A Fun Aesthetic and Art
Published on May 26th, 2014
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The computer screens are old and have been discarded, but it is not just the plastic and metal that is thrown out, the art that goes with it is also left in the gutter. Some might consider it ironic that artworks that were never properly valorized by any official art institution end up as waste, materializing the metaphor, to be further destroyed forever. The work could be seen as just that: an act of irony, or perhaps dark humour. But the blinking 404 error message on one of the CRT screens will look familiar to many as the standard response code indicating that a website could not be found, and some people will be able to identify it as a work by JODI, the artist duo known for the subversive tweaking of software and exploration of the computer’s back-end. As such I would like to argue that for those who recognize the works on the screens, Highscreen moves from being ironic to becoming fun. What is fun then and in which ways is it more complex and multilayered than humour and irony? A more interesting question, perhaps, would be to see if fun is part of an aesthetic method, or has aesthetics of its own? Are these examples merely clever uses of a critical strategy, or do they reflect a broader cultural sensibility that is lost on those who are not ‘in the game’? Does such sensibility only become manifest in the complete and finalized work as an ‘effect’, or could fun also be seen as characteristic of the artistic practice, the process itself?
Published in Fun and Software. Exploring Pleasure, Paradox and Pain in Computing
edited by Olga Goriunova (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014)
The neon sculpture HAHA HIHI (1993) adds a refreshing note to the cacophony of advertising signs and tacky shops in Schiphol airport. HAHA HIHI is a chandelier by John Körmeling and instead of using candles it shows the words ‘HA’ and ‘HI’ in bright neon colours. Körmeling has been called an architect, a visual artist, an inventor and a freethinker. The range of his work is equally diverse: light sculptures, comic strip-like drawings with visual and verbal witticisms, sketches of viable and imaginary structures, models and uncon- ventional solutions to spatial planning problems (such as Happy Street for the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai). Körmeling is at his best in the public space and urban planning areas. His unique working style and surprising perspective on everyday things convey the relativistic humour that emanates from his works. Körmeling exposes the absurdity and banality of everyday life by means of rapid associations. He makes complex citations understandable and simple facts grotesque. HAHA HIHI laughs at the people who move like ants through the airport. At the same time it encourages people to pause and reflect on their environment and their behaviour in the building. Evoking a smile or a frown even if just for a moment, Körmeling’s works are simple yet rigorous, and his tactics are always friendly.
In another location, on deserted landfills in Berlin, near rubbish bins, garbage bags and refuse, computer screens suddenly flicker into life. The old, grey and now clunky looking cathode ray tube (CRT) screens show net art works: C.R.E.A.M. (2010) by Evan Roth, therevolvinginternet.com (2010) by Constant Dullaart, Super Mario Clouds (2002) by Cory Arcangel and, the oldest of the quartet, 404 (1997) by JODI. This is Aram Bartholl’s Highscreen (2011), a public intervention, in which he revived computer screens that had been dumped in Berlin’s wastelands. Bartholl is well known for his projects and performances, which try to interestingly displace phenomena of the digital world into the physical environments alien to them. Although it is generally acknowledged that digital structures undergird and define the running of society in ways that make the distinctions between the digital and the offline obsolete, the shift between the digital and the physical material unfolding in its functions in relation to many other histories, practices, tendencies and habits may be seen as a conflictual, revealing rupture. From this perspective, Bartholl’s main interest is in how digital communication and algorithms construct and change the physical space and vice versa, especially if one alienates the digital by imbuing it into a material other than the one of zeroes and ones. Works such as Speech Bubble (2007), in which volunteers with a large, speech text balloon on a stick trail people, or Tweet Bubble Series (2009), featuring Twitter texts that can be attached to a shirt, emphasize the limitations of the overt publicness that is prevalent on the internet, but looks absurd if the utterances are presented as physical objects wrapped around human bodies. With these works Bartholl shows how the digital and physical worlds can be seen as disconnected and how translations from one to the other lead to estrangement – unless you are in the game.
