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Pinterest and Postmodernism

An Embalmed Cat

An Embalmed Cat

I was looking at Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp’s pinboards today and was reminded of a passage in Foucault’ The Order of Things.  The fact that the French thinker Foucault popped into my head while looking at images of “Things that Look Like the Death Star” is sad.  But it is also evidence that his text The Order of Things is intensely relevant, and, that somewhere during grad school I crossed a line and am now as much of a nerdy intellectual as I am artist and rock musician.  Anyway, check out this list of classifications for animals from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia (presumably) and consider how closely this idea of order and organization resemble our contemporary Pinterest boards:

(from Foucault, The Order of Things)

This passage quotes a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that ‘animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off” look like flies’. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

Evan Sharp's Pinboards

But is this system of organization such a stark impossibility today?  Mr. Sharp’s Pinboards are typical in that each board groups images by personal, often invented, organizing principles. Granted, Pinterest pins are classified images, not “actual” things.  But images as signs or symbols are essentially objects or ideas themselves, especially now that our “real” lives are so completely interconnected to our “virtual” lives online.  I just pinned an image of buffalo looking like ants and another of an embalmed cat.  I could keep going.  But what does it mean?  Foucault, again:

That passage from Borges kept me laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that I found hard to shake off. Perhaps be­cause there arose in its wake the suspicion that there is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal, etymological sense: in such a state, things are ‘laid’, ‘placed’, ‘arranged’ in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible.

A Frenzied Wolf Snarling

A Frenzied Wolf Snarling

If I told you I did some additional research and that there is no evidence that the original passage came from a Chinese encyclopedia but was instead from a story by author Jorge Luis Borges would it change the meaning?  (I think not)  I can accept the quote as hyperbole and the idea remains as potent.  Foucault’s uneasiness with such seemingly irrational ideas of order has given way to an online celebration of new ways of organizing and seeing.  Now I’m gonna get back to drinking coffee and pining some things to my own boards, possible orders, glittering separately in the dimension of the internet.

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The Internet as a Fine Art Medium

Alexi Shulgin's Form Art, 1997

Alexi Shulgin’s Form Art, 1997

In the late nineties, the internet was still a kind of wild-west for nerds and young people who had grown up playing video games in the 1980‘s. The idea of what a website was or could be was still evolving. It is my belief that the full potential of the internet as a personal creative tool was never realized, or at least was never popularized or accepted. Could the internet have developed into primarily a tool of self-expression and art-making rather than a behemoth of competing corporate interests like Google and Facebook? Most content created for the internet today appears not on personal domains and home pages, but on existing dot-coms owned by social networking companies, replete with advertising and corporate labels.

The dot-com is the “white cube” of the internet, in the same way that the white cube of the physical art gallery represents the ideas of possibility, neutrality, and a clean slate.  Furthermore, the dot-com is one of few digital phenomena that cannot exist twice. While one could feasibly copy every bit of information on a particular website and host it somewhere else, the dot-com itself is a flag in the dirt. To put it most dramatically, there is only one joehedges.com.  But despite the inherent scarcity of the dot-com, unfortunately websites as works of art remain difficult to commodify. There is perhaps only one internet artist, Raphael Rosendaal, who has had great success commodifying and selling websites (http://www.artwebsitesalescontract.com). However, even Rosendaal also creates prints and other physical art objects that relate to his websites, perhaps to supplement his income and/or to allow his work to be traditionally curated.

Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans's Jodi.org

Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans’s Jodi.org

Ben Benjamin's superbad.com

Ben Benjamin’s superbad.com

Another major problem in creating internet works of art (and this is just scratching the surface) is the rapid rate at which online consumers are used to devouring information and clicking through images. The physical art gallery commands a kind of slow reflection which simply has no online equivalent. Thus, one of the most successful aspects of early internet art pieces like superbad.com and jodi.org is density. Rather than push against our tendencies, these sites remind us of our obsessive relationship to clicking and navigation online as they subvert the commonly accepted purpose of a website–to deliver understandable information.

Is “internet art” even possible or valid today?  It is perhaps ironic and ridiculous that I have chosen to use the internet to create art work inspired by one of our National Parks, sites which are well-known for their beautiful, meditative qualities.  While my latest project solgonda.com encourages rapid navigation at times and borrows heavily from the conceptual aims of early net artists, as much as possible I have included scenes that suggest a more contemplative approach from the viewer, using traditional formalist and narrative techniques such as lighting and music to encourage slowness.  Increased bandwidth means more contemporary possibilities.  Gone are the days of early internet works that presented a glitched, dark, confused view of cyberspace.  The internet is a comfortable, daily part of our existence now, an existence that is both glorious and mundane.  As such, for contemporary online art to connect with audiences it should reach beyond cold cyber-tropes and present a more human range of moods, experiences, and content.

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A Non-Linear Universe and the Power of Bronze Plaques

Krblin Jihn Kabin

Today I stumbled upon a historical site near the house I am staying just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  I had read briefly about The Krblin Jihn Kabin online, one of many abandoned homesteader cabins in or near the town of Joshua Tree.  Realizing it was so close, I stopped by on my way home today to check it out.  After driving down a long dirt road, I found the cabin and began to read the plaque.  I was introduced to the world of Kymaerica, a parallel universe in which a group of displaced people founded their own Christian cult and fought a civil war.  Weird.  I learned that the cabin once belonged to Jihn Wranglikan, one of the founders of the Wranglikan faith.

