The problem with Dwarf Fortress isn't its vaunted difficulty and utter lack of forgiveness, whatever that may mean for a game whose fans have given it the unofficial slogan "Losing is fun." "Losing" doesn't mean much in a game which supplies no real conditions for victory: losing everything one has built up is inevitable given enough time, and the better one is at it, the more spectacular that failure will be. The problem--the thing that keeps away even people who'd be inclined to invest heavily in a simulation as deep as Dwarf Fortress, one that builds a world that starts with a map and then simulates thousands of years of history before dumping the player into it with no more than a handful of hungry units--the problem isn't even its, so to speak, its interface: a game this thick needs all the hotkeys it can get, capital and lowercase, and its piles of overlaid menu windows are capable of some limited context-sensitive information flashes. In "Talk to Me," MoMA insists that information designs are now "expected to have personalities." Leaving aside the issues with anthopomorphism here--one has to, apparently--that's the problem with Dwarf Fortress. It's ultimately so unconcerned with commmunication that, in its official vanilla version, the one on display here, it can't even be bothered with anything so bourgeois as graphics or mouse support. One can issue orders to one's growing legion of dwarves through a "Manager" on one screen, should one have a manager installed. Whatever that is; like everything else, it's unexplained anywhere outside of a wiki. Even its map, the most commonly used UI element, is laid out in code, in ASCII characters representing everything from geological structures to creatures, so even on its most basic level it's close to incomprehensible to non-native speakers.
Between clips of Jason Rohrer's two-player storytelling sandbox Sleep Is Death and the opening cutscene from Little Big Planet, wedged, exactly where it would want, were it capable of desire, in a back corner, is nothing more than Dwarf Fortress's map generator, constantly cycling through new worlds without all those mystifying gameplay requirements. Tarn Adams, essentially the game's sole creator, is given deserved praise for a world simulation that frankly borders on the pathological, but that blinkered hermeticism goes both ways. In a New York Times Magazine profile, he berates the compulsive frustration/gratification engines built by companies like Rovio and Zynga and PopCap, adding, "I used to value the ability to turn the user into your slave. I don't anymore." As much as he also deserves praise for creating a game where archeological exploration is the only thing--a distressingly rare ocurrence these days--he doesn't mention how demanding that a player invest in something not a million miles from learning a new language, or immersing in a separate, self-sustaining culture from her own, is all that different.
For a show whose focus seems to be on the molding of information to the pleasure of a viewer, there's precious little work that exists simply to limn the above idea, even in the "Critical Design" category, seemingly created just for the show's web site. There's Sascha Nordmeyer's series of "Communications Prosthesis" portaits, of the socially awkward forced into rigid, teeth-baring smiles. Or Marc Owens' "Avatar Machine," which loans out foam rubber prostheses that lead users to run cartoonishly around while looking like characters in mid-period Final Fantasy games. Those both talk directly, if vaguely, about the built-in limitations of information technology, and its orbital, and therefore distant, relation to the world around them. Sort of. But there doesn't seem to be even a whiff of, say, Jaron Lanier's borderline apostasy on the subject, or even the politicized hand-wringing of Eli Pariser; nothing about the potential detriment to users and even information itself, as in this, from 1995:
"Since agents [for instance, search or recommendation engines] are little computer programs, they'll have a lot more in common with each other than people do. Agents would become the new information bottleneck, narrowing the otherwise delightfully anarchic infobahn, which was supposed to replace the broadcast model with something more inclusive."
That's the problem with "Talk to Me:" it's more or less simple boosterism. The general tenor of the show is spoken to through its website, composed of blocky pixel art and scatter-plots of esoterically associated pieces. It's a mess, but a mess that speaks to its general consumer-electronics-show nature. A transistor radio that "sneezes;" a QR code for a "Hello, World!" program hewn into a field of grass; a linguistic breakdown of 50 Cent's lyrics over time; a graph of 311 calls in New York by amount, time, and reason. Good parts of the show elicit a perfectly acceptable "Oh, cool," because good parts of it are cool, but it's often little else. The problem with "Talk to Me" is that it never directly confronts the idea that there's no inherent correllation between a designed, narrativized presentation of information and the world around that information; that a design isn't a knowledge factory, but an unfolding story; that stories, in order to be internally consistent, must invent, replace, and redact; a story that doesn't leave out or make up is merely a litany, of varying conceptual connectivity, and the old saw about photographs cropping out context applies here too. That there might be limits on what a piece of software can tell a user, or some ideology governing what it will, resides here at the same arm's length as most of its theoretically interactive pieces do.
