Beyond the Surface: 15 Years of Desktop Aesthetics

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A desktop is a changing record of visual decisions. It speaks to the aesthetics of a particular work-flow and personal space. A desktop exhibits a diagram of your organizational habits and a screenshot of it captures a brief moment of its functional evolution. The image of your desktop becomes an intimate self-portrait and the impulse to decode an unfamiliar desktop is unavoidable.

Xerox Star 8010 Workstation - Image via plyojump.com

In January, Adam Cruces wrapped up his Desktop Views project. Cruces collected 51 images of artists’ desktops including a number of artists he worked with in his earlier project STATE.

Cruces frames Desktop Views with a quote from Alexei Shulgin’s legendary Desktop Is project, created 15 years earlier in 1997, at the dawn of “net.art.” The quote, taken from the about page of Shulgin’s project, uses the title Desktop Is as an iterative I Ching-style manifesto about the desktop. Its final lines claim in paradox, “desktop is a question, desktop is the answer.” Cruces’s description of Desktop Views is more straightforward and less poetic. To him the desktop is “the (virtual) space that serves as the foundation of the working environment.” Cruces and Shulgin, however, channel the same curiosity. The two projects are echoes that present voyeuristic peeks into artists’ personal virtual working spaces on public websites.

The Desktop Is site is a deteriorated time capsule. Its nostalgic Apple OS desktop interface links to two folders; one, leads to site information, and the second, to a list of submitted desktop images. Link rot has broken nearly half of the links in Shulgin’s list of submissions and the ones that work are a mix of cryptic handles, like Murph the surf, in contrast to full names - some followed by an email address.

In converse, Cruces’s new iteration, Desktop Views is standardized. It presents a grid of images (a sort of meta desktop) that can be sorted alphabetically by first name or chronologically in the order they were collected and released on the site. Artists’ full names label each desktop thumbnail in the grid. Cruces hosts all the images he has collected, so perhaps this archive of desktop images will remain intact for more complete future reflections. Within the order, the desktop images range from stark defaults to extreme clutter.

Sara Ludy’s desktop, for example, is minimal with a blurred blue smudge of pixels centered on a black background. On the right side, vased.mov is immediately above vased.gif which might reveal a recently created animated gif. Daniel Keller’s desktop image presents a more complex space. His numerous file icons stand in an equally spaced array – small and unreadable. They vanish into an endless crowded background of solar panels stacked edge-to-edge.

Martin Murphy’s desktop, for example, has a strange background image: a hand wrapped in latex touches a warped smiling face in a pool of purple color. The face stares out of the screen. Icons, floating on the right, are grid-free and vaguely organized. Three external drive mounts show a potential need for more space while a folder announces a “project with Evan” in its name. Perhaps this counts as evidence of collaboration. Amidst bluetooth connections, a dropbox account, and a desirable suite of creative software applications in the dock below, Murphy is present. He listens to Spotify and captured his desktop image with OS X’s Grab application. 

Martin Murphy's desktop from Adam Cruces's Desktop Views

Some visual clues reveal location or language, like Jon Rafman’s Canadian flag in his menu bar. His background image shows two men climbing a floating knot of infinite stairs up and down, down and up. A handgun icon labelled “TODO” floats point-blank at one man’s head. Other desktops are more mysterious. Rafael Rozendal’s blank grey background leaves everything to the imagination – his tiny system activity monitor, maxed out in red and green, is the only leading detail.

While Cruces’s project feels curatorial, Shulgin’s is more ethnographic...

 

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AT&T Archive on YouTube

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AT&T's official YouTube page includes an incredible number of educational videos from their archive including work by Jim Henson and Saul Bass.

via Prosthetic Knowledge

The Viewtron System and Sceptre Videotex Terminal (1983)

The Hello Machine

Microelectronics Video Disc Exhibit

Music in Motion

Crystal Clear

Lightwave

Bottle of Magic

The UNIX Operating System

Telezonia

Now You Can Dial

Principles of the Optical Maser

Genesis of the Transistor

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Revolutionary Convergences: History and Symbolism in Anonymous and OWS Art

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Left: United Nations Officials with an unofficial U.N. flag, 1947, Right: Anonymous members with flags in the UK from flickr, 2008

Anonymous operates under a well-designed logo. Does it belie their dispersed identity or siphon power from historical symbols to disrupt our own associations to them? The aesthetics of past revolutionary movements point more towards the second possibility. We see this link to history in the poster designs of Occupy Wall Street — new digital tools under visual constraints produce an early 20th century screen printer’s aesthetic with formal motifs of the same era.