Unlike Bartholl’s previous works, Highscreen (2011) is less playful and acts as a cautious investigation of the ways in which computation becomes core to our lives.1 Although it still thrives on incongruence, Highscreen is also more subtle. The computer screens are old and have been discarded, but it is not just the plastic and metal that is thrown out, the art that goes with it is also left in the gutter. Some might consider it ironic that artworks that were never properly valorized by any official art institution end up as waste, materializing the metaphor, to be further destroyed forever. The work could be seen as just that: an act of irony, or perhaps dark humour. But the blinking 404 error message on one of the CRT screens will look familiar to many as the standard response code indicating that a website could not be found, and some people will be able to identify it as a work by JODI, the artist duo known for the subversive tweaking of software and exploration of the computer’s back-end. As such I would like to argue that for those who recognize the works on the screens, Highscreen moves from being ironic to becoming fun. What is fun then and in which ways is it more complex and multilayered than humour and irony? A more interesting question, perhaps, would be to see if fun is part of an aesthetic method, or has aesthetics of its own? Are these examples merely clever uses of a critical strategy, or do they reflect a broader cultural sensibility that is lost on those who are not ‘in the game’? Does such sensibility only become manifest in the complete and finalized work as an ‘effect’, or could fun also be seen as characteristic of the artistic practice, the process itself?
An aesthetics of fun
When writing about fun, one has to treat humour cautiously. A subject of many investigations, the question of humour goes back a long way.2 The notion of fun that I would like to explore does not exclude humour, the joke or playfulness; however, it does not stop there. What I am looking for is the kind of fun that reflects on and analyses processes to provide insights and inspire new thoughts. Fun in this sense relates to the fun of making and sharing. It is the fun that takes place processually and practically, as well as conceptually to arrive at startling events, projects and practices. The aesthetics of fun resides in such processes, whether prepared or accidental, spatial or code-based, terminal or open-ended, across scales, strata and time.
The installation HIHI HAHA first prompts an exploration of the aesthetic of fun by highlighting Körmeling’s interest in presenting work in places where people are not prepared for controversies, or where they can be taken by surprise. Although he is commenting on society, he is not criticizing the qualities of the material he uses or the relationships such material creates, nor is he opening up the production process for others to use or learn from. What matters for Körmeling is how the final presentation of the work functions in its context, which can be and often is funny. However, this is only one aspect of the aesthetics of fun. It is the repetitiveness and perseverance of Körmeling’s approach, which can be seen in other works such as Happy Street or Rotating House (2008) (a freestanding Formica house rotating on a roundabout), that the strategy fully reveals itself. He seems primarily interested in staging confrontations between the expected and the grotesque through shock. Employing this as a method of presentation and performance, as well as perception, Highscreen seems to come slightly closer to what can be discussed as aesthetics of fun. To unpack this further I will analyse the works that are presented as part of Highscreen to see how they convey an aesthetic of fun.
JODI, the Dutch/Belgium duo, achieved fame in the mid-1990s and continued to produce work that is hated, loved and misunderstood. 404 is a very good example of such work. The website opens to display a page titled %20Wrong and the ‘404 message’ in the webpage, creating a short-lived panic in casual netsurfers, who can turn away, but those more familiar with net art projects can look for entrances. Some random clicking reveals that each of the numbers in ‘404’ leads to new screens: unread, reply and unsent. The sequence isn’t very promising. Nevertheless, using the reply option, Re: in the %20Unread page, will lead to a response being delivered – an encrypted version of the email that the visitor has just sent. What appears is a text without vowels, followed by a string of consonants and numbers that sometimes resemble words (the sht and fck are easily grasped). %20Unread relates to two things. On the one hand, it shows the act of censorship that is common on chat boards by using the same technology CGI (Common Gateway Interface). The CGI protocol returns the results to the web server in the form of a standard output, in this case without vowels and with additional underlying text. On the other hand, the output of the CGI can be seen as an act of Dadaist or abstract poetry.
Much as Dadaist, Constructivist and Futurist poetry was about liber- ating fonts and language from their respective constraints, so Piet Mondrian advocated a pure ‘plasticism’, stating that ‘Music tends toward the liberation of sound, literature toward the liberation of word’.3 Now programming is heading towards the liberation of computation. JODI release software and create openings through which it can pass on its ‘way to freedom’.4 Rhythm, syntax and letterforms were central to ‘plasticism’, which used punctuation marks and unusual text layouts to indicate how the text should be read or, better, voiced. Typography became an active visual instrument that emphasized form, meaning or sound. Similar strategies can be found in the work by JODI, where punctuation marks lose their neutrality and start speaking themselves. JODI’s abstract visualizations of code and use of punctuation comes very close to the Typo-plastieken (1925) of Pietro (de) Saga. Pietro (de) Saga, pseudonym of Stefi Kiesler, made several Typo-plastieken and Dactyloplastiek (1925) by repeatedly typing letters over each other to create visual forms. She sublimated the meaning of a letter to its abstract, visual image.5 Her works, as much as JODI’s works, can be appreciated best in conjunction with the Concrete poetry of the 1950s. Concrete poetry focused on language primarily as a material; concerned ‘less [with] an understanding of meaning than an understanding of arrangements’.6 JODI are also focused on computational arrangements, the structures of communication that perform at different levels and on extracting the meaning from non-significatory material, the processual performances of code.
