warehouse warehouse

SLEEKY CRACKS: ONLINE AESTHETICS IN LIVE-ART

by Milosz Paul Rosinski

If you’re reading this on a screen, fuck off.
Joshua Cohen, Book of Numbers, 2015 1


Fußnoten

  1. http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/240498/book-of-numbers-by-joshua-cohen/9780812986655/

  2. http://www.stuk.be/en/bitfall

  3. W. Terrence Gordon, McLuhan: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: continuum, 2010), p.167

  4. https://thenewinquiry.com/blog/the-silence-of-the-masses-could-be-social-media/

  5. http://www.adrianpiper.com/art/docs/Piper2016TPTR_InterimReport-1.pdf

The screen is dead. There is nothing but the screen. Everything is the screen. You are part of the screen show. Dissolving into the materiality of reality like air like gravity like physical matter the digital beast permeates your life’s pores. Lucky you who has a screen to fathom. Try to feel the digital, because before long you will forget that feeling existed in the first place. The world becomes structured according to digital logic: algorithms as much as your intuition is updated.
Let’s think of the experience of digital phantoms within the disconnected realm as sleeky cracks. This is a form of felt friction in which the realm of the disconnected and offline is infiltrated and feels like it is based within the digital and online realm. Indeed, you read a paperback and the screen pop’s up as concept and the author demands you to leave this safe space. Maybe you do read this on a screen, and you are requested to leave, or you are not and yet you are asked, in either case the logic of the online existence creates an aesthetic effect, a slip of the sleeky cracks.
I am interested in exploring this aesthetic effect of the sleeky cracks that the digital, online and internet world of formerly known as new media opens in our heads when it is not there, but it is. In other words, I am intrigued by the aesthetic effect of the presence of the absence of the internet: understanding the presence of a phantom pain. This spectral experience makes the change in perception sleeky, as the cracking of our reality happens subtly and tacitly. How do the logics of the digital world influence the human experience in the quasi-offline realm? Not that anything offline actually exists anymore, but it is precisely the disappearance of the offline that I am concerned with, made visible through the intrusion of the logics of the online world.
The offline and offscreen worlds are gone and over. There is no dichotomy and mutual exclusion possible between the off/on-line and analogue and digital in terms of the human experience of reality. Yet, tracing the influence of the amendments of perception of reality due to the digital online world is a fruitful enterprise. If we are deep hanging out with each other (to use Clifford Geertz’s term regarding observation) we have to realize sleeky cracks are a pretty big deal. My argument is that the world is perceived within and through the new frameworks of understanding the digital ecosphere cultivates: online aesthetics frame the perception of our world. In the case of the couple of words of reading this here or elsewhere from Joshua Cohen’s first sentence of Book of Numbers, the sleeky crack is the knowledge of bilocation. That text, these words exist in a form of bilocation as e/book, here and there, digital and analogue, and so do you, so does your reasoning. You’re never just in one place anymore.

Where should you go to anyways, where should you ‘fuck off’ if after all there is nowhere else to go?

I’m thinking about words here and where they belong, how they work, what they mean. Words are always digital, reproducible without friction, without loss. Books can exist a thousand times in identity to one another. Screens replicate the same data wherever they retrieve and project. Words are thus brutally forever, as they keep themselves together. Words however, are also always multi-media installations: spoken, written, told, recited, paraphrased, and forgotten. Words and language are a social gesture called meaning, made so we can communicate and understand each other. We believe in words as carrier and signifier of meaning. The online realm has given new language as much as new meanings and practices. The way words work advances through the textual realm of the online world – after all, composed of words and images. We form conversations and communities online, as much as upload ourselves into the clouds of our storage to get directions to the next place we go to on our smartphone. The sleeky cracks that open through the use of words in the online evolve through the meaning-making of many practices: chatting, messaging, reviewing, rating, commenting, liking, swiping, matching, retweeting, hashtagging, sexting.
The practices we perform with our words naturally merge through the online and the offline. Bilocation as the supposed phenomenon of physical existence in two distinct places simultaneously is not real. Yet, the intrusion of the supplementary realm of the online world into our perception and consciousness provides us with an experience thereof. The sleeky crack is to not eat at a restaurant you’ve seen having bad online reviews although the place looks good IRL. Mimicking behaviour based on mediated sources takes over empirical intuition. The digital beast (or simply an influencer on instagram) infiltrates our consciousness and memory, and so is thus our faculty of judgement impaired and amended. Our mental principles – our intuition, our orientation, our aesthetics, our sense of self – or our language of existence are guided by the quasi-normal extensions of our everyday lives that make the pace and practices of our lives feasible.

