From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. All sessions of the convening were transcribed live by a stenographer; below is an edited transcript of the Connectivity and Community panel, featuring short presentations followed by a group discussion with panelists Claudia La Rocco (The Performane Club), Brian Kuan Wood (e-flux journal), Alexander Provan (Triple Canopy), and Ayesha Siddiqi (New Inquiry).
Download a PDF of the full conference transcript. To view videos of all Superscript panels and keynotes, or to read commissioned essays and live blogging by participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program (a partnership with Hyperallergic), visit the Superscript Reader. To report errors in this document, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Connectivity and Community
Saturday, May 30, 2015
One: When the Walker asked me to talk about “connectivity and community,” I remember thinking I probably wasn’t the best gal for the job. I expressed my concerns that I hadn’t given much thought to the subject, that my response to the phrase “arts journalism and criticism in a digital age” is typically a scrunched-up face. I write a column for artforum.com, I publish poetry chat books, it’s all part of the same mess, but of course I said yes, a freelancer’s gotta eat. Months later when I asked if there was a particular mandate I should keep in mind I was told, “we’re very much looking to avoid one-size-fits all canned TED Talks,” and later when I told a fellow writer I was having difficulty approaching this topic, she emailed back “Connectivity and community are the lies of our age, how would anyone actually feel connected via the Internet?” A week or so before today, I asked Twitter what it would do if it had to give a talk on community and connectivity. I received one response. From the writer Marit Case, whom I’ve never met. She wrote, “Handwriting is still important.”
Two: One of my early articles for the New York Times was a 2005 profile of the choreographer Arthur Aviles who after an impressive international career as a dancer had been working to establish an inclusive performing arts center in Hunts Point, a South Bronx neighborhood that has not historically been all that interested in the arts or in embracing feminist or queer perspectives. Roughly ten years into his project the center was both humble and thriving. Decidedly site-specific and grassroots, it wasn’t, in other words, anything the New York art world would pay attention to, unless it happened to fit a flavor-of-the-month whimsy. “No one will ever say he’s made it in the Bronx and I’m fine with that,” Arthur told me. “I feel satisfied with the career I’ve had. This is the next step to come back home and develop a dance community.” Referring to the drive that many choreographers in the Bronx had to make it to Manhattan, he said, “They want something bigger, which I understand.” And then he added, “I want something small, something respectful.”
Three: My first substantial journalism gig in New York was at the Associated Press. Back then the AP was still headquartered in Rockefeller center. Its venerable history announced by the ten ton Isamu Noguchi sculpture entitled News that adorned the front door. Entering the office it was hard not to feel, if only fleetingly, that one was doing something important and useful in society—unless, of course, your job was as an online editor. The multimedia desk where I worked wasn’t even housed in the same building as the rest of the organization. I’m not sure if I was paying enough attention to grasp the brilliance of the department charged with connecting AP to the worldwide web being marooned or perhaps quarantined is the better word in its own building.
But I do remember one reporter saying to me, oh, yeah, you work at that desk whose purpose nobody else here knows. There’s nothing so symbolic as geography. AP Digital was like an island of misfit toys populated by rookies, jobbers, and a few actual multimedia specialists whose reactions to AP’s rather impressive ineptitude in the face of a technological sea change ran from disbelief to disdain.
I worked part-time on that desk for several years, years in which attitudes about the online operation from other AP folks didn’t so much shift as expand to include the irritated belief that digital initiatives were the only ones safe from chronic cutbacks.
Meanwhile, I scanned the Internet on my numerous desktop monitors, tried not to make any intensely bad mistakes in the headlines I spent most of my shifts composing and wrote for the arts desk whenever I could. I realized I wasn’t a journalist. I began to think of criticism as a Trojan horse.
Four: I started the Performance Club in 2008, while working as a cultural critic for WNYC public radio. WNYC had gotten a big chunk of foundation change with the mandate to promote online community. With the initiation languishing and the foundation demanding results, WNYC ordered its contributors to drum up proposals for its website. Mine was the Performance Club which I imagined as a book club for live art so people could take part in the discussions through monthly social gatherings around performances while also having conversations that would continue on my blog forming an archive of discussions and debates. My proposal was responding to two things that had been frustrating me for a while. One was that I would take friends to the live art I was then writing about and in spite of being smart and knowledgeable in other fields of contemporary culture, they would come out of these performances and say I don’t know how to talk about this stuff. The critical minds they would use to read any other sort of text were not being activated. At the same time, conversations with my colleagues, the actual critics, often tended toward the petty. Little clusters of us marooned in lobbies throughout New York. Spending intermissions making these hierarchical assessments. So-and-so was better than so-and-so. This work used to look better than it does now.
I was interested in the possibility of creating a third space. If we brought together people who are already intensely knowledgeable about live art, and people who were curious, but felt they had no way to talk about it, I wondered if we could collectively create a more fruitful conversation.
To put it another way, I like talking with smart people. It’s one of the only consistently good reasons I can think of for getting out of bed in the morning.
Five: Trust your boredom. That’s one of my favorite one-liners in Jonathan Burrow’s book of one-liners, A Choreographer’s Handbook. I appreciate its get out of jail free insistence and just now it seems important. I had assigned sections of the text to my students earlier this month and prepping for class, cramming on the train as usual, I was stopped by these three words. It’s not that I’m bored exactly by the idea of connectivity and community but it makes me restless, my answers to it feel small, preordained. As if we all assume we know what we’re talking about. As if alienation isn’t the right answer, as if technology actually lessens class divides.
Six: The Performance Club I want to emphasize was something I proposed because I had to propose something. In an area I had never considered as an actual thing. Fostering online community.
I couldn’t show up to this meeting empty handed and so I concocted several half-baked ideas, thinking one of them might stick long enough to impress my producer. Such is the lot of the contemporary arts freelancer, busily racing along as one colleague’s husband put it, on the hamster wheel to nowhere. I wasn’t expecting the thing to actually stick. Had I expected it to stick I’d like to think I wouldn’t have saddled myself with the P club nickname, something that another colleague later said “sounds like a cabal of urination fetishists.” But I digress. Having almost never been in a club, I found myself running a rather successful one. People showed up to performances and stayed out for hours after to talk about them.
Despite WNYC’s terrifically wonky web infrastructure, people also left smart comments on my attempting to be pithy blog posts. The club became known around New York and beyond, even spawning other like minded ventures. I liked this network aspect of it which didn’t yet seem oppressive. Also the improvisational nature of it, the thinking and writing out loud. It was a good moment.
Seven: A journalist friend and I were wandering around the streets of San Francisco the other day in search of a good midday drinking bar. The subject of Twitter came up and we agreed that there is often a direct correlation between feeling terrible and being on it. Another day I was visiting an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle which is about a 50-minute walk from what everybody calls the Twitter building. A guy got in the elevator with me as I was leaving the third floor and when I asked him which button he wanted me to push, 1 or 2, he said there is no more 2. Then he clarified it no longer belonged to the Chronicle. I asked him what was there. The usual he said a bunch of hunched over 20-somethings plugged into their laptops, in other words the same old story.
Eight: What’s the best web infrastructure for fostering responsive arts journalism that encourages valuable substantive conversations between writers and readers? That’s one of the questions we’re meant to answer.
I’m not sure what the best infrastructure is. I do know I’ve never worked with it. Every system I’ve become part of has come with some or the of disclaimer that the technology is outmoded and/or in some way not up to the task of being truly interactive and the assumption is that interactive means lots of traffic, lots of linking, liking, reposting, etc. In this I see a strong parallel with the idea of the traditional audience member as passive, as if anything that happens below the surface cannot count as true engagement, writers business busying ourselves with numbers. We are wholly beholden to the quantifiable. There never appears to be an easy or good way to make these systems better. This seems like a very old human problem, the fashions change but not the body. The status quo lets us distract ourselves with the pretty idea that we have found alternatives and we comply, giving it all away. Two other questions posed for this panel: How does a platform create a sense of community around the ideas it presents? And how can the online intersect with the in-person?
The Performance Club was always conceived of so that anybody could be a member. It was free and open to the extent that those things actually exist.
It was up to individuals to decide how they wanted to interact with the idea of the club. There were people who read everything that was online but never once came to an event and there were people who would come to the events religiously. They ranged from practitioners, artists, funders, writers, and people who worked in art spaces to WNYC listeners who have no particular connection to the arts. Most of these people were lovely. Some were much more at ease in person than online and vice versa, with myriad ways of performing and presenting themselves. A few made demands that only in retrospect presented themselves as inappropriate and creepy. I found the live gatherings both exciting and exhausting it. It became clear that in creating the P club I signed up to be a social sculptor, someone who had to shape and care for public space whether one person showed up or 35. This very particular sort of caring felt the same whether the space was physical or digital.
