Chrome & Flesh: An Interview with Mark Leckey

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Screenshot courtsey of Garrett Lockhart

In July of this year, the video artist Mark Leckey gave an informal lecture at Chelsea College of Art and Design, London on an ephemeral concept he titled 'Touchy-Feely' — a sort of sensory nerve at the tip-end of his cumulative project on distribution and demand, The Long Tail (2009), (which he previously spoke to Rhizome about.) During the talk, he presented an excerpt from Pearl Vision (2012), a short film and 'self-portrait', that premiered at 'Ghosts in the Machine' at the New Museum and was broadcast on BBC4 last month. The sensuous object of the snare drum (physically absent yet present in high definition audio and video) in this latest work addresses contemporary effects of desire and displacement, caused in part by the everyday technological prostheses at the body's disposal. Recently I spoke with Leckey over email. His perspectives on the intricacy of feeling, ever-changing aesthetic hierarchies, the space beyond the screen and the power of rhythm follow:



Do you think the shift from pointing toward the camera, perceiving it as a means of broadcast to using the camera to point – as a prosthesis for our own hands – is a recent phenomenon? It seems that for young artists especially, the cinematic image has suffered; instead of the establishing shot, the long take and other aspects of framing 'the image', video attempts to enter a world, or a flow, of imagery that is bigger than what can possibly fit into a single frame. The tension between on-screen and off-screen feels more fluid today, a sort of David Cronenburg-circa-Videodrome (1983) effect...

It seems to me that Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971), for example, embodies the concerns of single-channel video at that time: one person broadcasting out from the television and attempting to address the masses on the other side. Whereas now it’s a single person, or their hands, in isolation and trying to address the mass that’s on the other side of the screen, that is, inside it. I’ve collected lots of images and examples of hands manipulating objects and stuff sort of ‘inside’ the image. They’ve got their hands in there the same way you’ve described those glove boxes scientists use to carry out radioactive experiments.



We touch things in order to know them, to see them properly. Like when we say: ‘can I look at that?’ but actually we mean: can I hold it, can I manipulate it. And I make pictures or images of things in the same way, so that I can know them better, grasp them, fully apprehend them, ‘grok’ them. Grok is a good word – it was coined by a science fiction writer, and it means to understand profoundly through intuition or empathy. So it’s all about grokking; trying to know something intimately. 

And once you’ve got this image of an evocative object on the screen, and it’s in your hands, then you can start to squeeze it, squish it; it’s totally plasmatic. And once you’re done with that you can point to these manipulations; to emphasize the object’s thingness, its objecthood.

Like the numinous TV screen in Videodrome – it takes us back to older ideas when animals, trees and rocks contained a spirit and we were all connected through the ‘Great Spirit’. It’s the animistic world-view...

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A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

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Jesse England, E-Book backup (ongoing)

 

In 2007, novelist Jonathan Lethem published an essay in Harper's ending with a grand reveal: "every line I  stole, warped, and cobbled together." The patchwork includes dozens of sources — part of a Steve Erickson novel, something from a Pitchfork review, a quote from an interview with Rick Prelinger. Sandra Day O'Connor and Ralph Waldo Emerson are stitched in too.  

The Ecstasy of Influence, now the title of his recent collection of writings, often addresses the process of integrating and "cobbling together" ideas and culture to make something new. Yet, stories Lethem relates of hosting "mailing parties" for the Philip K Dick Society or working in a bookstore seem like snapshots from pre-digital age. Recently I talked with the author about our rapidly dematerializing culture as well as appropriation as an art practice:

 


 

JM:  Have you ever tried to imagine what kind of career path you would have had without a culture of physical objects?

JL: It’s really interesting because I do think of the procedural experience of having to dig, having to find out what, let’s say, all of those names in the back of Greil Marcus’ “Stranded” were. Now when I read that collection, I see it put together like his esoteric nod to the history of rock and roll and like 80 percent of it was terra incognita. I didn’t know the names at all, and I couldn’t just go skimming around and get a little taste. I had to make each and every one of those things that compelled me —because of the name or his description — a search. I’d have to go find some broken down piece of media, some old vinyl or something, and you know, the delay that inserts, the relationship to time. I spent a lot of time thinking about a culture that wasn’t right at hand.

I might envision a given song or movie for five or ten years before I’d lay hands on it at times, and that creates this sort of personal, fictional vision. It’s like having a book unread on your shelf and just staring at the jacket or the title or what you’ve heard about it, and having it emanating all this promise. Books I guess, can still do that, but it’s a really peculiar thing for me to think about how I would relate differently.

I mean, I was advantaged. I grew up in New York City. Compared to other versions of access in our generation, I had great access. My parents had a good record collection and really interesting books on the shelves and pointed me to them. There was no quarantine. I was in New York City and there were great repertory houses and I started going to them when I was 14 or 15 years old, just gobbling down some curators’ ideas of cinema. I was getting all these versions of importance or interest out of the obscure past or out of other national cinemas. So in that way, it was like I was surrounded. I didn't even think of myself as deprived.

