome ArtBase. The printer generates different notes by using special software to adjust the frequency of the printing process. ‘Higher pitches tend to come from the firing of the pins against the paper, and lower pitches come from the rattle of driving the stepper motor.’ The result are a range of noises that will make you look at that old printer in the back of your closet in a whole new way. Paul’s interest in obsolete technologies doesn’t carry over into an interest obsolete music. TreeWave’s sound is electro pop, but in a genre where everyone’s trying to be the first to guess the new hip sound (the 606? 808? 909? 666?), TreeWave is playing by their own rules.
Paul Slocum’s ArtBase entry
the Dot Matrix Synth
TreeWave’s home page
Thanks to alert reader Lauren Cornell for suggesting Paul Slocum’s work for this blog!
I guess that wraps it up for this blog. It’s been funny over the past few weeks how many times people have said to me ‘hey, I’ve seen your blog’, and how many times I’ve asked people, ‘have you seen my blog?’ The blog is the filofax of our times, a true status symbol, but blogging is hard work too – especially for someone who revises their writing as compulsively as I do. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to tell my friends ‘I can’t hang out, I have to work on my blog’ so often, it’s become a running joke. So it’s time to bring all this to a succinct close. And here it is:
The obsolete holds the key to the future. We must excavate our path forward from yesterday’s remains.
Ian Haig is a complicated man. A lot of his artwork seems to be made of sex toys, which he displays at booths at porn industry get-togethers. The front page of his website shows a photo of Hugh Hefner looking at said artwork while sipping a bourbon & coke. Pamela Anderson figures largely in another of his submissions to the ArtBase.
‘Men of the Internet‘ is a bit different from the Pamela Anderson one, I’m afraid. It’s basically a collection of photos of men harvested from the web. Haig’s taste in men is somewhat unusual. They’re nearly all white, and (in the artist’s words) ‘have had their bodies literally transformed and modified as a result of prolonged computer use… bigger brains, protruding craniums and enhanced eyesight with enormous glasses.’
The men in Haig’s collection represent a classic teen movie archetype – the nerd, scorned by society at large, who resorts to technology to become more powerful/rich/strong/athletic than his classmates. In this day and age, nerds live the teen movie dream by starting a blog and catapulting themselves from the lowly depths of geekdom to become iconic Ã¼bergeek pundits with 40,000 readers a day.
In the course of their incredible rise to greatness on the world wide web, these men have clearly forgotten one of the great possibilities afforded by cyberspace: on the Internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog.
In response to this cartoon from the New Yorker, Art McGee famously asked, what’s wrong with being a dog? This, Art, is what’s wrong with being a dog:
Using this blog for the purpose of ridiculing others is a bit Vice Magazine-y. I hope I haven’t taken too many points off your IQ.
Ian Haig’s ArtBase entry
Men of the Internet
It’s a gross rainy day in Liverpool I didn’t finish my homework (this blog) last night. Squelch.
It was only a matter of time before I wrote about MIDI music projects on this page. Today, that time has come. MIDI has OG status because it was the first audio format to take off on the web. The quality may have been crappy, but it took only moments to download a MIDI track on even a really slow connection. Things have gotten a lot fancier since those days, but there are plenty of people out there who still love the way MIDIs sound. Eddo Stern, for example, has a huge collection of MIDI pop songs. That he listens to. Just for fun.
Another MIDI lover is Jack Stockholm of Oddible.com. Jack has made a website called The Web Midifier, which converts any web page into MIDI music – mostly horrible, atonal MIDI music, at that. It literally converts the characters on a page into musical notes. As an experiment, I tried making a MIDI file out of this page, which is that awful racket that you’re hearing right now if your speakers are turned up. Before we go any further, I have to apologize to my parents about this. Yesterday on the phone they told me they have to look at this website from the public library because it takes too long to load on their dialup connection. This MIDI file is only going to make matters worse. Sorry, Mom & Dad.
(UPDATE – I’ve now taken the MIDI file off the site because it was driving me nuts. You can still listen to it here if you want.)
The funny thing about MIDIs is that they’re having a bit of a rebirth as the source material for cheesy mobile phone ringtones. You can actually make these ringtones yourself using another piece in the ArtBase, Freeloader, by Katie Lips and Paul Stringer.