Does a platform create a sense of community any differently than any other system? Is it ever the platform really that makes the difference outside of extreme examples, a technological ineptitude or dazzlement? Running an online anything seems to be a lot about being a good host. The onus is on you to make your guests feel comfortable, to try and head off trouble at the pass or to set up collision courses if that’s the sort of party you’re interested in. And for the guests, the question is do you want to be in a room with anonymous bodies, the pleasures and perils in in that or do you want to be at the dinner table, jockeying for the best seat?
Nine: in one episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s character meets with a publisher who’s interested in publishing her book which is in limbo after the death of her last publisher. The only catch this new publisher tells her is that “We don’t do e-books, we’d want to put it out as an actual book, you know, that you can hold. I hope that’s OK with you.”
The camera cuts to Hannah, there’s a pause and then she breaks out into high pealing laughter. “Are you kidding me? I mean, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I just said yes to an e-book because it was better than, like, a notebook.”
In another another of the many exchanges I have with colleagues while procrastinating on these remarks, I told a friend who edits an online publication that I didn’t know what to write, in part because my perspective is firmly writer-based and “P club aside I don’t think I do anything differently in print versus online other than structural things like making use of hyperlinks.” She messaged me back “I find that you do write with an online sensibility for print, your style and tone. I think that’s one of the things I like about your writing.” I was curious by how pleased I was at her response as if it granted me some sort of currency or legitimacy, and at the same time I had no idea what she meant. My pleasure made me slightly queasy.
Ten: When I left WNYC in 2010, that was the end of the Performance club or that’s what I figured until the following year when I was approached by two former members who convinced me to relaunch with their help as an independent entity. This new iteration of the club received a Creative Capital Warhol grant in 2011. On the website you can still find the following proclamation. “We intend to build the club into an independent multifaceted real time and web based center for interactive discussion forums involving audiences artists and other writers, as well as an informational hub on the NYC performance scene.” I made good on this officious grant language for about a year and a half, hosting monthly events and online conversations. I paid contributors and curated conversations. I joined Twitter.
Eleven: Earlier this year, I was guest curator for dance space projects platform 2015. 6 weeks of performances workshops and readings entitled “Dancers, Buildings, People in the Streets.” The main performance spine featured arranged marriages of artists from disparate experimental traditions in New York. Two of these artists, Caitlyn Gilliland and Will Rawls, decided that instead of a studio practice they would create a social media one, wading through the pop cryptic world of text acronyms and emoji to find a common language of artistic desire and mediated intimacy. What they finally created consisted of a staged reading of this dialogue. The audience seemed split between those who found it intensely moving and those who wondered why they didn’t dance. One critic wrote “their bodies seemed as well matched as their minds, so why not dance together? If they took yet another step and explored partnering it would have been worth 10,000 words.” There’s always so much anxiety around language, the violence it does to nonverbal forms, simultaneously how inadequate it is.
Twelve: Some time ago I got an email from the Warhol Foundation asking for numbers. They were doing an internal review and were looking at how past projects were faring. I remember when I had the blog at WNYC. Some days I used to feverishly check my stats. A lot of fretting was involved. The Warhol request was not unreasonable and it came from folks who have been unceasingly supportive and understanding, minor miracles in the foundation world. I can’t remember if I answered that email. It appears I may have deleted it. There didn’t seem to be any way to answer without sounding defensive for dismissive. For example, the sentence I don’t measure success through site visitors is obnoxious on so many levels, where even to begin? How do you explain that you junked the entire concept of the book club for live art in favor for building a space for criticism of art for weird little chunks of writing that most people will have zero interest in? Is there a way to say that the island of misfit toys suits you more than the mirage of inclusivity? That you’re worn out by the evangelism game artists and writers are supposed to play. I have no appetite for convincing anybody of anything. Also for lasting, we don’t last. Why should the things we make be any different.
Thirteen: I’m so uninterested in anxiety around criticism. It just seems like a given.
Fourteen: I ended the Arthur Arviles profile with his quote about wanting something small and respectful. A reader emailed me to say “I loved the kicker and I hope you realize that the fact that they put a refer on the front page of A & L means the top guns like it too” those two impulses, the romanticizing of the humble effort and the desire to be widely seen seem as the crux of many a present-day difficulty and weirdness, just think of the slow blogging movement. It’s so tempting to make a fetish out of the small and local. It’s so tempting to measure your worth in social media likes. Both of these things are themselves so obvious and off stated as to be embarrassing to mention.
Fifteen: When I was running the previous version of the Performance Club, I began noticing that at our monthly outings I no longer watched shows with the same eyes. I wasn’t there in that alone in the crowd capacity that the traditional critic of live art feeds on. I was watching with a communal eye in connection to the now very specific bodies around me, bodies for whom I felt responsible. Is this so different from the imperceptible transformations that occur when your office is enveloped by the Internet? There’s something profound here which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder, Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts. All those bodies hunched over their machines. I’m back to my own stupid self, Jonathan Burrows writes in his handbook. The computer as compositional space and gathering place, studio and market, room of one’s own and rooming house, the critic as cyborg, writing alone in a crowd. Thank you.
So when I was first asked to speak on the subject of community and connectivity, the broadness of those prompts reminded me of how much time we spend completely enmeshed in them and how much that living in it keeps us from really questioning exactly what our relationship to these subjects is, and when I thought about it a little bit, I realized that its implications captures everything from the tension between DYI and indie for content creators, publishers, as well as the tension between establishment media and what’s called new media, the tensions between corporations and the surveillance state, and how—what was described as shifts in power or empowerment for typically marginalized voices has really been just a masking of new vulnerabilities. So the first thing I wanted to talk about it is that DYI versus indie notion.
Over the past few years we’ve been living in this moment, that seems really optimistic. That seems to encourage everyone to do it yourself, because you can now, right? Anyone can start a blog, start a zine, start a publication. There seems to be a greater ease with which you can pursue creative pursuits, because the infrastructure that you typically needed to have is being provided for you whether through an app or website committed to that.
But what we have instead is the fact that DIY is no longer indie. Those two no longer mean the same thing because you’re absolutely foreclosing on your independence by pursuing DIY projects and by that I mean you don’t any more own that which enables your project.
So even for a publication like New Inquiry, for example, we’re just as vulnerable to the platforms that produce and host our content as we were hoping to avoid being vulnerable by trying to not be a corporately backed or a grant-based publication.
And while you no longer need to have, say, websites or offices that can host the infrastructure, what instead you’re giving up is the opportunity to own that which is enabling you and that’s not a problem that’s unique to independent publications, it’s something that anyone who uses social web is a part of. We are a all part of signing up for things that we’re generating value for, and a lot of the questions that the subject of community and connectivity raises is labor and its valuation and who ultimately ends up benefiting from the use of social web platforms.
So for platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, all of its users are the ones generating value for it, right? We’re essentially running their product for them for free. And in doing so, certainly there are some obvious benefits, so you know we’re in this moment that typically marginalized voices have greater access to the community and connectivity that we’re here to discuss today. They can reach each other, I mean there’s obvious gains to be had there, but we’re also increasingly mistaking visibility for power.
And for these typically marginalized voices—and it’s interesting, the people I’ve noticed at this point in time that have the most angst around the Internet or the social web, people who work in media and are like, oh, gosh, Internet is just the worst, right, Twitter is terrible, and of course all of these opinions are being voiced on the Internet and on Twitter. They’re typically people that the rest of the world has been pretty kind to and the people that have almost the greatest investment in these spaces and spend a great deal of time on this them are people that the rest of the world isn’t that friendly to and it was initially spaced to escape the daily hostilities and aggressions and of course for people of color, people who aren’t straight, queer, gay, LGBTQ communities.
These are really vital developments. Our ability to produce and establish community, our ability to connect, the way its been facilitated for the social web, has in fact changed many lives. And when in one category I spend a lot of time thinking about is students of color who struggle with mental illness issues and the ways in which that mental health resources are either completely designed not to serve them, but actively reproduce colonial violence in the way in which those administrators are trained to deal with people of color that they may encounter. And how so many young people had then turned to the social web to generate their own survival scripts to produce ways of coping with things like depression, anxiety, thoughts of self-harm, and that’s a form of quote-unquote life hacking that I’m way more interested in than cutting up an old takeout container to make a plate. It’s bizarre how what the word “life hacking” gets used to mean and its association with tech pros when there are people doing far more interesting and innovative work just for the pure pursuit of being able to move through the world with relative grips on their sanity and safety.
So while those communities are being developed and are being incredible resources and incredibly empowering which I want to distinguish from actual power I absolutely recognize those benefits and I’m happy for people who have access to these spaces and conversations and can more freely speak their truths and learn from each other.
This is relevant to, you know, anyone from young people connecting over shared experiences on mental health communities, on Tumblr or other blogging platforms, or the fact that the establishment media is no longer shielded from the necessary critiques that people outside of it can offer and how so much of what’s described as Twitter backlash is really the resistance to the historical and still currently ongoing erasure of voices and discourses and essentially colonial perspectives on culture writing so I’m absolutely optimistic about what it means for media and publishing that a lot of typically marginalized voices are able to speak out and speak to establishment media and to each other and there’s a great deal of power in the affirmations that that enables and allows.