Neal Gabler has a curious--if, in retrospect, not wholly convincing--idea that the current pitch of information overload is increasingly anathema to thought, in that knowing a fact is preferable to teasing out its meaning because the latter is easier, and therefore more fact equates to less thought. As certainly as it's true that fact is simpler, Gabler's gripe has just as certainly always been true. But there's a deeper issue that Gabler doesn't quite address, but that connects neatly to his larger point. Take the most recent Wikileaks saga, that of the diplomatic cables, as an example: they managed to publish a few thousand of the 250,000 they claimed to have, but even then, in order to be meaningful as an aggregate, a reader would have to pour through all of them and sift the trivial from the novel from the shocking, taking months at a stretch, at least, of her time. They understood this, and brought in seasoned, professional story-tellers from some of the world's most respected newspapers to act as a filter, to tell those stories. The problem isn't that there's too much information, not exactly, but that all that information requires the creation, by whomever has the resources, of powerful filters for any of it to be digestible, let alone meaningful. The problem isn't simply that knowledge is easier than understanding; the problem is that too much information requires that someone else serve it up prefigured.
The top floor of "Ostalgia" at the New Museum presents a massive, convoluted timeline coursing through the heasy years of Soviet and Chinese communism. At one point, there's a node containing a vituperative quote from a 1966 CCP "Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution."
Although the bourgeoisie has been overthrown, it is still trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds, and endeavour to stage a comeback. The proletariat must do just the opposite: It must meet head-on every challenge of the bourgeoisie in the ideological field and use the new ideas, culture, customs, and habits of the proletariat to change the mental outlook of the whole of society.
Though, weirdly, that wasn't the quote they used, since it gets to the heart of the show. The CCP, like their Soviet forebears, set up a vast network of informational and ideological filters--government-sanctioned writers' and artists' groups, funders, vetters--to act as a hand on the social and cultural spigot. The show traces the myth-making prowess of the Eastern Bloc regimes through to their aftermath, and past the Fall.
Simon Starling drives a Fiat 126 from its ancestral home in Turin to a contemporary Polish factory, replaces some Italian parts with Polish ones, drives it back, and mounts it on a gallery wall. The Italian parts are red, the Polish ones white, and the top-facing car now resembles a modern Polish flag. It's a commentary on the malleable discourse between the Eastern Bloc and western Europe, sure. But it's also an enduring symbol of nationalism and revolution. Andro Wekua reconstructs his former home in Georgia--a stout, Socialist-Realist bunker--now obliterated by shelling and inaccessible to native Georgians. The building is gone, but his memory of it is sturdy, intact, and unmoving. Anri Sala follows artist-turned mayor Edi Rama around his Tirana, ca. 2000, as he enacts one of his urban renewal projects: painting the residential facades throughout the city in vibrant colors. The results are often striking, a continual fabric of pink and green and purple. It's also a continual fabric coursing through the city, by fiat, often without the residents' permission.
The most harrowing expression of the endurance of myth, even past its purview, comes from Alexander Lobanov, from psychiatric institutions in which he spent most of his life. There, from the '40s on, he meticulously copied the world around him, which consisted largely of political and military propaganda: hammers and sickles, turgid workers, vast swathes of red, and lots of AK-47s. And also self-portraits: front-facing, gun-toting, stoic, heroic. Stuck with an insanity defense, free from censorship, he could cavalierly cast himself as Stalin in his own extravagant power fantasies. He could cast aside the collectivist vision, reify his individualism--to some extent, escape through the filters of the cultural apparatus--but he could never escape their stories.
The Dashanzi factory complex: built in the early '50s on the outskirts of Beijing. Plans: East German, calling for an austere Bauhaus design. Financed: Soviet Union, in part, who wanted something more up-with-ideology ornamental, a fight eventually dropped. All but shut down in the wake of Deng's '80s reforms; empty and derelict for some years thereafter.