JODI have a keen interest in protocols and re-use them in open ways. The protocol of 404 is the CGI, which is the focal point of the work and its struc- turing framework. The second page of the work %20Reply displays the internet protocol address (IP address) of all the entries that have been made against a black backdrop. Certainly, nothing is just what it seems either: the text typed by the user appears beside its IP address, also in black. Here people can read all the entries that were made, though only if they are quick as the screen reloads after a few seconds to display the first page. Anonymity is cast aside by showing the IP address in bright green.
The final page %20Unsent is a repetition of the text that was typed in ‘reply’, but this time the vowels become visible: these are the remnants of what was not sent before. Below the text is an abstract image, concrete poetry, where little running rabbits (which link to the main page), numerals and punctuation marks create a visual that is recognizable, although meaningless. The meaning of 404 not found can only be understood by taking into account its network and software contexts. 404 works the protocol into the absurd. In the end, magician’s rabbit runs back, leaving the user confused, enacting and re-enacting the ridiculousness and exposure of browsing, emailing, digital work and leisure.
JODI’s work reflects on the structures and agreements that construct compu- tational networks; and it is through the absurd that the political and aesthetic emerges out of code, software gestures, language and digital habits. JODI poke around, deleting brackets from markup language, unravelling the material. The aesthetic of fun here is twofold, appearing in JODI’s intentional methodological (ab)use of the material, which in its working fortifies the frustration of using and cruel pleasure of dispatching a perfect machine.
Super Mario Clouds
Another computer screen displays bitmapped white clouds that are endlessly inching across a blue sky. The work is Super Mario Clouds (2002) and it is one of Cory Arcangel’s early works. From the start of his career he has shown an interest in low-key techniques, outmoded computer games and early electronics. Super Mario Clouds is based on the legendary Super Mario Bros game released in 1985 by Nintendo. Arcangel hacked the game and modified it so that the only visible elements are the blue sky and the white clouds moving across the screen. The main protagonist, Mario, all the obstacles and the landscape have been removed. Does this make the work fun? It might evoke a smile or a frown in people recog- nizing the original game, who may wonder if it is an act of rebellion against the violence, or competitiveness of gaming, or ‘just a joke’. We can draw some other characteristics of the fun aesthetic out of it.
In 2002 Arcangel wrote the program, burned it on a chip, hacked an old Nintendo game cartridge, de-soldered one of the Nintendo graphics chips in the cartridge and soldered his new chip in its place. Because at the time it was not yet possible to put the video online, he made a gif that was distributed with a tutorial (complemented with humorous and informative comments) that explained his motives for making the work and included the source code behind the work as well as the instructions on how to construct the object.
In 2004, two years after the release, Arcangel made a short instructional video that explained, step by step, the creation of the work. The Making of Super Mario Clouds is made as an amateur video without slick graphics, camerawork or soundtrack. It merely shows Arcangel in his apartment making a cartridge; his intention, as he explains, was to give viewers ‘a feel for the process, in all its gloriously boring true detail’.7 The project was in line with projects that various members of the Beige [Programming Ensemble] were doing. Beige described themselves as an electronic music recording company and computer programming ensemble. Arcangel joined the Beige collective in the late 1990s.8 Their concern was to create a wider acceptance of media art and democ- ratize computer hardware and software. Moreover, they critiqued the stylized, restricted and pre-determined parameters of the machines that were shaping the ‘hyper-technologized’ world. Their philosophy was ‘Intentional Computing’, ‘work in which the artist demonstrates a complete understanding of the machine he/she is composing on [from the CHIP to the display]’.9 Through hacking and modifying existing hardware and software they tried to stretch the allowances of the possible. In other words, they wanted to re-tune the unison in which creating artwork performs together with the tool or medium being used. It was about tunnelling into the computer and starting from the inside.
This approach does not significantly differ from that of JODI: both try to destabilize standardized and habitual environments produced by dominant, commercial computational systems. However, Arcangel’s main focus is on form and colour (and, in his more recent work, rhythm). Whereas JODI reveal code as part of the work, Arcangel supplements the projects with tutorials and video documentaries detailing the creation and functioning of the work. However, the work itself, in its minimalist style, functions better than JODI’s as a traditional work of art. Arcangel brings something ‘human’ to the computer by ensuring that the work is never too slick and always has an ironic twist that many people will recognize. This could be seen as a populist approach. Whereas JODI take the ‘humanity’ out of the computer, making it ‘fun’ for those immersed in the processes constructing the computational functionality, Arcangel facilitates the work for the viewer. JODI double and triple frustration, whereas Arcangel works in the line of pop art and minimalism. When the art world met JODI, it did not know how to react, but when it saw Arcangel’s work, it recognized the ‘fun’ and abstraction reminiscent of Andy Warhol.