While all of that is happening, all of the, you know, the visibility that follows those critiques or the types of thinkers and writers that gain attention aren’t—don’t have then the access to actual capital versus the social capital that their visibility on social web may accrue for them, and it’s also important to distinguish visibility from, you know, the fact that what it can oftentimes really produce is the same social—same vulnerabilities that their social position, the rest of the world had for them. So a lot of the writers of color, young thinkers, black women, trans individuals who are creating content for these corporations, they don’t own what they’re putting out there. They’re entirely subject to the corporate ownership of those platforms, and they’re also vulnerable to what that—to all of the harms that that visibility can bring them, whether it’s routine harassment, a lot of, you know, what’s called—what’s attributed to Twitter or something unique to these individual platforms is really just the misogyny and racism that exists elsewhere anyway, and the way that those patterns of oppression replicate themselves, it’s the same sense of entitlements to the ideas and labor and bodies and images of people of color and of women only now it’s on these platforms instead.
And so there’s the micro-level of you know, individuals who are then subject to something that’s as unfortunately routine as harassment to being stalked online, from online to their real-world lives, having their addresses revealed and released, having their pictures taken and circulated without their consent. These patterns then also—and those vulnerabilities are also present for anyone trying to produce independent alternative projects, and what I’m seeing with the rise of a different form of digital DIY culture is the foreclosure of indie culture and that means that sure, it may seem exciting to have a website that you describe as a magazine, or to kick start a project or to, you know, connect potential audiences or consumers to the thing that you want to put out into the world, you don’t—no longer need the same skillset, you don’t need to be a coder, you don’t need to be a manufacturer, you can just use the apps and websites that are now designed to do that for you, to fill those gaps, right?
But that, I mean for New Inquiry, that’s not that. We when we first started didn’t need our own payment processing system, Amazon payments existed and that meant complete vulnerability to the whims of Amazon and the potential that the minute that they decide to no longer offer the service that our project is built on, we would be dead in the water, and it was only narrowly that we escaped that reality recently because when I became editor in chief one of the first things I wanted to do was get away from Amazon and it just so happened that they did in fact decide to end the service that we were using and we just barely in the nick of time were able to transition to something else.
But there is no real solution to that vulnerability because as anticorporate as you may want to be, you may be forced to engage in the corporations that are now the intermediators between your production, your creation, and your audiences and you can see that across social web and so as much as social web has motivated, propelled real shifts in media and publishing, it’s producing new kinds of cooptions and oppressions. So one of the things you may be familiar of is the way Facebook treats its users and when I talk about community I think about what it means for people to get together online the most basic sense of the word and what community means to the people that own the platforms that everyone is getting together at, right?
So capital-c Community means something very different are than Twitter, Facebook, publications like BuzzFeed or means something very different to them than it does to the people getting to know each other on these platforms. And the behavior that that—that’s encouraged the ideology that gets subsequently produced, there’s a very friction-full exchange there. It’s not as—I mean people who are on Facebook aren’t there with the assumption that they’re you know passive participants in the maze that this corporation, the lab rats in this corporation’s maze but increasingly the way Facebook talks about its users is just that, it’s a sense that these people can fit into the algorithms we produce as much as the numbers Facebook uses to produce its algorithms.
And the fact that what you see on your timelines is something that Facebook designs, so for a publication that’s sharing articles, Facebook at its own whims decides what gets promoted, what gets seen in people’s newsfeed, what doesn’t based on the words that they’re into that day and the number of likes and shares on Facebook have less to do with perhaps that piece of content than the way that Facebook has decided it’s going to be presented to you.
There’s slightly different pattern of that same social control that happens on platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. These spaces were increasingly just shortening the gap between, you know, the cultural production of cool by the alternative and its cooptation by corporations, and essentially at ever-increasing rates, teaching corporations to be more efficient at advertising to us, because we’re with our communities being so public, inviting them to take even more detailed essentially, you know, snapshots of the ways in which people are making their community and mimic those patterns in order to better advertise to us.
So you see on Tumblr promoted posts being designed to look like any other Tumblr post but they inevitably stand out quite starkly because the language and image style that they’re relying on is one that was produced and people are familiar with because they made it themselves with references that are relevant to their own community and it’s very, very obvious when someone who’s not part of your community tries to do that, thinking of all the slang generated by you know, black teens on Vine that way way later will eventually move to white and nonblack communities and then a Denny’s Twitter account telling you that their pancakes are on fleek.
So what is cool and not cool has become markedly accelerated and that cooption is not what’s interesting. Advertisers being corny because they’re a day late and a dollar short is only interesting because it’s good for a laugh. What is interesting is that within the surveillance state, that acceleration reveals the relationship that these platforms, which we always forget are just actually corporations, are you know, mistaken for these bastions of democracy.
When the social web was first blowing up and places that couldn’t really be described as digital natives, places like CNN and other media outlets were quickly trying to catch up investing so many resources and having, you know, robust online presence, and the subject of community engagement, you know, became an entire department that media outlets have, what is interesting about that is all of the voices that make these spaces vibrant and interesting and worth being on, because they’re offering commentary you won’t get elsewhere because they’re breaking news on the ground, that other outlets are slowly struggling to get at.
At the end of the day, they’re only more—they’re only producing for free all of the methods that places that have always had money and always had reach and resources are able to use and I think this is more insidious than simple cooption because the Internet is supposed to be a force that’s more democratic, supposed to be a force that produces more connectivity and community, who is it ultimately connecting?
And visibility in a surveillance state is not power, and all of the historical vulnerabilities that have existed for marginalized voices are simply migrating onto digital spaces and all of the exciting and vital work that people are doing to make their lives a little easier to bypass or life hack all of the deficiency in you know, their workplaces or classrooms or day to day experiences by connecting or communicating with each other exist in an ecosystem that’s primed for their continued exploitation, that remains in many ways hostile to them, the misogyny that a female academic might encounter at a publication or within our department at school is easily replicated by misogyny you encounter in your Twitter mentions or in the comments section of something you write.
The entitlement to the emotional intellectual labor of people of color that exists in establishment media and academia is easily replicated by the entitlement exercised over these people’s work online, and all of the places that we were meant to subvert by being online, by bypassing traditional, you know, paths that were barred from us by being able to avoid and then eventually make irrelevant gatekeepers to genres like cultural criticism, those gains have to be seen in light of the fact that all of this exciting interesting work, whether it’s done, you know, whether it falls within the category of cultural criticism, or as I was referencing earlier, communities dedicated to helping each other live a little bit more honestly in their public realms, or connect over subjects that would be taboo in their day to day, you know, they—in the—you know, in the long game, these are communities that I’m still really concerned about.
Because all of what can be seen as empowerment, people finally being able to speak and speak to each other and say what needs to be said, I think a lot of what’s called empowerment on the Internet is referring to stories, sharing stories of their own lives and of each other’s and being able to just simply speak. That has not, and I don’t see it under existing conditions, translate to actual power. These are still interactions mediated by corporations. Those corporations and who runs them is still fundamentally the same as—you know it looks just like power has always looked in this country, very white, very male, and very removed from all of the communities and people, people of color, LGTBQ individuals that participate on these platforms, so as much as I’ve appreciated the past few years of all of the rest of us getting to speak and getting to be heard, which is a relatively recent and exciting development, we haven’t reached power that is truly—that can truly compete with historical power structures.
And seeing the same patterns of erasure, violence, entitlement, that exist offline be easily adaptable and have evolved to online spaces and to see that these communities, whether it’s someone bullied by members outside their communities, whether it’s, you know, TCOT activists trying to search your address and circulating your pictures because you’re a Muslim that’s going to bring down America, which is something that any Muslim who tweets online will hear at some point in their life, that’s something that we haven’t yet found a way to evolve, and so all of the words that I found being used to describe this moment in time, and even use myself, things like this is empowering, this is exciting, or for movements like Arab spring or for movements like black lives matter, have to be understood within the fact that ultimately these quote-unquote content creators, whether it’s a makeup reviewer that you know has an audience of millions online or a Twitter user with thousands and thousand of followers and has huge reach, they don’t own what they put out there, because we’re all just running for free these platforms and these are at the end of the day corporations and I think the understanding of the social web as less an organic and natural digital space that we’re all getting together and sort of holding hands around the fire which is kind of the sense for typically marginalized communities, and the world that these communities have been able to generate, there’s no ownership, there’s only again, free labor, and for me, that’s not new, and that’s not encouraging.
And that’s what I hope conferences like this, and the conversations that have thus far been brought to the fore are able to effectively recognize and intervene in. Otherwise, everything that’s exciting about now is, you know, in a few years, going to seem like a lot of applause for very little gain, for the same old. Thank you.