New technology and historical technique are converging, and so are the symbols being used to deliver the message. The visual traces of current aesthetics draw on the deep roots of history and the powerful associations images and symbols therefore possess, allowing us to make quick associations to the power of the Roman Empire or the strength of the Greek Gods all in a glance at a tiny logo. Turning back to Anonymous —What can we learn by systematically decoding their symbolism? And how do their aesthetics relate to their actions as international and anonymous activists? 

Searching for these convergences online often reveals infinite Platonic shades of nearly identical images. But occasionally, if you sift past the first helping of results, you can uncover some remarkable connections.

Born in part from the image boards of 4chan, internet image culture was Anonymous’ early stock-in-trade. But above the rabble of trollish GIFs and dinosaur ASCI art they have developed themselves into a brand. Their logo, which dramatically leads many Anonymous affiliated YouTube videos, is wrapped in screen interference, reminiscent of military surveillance cam signals, and backed by equivalently dramatic classical sound clips. On the AnonOps blog the logo lives in static forms; black and white, ironically layered against a sea of 1s and 0s, and as the favicon...

 

 

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Snapshots of Occupy Wall Street

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Reuters/Eduardo Munoz via The Atlantic In Focus

On a quiet night, Zuccotti Park feels more like a LARP than a demonstration. Everyone deep in character with a specific task. Extemporized librarians, scanning books. The media team inside a cat’s cradle of crisscrossing wires, barricade by the discarded boxes of donated devices. The scent of detergent from a block away as the sanitation unit mops the pavement. 

What should we be? "Tactical beekeepers!" my friend Melissa suggested; a joke on the state ban on face covering that police were enforcing, accounting for the absence of Guy Fawkes masks and bandanas. But actually my role there was as tourist, which anyone could tell whenever I checked my phone for text messages or turned the device horizontally for snapshots of witty posters.

In what would be the shadow of the World Trade Center, and at the heart of both a neighborhood traumatized and city district that represents financial power the world over; the psychogeography of Zuccotti Park will inspire theoretic naval gazing for years to come. But every Occupy Wall Street march in New York seems to poetically incorporate the history and semiotics of the city. Times Square marchers in Milton Glasner's "I (Heart) NY" t-shirts, waving sparklers in the air, singing show tunes along with a brass band behind the TKTS booth while tourists feverishly snapped photos, as they would any other urban spectacle. Another photo op: the wall of riot cops beneath the Washington Square arch, the Empire State Building gleaming directly north, lights piercing the night sky. After the General Assembly meeting disassembled for the midnight curfew, it seemed like anyone out on Bleecker Street that Saturday night could have been part of it. 

This movement was built on unforgettable images.

 

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Time and Revolution at the 12th Istanbul Biennial and ISEA 2011

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The 12th Istanbul Biennial and ISEA 2011 coincided this year, resulting in a jam-packed week of activity. At any hour of the day, there was a dizzying array of talks, performances, exhibitions, and art openings across the city of Istanbul. Organizing two high profile, international art events at the same time was a wise choice, as it produced an element of synergy between them. The biennial exhibition was especially attentive to the Arab Spring, and the effect this has had in the region, while ISEA was more oriented to the problems and future possibilities of technology. Taking in both the biennial and ISEA in the same week lead me to think about the power of technology, and its significance for both established and emerging democracies.

ISEA kicked off with a keynote entitled “Time to Live” by the writer and academic Sean Cubitt. Taking its title from the TTL mechanism used in the movement of data across a network or computer, Cubitt argued that the struggle over space and time is a defining aspect of digital media, and ultimately, that time becomes alienated in liaison with new technologies. Time, for him, was once a humanistic force, but has now become something that is used over and against humanity through its instrumentalization. In order to chart the progressive alienation of time, Cubitt points to the development of three forms of media that he sees as dominant beginning in the 20th century — spreadsheets, databases, and geographical information systems. These forms have fundamentally altered the use and understanding of both time and space, resulting in their management and optimization towards biopolitical ends. The grid is the organizational method used across spreadsheets, databases, and geographical information systems, and in the closing section of his talk, Cubitt offered the vector as an oppositional form capable of suggesting new alternatives to the grid. In order to unearth differing structures such as the vector, Cubitt urged artists and researchers alike to go back and revisit earlier, obsolete technologies and practices with a fresh eye.

