Screen capture from Law & Order, Season 6, Episode 9.
In 2011, artist Jeffrey Thompson was granted a Rhizome commission to watch 456 episodes of the American crime drama Law & Order in order to capture images that illustrate 20 years of the history of computers and their interfaces in its set design. This month, Thompson completed his task, and he will uncover his findings in an illustrated lecture on February 1st at the Museum of Moving Image.
A few facts might help give a sense of the scale of Thompson's viewing project. The DVDs alone set Thompson back a cool $700. He captured more than 11,000 screenshots along the way. By skipping the intro sequence of each episode, Thompson saved himself 10 hours of total viewing time; by watching the episodes at 150% speed, he saved himself another 3.7 days of viewing time.
But the project isn't just an endurance experiment. Treating Law & Order as a unique database of images and speech, one whose "ripped from the headlines" format mirrors our fascinations with and fears about computers and networked technologies in the 1990s and early 2000s, Thompson tracked changes in the representation of technology over time. The internet got a sneak peak at some of Thompson's findings last week, when he posted a list of all the URLs used on the series, including such bizarre domains as bootyboyz.bz, thebaronmuchhumpin.com, and upyourbutt.net. Incidentally, these URLs were all purchased by NBC for the show and remain under their ownership, although thebaronmuchhumpin.com is available for purchase.
Following the lecture, Thompson will take part in a discussion with Kevin Raper, the graphic designer who created many of the computer interfaces used on the last six seasons of the series.
A limited edition booklet will be available as a takeaway at the event.
Answer: all of the above.
The Rhizome Commissions program is supported, in part, by funds from Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts. Additional support is provided by generous individuals and Rhizome members.