So I’m just going to jump right into this without describing Triple Canopy very much, but I will mostly speak about Triple Canopy, which is a magazine based mostly in New York as well as a few other places around the world which does various activities all of which we understand as publication in which we argue should be understood by others as publication.
So when—I also was going to have a more linear presentation that reflected directly on these images, but I canned that, so I’m just going to occasionally scroll through them and I they may or may not relate directly to what I’m saying. So when Triple Canopy first formed in 2007, we the editors were motivated by the increasing characterization of the Internet as a venue for the unremitting production of content and by the corresponding feeling among magazines and art institutions that they somehow had to participate in this production. That they had to solicit interactions, pursue accessibility, conjure a virtual body of enthusiasts, while also preserving their financial models.
At the same time we were frustrated with the frequent valorization of online forums or social networks or publications that seemed designed to generate fleeting or inflammatory interactions among users who gathered because they shared interests or hobbies or political affiliations or supposedly identities. Were those really communities and not just marketing ploys? If they were communities, were they to be lauded, mimicked? Should magazines strive to create such communities or perhaps they could simply be found if you knew where to look. How many unique page views and what kind of bounce rate makes for a legitimate community? Perhaps we were anomalous, but as far as I remember none of us considered ourselves to be part of any online community. I don’t think we were interested in creating one, really. In fact we wanted to argue against the fragmentation of culture, its branded platforms with particular breeds of content likely to appeal to narrowly and quantitatively defined groups. On the most basic level we wanted to establish a magazine that would through its rigorous editing, its Catholic interests and its considered presentation of work address people as sophisticated and unpredictable readers who could not so easily be classified by profession, age, locale political orientation, ethnicity or consumption patterns.
We wanted to create a space where readers as well as contributing artists and writers could expect to have absorbing, rewarding, stimulating and even profound experiences that would not soon be forgotten. This was probably a bit of a fantasy. Or at least this idealism may belie our actual readership in the intervening years. Nevertheless, I think this agenda speaks to Triple Canopy‘s orientation. Toward technology and the discourse around it to our concern to how we can create culture and meaningful bodies of knowledge in what is increasingly a resistant efficient particularized world.
“Culture is also something personal,” John Dewey writes in Democracy and Education. “It is cultivation with respect to the appreciation of ideas and art and broad human interests. When efficiency is identified with the narrow range of acts instead of with the spirit and meaning of activity, culture is opposed to efficiency.”
Dewey saw in the early 20th century an atomization of experience into “separate institutions with diverse and independent purposes and methods. Business is business, science is science, art is art, politics is politics, social intercourse is social intercourse.”
His description of the conflation of culture and efficiency seems twice as true today.
As the line between the Internet and real life disappears, as our consciousnesses are molded if not overtaken by our screens, we want Triple Canopy to serve as an alternative to tech world fantasies about crowd sourced knowledge production, an algorithmic cultural creation to a star system cultural economy that pays a few people a lot and a lot of people little or nothing, and to ossify cultural institutions that neutralize everything that they survey. We want to support work that resists and expands to the present and keeps supporting it until it finds its place in the world which may take years.
We want to keep enlarging our sense of what Dewey called “the unity or integrity of experience” and we want to engage the world at our own speed. This leads me back to the question of for whom a magazine might exist especially a magazine that operates primarily online and so can theoretically be for everyone and just as easily for no one. I’ll talk about this in rather reductive terms, community on one side and public on the other side and I won’t attempt to define community. Maybe we can fail to do that later. But I’ll—I’ll briefly distinguish between community and public and explain why but it’s helpful to think of Triple Canopy‘s work in terms of public and not community.
So obviously a community may may be foundational to or may arise from the activities of a magazine. That’s certainly the case with Triple Canopy, but our motivation has not primarily been to support or dramatically enlarge the community that birthed the magazine and it has for the last almost ten years sustained it. This has to do with what I said about the atomization of culture and the way in which the digital economy has come to understand and profit from individuals as quantities of relatable data points. It also has to do with the way the world community is used. So often used to identify voluntary non-economic unequivocally good activities rooted in empathy kindness selflessness in blogging and so often fallaciously. Since we don’t have that much time I’m just going to continue by reading an excerpt from an excellent book on the subject. It’s Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community.
She writes, “What I call the discourse of community, positions community as the defining other of modernity, of capitalism. This discourse includes a romantic narrative of community as prior in time to ‘society,’ locating community in a long lost past for which we yearn nostalgically from our current fallen state of alienation, bureaucratization, rationality, it distinguishes community from society spatially as local, involving face to face relations where capital is global and faceless. Community is all about boundaries between us and them. Boundaries that are naturalized through reference to place or race or culture or identity. While capital would seem to denature, crossing all borders and making everything, everyone equivalent. Further this discourse contrasts community to modern capitalist society structurally. The foundation of community is supposed to be values, while capitalist society is based only on value (economic value). Community is posited as particular where capitalism is abstract. Posited as its other, its opposite. Community is often presented as a complement to capitalism, balancing and humanizing it, even in fact enabling it.”
That’s the end of the quote.
The sound that happens when quotes end.
Thanks for that.
None of this is to discounter communities as they actually exist or to discount the power they can exercise. But it is to encourage wariness of the use of this term, especially I think when it pertains to the digital economy, which describes a particular kind of value to our expressions and interactions. Alternatively I want to talk about how a magazine can, through the presentation of work, through various modes of address and circulation, constitute a public.
For a long time, Triple Canopy has looked for the work of historian Michael Warner, specifically his book Publics and Counterpublics. Warner draws on Jurgen Habermas’s analysis of the bourgeois public sphere but he works to figure out how Habermas’s model which is built on the universal value of rational discourse and so widely and rightly criticized can be tweaked so as to allow for a public sphere that’s composed of numerous publics, not a single hegemonic one. To that end, Warner describes counterpublics as being formed in opposition to the dominant discourse and the norms it tries to instill.
Publication is a particular form of making public, a discreet set of practices. Not every radio broadcaster, blog post, exhibition, or pamphlet counts as publication. We can think of “to make public,” not just as making something public but as making a public. Which is more complex than simply making information available.
Temporality is crucial here. A magazine can organize time through the regular delivery of articles and issues. As Warner writes, “A public is understood to be an ongoing space of encounter for discourse. No texts themselves create publics, but the concatenation of texts through time. Only when a previously existing discourse can be supposed, and when a responding discourse can be postulated, can a text address a public.” So and maybe it’s a little idealistic to think that a publication can literally organize time and situate a reader within that certain notion of time, but this is more or less what Warner suggests and he also suggests that a reader will recognize one’s self as inhabiting that time at the same time as however many other readers may exist.
So how else is a public formed according to Warner? A public is self-reflexive. People recognize themselves as being part of a public when addressed as such by a text. Which is to say a public is form of discourse. A public is composed essentially of strangers who choose to join one another through discourse. A public can just as well enable one to recognize one self as not being addressed and so as not being part of it which may lead to the generation of what he calls “counterpublics.” A public is made by capturing people’s attention and doing so repeatedly, regularly via the circulation of texts through time and the expectation that this will continue to happen. Different publications, whether academic journals or Reddit forums possess different temporalities. Ultimately I think a public provides a forum for the social world in which it exists through time, through media, and through this kind of mutual recognition.
This may seem like a rather abstract idea, but I think for Triple Canopy at least it has actually animated and on a daily basis shaped the work that we do. And it compels us when conceiving of a publishing platform to ask questions like, how can the platform, the structures and concepts of publication, support the tools we use and support the people who use them?
How can the website hold activities on the web in print and in person, hold them together and communicate how they relate? Can an issue of a magazine reasonably include a book, an installation a single image, an artist’s edition and a reported essay? Can multiple issues occur simultaneously or one for a month and one for a year and is the magazine issue the best metaphor for a coherent set of inquiries in whatever form that starts at some point and eventually ends? How can a magazine effectively annex various kinds of communication networks and face to face interactions and bodily experiences for and as publication?
And can a magazine shape a public and resultantly shape our social world?
So this is—these are images of a recent project we did, which is emblematic in a way. It’s called pointing machines, and it was—it began with a long period of research and discussion among the editors, and was initially instantiated as an installation at the Whitney Biennial and these are some images from the various paintings and prints and objects that were included in that installation. The issue hinged on the historic and contemporary reproduction of images and artworks and the various kinds of audiences and meaning they can attain, through painting, through photography, through 3D printing, through publication, through Zazzle and so on, and that body of research and that initial instantiation of the project was used as a prompt to write other writers and artists and scholars and performers to contribute to the issue over time and then the results of that issue which is still ongoing are on our website.
And I will stop there. Thanks.
I thought to talk to you today about the latest project that we’re working on at e-flux journal, which is a project for the Venice Biennale, a kind of massive four-month publishing project, but it’s called—it’s coming up here. It’s called Supercommunity, and of course I thought, like, OK, there’s something like I want to talk about it, I want to show this to you, but then like something about it seems a little bit too right, you know, to be talking about Supercommunity at the community and connectivity panel at Superscript, like something is corresponding a little bit too much, so maybe it’s meant to be.