One of the ways in which bilocation can be made visible is through artistic objects or installations. The world of the internet as a whole and as a system is otherwise simply unobservable. We know that it is overwhelmingly incomprehensible to grasp. It is impossible to understand the vastness of the internet and the ways in which it organises and distributes information in its entirety as a network. That would be like tracing the worldwide trade of language at a fixated point in time, a good work of conceptual art but as soon as you have an image thereof it instantaneously disappears into a new point in time. The only possible option to give a representation is thus the use of limitations and abstractions: concentrated observation.

 

One way of representing a complex system is through the production of an abstracted version thereof. Julius Popp’s 2005 piece bit.fall is one work of art that manages to produce a representation of an internet-based reality outside its own realm. As the artist Julius Popp puts it in the sprit of fascination regarding the (then newer) new media of the internet, the work is “a metaphor for the incessant flood of information we are exposed to”2. As an object bit.fall is an offline representation of online reality. The work combines the elements of water and the ocean of information of the internet through a machine that combs textual data into water bits that form a waterfall. The artwork is a distillation machine. The presence of the internet in the absence thereof is made visible here through the sleeky drops of water cracking into the space of gravitational reality. Words appear to disappear. The flow of data relentlessly renews itself in fracturing perpetuity.
Bit.fall makes bilocation visible by producing a never-ending waterfall of words turning the most-used keywords of new news from Google News into abstract bits of water. The data that appears as word for the blink of an eye, before gravity moves it into its own disappearance, to then be replaced by the next word in a one liner succession of flow. Then repeat. The reality of news expresses itself literally through abstraction of keywords, neologisms, and proper nouns as partial fragments of reality. These words inform, produce and reproduce a reality as a performed score: a parlando that we understand as information. The generative nature of the work is fuelled by the logic of the cycle that feeds the fountain: new words appear to re-appear continuously to successively enact the durational performance of a stable re-constitution of newness.
Bit.fall is the representation of the phenomenon of news as a sleeky crack of matter thrown by the invisible hand of the algorithm into the material reality. What we read when we look at the water drops is a cipher or reality, an access to reality that we can reverse engineer into a more proper and distinct piece of news. The streaming of data here is reminiscent of the vertical stream of code that constitutes reality in The Matrix (1999). This matrix like bitfall is a presence of a reality in and of itself, and an image of a reality that is elsewhere, displayed or screened through a projection thereof. Similarly thus, there is and there is not a “screen” in bit.fall. What we look at is a perfect example of the disappearance of the screen into nothingness, into a fluid mode of presentation, into physical matter.

Congressman
race
long-shot
Re-election
Kucinich
future
relations
agreement
hands
successors
Iraq
frenzy
Egypt
shopping
(Random) words from: Julius Popp, bit.fall at MoMA, New York, 2008.