The strange thing that the question sets up is an image of me, or anyone my age, as somehow suffering from a drought. But I wouldn't have, of course, had the comparison. I wouldn't have had any notion that I was lacking materials. I still had to make really complicated priorities for myself because there was so much that seemed so compelling, potentially compelling. And it wasn't too hard to get a hold of it. But I did, in retrospect I did have these kinds of limits and always a physical relationship — a movie theater that smelled a certain way. What it was to go to the Thalia and watch Bunuel films. It's associated for me with the feeling of that lobby and the strange loneliness in that place on a Thursday afternoon and the other people who would be there present or the kinds of record stores where I would at look at things or the bookstores and the way the objects themselves felt and became talismanic. And the way my own room was changing if I brought these things! It wasn't like I could close the computer and it would all go away. It was like I was changing my body practically. To just start accruing all this stuff like armor, like an exoskeleton. 

JM: I'm sure your consumption of culture now is different though. Do you have a Kindle or an iPad? Are you an ebook reader? I'm sure you have MP3s, at least.

JL: I have a lot of MP3s! I'm going to qualify this in a number of different ways. I've always been a very late adopter. I mean even MP3s, I didn't have them after other people I knew did. Something about me always sort of wants them to become a little more part of the world. It's like I need to believe in them by seeing people form attachments before I make that move. I've got a friend who teases me because he remembers me saying that I would probably never bother with email. I knew a few people who were doing it and it just didn't seem that appealing to me. Now I'm ten years into an unbelievable promiscuous emailing binge that will never end. So I've been a late adopter a lot of times with tech. I wrote novels on an electric typewriter after it was possible to begin writing prose on computers. I just wasn't quite there. I wasn't ready to make a move from something that felt very important and material and personal to me. So who knows what I might do later on, but I've never read anything on a Kindle and I haven't even really had an iPad or a Kindle in my hands. The nearest I've been has been in the seat beside me in an airplane when I feel smug because they have to stop reading when the announcement goes out and my book is still open.

I think as a writer about the shape and heft of a book. And so I think the reason I am attached to reading them is I’m writing into that form. For better or worse, I still think of where physically my hands would be turning the pages. Feeling, oh, maybe now I’m ten pages from the end. And so some of those things are sacrificed in the Kindle.

Also, the kind of doubling back that I do as a reader seems very fundamental to pages. I’ll keep my finger sometimes even three or four pages width in two places in a book. Because I’m interested in doing a doubling. It’s very much a part of the physical object to me....

 

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The Impermanent Book

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A few months ago Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom, was quoted by The Telegraph from his Cartagena’s Hay Festival presentation:

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that’s reassuring… and he goes on … Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.” 

His speech raised heated discussions in newspaper columns and on the internet. The focus was mainly on defending technology and e-books as a viable and improved evolution, and on how he was being retrograde.  What was missing from the discourse was the fact that technology has also violently altered printed books in a way from which there is no return. We are so disconnected from the means of production that nobody seems to be aware that books are produced very differently then they were 100 years ago. Digital files are exchanged between writers, publishers and printers all over the world.

In the context of the Piracy Project, which we initiated in London in 2010, we discovered cases, which not only took control over the object, but over the content. Inspired by Daniel Alarcon's article in Granta magazine, “Life Among Pirates”, we traveled to Peru and discovered, for instance, a pirated version of Jaime Bayly’s novel No se lo digas a nadie with two extra chapters added. This physical object may look obviously pirated to a trained eye but could easily pass as the original if you were not looking for differences. The extra chapters are good, good enough to pass undetected by readers. 

right: No se lo digas a nadie by Jaime Bayly; left pirated copy with two extra chapters added by an anonymous writer. Bought in Lima Peru, The Piracy Collection

These books are sold in small markets, bookshops or by street vendors at traffic crossings. We had to buy several books and to compare page by page until we found a book with extra content. Asking the vendors for help didn’t work. They were quite offended with the insinuation that they carried modified books. Buyers don’t want to read a book by an anonymous author when they are buying Mario Vargas Llosa.  

Friends in Peru seemed extremely surprised to see an altered book. The same type of trust that Franzen had applied to printed books was broken. What have they been reading? According to popular literary theory, when reading a book we become joint authors by virtue of subjectively interpreting and shifting the context through our own personal sets of experience. In this sense, it might be very difficult to realize, in discussion with others, whether or not the book you just read has been altered. And then what happens when that seed of distrust is planted in your head? 

 

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Corpus Continuum

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Jennifer Cohen, Grey Lines in Formation (i), Excerpt, at P.P.O.W, 2011

At a recent day-long conference at The CUNY Graduate Center, Professor Patricia Clough discussed the concept and formulation of the body via feminist and technoscientific discourse. In summary and reduction, the body's various meanings draw from multiple lineages. Current definitions include: the body is a container of consciousness, its consciousness is potential; the mind is disembodied; conversely, the mind is embodied and endosymbiotic with the body; the body is material/gendered/sexless/constructed; it is situated and locatable. The range of defining qualities indicates the spectrum of debate, and the body's importance in arenas beyond academic conversation (e.g., shaping the literature in jurisdiction and personal rights). Academia is laying the groundwork for evolving nomenclature, and reconsiderations of the figure of life. 