But there is a more significant difference between the two artists, which concerns the experiencing of the work and the participation of their audience. JODI’s work can be confusing, but although Arcangel presents his work as open and free to use, presumably not many people followed his instructions. Arcangel does not sound optimistic himself recalling that the only reaction Beige received upon the release of their music album The 8-Bit Construction Set (2000), which contains programs, was from ‘a couple of kids from the Netherlands, and they were like “cool!” – but that’s about it. (…) There are only about five people in the world who have really ever done that [loading the cassette on to a computer]’.10 Do people take part by witnessing, watching, looking or relaying?11 It can also be argued that JODI do not offer their audience the pleasure of looking at a nice image, but it is through actively engaging with their artwork, and doing the work of linking it with the computational environment in which it thrives and on which it comments, that an appreciation can emerge – an instructional exercise in its own right.
It is the exploration and the experience of the manual gesture – the doing it yourself – that resonates here. These processes are ‘forced’ by JODI, while Arcangel leaves it to the whims of the visitor. Both, though differently, employ the fun of working, touching, tinkering with something: the Do It Yourself (DIY) fun. The DIY attitude, facilitated by the Web, has given rise to a number of art initiatives that manifest themselves through online platforms. One person behind such an initiative is Evan Roth, co-founder of F.A.T. Lab, the Free Art and Technology Lab, and the author of the third work of Highscreen, C.R.E.A.M. (Cache Rules Everything Around Me).
C.R.E.A.M. (Cache Rules Everything Around Me)
C.R.E.A.M. by Evan Roth is a hypnotic collage of hundreds of graphics interchange formats (GIFs) found on the internet. Mashed together in a nine-minute video clip, they portray the internet at a particular moment in time. Single, animated GIFs often function as memes, cultural artifacts that spread virally on the networks. The term ‘meme’ was suggested by Richard Dawkins in the The Selfish Gene (1976)11 to signify a unit of cultural information spreading and surviving analogously to a gene.12 In the tradition of memetics, Blackmore argues that beliefs and ideas are replicators, memes, which are copied from person to person and define people’s behaviour.13 She notes that technically everything on the internet can be seen as a meme, as the information circulating around is variable, selected and copied.14 The notion of the meme as a replicator is core to Roth’s practice and can be usefully explored in relation to the aesthetics of fun.
Roth started working as an artist around the same time as Arcangel and has also been involved in working in collaborative environments. He co-founded F.A.T. Lab, with James Powderly in 2007.15 It is impossible to offer a single definition of the lab; generally it is thought to be an ongoing experiment, conducted by artists, engineers, scientists, lawyers and musicians alike, that facilitates innovation, collaboration and critique. In the early years F.A.T. Lab was mostly visible in the United States and formed around a group of research fellows, artists in residence or others affiliated with Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. The name F.A.T. Lab is reminiscent of E.A.T., the non-profit organization Experiments in Art and Technology16 that was launched in 1966 during the organization of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, a series of performances uniting artists and engineers.17 In an attempt to make people more active in the becoming of the technologically defined society, E.A.T. tried to bridge the gap between disciplines and specializations. Although this agenda is important to F.A.T. Lab, their approach centres on the specific usages of technology in the public domain by engaging with software and the questions of openness.
Whereas E.A.T. focused on the creation of large technological performances and installations, showcased in the design for the Pepsi Pavilion at the Expo ’70, and resulting in a remarkable spectacle of artistic and engineering wizardry, F.A.T. Lab explores their material and presentational platforms to produce Firefox add-ons, plug-ins, silly objects or political GIFs. What can be read as a footnote to changes brought about by time, the emergence of software and the further re-configuration of the disciplinary formations, copyright, control and ownership arrangements becomes core to F.A.T. method. F.A.T. Lab examines the Web and takes advantage of the available material, writing small scripts and programs to retrieve and remix information. F.A.T. tweaks existing data and tools to comment on the way the Web is governed and can be used. As such it is the fun of ‘slight touch’ and sharing that becomes another aspect of the aesthetic of fun.