This form of what I would term “live-art”, as it is a durational performance of an installation through live interaction, works through the relationship of foreground and background structure of the online and offline world. The work of art here is enacted through the interplay of agents of a system. Live-art, as I understand it, has two main conceptual pillars. Performatively it is based on a mediation of time and space, meaning that live is primarily understood as the expression of a communicative structure in the ‘now’. In other words, there is a process going on, this art is process-based not product based. What then thus occurs as a form of presence (or art) is the playful production of a relationship of foreground and background, the bilocation play upon here and there.
Looking at the screenshot above taken from the Drift 10 exhibition of bit.fall in London we look at ANGUAGE as a fragment of LANGUAGE in the foreground of the perspective of the Thames onto St Pauls in the background. Yet there is more foreground and background here: what reality feeds what system of representation? Does the world exist for the work of art or the work of art for the world? This question appears, as the human perspective is the one that shapes the understanding of feed and feeding and foreground and background based on context.
In bit.fall the screen understood as surface of projection is alive through the flow of data while the screen is gone in the sense of a blank space on which a projection occurs. The screen is gone as surface. The data itself also serves as a screening thereof, the ephemeral appearance of words simultaneously enacts an impermanent screen and screening. Bit.fall is remarkable in the context of sleeky cracks as its artistic value and work is constituted by the synthesis of word practices and practices of location: the remixing relocation of reappearing words. More than however than just a downpour of data, literally a news feed cycle is produced: the reality feeds the algorithm which then produces the representation of a news item through the waterfall which feeds itself in a re-cycle.

All words at every level of prose and poetry and all devices of language and speech derive their meaning from figure / ground relation.3

Through the logic of the cycle expressed through the mechanics of the fountain as recycling object relationality and connectivity are expressed as a perpetual durational mechanism. The gaze of the observer witnesses the enactment of connectivity in words, an interruption of a flight into the air of the otherwise invisible connections of the aqueduct structure of the machine. Meaning of words here is ascribed by the viewer in an act of screen surface surfing through the reading of this form of single word slam poetry. While this readerly and written graffiti-like object of tags and letterings appears in quasi-silence for the eye of the viewer, the bit.fall machine also produces an audio-track through the noise of its continual re-enactments of words. The beat of the repetitive percussive splash is here also the echoing resonance of the speedy speech-acts of the machine. Together as a Gesamtkunstwerk the installation produces spectres of a reality in perpetual reconstitution through the shock of the new and its erosion.

The ‘live-art’ of bit.fall produces phenomenologically fragile appearances, forms of expression of reality that cannot be grounded in a stable sense of meaning. Thus the meaning of the work lies in the performative gesture and the form of expression. What is interesting for me to note here is that bit.fall originates from a period of understanding of the internet in which the new media still prevails over the social media aspect of its use. The work presents a choreography of abstract information without the user, an ordering, a cataloguing without the social aspect of language use. The viewer of the work, although embedded in a structure of a ‘live-art’ apparatus is bound to the passivity of the spectator. I am interested however, in extending the observation of sleeky cracks from expressing an aspect of reality to the expression of the social and the good life, in other words into the realm of expressing yourself. In other words, I am interested in the change of perspective and change of objectification: from looking at an artwork my interest is the concept of being an artwork (or at least part thereof).
Of course, live-art does not need the friction of bilocation that comes about through the online and offline aesthetics. However, this aspect as a layer of mediation adds and supplants and thereby supplements the aesthetics of the now in a way that represent the human contemporary condition much better than works of art that follow a practice whose art historical trace is so clearly bound to the remnants of the performance art movement of happenings.
For instance the UK-based ‘live art’ (without the hyphen) group considers their form of live art to be primarily about the breathing experience in interaction with other humans, nature, and so-called animals. I consider this fascination with the experience of the moment-in-time as an expression of the movement towards an experience that due to the lack of mediation or technology can be seen as heightened, as ‘authentic’ experience. Yet, for the constitution of what I consider ‘live-art’ there needs to be a play of mediation enacted that goes beyond the rupture that an offline experience can offer, perceived as authentic due to the isolation from the influence of the online onto the human condition. We live the time of Pokémon Go, after all.
Consider the 2012 artwork Die Guillotine of Rouven Materne and Iman Rezai. These Berlin-based artists and at the time students casted referendum votes online through a period of time, a ‘voting period’, to determine whether or not to kill a sheep with a beautifully build execution machine, hence the title of the work. Millions did participate. This shit went viral. The shock of the new here is the simple slick understanding that clicks can kill. There is direct action in direct democracy and the exchange of what appears (or has in the past of the early days of the internet appeared) to be not an action – doing stuff online – which as sleeky crack surprises some as a scandal. But actually online acts are really acts and will be, as Die Guillotine shows. There is no reswipe button. Though the sheep survived.
The considerations of the social bring me back to the meaning of words as shared materiality. When thinking about these forms of ‘art games’ such as Die Guillotine as social games, the action and immediacy of words and their meaning as agents of decision-making displays that the foundation of the social is interaction. I am particularly interested in the ‘play’ of communicative structures, of foregrounds and backgrounds in interactions to produce and reproduce anew interactions on a human level. This form of ‘live-art’ as the following example shows, can be its own kind of social medium, its own kind of form of expression of community, and one that is expressed in the now and orientated towards the future, and thus continues its workings.
Moving from an understanding of the internet as information medium (like in bit.fall) and a medium of communicational exchange (like in Die Guillotine) to an understanding of the internet as social medium means to incorporate social reality as the internet’s core function. Generally, the internet as social medium means some form of orchestration of communication into forms of expression that are ordered according to market logic of demand-driven rules of attention. The more you like the more you screen, and the more you are liked the more you are screened. The social media of today, such as Instagram (image) and Twitter (words) are social through their expressive form of relationality through content of atomistic individuals who chiefly (after a definition Rob Horning gives4) express themselves to express themselves to express themselves. Not to neglect the accumulation of social (media) capital through quantifiable data and metrics per capita that is progressively integrated into the magical cabinet of the means of production – as a sleeky crack in and of itself. In short: selves in social media are not that much different from the fountain of bit.fall, just that the need of resonance of feedback re-creates the need of self-expression rather than the mechanic design.