I used Freeloader to turn my MIDI file into a polyphonic ringtone for my phone. You’re welcome to download it to your phone too, if you have bluetooth or WAP. Next time I get a phone call, I’ll be the most popular person in the office!
Because they’re so crap, MIDI files are in a kind of copyright gray area. It IS illegal to host a MIDI version of Battle of Evermore, for example, on your web page, but nobody seems to really CARE that much. If you use Freeloader to turn that MIDI file into a ringtone, though, then you’ll be cutting into someone’s market share. Tsk, tsk.
Freeloader is a project that FACT commissioned, so yes, this is blatant self-promotion.
oddible’s ArtBase Entry
The Web MIDIfier
Katie Lips’ ArtBase Entry
Using the Wayback machine, I put together a list of splash pages that appeared on rhizome.org in 2000 and 2001. This may not be comprehensive, so please feel free to leave a comment if there were any omissions.
Some of these splash pages – JODI’s in particular – seemed to be doing everything in their power to prevent visitors from actually gaining access to the site itself. Ah, the good old days.
Thanks to anniea for making this suggestion in the comments from my first post!
Rhizome splash pages 2000-2001
Joao Simoes might be a genius.
Between January and May of 2003, he traveled through the backwaters and country lanes of the web looking for moments of true web zen. His goal: to be the first visitor to an apparently active web page, as evidenced by the page’s hit counter. For example:
The hit counter is definitely a relic of the early web. Olia Lialina may have missed a trick in her text about the vernacular web. True headz don’t use them any more – now that we have fancy tools like Webalizer, the little clicker doesn’t have quite the same appeal it used to. Maybe this is because they were abused by people who ‘padded’ them by a few hundred thousand here or there. If I see a stat counter reading anything over 136, then I get suspicious. But to find a brand-spanking-new, never-been-hit counter? That’s purely quixotic. Did the site’s creator never look at their own page? Didn’t the webmaster know to start the counter at 53,042 instead of zero? Was the page never visited by the Google bot?
In spite of the challenges, I can understand why Simoes went on this search. These pages have never before been seen by human eyes. It’s like excavating King Tut’s tomb or something – the thrill of discovery. And if you’re lucky, this thrill can one day be yours. I’ve decided to conduct an experiment. I’m inserting a web counter in this blog post. The next visitor will see that big number one roll up on your screen. Whoever you are, could you leave a comment and tell us how it made you feel, so we can live vicariously through you?
Free Hit Counter
The temptation to check the results is going to be enormous, but if I check them before someone else visits the page, it’s going to ruin everything. This is a bit like Schrodinger’s cat experiment. The cat would be locked in a room with a radioactive isotope, doomed to die at some indeterminate point in time. According to Schrodinger, the cat’s state in the locked room was exactly alive AND dead; until I visit the page again, the hitcounter’s state will be exactly zero AND one. Whoa.
While we’re on the subject of the number one, it’s worth pointing out that Google’s number one search result for the search term ‘number one’ (in quotes) is The Onion. What’s that all about?
Also, please note that I love cats and would never dream of locking one in a room with a radioactive isotope.
Joao Simoes’ ArtBase entry
‘The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in…a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all the people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show.’
Slavoj Zizek wrote these words in the days following 9/11, capturing the zeitgeist of our time. The fantasy that life is a simulacrum infuses both pop culture (The Matrix) and real-life battle (The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire).
Microsoft, like Zizek, seems to know a thing or two about zeitgeist these days. In 2004, they launched a marketing campaign called ILOVEBEES that mixed online gaming with meatspace gatherings, cryptic telephone messages, and hidden clues in unexpected spaces. The campaign was of a genre known as an ‘alternate reality game.’
Because the edges of the game’s magic circle are not defined, the alternate reality game feeds the paranoiac fantasy that ‘all the world’s a stage’. The inevitable result is that players trawl the web (and, perhaps, the world at large) looking for hidden clues. In this search, the game found a website called capitALLism.org, a site run by lefty activists whose site probably expressed a healthy level of paranoia of its own. (Although in their case, this paranoia is not based on some stupid video game, but on the massive right-wing conspiracy that controls everything).