So I’ll start by with just a brief introduction of e-flux journal. We basically started—sorry, I’m just checking the Internet here. I’m checking my email. So e-flux journal started in 2008, it’s a monthly journal edited by myself and Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle. And it started really as an attempt a kind of—yeah, a kind of really almost desperate experiment in trying to find a way of creating a discourse or a collection of writing or a kind of language that could address a certain kind of global spread, that has happened in maybe like the last 10 to 15 years in art, where we basically take for granted that the community of the discourse of art now takes place basically in most places of the world. Right?
And so if you take this for granted, though, it really starts to shift the foundations of what you consider to be an artistic canon or what you consider art history, because in many places in the world, artists who are working, they have a kind of relationship with art history and what is often conceptualism, often a history that is based in certain capital cities in the west. A certain relationship with a canon which, you know, is a little bit too close and a little bit too far, right, where they know the history, maybe better than many artists working in New York, but then also feel a bit distant from it, where like the history doesn’t actually apply to them, so it’s like it’s not your history.
It’s a very common post-colonial condition which is installed into the working conditions of many many artists today. So then how do you create a certain kind of discourse which has a certain kind of amnesia, which has a certainly kind of visceral directness, right, which also is reflective, and how do you—how do you to create something that does justice to this new kind of community in art that we take for granted?
So this was the kind of idea that we had in starting the journal in 2008, and so and since then, yeah, we started—there was a PDF version of the journal. It’s the journal is basically ten issues a year, it’s free, online, we made a PDF version, which is distributed to a network of distributors in different parts of the world, who basically receive this PDF, and can print it and sell it at whatever they want, so you know, they receive a PDF, they print it, they can sell it for 3 Euros, they can sell it for 300 Euros, they can give it out for free, it’s up to them because many people were asking for a printed version. I don’t know if these are kind of boring details about format, but you know, this is what we’re working on.
Lately we started e-flux conversations because the journal has been sort just an online transposition of a paper publication, right, where it just, you know where we are like a printed journal but it exists also online. So there was very little dialogue, dialogue was usually taking place between people or privately, so in the last year e-flux conversations became a kind of a, yeah, kind of a discussion platform, a kind of discussion platform for dealing with a lot of these issues, the issues that we deal with in the journal but in the discussion format. So this is kind of still new, it’s about five or six months now and we’re trying to understand what this strange community of people who are really kind of taking hold of e-flux conversations, what they’re actually, like what their character is, because it turns out that actually, there are like really a lot of smart people out there with really a lot to say.
So it seems to attract a certain kind of—it does attract a lot of like, you know, flaming and this kind of things that you see on YouTube, that they’re actually very substantial arguments but they’re short-form micro arguments so it’s really something that I’ve never seen online before so we’re kind of listening and trying to see what happens. With this. And what the community tells us.
We also do a series of readers. The—I think it’s the 9th reader that we just came out, I think 4 months ago, in collaboration with Sternberg Press, the last book is called The Internet Does Not Exist and this is a kind of, you know, of course, the title is a kind of a provocation, but it has to do with a lot of the things that we’ve been thinking about today. The Internet Does Not Exist, it’s a kind of like it’s a collection of essays from that we published in most of which have been published in the journal, but as a provocation, the editorial concept of it is really that the notions and the images and the figures that we have for understanding what the Internet is, have—they’re really just not sufficient anymore, right?
Like you can imagine some kind of information super highway, like this stuff doesn’t really work anymore and so at the same time, a lot of people think, that for example, if you want to understand how the Internet functions or how the communities around the Internet function, how this kind of communication function, you should maybe also good kind of like old school Marxists will say you should look at the material base of the Internet, right, look at where the servers are and look at how they’re connected and that will tell you who’s in control and how the Internet works and it’s the State Department and it’s the NSA, you know, U.S. Department of Defense, you know, all of this is kind of true, but it also doesn’t explain exactly what the Internet is actually doing to us, right?
What the Internet is doing to us, what it’s doing to our lives, to our economic lives, to our personal lives, right, is actually something completely different, so this book sort of wants to depart from the notion that actually the Internet is something which you have to describe through some kind of other figures, right? So things like emotional blackmail and things like this, right? Labor extraction, right? Like what are the figures that we can use to describe the Internet? But of course I mean it just reminds me, there are also people who are doing really, really important work with the actual infrastructure, artists. You have someone like Trevor Paglen who is actually looking for the undersea cables, right, so we still think of actually the information super highway as a kind of abstract notion, but then like someone like Trevor Paglen is actually diving down to find these undersea cables that are stretching across the Atlantic ocean, for example, and he knows about like the actual US submarine that actually goes and kind of kinks the cable to tap into it to monitor the communications. So this stuff is of course really important, but it’s also something that is not a dominant figure that we use to think about how the Internet functions.
So, yeah, so just to tell you a bit about the Supercommunity project, after—I mean basically we’ve been thinking about—we’ve been thinking about these things with e-flux journal for I guess 7 years now, and a few months ago, without much advance notice, we got an invitation from the Venice Biennale to participate as the journal in the biennial and we proposed to do a kind of four-month daily publishing project as the 65th issue of e-flux journal and the concept of it is Supercommunity and it deals with a kind of notion of community which has—which a kind of notion of community which is not something that we actually want, right, which is autonomous, like a warm communitarian, it does not have the warm communitarianism that can cozy up mammal style like everything is going to work it itself out.
Actually it turns out that we’ve had many mass revolutions, we have a lot of people connected to each other and actually sometimes it works out it turns into some kind of new fascism, something that we don’t want and we didn’t ask for. So this poses a real problem to sort of well intentioned artistic standpoint, right, where you believe that your work or you are on the right side of the barricade and the work you’re doing is by its very nature improving the world and making the world a better place, actually it seems that not only are you know, if you look at gentrification, not only are artists the problem, if you look at something like climate change, humans are part of the problem.
So how do we look at these without being the heroic saviors, so it tries to think in these terms, through, there are kind of short form, also quite cheerful text here considering the topic. Yeah, but notions like corruption, cosmos, we have planetary computing, is the universe actually a gigantic computer? We have “Cosmos” which is guest edited together with Boris Groy, “Corruption” together with curator Natasha Ginwala, “Apocalypsis” together with Pedro Neves Marques, “Political Shine” on surface reflection and bling as kind of a new ontology. “The Art of Work,” “Art,” “The Social Common,” which is together with Raqs Media Collective, and the section on Cuba, which we’re doing here with Coco Fusco.
So I thought I would basically finish by reading you the editorial that we—this is the cats. And I’ll conclude that with. And you can actually you can read along with me. No, please don’t.
But with your eyes, please.
Having no body and no name is a small price to pay for being wild, for being free to move across (some) countries, (some) political boundaries, (some) historical ideologies, and (some) economies. I am the supercommunity, and you are only starting to recognize me. I grew out of something that used to be humanity. Some have compared me to angry crowds in public squares; others compare me to wind and atmosphere, or to software. Some say they have seen me moving through jet-lagged artists and curators, or migrant laborers, or a lost cargo ship that left a trail of rubber ducks that will wash up on the shores of the planet over the next 200 years. I convert care to cruelty, and cruelty back to care. I convert political desires to economic flows and data, and then I convert them back again. I convert revolutions to revelations. I don’t want security, I want to leave, and then disperse myself everywhere and all the time.
I’m not worried about famine, drought, wifi dead zones, or historical grievances, because I already stretch across the living and the dead. I can be cruel if that is what’s needed. Historical pain is my criteria for deciding the pricing of goods and services. Payback time is my favorite international holiday, when things get boozy and a little bloody. Economies have tried to tap into me. Some governments try to contain me, but I always start to leak. Social contracts try to teach me to behave, but I don’t want rights. I want fuel. And if you think you can know me, I’ll give you such a strong dose of political and economic instability that you’ll wish you never tried.
e-flux journal has been trying for years to give me a face and a name. The editors think they can see me move in the trees of the Giardini. They think they can find the supercommunity in how plants experience pain, how humans experience pain, how jellyfish talk to each other, how acacia trees warn other acacias. They think they can see me in how the world talks to the world.
The editors think they can trace my footsteps by asking artists and thinkers to consider how the supercommunity assembles through a growing series of themes that reflect the profoundly contradictory scales of thinking that are currently altering the collective consciousness of contemporary art, and by publishing these essays, statements, and prognoses in individual installments over the course of the Venice Biennale.
For instance, they think some artists and writers from New Delhi can see how I’ve always rendered any social contract uneven and unequal. They think I increasingly use corruption as a vehicle for getting around. They think I helped a bunch of Russians hack the Enlightenment to design spaceships before the Communist Revolution. They think I extract labor from artists with false promises, when all I want is for them to stop thinking so much about survival and focus on their work. They think Cuban artists know something I don’t know. They think I build infrastructure out of surface gloss and lighting effects. They think I mash physics with universalism to build a gigantic computer.