A burgeoning artistic avant-garde, fueled by samizdat modern art books smuggled in mostly by overseas students, picked up around the frontier areas of the city, getting evicted from one abandoned squat after another, before finally landing in Dashanzi in the late '90s and early '00s. The mien was a general inquisitiveness and abstraction, which rarely sit well with Communist regimes, but the Chinese authorities eventually granted cultural landmark status to the entire district, creating the 798 Art Zone and a booming boho real estate market and tourist attraction surrounding it. Whether this deft political move by the authorities directly affected the art on display is up for debate, but in Factory 798, the Zone's premiere space, the current exhibition is of out-of-focus photographic abstractions of nothing in particular by Xu Yong.
The soft-power placation of these Chinese nouveau Modernists ties neatly into a decade's worth of other charm offensives the world over: the sturm und drang of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the yearly industrial expos in Shanghai, the rebuilding of Cambodia's Parliament building post-Khmer Rouge, the billions of dollars in aid money sent to Africa without regard for humanitarian concerns. When the famous "Bird's Nest" stadium was completed for the Olympics, Ai Weiwei, consulting on the building's design with Herzog & de Meuron, expressed his disgust with the building and everything for which it stood, particularly the "fake smile" it showed to the world on China's behalf. Why lambast it then, after all that work, and not pull out quietly somewhere in the middle, if that was how he felt? Well, why not complete such a monumental structure, then place the world's largest "kick me" sign in front of the door, with the whole world watching?
In 2000, at the Eastlink Gallery on the edge of Shanghai, Ai co-curated a show titled something like "Uncooperative Approach" in Chinese, suggesting a sort of delightful bureaucratic scampery, and "Fuck Off" in English. A decidedly alternative exhibition--to, in this case, the Third Shanghai Biennale across town--it featured challenging and provocative work, including Ai's now famous first-person bird-flipping series Studies of Perspective. It was shut down by Shanghai police almost instantly. 798 presents provocative work--provocative enough to have earned the attention of the government in the first place--and is essentially rewarded. "Fuck Off" contains the now infamous series of images by Zhu Yu of his cooking and eating a purported infant (probably a doll's head on a cooked duck, though Zhu still insists on his conceit, or perhaps your correspondent simply can't face the facts).
So yes, there's that. The images were shocking enough to get the attention of Scotland Yard and the FBI--a full year later. But Zhu felt no blowback, save tabloid controversy, within China. What shut the show down was a curatorial irreverence pitched perfectly to contront the government's messaging system. He Yunchang had himself bungee-tied to a crane and dropped into a river from a good height, calling it Dialogue With Water. Ai's Perspectives aren't just fuck-the-curfew nihilism, though they're better off for being that too; they also create a permissive space where there was never thought to be one, basically: "yes, you can flip the bird to the Forbidden City. See, you're doing it right now!" "Fuck Off," from its title on down, explores the potential for communication as omni-directional violence, in a country whose power structure demands the sole means to direct that violence outward, and the corresponding ability to claim that they can protect their unyeilding supporters from the blast.
In all the breathless encomia to Ai recently, both before and after his arrest this week, one could catch only fleeting glimpses of the art that supposedly make him remarkable. A glyphic circle of tacked-together chairs, resting vertically on its side. A sparkling red chandelier crashing to the floor, presented as if in medias res. Hundreds of millions of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds. The quick shots of the pieces, in otherwise bare rooms, towering over contemplatively hunched art lovers, don't look like art so much as they look like Art: monolithic, monumental, impenetrable at a glance, surrounded by barren white. But it wouldn't be Art if there weren't More to It. Those chairs are Qing dynasty rescues, their collective shape forming an eye or a portal. Those sunflower seeds were shaped and painted by hundreds of factory workers, and porcelain is practically China's national particulate as far as the rest of the world is concerned. In short: Ai, depsite his protests of the system in which he lives, is every bit the good Marxist, or rather, he's every bit the good Art Marxist, the sort that can claim history as a material thing to be claimed and reclaimed, the sort that would take it as a given that he can recreate the famous Zodiac statues stolen from the Old Summer Palace during the second Opium War, bring them to New York under his name, and thumb his nose at Elgin the Younger some centuries after the fact.