The slight touch does not indicate that the political ideas of F.A.T. Lab are naive. F.A.T. has a strong position on the use and support of free and open source software. Code written by F.A.T. is open for others to use, is documented and improved upon during lectures and workshops. In fact, all the group’s processes and artworks become open and as such rely on other people’s input, as in open-source project development.18 Theo Watson, one of the members, says:
[it] is interesting to see this process being applied to Internet art, experimental projects and web memes. It is like open source project development but for those people more interested in pop culture and art than in programming software tools. It is open source for the masses.19
The ‘lightness’ of their approach also becomes manifest here, where the political starts acting virally. It is propagated and practised through memes (qualitative meme modulation)20 and as such can be seen as a tactical way of moving through mass and corporate culture.
It is through the active use of the meme as a method that F.A.T. Lab adds another dimension to the aesthetics of fun. Similarly to the above-mentioned group Beige, F.A.T. Lab uses existing amateur material that is remixed, adapted or merely re-contextualized. The result is always light hearted and, above all, fun. This is the fun of making, the fun of idiocy21 and nonsense that acts by topping the noise. The nature of memes as replicators is taken as a starting point and radically exploited. Using social networking platforms, F.A.T. Lab infiltrates the Web by being ‘dedicated to enriching the public domain one mutha-fuckin LOL at a time’.22 They achieve this by creating simple 2D glasses to escape the 3D hype or setting up a Speed Project site with a special widget to track time. The website demonstrates how to do as much as possible in under eight hours (a normal office working day), actively engaging in the mechanics of acceleration. Furthermore, members of F.A.T. try to mould the behaviour on online platforms by inviting others to comment and make their own additions, which can all become an art project in its own right. One such example is White Glove Tracking by Roth and Ben Engebreth that started in 2007. For this project they asked internet users to help isolate Michael Jackson’s white glove in the performance of Billy Jean. Rather than writing unnecessarily complex code to find the glove in every frame of the video (10,060 frames in total), they asked the audience to simply click and drag a box around the glove in one frame and upload it to their site. The ridiculous task of isolating the white glove allowed the data collection process to become fun and viral. The data set was released as a text file as well as a Processing and Open Frameworks project for others to use. Although it can be argued that the use of memes and silliness is a strategy, a formula or a method, as with Körmeling, functioning by conspicuously tracking down what is available on the Web both technically and culturally and reclaiming it for their purposes, here idiocy and nonsense forcefully enter the aesthetics of fun.
Often, Dullaart transforms banal images or tiresome website interfaces just enough to highlight some of their inherent ‘strangeness’. For instance, he has a collection of links to domain names on sale that no one would buy. Linked together by their shared status of semi-existence, they form the rubbish dump of the internet. In his Delicious account, Dullaart labels the poetic domain names, like www.baddomainname.com and www.hopeless.org as ‘ready mades’. His fascination goes further to dwell on the design of the ‘default settings’ of these sites. His ‘ready mades’ are, therefore, a reflection on the omnipresent stock photography and insipid typefaces.
With his practice Dullaart follows in the footsteps of previous net artists who elevated the formal aesthetic or unfrequented corners of the Web into art.23 By deconstructing the mundane in a playful, visual way Dullaart engages with contemporary internet culture indiscriminately. While being playful, his works also celebrate a certain coarseness that is practised on the networks and inverted to be thrown back at the audience.24 Although employing a methodology of fun that draws upon the absurd, the banal and the nonsensical, similarly to the F.A.T. Lab, it is primarily the way in which Dullaart positions himself in the landscape of the Web where the aesthetics of fun is most pronounced: as a member of surf-clubs. Surf clubs are the early twenty-first century’s answer to the rise of the Web 2.0. Whereas the earlier internet generation communicated mainly through listserv, using mailing lists, the ‘digital natives’ set up their own clubs.25 This new generation of artists uses devices such as continuous postings, real-time involvement and commenting on existing social network platforms, such as YouTube, Flickr or Facebook, while trying to define and maintain a shared aesthetic and a group identity. Surf clubs often use the blog format. Nasty Nets, Supercentral and Loshadka are small ‘gathering’ sites to which members upload found material, while others can comment, either textually or with images or video. Special software was written to simplify the upload of material, but the generic comment also functions as an essential component, becoming an aesthetic exploratory tool. The chronologically arranged commentaries form larger compositions or ‘lists’ of images.26 The artworks that arise from these collective processes are situated in continuum with other works, references and commentaries.