For some reason, players of ILOVEBEES became convinced that capitALLism were a part of the narrative of the game. After some initial resistance, the makers of the site realised the creative/political potential of being able to shape the game play, from the inside. Hijinks ensued, and you can read all about it on their excellent documentation pages.
The moral of the story is that it pays to be the conspiracy theorist who’s in the right place at the right time. But you have to have a thick skin: one ILOVEBEES player bases capitALLism’s claim to authenticity on the fact that it is a ‘strange rantings from suspiciously well-organized and well-designed fringe elements.’
Be proud, capitALLism. You’ve really reached them.
capitALLism’s ArtBase entry
ILOVEBEES: The Reality of Alternate Reality
If you’re worried about your web searching becoming too efficient, and you long for the days when a search for ‘sore throat’ would lead you to a website about rock gardening, then I have a handy tip for you: use Google image search whenever you need to find something on the web. It’s the best way to insert that element of uncertainty and danger that we all crave. But be careful: it may be addictive.
During the past week of searching the Rhizome ArtBase, I rediscovered Beat Brogle & Philippe Zimmermann’s project ‘onewordmovie’, which may be the best Google image search hack going. The premise is simple: type in a keyword, hit the ‘search’ button, and the site will run a Google image search and make an animated video from the results. The video is stitched together from still images according to a predetermined pattern of loops and repetitions. Searches for any kind of round object, from ‘oreo’ to ‘jupiter’ tend to be graphically very pleasing, but check out the list of favourite searches on the onewordmovie website for some real blockbusters. ‘What is Life?’ is one of the best – the images fit together so naturally in sequence, it hardly seems accidental.
onewordmovie is so much fun, it makes me want to ask the banal question posed by the philistine tabloids about Tracey Emin and Turner Prize nominees: how is this art? Is it just another clever Google hack? Plenty of image search hacks have come up on delicious, the source of all weird and wonderful things on the web, but none of these can be found in the ArtBase. (If I do a onewordmovie search for ‘Rothko’, does that make it art?)
In an accompanying text for the exhibition ‘Database Imaginary’, Steve Dietz quoted Maurizio Cattelan saying ‘It is good for the artist to insinuate himself into the open mesh of any system â not in a provocative and visible way, but mimetically, using their same mediums.’ This quote does beggar belief, coming from the man whose public art project in Milan was taken down by an outraged member of the public within 27 hours, but point taken.
In sum: the best art projects on the net may be the ones that aren’t obviously Art. And, I promise never to bore you like this again.
Beat Brogle & Philippe Zimmermann’s ArtBase entry
Technical note: before you can launch the movie window, you’ll need to install Shockwave Player.
Last week, I wrote about Olia Lialina, who praises the clunkiness and slowness of the early web as a feature, not a bug. The dusty corners of the 90s web yielded the kind of surprises that led to comparisons between web surfing and the Situationist idea of the derivÃ©: ‘locomotion without a goal’. The derivÃ© was a playful, political urban critique; Situationists would practice it by navigating Paris, for example, with a map of London, just to discover hidden back alleys and bistros. Just for the sheer hell of it. Surfing the web can be kind of like that too – plenty of hidden back alleys and treasures, and where you end up might not have much to do with where you thought you were going.
Lately, the web is looking a lot more like the M25 than 1960s Paris, (Note to the non-Brits: the M25 is a big motorway, or ‘highway’, around London). Some artists are looking at the speed and traffic of the web for inspiration, rather than its weird forgotten bits. The idea that a website or email can be spread through a potential audience of thousands or even millions in a relatively short amount of time is a seductive possibility, and many people have set to work trying to master the gestalt of the viral online project.
My favourite discovery of the week investigates the space inhabited by these ‘viral’ projects after their short lifespan has ended. ‘Cyberzoo’ is ‘the first zoo dedicated to the artificial life.’ Argentine artist Gustavo Romano is developing a collection of what he considers to be the most endangered life forms of the web. So far, the zoo’s residents are all computer viruses. Each specimen is accompanied by a description of the virus, and some have a nice recreation of the virus in action so you don’t have to destroy your old Windows98 machine in order to have a look.