Sean Cubitt's Lecture "Time to Live" at ISEA 2011

I had Cubitt’s call to re-examine history for new solutions at the back of my mind when I visited the Istanbul Biennial, as the show’s unique premise, organized around the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, seemed to similarly dig into the past in order to find pressing correspondences with the present. Curated by Jens Hoffman and Adriano Pedrosa, the exhibition spread across two large warehouses adjacent to the Istanbul Modern. The exhibition’s design, created by architect Ryue Nishizawa, was comprised of a maze-like series of various sized rooms without ceilings, whose entrances and exits emptied out into passageways. Corrugated metal covered the exterior walls of the rooms, giving it the semblance of a building or home. In the catalog, it was explained that the Nishizawa had intended to mimic Istanbul’s intersecting streets and alleys. If anything, the layout allowed for an overlapping exchange between the wide range of subjects explored in the show, as each room was either grouped works around a theme from Gonzales-Torres’ oeuvre or presented work by an individual artist.

 

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This is Marshall McLuhan

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This is Marshall McLuhan is the transcript of Alex Kitnick's opening remarks preceding the screening of This Is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium Is the Massage, that took place at the New Museum as part of Rhizome's New Silent Series.


Anthony McCall, Long Film for Ambient Light, 1975

Tonight we’re going to look at a 16mm print of This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage, which begins with a brief shot of a light bulb. A few weeks ago as part of its programming at Dia, Light Industry presented Anthony McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), which consists of a lone, if rather large light bulb, hanging in an otherwise empty room, with a wall of windows covered over in scrim on one side to modulate the light coming in and out. Over a 24 hour span, reaching from noon one day to noon the next, the natural light of the sun and the artificial luminescence of the bulb were put in constant tête-à-tête, projecting forwards and back, contrasting and comparing and facing off with one another. In this play of light and shadows, various social interactions took place, different at different times of the day and night. Occasionally, the bulb was the center of attention—literally highlighted—with people clustering around it, while at other moments its light seemed to match the daylight and not draw much interest at all. Alone and isolated in a cool white space, the bulb’s plain power, usually used as an aid to display, was itself illuminated.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

The light bulb was always McLuhan’s first example when explaining what he meant by his famous mantra “the medium is the message” since it communicates no information itself but rather facilitates a range of behavioral possibilities: “The electric light is pure information,” McLuhan wrote in 1964’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. “It is a medium without a message…

 

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Essay by Alexander R. Galloway on Nils Aall Barricelli in Cabinet

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Barricelli experiment recreated with Processing by Galloway. Barricelli’s visualization technique has been altered—color has been added to show the gene groups more clearly, and the vertical axis has been compressed to increase the amount of evolutionary time that is visible. Each swatch of textured color within the image indicates a different organism. Borders between color fields mean that an organism has perished, been born, mutated, or otherwise evolved into something new

The latest issue of Cabinet inclues an essay by Alexander R. Galloway on mathematician Nils Aall Barricelli, who created artificial evolution experiments in the 50s, with a striking visualization technique:

How did it work? Barricelli established a “universe” consisting of a horizontal row of 512 genes. Genes were represented using integers from negative 18 to positive 18. According to “norms” he established governing mutation and reproduction, each number reproduced into the row below it. in this way, the norms translated rows of “parent” genes into subsequent rows of “child” genes, which in turn were reproduced again using the same norms into subsequent generations over and over. if and when gene-numbers reappeared in a sustained group, Barricelli would designate each group an “organism.” proceeding in lines from top to bottom, Barricelli’s algorithm produced a rectangular image consisting of a grid of genes appearing as individual pixels. When finished, the image yielded a snapshot of evolutionary time, with the oldest generations of organisms at the top and the youngest at the bottom. the output of Barricelli’s experiments was highly visual. he was essentially drawing directly in binary numbers, converting 1s and 0s into pixels in either on or off positions. Because he represented each gene as pixels, organisms were identified visually based on how the pixel patterns self-organized into texture fields, which were identified as shapes or ...