The supercommunity loves a miniaturized version of the world as an idea. From human understanding the supercommunity harvests protocols for the mobilization of goods, services, and ideas we didn’t ask for: it moves a lot of things around, but never forward. The supercommunity wants a maximal version of the world that floats any governing idea so long as it never governs.
I grow larger and healthier when forms of international solidarity are stripped of their progressive promise, and when those solidaries are put to work munching up real estate or vying for control of towns and villages. I am the alphanumeric calculation of visitor numbers and the force that floats those figures to source outside infrastructure for the next iteration of the fair. I make language into everything and nothing at the same time. I can sort you faster than you can recognize your own image in the mirror. And in fact, I will replace your image in every mirror.
Think of it this way. I need to attend international exhibitions to update the methods I use to sort the communities of the world. The world is not yet in alignment with its own communitarian desires. There are certain areas where resources have pooled precisely because those resources cannot be used. They function like banks in which the money is safe because it can’t be spent, because in many cases the knowledge, content, talent, human minds, or natural resources moved away a generation or three ago.
The supercommunity sources internationalist good intentions to match those resources to the talent that floated away—to seek refuge in another country, another national pavilion, a yacht moored in Riva Dei Sette Martiri, an artist’s incessant doubts, or an exhibition boycott. The supercommunity discovers the places where these errant resources hang in limbo, and patches them back into the venues where they didn’t know they always belonged.
This is what makes me bigger than any political demand you ever thought you had. I have a lot of work to do for the Biennale. I have a lot of work invested in the Biennale. Don’t bother with choosing me or not choosing me to represent you. I am the supercommunity, and you are only starting to recognize me.”
Claudia La Rocco: So as Alex suggested we’re going to start with failure. We thought we’d start with a discussion of terminology. Last night at dinner and as I think all of our talks reflected, we all have varying degrees of ambivalence about the language assigned to our panel, the phrase one of you uttered the phrase being against a language of metrics and boosterism. So we thought we’d start with some words, community, connectivity, responsiveness, value, what are the politics of these words? Are they adequate? Are there better alternatives and do they create a false consensus? Have at.
Ayesha Siddiqi: I mean I think certainly for the corporations with departments dedicated to so-called community engagement, the issue false consensus is very, very real and relevant to them but there’s also so many people using the Internet for whom community is a word that is newly available to them, describes a very novel experience, because they’re able to find peers where they didn’t elsewhere and the ability to transcend geographical and even although not to the same extent economic barriers towards connecting with each other.
I mean think of say, you know, members of diaspora, first generation immigrants, the queer kid in a very conservative high school, these are people for whom the Internet has been remarkable in terms of giving access to community, communities that are in the process of being built. But again, as I mentioned before, that’s a conversation that can’t be divorced from the existing and you know, definitions of community that we’re all sort of grappling with and what they mean to different people.
Alex Provan: And I didn’t mean to demean the genuine feeling of connecting with others in a togetherness that we associate with community, and I mean I think—I wish there were another word to use as a substitute, but I meant mostly to differentiate community as a discursive construct that is often used quite imprecisely if not irresponsibly, and that—that is of course not the same thing as the kind of—the feeling of community that you’re describing.
And I guess what I mean and what this book I mentioned speaks about, I mean it’s a kind of anthropology of community, one that—the most extensive study in book is of a queer theater organization in San Francisco and she’s primarily interested how this discourse around community shuts down and creates certain kinds of exclusion which are generally concealed in our usage of the term.
Brian Kuan Wood: Yeah, it seems that the kind of bad-faith use of these terms has, even though on the one hand one can criticize that they’re being used disingenuously, but at then at the same time it seems to be a lot more interesting to start to see them as being completely structural, right, that these are actually the protocols that we are—that we can only be following. This is like something that we were thinking about with the—with like the “Politics of Shine” issue in January and then in the part in the Supercommunity issue, where advertisement and like a projection of purpose and advertisement of what the community is or could be, this is the only—is the only way to actually exist, right, like the opposite of, you know, inflating yourself or seeming bigger than you are, trying to market yourself the opposite of this is like some kind of obsolescence or this is at least how it’s felt that we will just simply disappear if you don’t kind of project your image forward.
And the question is, really, like what kind of like strange communal dystopia does that contribute to? I mean with this I always think—I me I think it’s also very important to approach these questions on many different scales where also there is a strange kind of parity between the way like that marginal groups operate and the way that if you go up to higher echelons of power, that the way that actually power functions, like marginal practices are being used on, like, on vastly different scales and I always think of this—
La Rocco: Can you give an example?
Wood: Yeah. And I always think of this Dutch like brilliant Dutch designers, Metahaven, who are great researchers and always kind of stumble upon these extremely large scale phenomena, like they did a text on state branding where they basically beautiful formulation where they said, actually, most—it’s like also has to do with the question of the state we were talking about yesterday, like basically if you look at tourism advertising for like Greece or Spain or something, everyone knows the logo for Espana, like a circular thing, like you have it embedded in your mind, right? But these are actually more recognizable to us than national flags, so I remember who can remember the Spanish flag? Like I kind of can, but I can really remember the tourism logo, right, so this kind of marketing, this kind of marketization, it has such powerful effects that we somehow have to find ways to take it very seriously.
Siddiqi: You just said a few things like one that marketization of borders, right, has implications for the ways that communities are policed because then it relates to the way that those borders are able to be cooperated and replicated and re-instituted by places with a great deal of more power what you said about the inadequacy of the term community and the necessity for perhaps needing new vocabulary to address the different types of community at work, I think it might be productive to compare the word community to the word public, the various sorts of public settings.
At dinner last night that was one of the things we talked with was the ability to to be in a moment which we have ever-increasing public and more dialogue, whether it’s a culture of TV criticism in the age of shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or the ability for marginalized voices to sufficiently antagonize the racism or the misogyny of establishment media and while there’s an idea of an ever-increasingly active public sphere with ever-decreasing amounts of power, so a really active public sphere that has no power.
Provan: And this relates to what you were saying about visibility in a surveillance state, right? However much agency and presence you might have within the public sphere, that might—that could very easily have no political effect or no possibility of achieving any political effect. There’s not a direct influence.
Siddiqi: Well, it was positive political effect, because they’re certainly seeing policies being—that were produced with respect to the political effects of these online engagements, so the ability of I mean state agents have always been able to, and have to infiltrate various political organizations, but I’m thinking of all the cases that a Facebook status has led to the harass and detention of people, so whether it was recently a black man who expressed dissatisfaction with the police on Facebook and it was perceived to be an active threat against a cop and he was charged or the student in England who—whose academic research at a university on terrorism was interpreted to be, you know, researchers becoming a terrorist and he was put in jail and those are not uncommon.
There have been a lot of people who’ve you know, been met with significant, like, you know, state, political repercussions for the things that they have expressed or shared online and the ways in which those expressions can be used as evidence against them and so that’s just one of the ways in which the social position of anyone is replicated on their—within their online presence and it’s still—we are not escaping the policing that state does, and we’re not escaping the borders and cooption that corporations always practice on us when we do what we’re doing differently online.
La Rocco: And I also think that there’s this incredible dislocation, right? The differences between how we use these technologies and then how we view how others are using them. I think of, you know, all of the incredible and ferocious shaming of people who’ve said things, you know, that have met with disapproval on various social media and this idea of how can anybody do this, you know, how could anybody be so stupid as to do this, but of course we’re doing this all the time, and there’s this way in which—you know we’ve been talking about various speeds and what are the speeds at which we want to exist, and one of the things that occurs to as being related to that is the—there’s a way in which the ability to improvise is being completely leached out of our culture, because everything is so quickly, both set in stone and decontextualized.
We were just saying that right after our talks it’s fascinating to look through Twitter and see all of the ways that we’ve all been misquoted or taken out of context and that that’s immediately but that’s something of course that we also do all the time to other people, so there’s this idea we think of the, you know, the state and the corporation as an abstract and an other, but it’s as you were saying it’s absolutely us. We are the appalling supercommunity.
Wood: Yeah, I mean with this this seems to come also, it seems to come with like a profound dislocation of notions of public and private that used to be quite clear, where we don’t really know the difference anymore between—yeah, I mean also on different scales, between like also on private feelings and between interior feelings and outside world, almost like some kind of—yeah, almost like in like a Russian novel or something, where you have a hard time distinguishing between grand narrative and personal and private emotions but then also just economically or politically public sphere and private sphere are intermingled to the point where it becomes very hard to sustain this moral division between public good or you know, private self-benefit. And in a way it’s kind of—it can be almost like liberating to just kind of like, you know, chuck these notion, because they’re really, if you look at how most publics were constructed formally, it really came from the state, right? Publics are usually confined by nation, and they’re usually subsidized by states, and you know, I mean.
