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Out of Office AutoReply

Things aren't always as they appear in automated communication. Cory Arcangel humorously showed us this when he posted instructions for rapidly saving $500 by adding a "Sent by my iPhone" signature to one's GMail account. A similar effect is achieved inPermanent Vacation, wherein two computers enter a logjam of endlessly bouncing auto-replies announcing that each user is away. Viewers watch as the self-generated feedback loop leads to the piling-up of messages in the respective computers' inboxes. The actual message is, in fact, never seen, but a "ding" is heard each time the index of repeated subject lines becomes longer. The work is actually a four-part series that has been showing throughout Europe since last Fall, most recently at Salzburg's Ropac Gallery. Each time it's been exhibited, the computers and their attached monitors or projectors change slightly. Originally, used computers were purchased online and the original owners' names were the names on the inboxes. In the last incarnation, brand new Macs were purchased and placed atop shiny new IKEA tables--perhaps the most convincing "workstation" of the four. Asked whether this evolution in materials was a comment on media change, the master of using defunct hardware replied, "remember, new computers become old computers very very quick, so in the end, they will all look similar." The joy of Permanent Vacation lies partly in its subtle tugging at fears about the "ghost in the machine" or artificial intelligence--the idea that these computers are somehow complicit in this tete-á-tete. Nonetheless, it also implies a kind of human glitch or failure on the part of two subjects to successfully communicate. In science fiction terms, Arcangel has created what might be called a "stasis field"--a space and time characterized by an almost blissful lack of progress. (This would be true of both the computers and the vacay'ing workers.) Ultimately, this time-based sculpture raises the very interesting question of eternity. Could this exchange go on forever? Could a computer's dispatch about an individual's state of being outlive the person's beingness? Or if, in fact, even these computers are doomed to die, where will the messages live? One can only imagine that they will end up on some beach (a.k.a. landfill), once they cease to work, living out their own permanent vacation. - Marisa Olson

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Tom Moody March 28 2008 09:57Reply

Hi, Marisa,

Some questions:

How does the changing the signature to one's gmail account save $500, for those who don't have gmail or an iphone? Also, you said "rapidly save $500" and the website says "in 30 seconds." Now that's rapid!

The out of office auto reply piece looks pretty good as a side by side projection but I don't understand the need for all these iterations of the piece. Using the existing info on Craigslist-bought computers is kind of elegant in a found object finding way, but buying new Macs to remake the piece seems like the artist is creating a simulacrum of his own work. Usually that is not good.

Also, I'm assuming the "out of office autoreply" is a feature of Microsoft Outlook–that's where 90% of the people who see that message will see it. It's a compliment to Microsoft to say that its products are good enough or reliable enough to create a "stasis field"–my guess is this back and forth loop will degrade or break down fairly quickly.

Shouldn't you be calling Cory Arcangel the "former master of obsolete hardware?". It seems pretty clear the galleries he is working with want sleek gear like new Macs and plasma screens, not old thrift shop stuff, and that's what he is working with now. Nothing inherently wrong with that, art changes with the market and venue, but to say "all computers become obsolete rapidly" sounds like an excuse, not a reason.

All the best, Tom

holycow May 3 2008 19:49Reply

i work in an office where brief period of time every email had "sent from iphone" or "sent from helio ocean" or "sent from Windows Mobile". I put "sent from desktop computer" on the bottom of all my emails and soon all those annoying signatures stoped.

Marisa Olson March 28 2008 11:27Reply

Tom, thanks for your close-reading of the piece, but these are really questions for the artist, not me. I can personally say that I like when artists think about multiple ways to manifest a concept. The different iterations allow one to think-through the idea and its implications, in different contexts. They also make the project sort of site-specific each time, with the hardware plucked from the local media-ecosphere (whatever Craigslist, Ebay, or other retailers have to offer in that area, or at that time). Apple stores and newer computers are certainly part of this ecology. Just consider the rate at which Apple turns out new products, leaving the old, environmentally-harmful ones to be discarded. In the meantime, I don't see Cory having eschewed "old media" altogether, and I know this isn't a decision he'd make about his work based solely on market forces. It's all part of an important bigger conversation.

Paddy Johnson March 28 2008 13:49Reply

Certainly there are examples of multiple takes on projects where the development is meaningful, but it seems to me the rate at which Apple turns out new computers was implicit in using the older computers. The screens to me seem the most successful iteration of that project because it helps to minimize the conversation about the sale of the computer and the art, which is undoubtedly the least engaging aspect of the work.

Paddy Johnson March 28 2008 13:49Reply

PS By screens, I meant projection pieces.

Ethan Ham March 28 2008 13:57Reply


Most (all?) mail programs are smart enough to not send out the auto-response repeatedly to the same email address (I think Outlook's default is to auto respond only once a week to a given email address).

However, I did work with a guy who used his mail program's "rules" instead of the built-in auto-responder… so he continually responded to all emails (along the lines of "Permanent Vacation") and quickly flooded the email lists to which he was subscribed.