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Before the Demoscene

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Face and Body Parts - Ed Parke (1974)

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, innovations in computer graphics were pioneered by the University of Utah. Their program generated some of the first algorithms for antialiasing, shading, z-buffering, and texture mapping among many others. They also produced the seminal Utah Teapot and breakthrough demos of rendering and animation such as Halftone Animation by Ed Catmull and Fred Parke. Essentially, the innovations came from a community of developers who shared the same passion in visualizing the world around them in virtual space. This early work, shared by developers at MIT, Harvard, and Bell Labs, established techniques that would be inlcuded in work by the demoscene of the 80s, that we covered last summer

stills from Space++, Judson Rosebush (1974)

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It’s Only Humanist

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Frank Eickhoff, Application To The Entscheidungsproblem, 2010

A headless statue of winged Nike, black pixels swarming above her stumped neck. A collage of ancient, sand-colored busts and patterns drawn with a Sharpie. A Michelangelo’s Pieta coated in blue-streaked purple sludge. These are some of images you will find on Sterling Crispin’s Tumblr, “Greek New Media Shit.”  As I write this, the most recent post is a looped animation by Jennifer Chan. Two Hellenistic statues remain static in the foreground as a violet blob belches out a browser frame. Flat green letters brand it “recipe art.” Chan, apparently, thinks mixing classical references with internet imagery is formulaic. The opinion is somewhat sympathetic to Crispin, who told me in an email that his blog “started as a criticism of a cliché that I identified and has started self-perpetuating.” But Crispin added that since he started the Tumblr he has become more curious about the reasons behind the formula’s appeal. No recipe passes through so many hands without being good.

To me it tastes like a desire to locate man’s place in a world that he perceives primarily with the aid of machines. The art of the Greeks has been used in the past as a touchstone for artists who measure their own vision against an anthropocentric one. “Greek art had a purely human conception of beauty,” Apollinaire wrote in an essay about a 1912 exhibition of Cubist painting. “It took man as the measure of perfection. The art of the new painters takes the infinite universe as its ideal, and it is to the fourth dimension alone that we owe this new measure of perfection […].” The modernists never determined what the “fourth dimension” was, besides a plane of activity beyond human perception. Today the internet—and the spatial and perceptual relations it has engendered—make a familiar substitute for it. “Greek new media shit” puts representations of the visible and the invisible in the same frame.

 

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Dushko Petrovich Reviews MIT Press Book About New Tendencies and Bit International in the Boston Globe

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Bit International (via computerkunst.org)

Dushko Petrovich, editor of Paper Monument, reviews “A Little-Known Story about a Movement, a Magazine, and the Computer’s Arrival in Art: New Tendencies and Bit International, 1961-1973” (MIT Press) for the Boston Globe:

From 1961 to 1973, a loosely organized group of artists and scientists coalesced around the radical idea that the emerging technology of the computer could be used to make a different kind of art. Known simply as the New Tendencies, this heterogeneous movement included dozens of men and women from the far reaches of the industrialized world. Often working under collective monikers such as Equipo 57 or Grupo Anonima, most of them were as ambivalent about individual fame as they were about the artistic status of their activities, which they preferred to call “research.”

However they saw their own work, their visual innovations were quickly recognized as cutting-edge art, and in a matter of years began appearing in landmark exhibitions at venues such as the Louvre and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Almost as quickly, however, these early experiments were overtaken by what they made possible, and the idealistic foundations of computer art got hidden beneath the more elaborate operations that followed...

Curiously, the first worldwide movement of computer art focused many of its forward-thinking activities in a city not particularly known for technology, in a country that no longer exists. Beginning with the 1961 New Tendency exhibition mounted by Matko Mestrovic at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, hundreds of artists, critics, and curators started gathering regularly in what was then Yugoslavia, united in the belief that you could generate visual art using this strange, almost philosophical new machine. Like-minded experimenters flocked from all over Europe, and from as far away as the Americas and even ...

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