Moving beyond the aspect of social media as a form of expression of oneself for oneself’s sake, I am interested in looking into social media as forms of social contract work. What I try to say is that words are not just instrumental, such as in a “yes” or “no” referendum, but can and indeed have been used throughout human history as social contracts. In other words, relationships between people are political and are important beyond functions of vanity and narcissism, which at times the internet might suggest, as the social tissue of reality. The foundation of any social reality is contractual and governed by the communicability of its laws, rules and customs. Whether the police rules over them or guys with AK-47’s on trucks is another question.
Social media are nothing else than social sculpture and social choreographies, thus forms of art in a broad understanding of sculpture, performance, and dance. One of the most interesting artworks to emerge in recent art history combines exactly those elements that I have sketched so far in a synthesis that produces something completely other, something in alterity to itself understood as traditional form of installation, object, performance, and social sculpture – what I here have tentatively termed ‘live-art’.

 

I will always be too expensive to buy.
I will always mean what I say.
I will always do what I say I am going to do.
Adrian Piper, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, 2013

Adrian Piper’s 2013 The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 creates a situation. The work is an object, a sculpture, an installation, a performance, but first and foremost an encounter of a physical kind. There is a playful element of a game to it, both on the level of aesthetic game (asking what is this what I experience here), and on the level of interpretation (asking what is this what I just have experienced). It is a playful art game through a playful gesture game by means of a language game. Imagine you are in a room, hall or space and there is the choice you have and the choice you can make, there is nothing else than this choice. A literal wortspiel, if you will. You choose your “I” from the three sentences above. It is a little bit like the original position in John Rawls The Theory of Justice (1971) – under which Piper wrote her doctorate – without the originality or the stripped-down post-apocalyptic vibe of re-inventing humanity through rules. The Probable Trust Registry is much simpler than that, it does not re-invent yourself, it quite tacitly wants to change yourself and through that change the world that you inhabit. Take your stand, make the vote that you will be, what will you choose to be, you have read it already: will you be too expensive to buy OR always mean what you say OR will you always do what you say you are going to do?
Of course the participant of this form of game does not know the situation they have found themselves in from the beginning. You are a guinea pig of the playing field of a novel social form of art. In the beginning you might know what you get yourself into, if you visit the solo exhibition at the Berlin-based Hamburger Bahnhof in 2017 this is much more likely than if you move around as part of the crowd in the Arsenale-part of the Venice Biennale in 2015 (where the work won the Golden Lion). In the beginning, as usual with the unencountered there is curiosity and there is confusion or both at once. The question what is this work, however, does not arise as intuitively as one might think, as this would include a priori understanding of the work of art as one in the first place. That’s not how this kind of slap in the face new works. Much more likely is not seeing the wood for the trees, and drawing the boundaries between art and non-art towards a wtf and noise.