This work, the work that made him famous, is quite literally all in the past, from its subject matter to its lightly pedantic Beuysian twirling-about, but it isn't why the world has taken notice of him recently. Well, actually, it is, but only because any baffled or bored reporter can refer to him as "successful," and more specifically, "successsful in the West," and accord him a similar stature as any other successful person who can all but demand TV time whenever he likes. But it's almost too obvious to note that the work itself is not the reason for the sudden interest outside the cloister. When his newly-built studio was demolished by the government without warning in January, Ai was there with his assistants to document it from every angle. This followed years of sniping through a proxy-tunnel on Twitter and on his government-owned blog (since shut down, naturally), and following bureaucratic lines through the system, creating a list of victims of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that the government wouldn't provide, being told over and over by officials that it was none of his business, but keeping it in the news long enough--with the help of grieving parents and other information sources--that eventually the press was obliged to investigate local builders for negligence and corruption, and the government for its seemingly pointless opacity. Ai claimed, at the ruins of his former studio, looking out over the culmination of his last few years of unceasing labor, that this was his most important art work. He's absolutely right about that.
It's tempting to think that Ai's more conventional artwork isn't even meant for China--he hasn't had a solo show there in years--but some systematic way to garner eyeballs and euros by following art world SOP to reveal and fund his activism. But there are too many variables at play for a plan like that to seem reasonable on its face. If he were interested in following a Kafkaesque nightmare through the gatekeepers and obstacles of the art sanctum, he surely would, but he doesn't; he mounts monumental exhibits just like any other artist and saves the deep-legal drilling for the officials back home. The art world would never so much as bat an eye at some quaint rehashing of the stifling conformity it barely even bothers to conceal, but the Chinese government, unfailingly, meet his blatant, intrusive cameras with their own, practically everywhere he goes, and not because he's some famous artist. The sense of context he brings to his Art Work is strong enough to turn the heads of the Eurozone intellectuals who gobble up bits of context like petit-fours, and he's among the strongest in the field at bringing the specifics of his world to play in foreign spaces. But when the spaces are less foreign, he knows what every good activist knows: one doesn't need to bring the context, one simply is the context, and it's this knowledge that makes him such a powerful figure.
One of the earliest founding myths--and it's likely that, though we'll never know--of cinema is that of the Christmastime premiere of the Lumière brothers' L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1895. Depending on whom one asks, it goes a little like this: a French audience still largely unaccustomed to the idea of the motion picture is confronted with the image of a train rushing toward them, just brushing the left edge of the screen, causing panicked running for the aisles and ducking behind the nearest large person. Confronted with an immense physicality of unknown origin, without precedent, they ran.
Now would be a good moment to consult the dictionary definition of "prurient interest," but your correspondent is going to assume that it's pretty useless. It's commonly understood in the context of the--harumph--baser instincts, as if the gaze into the abyss at the heart of every high-minded philosophical enquiry is somehow markedly different from marvelling at the spongy remnants of the work of some whirring death machine, or the faintly existential blankness of mind following a trawl of animalistic lust. Foucault, for one, made no bones about the value--the point, in other, more Calvinist, words--of hedonism, giving the narcotic its due as a means toward "thought as intensive irregularity" and "outside the distinction between the normal and the patholigical," toward a thought outside of thought, subject of itself and to itself; in other words, creating another route by which a mind might know itself and its surroundings, a subjective distance. For once, that proud old proto-fascist the Marquis de Sade had a point (that wasn't in his pants at the thought of lower-caste degredation): poetry in the depths leads right back up again, toward whatever might linger there.
Which makes bemoaning the philosophical shallowness of Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void a particularly shallow exercise in and of itself, on par with casting stones at its plotlessness or sneering at its actors' loose approximations of human emotion. This doesn't so much miss the point as curve around it, the way a moon misses the planet around which it orbits. Much of what passes for openly-acknowledged philosophy here is glossed from one character's hasty skim through the first few pages of The Tibetan Book of the Dead on a friend's recommendation, leading to dippy, stunted musings on death and materialism in the first half-hour. After getting shot early on by cops in the bathroom of a bar in Tokyo--your correspondent won't waste your time further with a plot summary--the musing comes to a pretty abrupt halt. Enter the Void isn't particularly about death, nor does it waste much energy on enquiry--it's got a whole neon-lit city to keep powered, after all.