Pall Thayer March 28 2008 14:57Reply

I have to agree with Tom that the idea of using second-hand computers and "maintaining" the original owner's identity, sounds like it was a pretty strong conceptual component of the work originally. It's a shame to see artists compromise their concepts like that. I don't quite buy the "it's going to be outdated next month anyway" argument. The whole idea, it seems to me, is that someone really did use the computer and it showed. That person has now taken a permanent vacation from the computer. How do you determine the identity to be used by a new, never before owned, computer? Maybe I'm misunderstanding something but I get the feeling that using new hardware pretty much circumvents the whole concept of the piece.


Barry Threw March 29 2008 01:38Reply

This "piece" is two computers emailing each other, and no amount of waxing philosophic makes it anything more than that. Just the fact that something this uninspiring makes it into media art gallery's represents everything that is wrong with media art curation. It focuses on some inane aspect of ubiquitous technology in an effort to make it seem novel, but its not. It's email.

When are we going to expect some level of craft and ingenuity from media art and not settle for half a concept with a computer strapped to it? Are we really that hard up for good media art that we are willing to navel gaze at a single recursive loop?

Sal Randolph March 29 2008 02:26Reply

Yes, this piece is two computers emailing each other. That's what I liked about it - a kind of precise, minimal intervention which I find (at the risk of being old fashioned) aesthetically pleasing. The "art" here isn't found in a high level of technical innovation, it's found in a deft, accurate rethinking of technology that's lying all around us.

Tom Moody March 29 2008 10:49Reply

The first instance of a stasis field I know of in science fiction comes from Larry Niven's "Known Space" series. In World of Ptavvs a surviving member of the extinct http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thrintun species turns up at the bottom of an Earth ocean. Due to the creature's rock hard, glossy smooth surface it is called the "Sea Statue," that is, until the stasis field unthaws and the Thrint begins telepathically enslaving humans.

Barry, when you gaze into the abyss it also gazes into you. The topic introduced by Marisa is why the same idea needs four or more incarnations. Marisa, you say only the artist can explain that. But he seems to have left the building. So you are acting as his spokesman on earth and proclaiming his intentions ("I know this isn't a decision he'd make about his work based solely on market forces"). Tapping the "local eco-media sphere" is a good way to talk about it. But doesn't the sphere around Thaddeus Ropac Gallery include Craigslist or its Austrian equivalent?

Pall, the idea of the permanent vacation doesn't have to be so literal as that it's the vacation of the person who originally owned the computer. "Two computers emailing each other" is a fine variation on art's "loop of existential despair" or "pathos of machines" themes. The question is how to best realize it.

Marisa Olson March 29 2008 15:08Reply

Sorry, I'm not going to try to be a "spokes[wo]man" for anyone. My effort was to offer a critique of the work, and now you have my take on it. I can't put words in anyone's mouth. But I will say that you can't comment on the past, present, and future of something by *only* showing its past. Or you can, but it's less effective and often naive or sheltered. This would be the effect of only ever using older computers to talk about contemporary computing culture. But at this point, I am projecting my own media-change interpretation on the work, so I need to step back.

Thanks for your comments.

Tom Moody March 29 2008 17:27Reply

It's OK for a critical advocate to project!
Without having seen any of the pieces (the jpegs-plus-commentary being somewhat like thought experiments here) I'm with Paddy in preferring the side by side video projection. The scale gives it formal interest, it ties in nicely with the earlier keystoning work, and there's no IKEA table to have to deal with in discussing it. It was the "master of obsolete hardware" I had a problem with at this late date, and all the iterations of the piece without accounting for art world pressures and prejudices as having a possible role.

Vijay Pattisapu May 12 2008 00:13Reply

Pic 1 looks like Darth Vader.

Tom Moody March 29 2008 22:23Reply

Dime store Buddha
Buddha made by local artisans
Custom-cast bronze Buddha in edition of 3 made by Reid, my fabricator.

Martin John Callanan May 11 2008 20:29Reply

'Back and forth' isn't in the nature of 'out-of-office' replies. The standard is to send only once to each recipient. Ie, the computers should only send one reply each. To create the loop, the standard has been overwritten, creating a situation that - obviously - would NEVER exist.

This work, while humous (in the original form), is superfluous.

Tom Moody May 11 2008 22:49Reply

Martin, if what you are saying is true then the joke is only funny because some of us thought "out of office autoreply" could create such a loop. How awkward. I propose a revision to the piece: two computers mailing "the recipient's mailbox is full" messages back and forth to each other–that message I know goes out multiple times for each recipient.

Martin John Callanan May 18 2008 17:56Reply

Hi Tom, You can prove for yourself that this it wouldn't happen. Try it with two users in the same office. Programmers have - logically - written exceptions to prevent this from happening. If it occurred in reality would easily take down servers.