“‘Where is the art?’ is one of the questions that many people ask me”, says M., one of the staff performers of the work at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. During the exhibition the performers staff one of the three tables present in the space, behind which the visitor reads in capital letters the slogan of their stand, their position and checkpoint. “Other people simply walk up to me and say ‘What is the art’”, s/he adds to the FAQ or frequently imposed encounters s/he experiences in this unusual job as part of an artwork. I suppose the interesting part of this job is to study the reactions of the people, but M. responds that mostly there are barely any to notice. Maybe this is how good art works, it is unnoticed until further notice.
In The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 there is no artwork as such, the artwork are you. With you I mean you the observer, bystander, participant and viewer. Probably the situation in which the work encounters you occurs as follows: you walk into a space in which you identify three stands. While at first glance there is the association that something is being sold, marketed or promoted here in a commercial sense, you do realise after a couple of seconds that this is not the case, as likely the staff is rather uninterested in establishing eye contact or the well-known commercial smile. Likely, you are confused. You have not seen anything quite like this before in your life. If not done so earlier, you read the title of the work on a patch on the museum wall, and thought about it. Possibly the word ‘registry’ reveals some kind of meaning, some kind of sense about what is going on here.
‘What is the art?’ is indeed the most pressing question regarding The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3. The aesthetic encounter of the work is in three different functional layers that in operative ways (or abstractly seen in Venn diagram aesthetics) overlap and supplement each other. Firstly, there is the physical and architectural realm in which the work appears, in which the work exists as an installation. With this I mean the dead matter, the furniture, the lights, the shape of the desk, the lettering above the desk, the walls, the museum or gallery space that inhabits all this stuff. This material layer excludes any living and breathing being present, and is solely an optical dimension, neat in its demarcations of what is there and what is not there. Secondly, there is the relational and situational “experience” of the work. This includes and implants the staff performers into the aesthetic encounter, who tell you “sign here” once you make your choice and walk-up to them. They hand you an Apple iPad under which you sign your name and your email in a ‘Personal Declaration’.
The sleeky cracks of the work open in the third realm of the work. Supplementary to the first material and second relational realm, the third realm is the virtual and immaterial realm: the creation of an abstract entity of relationality. The artwork is you means that there is an involution of the general logic of the social media, it is not you that expresses yourself, but you are an expression through your declaration to be “too expensive to buy” or “always mean what I say” or “always do what I say I am going to do”. This might seem paradoxical at first, but the work of art completes its cycle of representation though the viewer as participant-turned-performer of itself. In other words, you perform what you do everyday, but not to other abstract entities but to yourself.
In the online realm you are accustomed to donating your personal data and information to other databases. Your data-self of social media drowns into the analysis of the O-C-E-A-N models of yourself, to reconfigure your potential for corporate use and abuse of your purchase powers and political views. The sleeky crack is the understanding that in a similar logic you are updating your own set of beliefs, your iOS, and yourself as General Terms and Conditions. In other words, you are part of a community now, through the enactment of the Rule you have donated yourself to observing accordingly. There is now a relationship of perpetual interaction added to your life, a normative order through an imaginative and imagined community in an imaginative and imagined space. Of course, only if you like to add this meaning to your life. Involving your body through and throughout the physical space in which the Personal Declaration was signed, its effect is transported into the digital realm, and through this you received your Registry via email (in the case of the Venice Biennale). However, this is barely where the work stops.
The experience of The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 continues to pervade the participant after the aesthetic encounter. The afterlive of the work constitutes in the memory of the event of the first two realms plus the confrontation of the knowledge of the particular Registry. It thus displays the art of social network in its explorative exemplary fashion: you as singularly plural selves perform/are performing your life now as an artwork. More than just a social sculpture this community is in existence in a completely unmediated and undocumented way. It is a conceptual social sculpture, a production of ties of meaning of social values, of a foundational concept of relationality.
Differently than for instance the ‘live-art’ bit.fall that does not include human interaction as part of its performative system The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 is entirely unphotographable. The fixation of the work into a documentary fixation of a moment does not serve the illustrative purpose of displaying a moment in time in which the work is being enacted; rather it documents the presentation of the work in absence thereof. The aspect of ‘live-art’ in Piper’s work is through the need for human interaction in its constitution as a work in the first place. This stands in contrast to other works of art, and indeed ‘live-art’ which incorporate the photographic construction thereof, the gaze as a means of documentation into their practice, such as the highly instagrammable orchestrations of Anne Imhof like Faust or Angst II. Piper uses the value of documentation within the work, as the work consists in the ritual and the document of its documentation. The art is largely unphotographable here. Piper’s choreography understood as ‘the art is you’ means that according to the documentation of The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 indeed ‘[y]our reaction to this work, whatever it is, is the stance you take toward the actions it invites you to perform’ 5.