Specifically, it's about drugs. More specifically, it's about DMT, a post-industrial concoction supposedly similar to a compound released by the brain at birth and death, a combination of hallucinogen and fairly heavy painkiller, and a favorite of our hero, who is read as the hero since the viewer spends the entire movie either looking through his eyes while he reaches for guardian angel status, or gazing, second-person, at the back of his head as his life flashes before him. More generally, it's about Altered States of Consciousness, and more generally still about the transience of all things, about entropy, about the becoming-nothingness best understood as the main precondition for creation. The trouble with ascribing any philosophical intent to this megillah is that, contra every unfocused misreading of Sartre that's ever been, entropy doesn't truck with philosophy. One cannot be pro- or anti-. One cannot pick a side to take. Well, one could pick a side, but it wouldn't matter much, at least not for long. Entropy is a physical phenomenon, the equals sign in E = mc², observable and measurable, but not up for debate.
But Enter the Void doesn't make hay with simple observation. The conscious avoidance of plot description here isn't meant as a dismissal, but as the only logical way to approach the film's goings-on. Of course, things happen, in compartmentalized scenes of mourning and recriminations and Noé's von Trier-ish series of calamities and humiliations; but the roving, overhead camera panning wildly from place to place in an unbroken circuit, observing with little effort made toward continuity, through events which bear only the most indirect connections to one another, leaves the viewer to read it as a metaphysical quest. But since it's essentially a metaphysics without metaphysics, a quest without an object, it sounds to all the world like a great big semantic failure.
But whose failure? The film's title is its word is its bond: it intends to explore nothingness and being in the only sense--the physical--in which it can be. It is, roughly, Noé's subject; Irreversible depended on the audience's deep-seated fears of decay, running from chaos to order rather than the generally accepted other way around. But in lieu of an opening into rumination and introspection and metaphysics, his back to the wall, his inner P.T. Barnum enters the room with a robe full of doves and full-view penetration, the viewer reduced to her most basic role as goggle-eyed spectator in thrall to image.
Chekhov was once claimed to have told the journalist Korolenko about how he wrote his stories: he pointed to an ashtray on the table, and suddenly Korolenko had a vision of its past and future adventures. He also wrote every damn thing with a three-act structure, novels included, and so insisted on his rules that he's often best known for them, and that tension, between mysticism and abidance, is his central tenet. Barnum knew this too, and his status as entertainer and confidence man are inextricable: "Let hope predominate," he said in his Art of Money-Getting, "but not be too visionary." It might be Noé's sin that he does old Phineas T. proud, letting vision predominate over hope if only to shed some light onto decay: the kindness of time in Irreversible, the inevitability of rebirth in Enter the Void. The physicality demanded by his subject demanding, in its turn, an audience's permission to do this sort of violence against them, given in exchange for Noé's strict adherence to the rules of spectacle.
There aren't many stories about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by all accounts a stony and congenitally conservative man, but anyone with even passing interest in his life must marvel at his enthusiasm for sport killing. His own records list some 270,000 items of felled game, which must make him the Noah of trophy-gathering, and his castle at Konopište is apparently strewn with all manner of taxidermy. There's a tale, apocryphal or not, of his matter-of-fact rifling of a rare white stag, supposed to bring bad luck to its killer, but since this was mere months before the bullet to his jugular in Sarajevo that kicked off the Great War, one can only conclude that this stag would never let his grudge settle with a mere heir-apparent.
The years between the heedless murder of that stag and the insensate destruction of the 1940s can--efficiently, with care, and without malice--be a very funny joke, irony and its sense of distance being one of the great balms against horror. Were your correspondent the sort to explain a joke, which he is not, he would remark upon the nobleman setting his beaters upon a verdant glade to lead the lower life forms into the open for slaughter, and the connection therein to the twenty million sentient dead in the subsequent middle-European bloodbath. (Then he would shake his head at the inappropriateness of his remark, winking and nodding all the while.) One might be excused for expecting a large-scale history lesson-cum-art exhibit on the interwar period to consist of little more than a dozen George Grosz doodles of the hapless Hapsburg eating sausages in a garret, and a punchline showing of The Great Dictator, or perhaps Inglorious Basterds.