Constant Dullaart, as contributor to several surf clubs, emphasizes the shared and collective experience of this iterative process that exhibits an aesthetic of fun. It becomes evident in his YouTube series (You Tube as a Subject, 2008), in which he works with the icons that appear embedded in YouTube videos. Positioned against the black background of a loading YouTube video, the image of a play button trembles as if in a sudden earthquake, bouncing from side to side, changing colours and strobbing like a mini disco lightshow, falling down off the screen, and finally fading into a blur. Keeping in line with the spirit of the comment and the pressure to be quick, soon after Dullaart uploaded his series, Ben Coonley responded with a new series, this time taking the dots that signal the loading time of a video as his subject. In turn, for an exhibition in 2009, Dullaart versioned this visual discussion by creating a physical copy of the loading dots, You Tube as a Sculpture.27 This time eight Styrofoam balls were hung in a circle against a black background, lit one after the other by eight spotlights and a simple disco light mixer. While the visitors were given the feeling of entering a loading YouTube video, they also started filming the balls and uploaded them to YouTube, thus, according to Dullaart, ‘completing the circle of production and reproduction’.28 The engagement first occurs online, then offline and returns again to the servers: ‘The success of the sculpture meant that audience members documented the sculpture and finally became the uploading medium for my participation in the visual discussion set in motion by You Tube as a Subject a few years earlier’.29 This circulatory human–machine process is fun found in the making across scales and by varying actors, who try to outwit each other, become the most original, but also by responding to each other and doing things together.
The comments were one of the biggest compliments I have received in my life. I felt like I really needed to make the videos and upload them before someone else did. But when the comments came into my inbox late at night, all seven of them one after another, notifying me of the responses made by Ben Coonley, I knew I had hit a nerve. I laughed myself to sleep. It was a great surprise.30
The value and meaning of surf art relies solely on the distributive qualities – the network of other people’s content and the means of its production and distri- bution.31 It is in engaging with the material and the networks and employing and exploiting the structures such as memes that the art of surf club activity is constituted.
The most encouraging aspect of surf art is its distributive quality, the way in which it offers a new working practice, signalling a new aesthetics – one that is grounded in fun. Such fun has consequences for notions of authenticity and authorship.32 Dullaart states:
The authenticity and authorship of the original seems to be less clear when a response or another version of the original start to co-exist, but the general impact of the shared idea becomes larger. The online tradition of linking back to the origin of the idea (the original post or video) is an important one, of course, but sometimes the response is more valuable than the original.33
These artists deal with iteration, versioning and repetition as part of a distributed practice. The quest for originality is still important, but is achieved in a different way, for example, by being the first to comment with a brilliant and funny idea or being reblogged. Such authorial recognition is often monitored by the larger group.34 Commenting also becomes a mechanism for establishing individuality, as participants combine shared meanings and tweak the shared parameters of the group in idiosyncratic ways. The structure of gaining and evaluating acknowledgement and esteem becomes rested within the devices of social media.35 Here, the aesthetics of fun turns into an aesthetic of (gaining and loosing) control.
A fun aesthetics
All the projects of Highscreen work with the aesthetics of fun. It ranges from, but is not limited to, fun as a methodology of aesthetic engagement with the compu- tational systems that attempts to draw out of them the unexpected, paradoxical, absurd and annoying, as in the case of JODI, or the pleasure of the DIY as with Arcangel. The fun of surf clubs thrives on utilizing or parasitizing upon the software gestures, interaction devices and computational habits of social media and other computational structures, allowing artistic strategies to be built that are constructed on radical relationality. Such relationality is productive of and takes into account idiocy and nonsense, memes and virality, where fun becomes a form of engagement with internet cultures, as in F.A.T. Lab projects.
A fun aesthetics also thrives on free and open-source software approaches, as otherwise material cannot be shared, changed and appropriated. This does not mean that these works cannot be found on commercial platforms and networks. For some practitioners, those are the places par excellence, where the image of purity and perfection that has attached itself to computer interfaces, software and computational networks can be uncovered and explored. All of the above draw on ridiculousness, frustration, alienation, lightness and estrangement. To summarize, a fun aesthetics can be seen as methodological, procedural, crafty, relational, cultural and conceptual. It does not shy away from the political or social concerns and advocates forms of openness that allow for various kinds of intervention, circulation and re-use. A fun aesthetics focuses on the inves- tigation of the medium of computation and the internet, on the spaces and practices that are constantly changing and permanently moving. Fun, thus, enjoys a processual dynamics, both as a computational aesthetic form and as a collective practice.