Nine Pointed Kmpass (compass)

According to the plaque and accompanying signs, one of the weird beliefs of the Wranglikans was the idea that “the letters ‘c’ and ‘o’ were the most obscene letters in the alphabet–unfit to be spoken by God’s children,” so the Wranglikans created their own dialect.  Other odd beliefs included an intense obsession with the number nine, so intense that parents were compelled to remove one baby toe from each of their ten-toed babies shortly after birth.  I walked in to examine the Wranglikan Nine-pointed Kmpass, devoid of north, carved into the stone floor.  Then, I had the distinct sense that someone was watching me.  I left confused.

maybe you are thinking “this can’t be real”.  that’s what i thought too.  after spending some time googling Jihn Wranglikan, then puzzling over the websites www.kcymaerxthaere.com and www.discoverkymaerica.com i came to realize that the entire story was made up by Eames Demetrios,”geographer-at-large”.  Eames Demetrios is apparently traveling the world setting up bronze plaques to commemorate events that never happened featuring people that never lived.  or at least, events and people who never lived in our “linear” universe.  These plaques exist at locations that are already intriguing.  Joshua Tree has plenty of these abandoned cabins, and plenty of strange religious groups too, so this is a natural fit.  Here is the lengthy, made up story.

here, you may be asking why anyone would go to all the trouble of creating these stories and then presenting them as if the stories were true.  it is extremely weird, i know.  having dabbled briefly in what i will hereafter refer to as “alternate reality art” myself in Erlanger, Kentucky, and now having been duped into experiencing a “piece” from the perspective of an unsuspecting audience member, i can provide three reasons for these kinds of projects:

1. it’s fun.  in a world where the most exciting thing that happens is one week of watching videos of sharks swim around on televisions, clearly every day life can be insufferably banal and lacking.  this is why god invented the prank phone call.  some alternate reality works are essentially cerebral pranks.  People have always derived a sense of gratification from having secret knowledge.  I think this is especially true of artists, performers, magicians and pranksters, who often invite their audiences into the truth or untruth of their worlds.

2. alternate reality art challenges institutional knowledge and power structures.  I already knew a bit about homesteaders and had never heard of the Wranglikans nor any of their strange beliefs.  But my brain, conditioned as it is to accepting wholesale anything engraved on a brass plaque, kept trying to fit this story into my existing historical framework, despite the extreme impossibility of the events described.  this left me questioning the truths of other plaques i had read at museums.  all of this is rather postmodern and deconstrucivist, to the extent that it indirectly raises into question the reality of our reality and the reliability of our metanarratives.  i’m not sure that this was Eames Demetrios’s intention, but it is a result.  This might be a good time to bring up the ideas of the hyperreal and the simulacra as discussed by postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard if i had time and i felt qualified.  but i don’t and i’m not so i won’t.  (but if was your girl.)

3. alternate reality art can expand our notions of media to include works that seamlessly bridge the gaps between our “real” physical world and the world of cyberspace, pushing the boundaries of what art and storytelling can be.  the Kymaerica website and other sites that connect online fictions with real places blur the lines of real and cyberspace.  corporations like google and facebook have already capitalized on these connections, whereas the art world has moved more slowly.  at most art schools the majority of fine art is created in physical space, or at least, ultimately shown in the physical space of a gallery.  fine art projects that exist online are generally contained there, and projects that exist in physical space generally only use the internet to promote openings.  written narratives and other works can now cross the old physical boundaries of place to transcend traditional categories of art and entertainment.  rather than continually try to only adapt old media (books, CD’s, etc.) to a new world, we also need new kinds of media that will compliment our new technologies.

4. Eames Demetrios has said that the goal of his project is “to look at the world fresh.  to try and imagine another way of seeing how this planet could be.” (from this talk).  Now, i know that i necessarily want to imagine a planet where a cult of wild-west baby-torturers lived up the street from me.  however, i do agree with his larger point that any challenging work of art involves creatively seeing and creative vision.  As a sidenote, (and speaking of creative vision) Eames Demetrios, the creator of the plaques as well as the creator of the Kymaerxthaere parallel universe, is the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, the famous husband and wife duo who created the Eames Lounge Chair.  sometimes, vision runs in the family.

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Mintabox.com: A New Interactive Internet Art Project

Well after about six months of tinkering I am finally finished with this project.  This is one of those projects that just grew and grew and I have had to cut myself off, at least for now so that I can launch it.  Please visit:

Mintabox.com

Mintabox.com: An interactive generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.

and add your own box.  mintabox.com is an interactive, generative web-project designed to investigate the meaning of information storage in the information age.  The site is inspired by my paintings and conversely, my paintings have begun to become inspired by the site.  The project is a meld of some of my creative interests including collecting, painting, photography, and web-design as well as a merging of conceptual interests including nostalgia and the effects of digital technologies on our aesthetic and sociological experience.

To use this site, visit the “main array” on the first page at mintabox.com. You may click on any existing box in the main array to “open” the box and see inside it. Inside each box you will see words and images that were submitted by other anonymous contributors. To add your own contribution to the array, select “add a box” from the top menu on any page and follow the instructions on each subsequent screen. Your newer box will cover older boxes. This process will continue indefinitely.

I am hopeful that people will actually take the time to play with the site and possibly even take the time to submit something clever.  I am considering submitting mintabox.com to some internet art databases.

I will be teaching internet art at the University of Cincinnati this fall.  This project is the first of several that I have begun to deeper my understanding and engagement with the medium.

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