But that really isn't appropriate to this particular horror. Pointing out that Hitler was merely a weedy little aesthete with a perfectionist streak, while true enough on some level, doesn't tell one very much. Pointing out that he was merely the loudest and most effective of millions just like him, that those millions found a greater balm against the destruction around them in the reactionary and regressive, in form without content, in the quest for purity and perfection, that he espoused without ever embodying, is a very different matter.
And so it is with baited breath that one approaches Otto Dix's etchings, loosely off Goya's Horrors of War, at the bottom of the Guggenheim's spiral. This is what one might expect: how horrible, this war, how shameful its toll, how wrenching. It becomes clear early that Goya's unblinking realism has no place in Chaos and Classicism; Dix is hardly interested in the reality of war. Instead of definitely human flesh hanging from trees--not even a human-scaled Saturn--one gets demons and devils, and enough crosshatching to eradicate image after image. It's horror in lacuna, an act of erasure. Immediate left, a rose-period Picasso: pleasant enough, but what is there to say?
As thesis statements go, it's pretty good. Chaos and Classicism is the perfect early-aughts curatorial storm: pretty and famous enough to get the meat through the revolving door, but interesting, frightening, and stratospherically ambitious enough to keep proud snobs like your correspondent from scoffing at them in public. The idea is this: European modernism, and by extension European culture in general, quaking under the rubble of the First World War, pursued amiable preciousness and cored-out aesthetics to its logical end. An arc is described. A head-first ass-tear upwind from the stench of death. A tumble, eyelids clenched, into the soft arms of classical beauty. A renewed vigor for the absolute truths and golden rules of Roman times, where one could always be assured of taking grape with the winners. A torrid, sweaty acceptance of the purity and cleanliness of a demarcated, mechanized future. An endless waltz with Fascism, perfect and enveloping as concertina wire.
Standing nudes in bronze, one foot before the other, blank and proportioned. Julius Bissier declaiming the honor and stoicism of the artist--a sculptor, if it matters--in Brueghel's palette, his sharp knife ready for work. Arturo Martini's drinking figure, kneeling on the floor as if crawling up from the earth. Placidity, or rictus, amongst singers and passers-by in a town square, flat as a tapestry. Hannah Höch allowed her transgression--a man in a woman's bathing onesie!--as a banana-peel gag. A man who actually called himself Tullio d'Abisiola. Ruhlmann and his smiling chairs. A harbor master as screaming Golem. Léger's modular tin can people. Angry steel boundary markers, all points and smooth, empty eye sockets. Martini crafting a complete centaur from clay and breaking off a leg and a head as if he'd just dug it up. Madeleine Vionnet outfitting the modern woman in a toga. Isadora Duncan lavishing behind the Parthenon for Edward Steichen. Cocteau's cool Orphism and his star's black-diamond nose. A square bunker of a residential model by Giuseppe Terragni, dubbed "non-rhetorical." A Deco-Constructivist poster for a Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden, saving the world one bath at a time. An alcove of clowns, a plate of apples, a table of empty bottles. August Sander's typological Germans, photographed as if for the last time, as if for posterity. An Übermensch bust of Mussolini, square and resolute, and as wide as the man was tall. A back room filled with flaking mosaics and cold, black Mies chairs.
And--is that?--yes, Wagner, wafting in as if through the central air ducts. But that isn't the punchline. All the way back, in a dark corner, waits Leni Riefenstahl, her steamy, high-key statuary, and her slow-motion discus thrower, cut as if from marble and spinning with the grace of the planets. The end.