There is much more to be said about the new generation of internet artists with regard to their aesthetics, their work with computational media and links to the earlier generation of internet artists and contemporary art in general. It is remarkable how well the second generation has found its way into art galleries and museum exhibitions. For building a proper understanding of this work, art critics and curators will have to move beyond conventional art aesthetics, which is too often about the form and look of a work, and start looking at how the project acts.36 This means opening up to a wider social, economic, political and computational arena in complex ways. This also raises another question: can distributed, processual and software-based works be exhibited at all? The vernacular style and technique may remain untouched, but the energy, surprise, agony and illusion will disappear. What remains is just a form of aesthetics, without fun.
The presentation of Highscreen reminds us of the carelessness with which significant artworks are treated. Canonical artworks are dumped, soon to be forgotten. This is a humorous gesture, albeit with a very serious undertone. Revisiting older websites in the course of this chapter makes it abundantly clear how many of the links are now dead. Perhaps fun does not last forever, but it certainly shows its face when least expected, be it online or in the gutter. Trying to find it means fumbling round in the dark.
- At the same time, as Josephine Bosma reminds us in her book Nettitudes: Let’s Talk Net Art, Studies in Network Cultures (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2011), the recycled computer has become a representation of media (art) activism, signifying digital divide.
- In her chapter ‘Early Conceptions of Humor: Varieties and Issues’, in The Psychology of Humor: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Issues, Jeffrey H. Goldstein and Paul E. McGhee (eds) (New York: Academic Press, 1972), Patricia Keith-Spiegel created a typology of eight categories: (1) biological theories (e.g. Darwin, 1872), which regard humour as an adaptive disposition; (2) superiority theories (e.g. Hobbes, 1968), which suggest that people laugh at others to whom they feel superior; (3) incongruity theories (e.g., Kant, 1951), which state that humour consists of incongruous events and situations; (4) surprise theories (e.g. Descartes, 1649), which suggest that humour requires suddenness and therefore weakens with repeated exposure; (5) ambivalence theories (e.g. Joubert, 1980), which posit humour as the result of opposing emotions or ideas within an appreciator; (6) release theories (e.g., Spencer, 1860), which regard humour as strain or stress relief; (7) configuration theories (e.g. Maier, 1932), which claim that humour depends directly on the resolution of incongruities; (8) psychoanalytic theories (e.g. Freud, 1928), which see humour as a result of economies of psychic energy that has been built up by and for repression. These can be broken down into three groups: the first three categories consider the function of humour; the second three focus on stimuli for humour; and the
last two look at responses to humour. See also Veatch, Thomas C., ‘A Theory of Humor’, in HUMOR, the International Journal of Humor Research (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1998) 11(2): 161–215.
- Mondrian, Piet, ‘Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plastic Equivalence’, in Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds) (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2003, original 1920), 289–92.
- The expression ‘way to freedom’ refers to the Futurist sense of ‘words in freedom’, where words were liberated from syntax, grammatology and typography. Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso, ‘Geometric and Mechanical Splendour and the Numerical Sensibility’, in The Words and the Images. Text and Image in the Art of the Twentieth Century, Jan Brand, Nicolette Gast and Robert-Jan Muller (eds) (Utrecht: Centraal Museum, 1991, original 1914), 43–6. For more information see among others Rasula, Jed and McCaffery, Steve (eds), Imagining Language. An Anthology (Boston: MIT Press, 1998).
- Broos, Kees, ‘Letter, Word, Text, Image’, in The Words and the Images. Text and Image in the Art of the Twentieth Century, Jan Brand, Nicolette Gast and Robert-Jan Muller (eds) (Utrecht: Centraal Museum, 2001), 22–3.
- http://www.eai.org/title.htm?id=8784 (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Other members are Paul B. Davis, Joe Beuckman and Joe Bonn, http://www.
post-data.org/beige/ (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Espenschied, Dragan, ‘BEIGE. Make World Festival at Lothringer 13’ (19 October
2001), http://www.post-data.org/beige/beige_make.html (accessed 12.12.2013).
- ‘“Legacy Hackster”, An Interview with Cory Arcangel’, http://www.petitemort.org/
issue01/02.shtml (accessed 12.12.2013).
- A large emphasis on interactivity or participation can also turn people away. For a good analysis see Van Oenen, Gijs, ‘Interpassivity Revisited: A Critical and Historical Reappraisal of Interpassive Phenomena’, in International Journal of Žižek Studies 2(2) (2008).
- Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976).
- See, for example, Graham, Gordon, Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry (New York:
- Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine (OxfordandNewYork:Oxford
University Press, 2011). For a critique of memetics and Blackmore, see Fuller, Matthew, Media Ecologies. Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 109–17, and Sampson, Tony, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
- http://fffff.at/ (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Possibly not coincidentally E.A.T’s former address is only a few blocks away from
the current Eyebeam Center where F.A.T. Lab originated.