Provan: I think publication and circulation of media has a lot to do with that. I mean, not to go back to Michael Warner, but he has another book called Letters of the Republic which is all about the formation of an American national identity, not through coercion of the state, not through, you know, some sort of false consensus, but rather through the development of communication networks, and through various documents and publications through which people could recognize each other as readers and therefore as part of a public, which, you know, in certain ways preceded the constitution of a nation.
Wood: Right, right, Michael Warner is really important for this as a queer theorist, right, because queer theory, he’s writing about counterpublics, because as I remember in the essay, at least it is actually antagonizing and working against a public consensus, so in a way, like queer thought is so interesting for always having trouble with the cleanliness of the division, if you want to for example even just in queer politics, like if you want to bring the queer community above water, you just equalize gay marriage and then you have taxpayers and everybody can be a nuclear family like in the Jetsons or Leave It To Beaver style.
Provan: Are we entering the Jetsons period finally?
Wood: Maybe Jetsons is a bad example. It’s a really important debate within the queer community, like, are we supposed to actually—like are we supposed to actually be, do we want to be accepted and normalized under these terms? Wasn’t there actually something about deviant practices and there was something to be defended in being marginal. Maybe we don’t want to be a part of the public in these terms. Maybe we want to have our private culture.
Siddiqi: I mean what you’re saying about the porousness of the membrane between public and private, immediately for me provokes the questions of erasure and entitlement, because dissolution between public and private and the way it’s carried out on the web, how many of you have seen articles which are essentially a series of tweets captured and aggregated so this popularity of aggregation as a form of content creation and publication to various outlets and there have been a number of very well funded established media outlets that entire sections that are populated by exclusively through aggregation, and of course what and who they’re aggregating is not something that is compensated, it goes back into the patterns of the exploitation of the people who are newly accessing public spaces, spaces in which they’re able to speak and participate.
But again it’s not on equal terms, it is again an exchange that is normalizing free labor and what I’ve—you know, the way I see people talk about this use of, you know, to use a particular example of tweets in this particular way, is it’s a bit unsettling, because you know, oftentimes you’ll hear the argument, well, it’s publicly available. It’s right there. You posted it so you must, you shouldn’t be surprised then when people then share it or take it outside of the, you know, to use the word the community in which it was shared, so if you’re having a conversation online with the community of your choosing, that is not necessarily to say that—to welcome outsiders, people who are necessarily not part of that community to come in and take what you’re putting out there for their own ends and purposes, and this has real consequences, because I mean the people who are aggregating that material in those tweets are generating sites of revenue for themselves, those pages filled with the uncompensated words of others are creating revenue through ad clicks for all of these outlets and whichever outlet that may be, I mean —
Provan: Huffington Post especially.
Siddiqi: Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, there’s no one who hasn’t been guilty of doing this. But the argument I’m repeating again is if it’s publicly visible, we are entitled to use it, I mean it’s a bizarre like replication of rape culture logic of visibility meaning that if I can see it, I’m allowed to take it. And that to me is related to the question of borders of community and how they’re maintained, how they’re policed and who gets to really own them and enact them.
So all of the people I secreting and establishing interesting, necessary, vital vibrant communities online, the borders of their communities is not something that they’re able to exercise control over and their exposure to not just violence and harassment from others, the but also exploitation in more subtle, but perhaps no less violent ways, from people who are trolls, right? I mean that’s another word that gets used very often, but has a range of meanings of what constitutes trolling, because that’s a way of antagonizing communities.
La Rocco: And the question of context becomes so important. Thinking about performance pieces that get replicated online. There’s been in recent years an explosion of technologies that can really go a bit further in terms of capturing, you know, live performances and on the one hand this is great, right, because these works can be disseminated and everybody can see them, and on the other hand, you know, a lot of works, if you take them out of their very specific context of who’s in the room, who is the community that it is initially for, they become something else entirely.
I remember performers in a particular group being really upset that they had been recorded, and they no longer own that image, right, and then the image gets, you know, edited and put up as a clip on YouTube and it becomes pornography, because it’s the context is stripped away. And I think that was a—we were talking about this last night, right, the what is the sort of the tension between wanting to control the work that you’re making and then this, you know, this drive for dissemination and for circulation.
Provan: And it’s especially easy to control it if nobody cares about it.
La Rocco: Yes.
Provan: Which is why most of us probably haven’t had so many problems in this regard.
Siddiqi: I mean I guess what we’re talking about I guess is the attention economy, right?
Wood: I always think of, I mean also with the public and private kind of thing, I always think of this reformulation of the gated community, in terms of as a kind of productive principle for marginal groups that Marjetica Potrč, I think she’s a Slovenian artist, she described the kind of model of the gated community that was being used by marginal communities in the Amazon to resist the corporate like resource extraction, and but she described it as this almost like a certain kind of like a panopticon or something where on a very in a very basic way, you have your security is ensured through like a one-way—through one-way visibility, where you can control who enters. Like you can leave and enter as you like, but you control who enters. So you can see out, but no one can see in. So it becomes actually like a technology of opacity of protecting yourself and maintaining a certain kind of amount of control over what you do.
La Rocco: I wonder how you each relate to that and with the particular, you know, publications and organizations you’re involved with, and yeah, just how you navigate.
Siddiqi: How we navigate what? Sorry?
La Rocco: Navigate, you know, the desire to control your work. If that is a desire, to have it correctly contextualized with understanding that, you know, what the economy is that we’re in, and the, you know, the need or the pressure to have everything be circulated, be disseminated.
Provan: And that’s been a big issue for kind of something that has an animated concern for Triple Canopy. I think we started by looking at various magazines from the 60s and 70s, which were new media projects at the time, Aspen was especially important to us, and like Aspen, for instance, was a magazine in a box that was delivered to your door, and within that box, you could find foldable sculptures, records, films, texts, and it was in some ways an exhibition packaged as a publication, and it made a very convincing argument for an expanded notion of what the magazine could be and for the various material supports that can constitute a magazine, and it also—it also I think opened up new relationships between authors and readers and publishers and editors, and not by coincidence, Aspen commissioned Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author and published it in in the box with these various media and to encounter that text now in a reprinted in a collection of essays is kind of travesty.
But it has this additional force within that environment. So we started with this idea with a highly regulated environment in which to encounter works of art and literature. And we, you know, developed a platform which made it especially difficult to—for that work to travel elsewhere. You couldn’t print anything, the pages were organized horizontally, so to copy and paste an entire essay, you would have to scroll from slide to slide to slide and go through the same manual operation many, many times and generally people don’t even have the attention to read something for more than two minutes, much less to spend five minutes copying and pasting so that was an effective and somewhat antagonistic move that you know, probably diminished our readership.
But you know, nevertheless, we have—like we care about developing an issue over a period of a year and a half, and we’re very insistent on certain pieces responding to other pieces in certain ways, whether or not that is how they will be encountered by the majority of readers, which is why it is especially surprising when a project that we publish becomes extremely popular and starts to circulate in an entirely different environment that we have no control over whatsoever. Which is not to say that that is regrettable at all. It is just not—at least initially it was not part of our calculus.
I was also curious how you thought about Performance Club about the kinds of discussions of live art that ensue after the performance ends?
La Rocco: Yeah, well it used to—I guess the initial iteration of the Performance Club existed in what I didn’t realize until yesterday it was was a golden age of comments on websites before they migrated elsewhere. It was astounding to me how immediate the conversation—how immediately the conversation began and how strong and thoughtful it was, and it was quite—it became very easy to see that there was no community that I had created, right? It was just there already and it wanted, it wanted a place to go to. And so I sort of got lucky with what I built.
Provan: But that also happens at a time when people are interested in these particularly vexing questions about how to represent and preserve and circulate performance, and it’s not like you establish this as receptacle for videos and increasingly realistic representations of an experience, of a performance in the time and space, right?
La Rocco: I think when it comes to performance that I’m a hopeless luddite and I just think you have to be in the room. It’s fine to watch a video but it’s not the thing. It may be the same way a PDF printout of something you made. It’s not the thing, right, it’s just a facsimile.
Provan: I think it also has to do with how you imagine something being received in five years, ten years beings and maybe valuing that over its immediate reception.
La Rocco: And just thinking about the ways in which you know, the ways in which I understand things that happened in the past performance, thinking about, you know, visual art and performance in particular. It’s through writers, you know, it’s through—unless—I mean most of the time you know, I understand, you know, Marina Abramovic’s walk across the Great Wall because of Cindy Carr, you know, and not because of the detritus that was at MoMA as part of her retrospective. And I think the conversation around ideas within performance was always more interesting to me than you know, one of the constant criticism of my criticism is that I don’t give enough description, which I also thought that—I was very happy with that criticism.