The giddy rush of the thing is maddening, horrifying, leaves the sharp taste of treated metal in the mouth; it's thrilling in much the same way that a mushroom cloud might be. The real meaning of art as escape, as idealization, is simply strewn across the floor, or perhaps laid out methodically, like a cadaver in a medical school. The idea that totalitarians, ultimately, are more attuned to the real power of art than most, are often in the best position to make actual use of it, is simply presented and left hanging in the air. One is left to recall on one's own that Hitler was a painter with a finely honed eye and ear, and one is left to one's lonesome to chase away the passing notion of the Final Solution as an aesthetic decision, or that if it's really somehow better or truer to explain it away in moral or ethical or rational terms. All that's left, after the long march back down to the foyer, is the shadow and void felt so keenly by so many who've attempted to wrestle with the first half of the 20th century, and there aren't very many art shows in which one leaves a piece of one's self behind like that. As your correspondent tried to explain it to a friend, after it's all said and done, it's like walking away from someone with an unbreaking smile, perfectly pressed clothes, the cleanest diction, and the tidiest life, who's but one popped stitch away from murder. Perhaps one should be grateful.
"How can I help you?"
A human life in relation to a network is databased. There's no way around this. Databases are computational systems: they eat data and regurgitate results on demand. It's what they're for. It's said that there was a simpler time, before so many decided to systematize their interests, achievements, and wants, when a database of people was impossible, and personality ran free and wild in the fields. There may be something to be said for this, as far as it goes.
"I know what you're going to say before you say it."
Mark Zuckerberg is kind of a dick. Well, after a fashion. He's focussed well past distraction. It makes him look like he doesn't care about anyone else, and maybe he doesn't, though it's hard to tell. He's got no social skills to speak of, which leaves his blinkered ambition as his only outward expression of selfhood. Whether he is or not, it makes him look like kind of a dick, unless one happens to live, work, or play in close proximity to a "computer person" (or to be one), in which case he looks most like the ur-"computer person," an archetype so specific and familiar that it might beg the question of what anyone might reasonably expect from him. Naturally, he would be the sort of person who would genuinely believe that a whole life, a complete self, could be cross-referenced through a powerful enough database. That five hundred million people seem, in some vague general sense, to agree with him begs a further, and much more interesting, question about social dynamics.
"... the act of control..."
After all, it isn't as if tallying and computing the basic data of individual lives in aggregate is anything new. Leveraging vast amounts of that data in an attempt to divine the habits and predict the actions of groups is hardly novel either. Nor does anyone require a computer to do so. Gustave Le Bon needed no computer to create the comprehensive study of crowd behavior. Freud needed no computer to plumb the depths of the subconscious to expound on individual personality traits on a grander scale than ever previously imagined, and his nephew, Edward Bernays, needed none to turn those ideas into the first real public relations monolith. William the Conqueror surveyed the entirety of 11th century Anglo-Saxon England--families, properties, the lot--in under a year with little more than a few dozen assayers.
"I am the agent...."
Computers have their place here, though. Obviously alacrity and ease of computation are one thing. But having a computer in every home and a modem in every computer changes the field pretty drastically. Facebook doesn't drop by homes and ask personal questions in expectation of answer. It sits there and waits for five hundred million individuals--agents of free will and self-determination, all--to pick apart their own lives and open them for cross-reference and sale.
The servant is downstage right, reclining like a Renaissance nude. The master is just behind her, standing, arms akimbo. Both face the audience in a pas-de-deux of barely-intelligible asides. He avers his determination and agency; she dribbles mechanistic supplication and irrelvant information. "The time is 2:30." "Make a prediction about your own actions." "The color is purple." "I am the agent." That sort of thing.
Your correspondent knows better than to trust a press release by now, but he can't resist: how marketers mold an identity is too fascinating to ignore, particularly in this case. This one insists that Tony Oursler's Peak is roughly about the fungibility of identity on the Internet. In fact, Oursler has always insisted that his work is about the fungibility of identity within whichever mass medium, and it's always been half-true. From 1984: a video piece devouring myths, children's songs, games, and scatology, and spewing forth a grade-school musical. From 2003: a spheroid, protruding head babbling platitudes and recriminations, with snaggled teeth and eyes where Mickey Mouse's ears should be. That sort of thing.