- Billy Klüver, E.A.T. Archive of published documents, http://www.fondation-
langlois.org/html/e/page.php?NumPage=306 (accessed 12.12.2013).
- See, for example, Yuill, Simon, ‘All Problems of Notation Will be Solved by the Masses: Free Open Form Performance, Free/Libre Open Source Software, and Distributive Practice’, in FLOSS+Art, Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk (eds)
(Poitiers: GOTO10 and OpenMute, 2008), 64–91.
- Dekker, Annet, ‘Versions, E-mail Interview with Theo Watson’ (Netherlands Media Art Institute, Amsterdam, 2009), http://nimk.nl/eng/versions-and-the-comment-as-medium (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Cloninger, Curt, ‘Commodify Your Consumption: Tactical Surfing /Wakes of Resistance’, Black Mountain (2009), http://lab404.com/articles/commodify_your_consumption.pdf (accessed 12.12.2013).
- For a discussion of idiocy, see Goriunova, Olga, ‘New Media Idiocy’, in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, (Sage, published online before print: 25 September 2012, 14 pp. Doi: 10.1177/1354856512457765 (accessed 12.12.2013).
- http://fffff.at/about/ (accessed 12.12.2013). LOL as an acronym has several meanings, from look-a-like sites to laughing-out-loud. Inadvertently, in Dutch the word ‘lol’ translates as ‘fun’.
- An art work that comes to mind is Form Art (1997) by Alexei Shulgin, as well as his later WIMP – the Windows Interface Manipulation Program (2003) which plays with the icons and windows of the desktop. See http://easylife.org (accessed 12.12.2013).
- This is pronounced in his darkly ironic online/offline performances Arranged Online Performance (2010–11), which take on the theme of a popular Chat roulette network. The performance series involves paid webcam services. First, Dullaart texts the webcam worker, paying a certain amount and consequently receiving the performance by the webcam worker, then he turns onto another webcam worker and positions the screens in such a way that the webcam workers perform to each other. Ultimately he confronts the performers with the audience by turning his webcam towards the audience.
- See, among others, Troemel, Brad, ‘From Clubs to Affinity: The Decentralization of Art on the Internet’, in Peer Pressure. Essays on the Internet by an Artist on the Internet, ed. Brad Troemel (Brescia, Italy: LINK Editions, 2011), 33–45, and Olson, Marisa, ‘Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture’, in Words without Pictures, ed. Alex Klein (New York: Aperture, 2008).
- One could argue that these sites are exemplary of the ‘surfing’ mode which was once practised by many, before the search engines started personalizing search results.
- This was for the exhibition Versions at the Netherlands Media Art Institute in Amsterdam which I curated together with Petra Heck and Constant Dullaart. A number of artists who rely, in their work, on creating a network of responses and comments, were invited to take part. We challenged them to temporarily exchange the internet for the static space of the gallery. Common threads of the exhibition were formed by questions about the significance of appropriation, authenticity and agency in the era of ‘comment culture’, http://nimk.nl/eng/versions (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Thalmair, Franz, ‘Re:Interview #015: Ever-Changing Chains of Work | Constant Dullaart’, CONT3XT.net, http://cont3xt.net/blog/?p=4567 (accessed 12.12.2013).
- See also Troemel, ‘From Clubs to Affinity’, 40.
- See, for example, Dekker, Annet, ‘Enabling the Future, or How to Survive FOREVER’, in A Companion to Digital Art, ed. Christiane Paul (New York:
- Guida, Cecilia, ‘YouTube as a Subject: Interview with Constant Dullaart’, in Video Vortex Reader II Moving Images Beyond YouTube. INC Reader #6, (eds) Geert Lovink and Rachel Somers Miles (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 333.
- See, for example, http://www.artfagcity.com/2008/09/29/lost-not-found-the- unnamed-sources/ (accessed 12.12.2013).
- See, for example, Dekker, Annet, ‘Pay with Your Privacy. A Conversation between Annet Dekker and Lernert & Sander’ (2011), http://www.skor.nl/eng/projects/ item/interview-lernert-sander (accessed 12.12.2013).
- Especially with the earlier internet artists, often things that were said or claimed turned out to be a (strategic) hoax. As net artist Vuc Cosic says, ‘[T]here are tons of mystifications, starting with the origins of the name [net.art]’, Bosma, Nettitudes, 163.
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