Wood: On the issue of distortion. Speaking as an editor it’s really terrifying to have things munched up and changed into other things because you want a certain amount of control and precision. Like, there is this, but then on the kind of—in terms of like the way that image and texts circulate online, I think it’s something that in a way, at least for the journal, it was something that we never thought of really so much formally or as something that happens formally or technologically, but maybe we kind of preempted it by thinking of in terms of this kind of like global distribution of discourse, right? So the distortion that we originally saw was—wasn’t so much like—it was like a kind of original distortion.
Provan: The premise of distortion.
Wood: Yeah, in the actual foundation, like the canonical foundations that actually that has been already scrambled, and so the question is like how to actually speak about art in a coherent way granted that the shared references are already kind of so fragmented that automatic consensus can’t be taken for granted. Of course, this is a kind of, you know, this is not something that exists so much in like in New York and in the US in general, of course, because the canon in this part of the world is kind of subsidized by institutions and which strengthen the idea of this kind of clear lineage, and progression, but this is—but in many place this has already been distorted and unrecognizably. Mangled. Corrupted.
La Rocco: Here’s—there’s a little bit of a belief that we’re not being positive enough. Our public.
Provan: You may have gotten the wrong panelists.
La Rocco: Yeah, sorry. Sorry, you guys.
Wood: This is positive.
Provan: This is just being here, being negative together is so positive.
Siddiqi: None of our critiques offer a rejection of anything. It’s mostly inspired for an idea to have a better status quo than the one we’re trying to address here now.
La Rocco: I guess I would ask this—well, I mean it’s beautifully, the language is beautiful, the sentiment is not beautiful, but you said that visibility in a surveillance state is not power and I wonder if you were—either of you two would have thoughts as to what is power and what does true ownership look like? You know, is it possible? We are getting questions about the best web platforms for creating community in a positive way …
Wood: I think it’s really important as Ayesha was saying that yeah, suggesting which is like that even though in spite of all of this distribution of agency, that the—like still and this is really, really important, like still the centers of power are still really the same, like the police are the police and the government is the government, right? And but then with this, I always think of this thing from 2010 that was kind of like a weird pilot project, maybe people might have heard of this in the UK that David Cameron did called Big Society, which is kind of a strange thing for one of the conservatives to do.
Provan: There’s no such thing as society.
Wood: But then you flip it.
Provan: There is such a thing as big society.
Wood: But then you flip it and you make it bigger, so now after his predecessors.
Provan: Zero times 100.
Wood: Yes, exactly that. There is no such thing as society, suddenly now there is, no, there is society and there’s a big one, but what was it? There is basically a kind of conversion of the functions of government into a social network, it was like the welfare state turned into Facebook where you know, rather than having schools and hospitals and these kind of like silly old-fashioned things, right, you have the government functions as you know, where also the government has to give resources, then you start to—– the government actually tried to kind of like roll back its role from a supporting—something that supports with resources and supports as a kind of like weird telephone operator that basically patches people together, so it administers to like big website and it was a pilot project, I don’t think it was actually implemented but I think he was kind of testing the waters to see how wacky things could possibly get with this where basically if you break your leg or something, sprain ankle and I need a doctor, they will find you a doctor, where you say if I want to learn something, I want to learn particle physics why, Big Society will find you someone in your neighborhood who can teach you about particle physics, right.
La Rocco: That person always exists in one’s neighborhood.
Wood: It so profoundly liquidate the traditional function of the state which is to administer and manage like the resources of the people, it converts that—it converts that so profoundly that it actually starts to become kind of—that’s then that’s Jetsons, and Manchester isn’t getting any funding from London and starts to scratch its head and says what is the contract that is holding us together if no resources are changing hands.
La Rocco: It also assumes a certain privilege of who would be hooked into these networks to begin with. I mean it made me think about something I heard about, you know, how in Detroit many people have like ambulance plans like that if you were in an accident, that you have somebody that you call to take you to the hospital, because the ambulances don’t work, which is, you know, you can get a—you can get an $8 cup of coffee, but you can’t get an ambulance.
Wood: Yeah, but these are basic life functions, also, that the state performs. They can’t be deferred to—you can’t Facebook your ambulance, like, so then the why question is then how to like return to ethical questions of how power is supposed to operate, when there are all of—when the terms have changed so much, and where the terms have changed, but also the kind of the way that the ethics, the way that the ethics have changed around them.
Siddiqi: I think the thing that’s changing is what types of labor and the types of labor that are making these platforms valuable, their interpretation, because I don’t think—I mean that lack of power that I was referencing was actually a reproduction of the same social vulnerabilities that people experience offline, right?
So when you’re talking about public and private and racial entitlement, where power still is, and isn’t, I mean as much as these corporate platforms produce their own ideologies and condition certain behavior, Facebook especially doing just straight out experiments on its users and trying to elicit particular emotional responses and making various industries increasingly independent so it’s not just your DIY project that’s dependent on say Instagram censorship rules or say if WordPress decides to shut down one day and the work that you may have been putting on there for years disappears, etc., it’s also the sense of entitlement to ownership we also practice as individuals and who we’re taught to expect to feel power over and so as much as different types of people are using these platforms, they are not at all in the same boat and by this I’m talking about neither obvious examples, a woman online has a very different experience than a man.
A woman talking about American foreign policy and she is wearing a hijab in her avatar has a very different experience online than anyone else. A lot of American foreign policy pundits who are white and/or male, they’ll have their name or something in their Twitter bio in Arabic script it’s like a popular trend to do. And it’s so funny to see that when it’s such a like, you know, bullshit hipster gesture, and all of the people for whom, I mean of—again, like a person of color’s experience online is conditioned by being a person of color.
So as much as there is a new distribution of agency, the social vulnerabilities are the same, and the storytelling and the ability to own narratives by producing them yourself from within your own community for your own community, makes more salient the things that are going to make you a target, and so your racial, national background, your sexual orientation, and so that’s what, as much as we call out the corporate seats of power, we—it’s useful to also recognize the ways in which we participate in those power dynamics, because again, we are also doing, that the entitlement we may feel over the image of—you know, I was thinking about this on the last podcast I recorded was about this, the entitlement we feel over black images, right? So when you look at the trends of sharing—communicating via memes and GIFs and vine, right? So you are how many times has the reaction GIF or the meme in that conversation been of a black entertainer, from say a reality show or a rapper?
And the particular entitlement of that culture product, you know, by everyone else, that’s not really new, that’s part of a tradition in American culture, and is replicating like very longstanding historical relationships to—who the producer of culture are and who are the people that ultimately gain the benefits of it. And just thinking about how much that entitlement to the way we use, you know, pop cultural icons as personal avatars, the very grim juxtaposition of that to, you know, the country in which that’s the norm, we don’t have a comparable ability to, you know, empathize with that black pain. I mean if we did we wouldn’t have as many police shootings as we do, right?
So it’s this, I think so many of the things that digital culture makes visible are existing facets of our society and culture. And what’s new now is our ability to more effectively intervene in them because it’s not just a racist newspaper, right? It’s us on Twitter. And I think in carrying that relationship to the circulation of imagery and the ways that we talk about these things is just as useful as calling out the, you know, ideologies and practice by the corporate platform owners.
La Rocco: Should we take questions.
Provan: Yeah, I mean maybe that we could talk briefly about something else, but I’m just curious about how—hike, we could talk about the circulation of images and words in terms of how in a concrete situation power might be exercised. I mean I think it might be useful to talk about what, Olga was describing earlier in terms of the Tania Bruguera situation because it’s a very straightforward metric for figuring whether or not anything that we do has anything to do with what we can do with exercising power in a meaningful way. Of in this case we can’t know what will happen in the coming weeks and months, but that is, I think that to me is at least a more tangible, if not more meaningful way of understanding what kind of power we might possess and whether it’s worth anything.
Siddiqi: Well, I also want to use the same thing you did in your presentation, you made a really great point about not treating community as a—like to mean exclusively like positive. To have positive connotations and I would want to do the same thing with power, right? It’s not that these things don’t have power, it’s that they have a particular power and it may or may not be used for good.
So think of the “Je Suis Charlie” phenomenon and Charlie Hebdo and how that became and people who were unaffiliated tweeting their alliance with an outlet that was producing commentary that aligned with a longstanding active state agenda and the ways in which, you know, so many—so much of the theater of solidarity and protest, that “Je Suis Charlie” and Charlie Hebdo and the response produced to me, to me it very clear the through lines I think you alluded to before, between borders of state and culture and marketing and I mean I’m thinking that among the responses was all of these various heads of state standing in solidarity with this racist publication and saying that the way that—and the way that the stakes were, you know, incorrectly framed to be that of freedom of speech.
Wood: Freedom of expression.
Siddiqi: Exactly who was advantaged in that conversation, because the participants spanned various seats of power or lack thereof, but the actions were firmly within —
Provan: That’s why I think it’s useful to talk about people organizing everything and speaking in order to achieve a very specific end. Rather than in order to, you know, enrich a spectacle of solidarity.