THE DESTINY AND INTERPRETATIONS OF THE WORK ARE PART OF THE WORK.
Adrian Piper, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, 2013

This artwork-as-event is thus perfectly suitable for the neoliberal understanding of the concept of self. Everyone has truly their own experience, their own artwork, their private memory, and their public choice to make. The abstract reality of relationality and contractual community otherwise known as society arises through the invisible relationality of individuals, just like in The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3. I introduced the art by alleging this artwork to constitute a social medium. Within the context of sleeky cracks this is important to note: an offline phenomenon that marks its character through an experience of the online realm. Connectivity and registries, however, have not been invented through the instantaneous access thereof, but by virtue of archival culture. Obviously, the ingenuity of the work is that it does much more than being a social medium. With respect to meaning-making of this artwork it is the synthesis of space and gesture into a situation, a recording thereof, and an afterlife thereof, which makes the work transgressive and opening in terms of boundaries moving from bilocation into an opening of an imaginative multilocation. The social media game is turned into a reality game, and vice versa. That’s the sleeky crack.

Foreground and background are here mechanisms of scaling and of zooming for the participant, who asks themselves what is done for what: the art for me, or am I doing something for the art, or is it both, and the art is just the threshold, the opening of a locale? Can art produce a system of communication, and of exchange that produces meaning, delocalised like a blockchain? At the very least, The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3 show the boundaries of art and life truly vanish, as the meaning but not just as an empty gesture of l’art pour l’art. If anything it is art for life’s sake, or art in our society’s sake. What makes this work last even outside its own constitution as a work (meaning in the history of art), however, is its utopian aspiration and the question it asks as an exclamation of its performative gesture, namely fuck off and imagine a world and ask yourself: how can we live together and what are the rules of the game?

 

Milosz Paul Rosinski is a European artist, philosopher, and writer based in Berlin. He studied Anthropology, Philosophy and Visual Arts in Maastricht, Paris, San Diego, Cambridge, and Berlin. He recently completed a PhD entitled ‘Cinema of the Self’ (2017). His popular article ‘Touching Nancy’s Ethics’ (2015) received the 2016 Susan Hayward Prize. The interactive essay ‘The Anthroposcale’ (2014) was exhibited at HKW Berlin and nominated for the Future of Storytelling Award. Rosinski teaches ‘Comparative Studies’ at Cambridge, and have given presentations or moderated events at The Barbican, ENS Paris, IKKM Weimar, Södertörns högskola, and ZKM.