His tableaux, it would appear, have gotten progressively smaller as his canvas has gotten larger. They're roughly palm-sized now, perched on small metal trees with miniature projectors facing gloopy, juvenile constructions of clay and translucent plastic. Since the topic is more or less the largest chunk of 21st century social relations, those occurring in phones or laps, the scale is either appropriately or inappropriately intimate: one needs to basically rest one's head on the projector to hear an older gent, naked from the waist up--the artist himself--express his wonder at facing a second projection of himself on the tiny wall opposite. His movements are either calisthenic or arthritic, and his subsequent moans and near-articulations are pained or ecstatic, for what the difference is worth. The takeaway overall is something like speakers-who-never-really-speak-to-each-other; often there's a foregrounded master--the torture-clown mewling about the inefficacy of violence and his own invulnerability; the sex kitten purring orders to a nonexistent lover, complete with bleeped profanity ("fuck," "point")--and a backgrounded servant--the naked woman tapping perfunctorily on the floor to ward off the torture-clown from her tiny plastic prison, a pneumatically rising finger projected on a clay sculpture of a finger--verbally emailing orders and status updates to each other that likely only make sense ("sense") to themselves.
It's just as well that nothing in the show reads as "internet" or "computer." Too small, too homemade, and frankly, as with most novel social schema, the who-cares factor attendant to the discourse around social media is very, very high, too high for work this strange. What's so jarringly weird about Peak, as with all of Oursler's most cross-eyed creations, has nothing to do with anything so specific anyway: the archaic McLuhanite notions of media shaping its observers that his work so often comes couched in are never really relevant, either to him or his topic. The grotesquerie isn't in the media shaping the mass mind, but in individual minds shaping themselves to fit each other.
Naturally the biggest social phenomenon of the last decade should have been born from a conniption over a girl. And naturally that conniption should arise from one dweeb's incomprehensibility and stubbornness in the face of that girl's inability to understand the simple mechanics that underlie the social world. Zuckerberg does, or at least thinks he does, and there are enough people willing to follow his muse to almost prove him out. Almost. It isn't that he's right--oh, what's the word? Naturally?--organically, that the basic components of personality can be cross-referenced in such a complex and elegant way that somehow a person will emerge. It's that there's a very deep and widely accepted need within most of us, to some extent or another, to belong. When one joins Facebook, one doesn't join Facebook, per se, but joins the general hive of Facebook, finds all the connections between their real friends and their acquaintances and the people from high school they didn't even talk to then, and one can broadcast to all of them, and perhaps even assume that any or all of them care. They fill database upon database with effluvia that mixes with everyone else's effluvia into an ever-expanding Amazon of mostly useless, but somehow comforting, jabber. This is the one thing that Oursler nails about communication in social media, however intentionally: his Dada cut-up commands and fragments and unfinished thoughts--"I'm not confused," "go to state--," "exponential object, send me a message"--aren't remotely communicative and don't resemble speech. What they do resemble is essentially what a web crawler sees when it gathers tweets, and what a user may gather as she scrolls quickly through her news feed.
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What [Jarod] Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.
Zadie Smith, a professed "Person 1.0," sans Facebook page and Twitter feed, nails a lot of things in her combo review of The Social Network and Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto--particularly her curvature around the character of Zuckerberg as we understand him through his software, for which we don't really need the film, and her characterization of Facebook as "unworthy" of its users, not interesting enough for them--but above is the point where she may be giving an expert too wide a berth. Lanier is one of the prime movers in the realm of computer-aided virtual reality, so he certainly knows something of what he speaks when he bemoans the coarseness of online social schema, but it's quite possible that he's simply too close to the topic. When he crows that one is not one's database entry, he has a point, but doesn't consider that most users probably already realize that, or, more to the point, that they don't really care. The idea that media changes observers is not new; what is new is that now there are media in which one acts, rather than just passively observing, but it's worth remembering that that fact means that those media do not exist without the actions of their users. The software shapes the experience, limits the options for interaction in key ways, and acts in suspiciously secret ways with the information it has, of course, but one could only begin to guess at what effect that has on interactions in the world outside the software. The limits inscribed therein are precisely that: limits.
And your correspondent suspects, deep down, despite the advertised protestations to the contrary, that Oursler feels the same, that the limitations of the thing may make it useful as microcosm, but the truly tweaked equity of social relations is much bigger, and far, stranger than anything Mark Zuckerberg might believe.