Romano’s artist statement is also well worth a read. If ideas are organisms like viruses, he writes, then art gives these viruses life after their human carriers have died.
Now I have to go get on an airplane, see you next week.
Gustavo Romano’s ArtBase entry
Not long after I posted my last message, Olia Lialina posted a text to the ArtBase called A Vernacular Web. It picks up on some of the themes of the amateur web raised by ‘Zombie & Mummy’, and it makes the argument that the ‘under construction’ banners and outer space backgrounds that used to rule the Internet were part of a cultural moment that is now disappearing (or going underground), for better or worse. Personally, I only ever had access to a text-only browser until 1996. With a text-only browser, images wouldn’t show up on my screen. Instead, the browser would list the names of image files, and I remember wondering what delights were hidden behind names like starback.gif. OK, let’s be honest, I probably would have been more interested in the earthly delights of boobs.gif.
Lialina reminds us that the great thing about the old days of the web was that we were ALL idiot geniuses. Every page we made reinvented the form from scratch, and every time we logged on was a new adventure. (Remember Superbad?) There *was* something special about that time, but rosy nostalgia might make us forget that the web has always been a contested territory. The animated ‘under construction’ gif may have been an art form unto itself, but in the nineties, it’s worth remembering that CompuServe held a patent on the GIF file format and that a website could be made to pay a small fee for each time such an image was downloaded.
In a nicely symmetrical turn of events, that patent has expired in time for the practice of reinventing the amateur web to come into its own. Pages of animated gifs no longer indicate that you’re naÃ¯ve, they show the world that you’re a cultural historian ahead of the curve. One example is Sinae Kim, an artist based in Seoul, who writes in her ArtBase profile, ‘I honestly think art is not that serious some people or scholars always define.’ She’s definitely on to some kind of zeitgeist with ‘What’s Your Icon?’ (2005). The artist presents the piece on the ArtBase with a statement that romps through religious iconography, mass media imagery, and interface design that seems to undercut her claims of populism, but the site is super awesome. Turn your techno up loud, are you ready? OK, now
If you’re still reading this, that means you probably didn’t follow instructions. ‘What’s Your Icon?’ is s a collage of animated gifs which have been collected, not made, and collaged with elements of the Windows Desktop. (No, it’s not chaotic, it’s deconstructivist!) Don’t worry, you won’t get lost, there are only four pages in the piece, and there’s only one way through.
Sinae Kim seems to be on to the same animated gif collection as artist collective Paper Rad. Paper Rad also used this beating heart gif in their ‘Welcome to My Home Page’ video (2003). There’s a nice bit of Mickey Mouse piracy in there as well. I ask you, is the real moment of the amateur web happening right now?
OK, turn the techno off, put Rod Stewart back on, and get back to work.
Sinae Kim’s Rhizome ArtBase entry
What’s Your Icon? (2005)
When I recommended Drax to do the design for this blog, I should’ve known what would happen. There you sit; on the left side of your screen is an amazing fairyland of birdies and dinosaur bones and treasure, and on the right side of your screen is me blathering about net art. Good grief.
Drax (co-producer of Maxi German Rave Blast Hits 3) isn’t on the ArtBase, but Olia Lialina (Grandmother of Net Art) is, and the two of them are the brains behind Rhizome ArtBase entry number 28592, Zombie & Mummy.
Zombie & Mummy are two badly-drawn characters living an unexamined life. They travel abroad, but end up spending the trip watching MTV after spending all their money on pirated DVDs; they set out to make a family tree, but end up drawing a squirrel. The site seems partly about the artists’ semi-ironic enjoyment of their own imperfections, and partly a send-up of the amateur web itself.
My favourite episode is ‘Make a Home Page’, where you can look through Zombie & Mummy’s bookmarks, which include a link to a page described as ‘Some Nice Bla-Bla Sites’. (caution: a lot of the bla-bla sites have now disappeared. Try the 2nd & 5th from the top, these seem to still work.) When I first saw this, I thought it was a work of outsider dadaist genius. It was only like a year later that I realised that it was part of Alexei Shulgin’s site. And then I KNEW it was a work of outsider dadaist genius.
Olia Lialina’s ArtBase entry
Zombie & Mummy website