An attempt to grasp the body’s metaphysical nature highlights assumptions of the past: modes of inquiry, method, and research were long established along philosophical terms of defining primary qualities that cannot be changed, and secondary qualities that are provided by humans. While incredibly useful in definitive classification, those steady states wobble now that we can almost transform primary qualities. In nanotechnological reality, an object can occupy two places at once and atomic level rearrangement can occur, leading to a multitude of tangible forms. 

Matter is in constant process and tends towards movement; mobility implies some level of consciousness or intelligence. Algorithmic in behavior, matter has the capacity to change itself through its interactions. It can hold multiple explanations, just as light can be composed of both particles and waves. That relational definition of light, as discussed by Karen Barad via Niels Bohr, is determined by its measurement apparatus: Depending on the object and what it's in relation to, variable definitions ...

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The Shape of Shaping Things to Come

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A weird commotion outside wakes you up. You peer out the window to see the source of the music and revelry. A group of college kids from the engineering school are smashing all of their furniture in the street. The next day while walking the dog, you see them again. They’re sweeping up the pieces of broken housewares, and shoveling it into bags. The next day, it looks like they’re moving in again as they carry brand new designer furniture into their house. They do this every month or so.

You are shopping in Ikea, looking for a new end table, and perhaps a rug. Suddenly, uniformed security guards appear, and surround a young woman. She is escorted from the store, uneventfully. “Pocket scanner”, you hear an employee tell an inquiring couple.

With delighted expectation, your son unwraps his birthday gift. Awe is quickly replaced by disappointment. “Isn’t that the one you wanted?” you ask confused, certain that it was the new action figure, ordered directly from the TV show web site. “Yeah, it’s the one,” he says cautiously, not looking you in the eyes. “I just forgot that all the accessories would be un-modded on the store version.”

 



3D printed objects, or “physibles” are an incredible example of the mundane aspects of future-weird. They are glitchy-as-fuck, but their shapeshifting effect on our cultural space will inhabit the same metaphysics of street graffiti--appreciated by only a few, truly understood by even less.

A physible is simple. Download a file with information about the shape of an object, or components parts of an object. Use a 3D printing machine that squirts molten plastic, metal or other material to pour you that object, without needing a mold. Or, send the file to a company who will do that for you. These machines simplify the process of fabbing an object, by using a single machine to create parts of nearly anything. Previously, specific injection molds had to be created for each piece, or a welder had to attach pieces by reading a diagram. Now the machine can build the entire piece in one run, with basically zero set-up investment. The investment to produce a single object is nearly nothing--all it takes is the design, and one of these universal printing machines.

This technical evolution is interesting, but the real revolution will be in the changing distribution of fabrication shops that this production shift will create. Fabrication has been sourced wherever the set-up requirements are cheapest, with the run production runs made as large as possible. But the technology behind physibles will make short-run fabrication, anywhere, much more preferable. It will eventually be cheaper for a person to fab one object at home, than to buy one of five hundred thousand made in one place and shipped across the world. Physibles will decentralize the Pearl River, and bring China home. 

But the technology of physibles doesn’t mean much to the consumer. Not any more than the encoding of a MP3 file, or the precise stitch pattern of a handbag. It means something to the person who actually fabs the object, but as a consumer, you’ll get your things wherever is cheapest and easiest, just like always. You’ll still order things online. Rather than coming from China, perhaps a Chinese company will outsource the design to a fab shop down the street that will hand deliver it to your door. The means of production continue to mean nothing to the end-user: commodity cost is king. Most people want their stuff to just be stuff, and don’t care about how it works. Consider the frustration people experience trying to get a PDF to print correctly on a flat sheet of paper. These folks will be filling their cabinets, entertaining their children, and brushing their teeth with physibles every day of their lives without knowing how the object came into existence, or what that means for global distribution networks.

Most people. On the other hand, there will be a new set of object hackers, who will be spending all their free time online, discussing the precise interior dimension ratios of the new set of Target glassware ....

 

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Physibles

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The Pirate Bay just announced a new file type available on the site: "physibles," digital files for 3D printing. It expects in 20 years you'll be downloading sneakers. In the meantime there are lawn darts and plastic toys:

We're always trying to foresee the future a bit here at TPB. One of the things that we really know is that we as a society will always share. Digital communication has made that a lot easier and will continue to do so. And after the internets evolutionized data to go from analog to digital, it's time for the next step.

Today most data is born digitally. It's not about the transition from analog to digital anymore. We don't talk about how to rip anything without losing quality since we make perfect 1 to 1 digital copies of things. Music, movies, books, all come from the digital sphere. But we're physical people and we need objects to touch sometimes as well!

We believe that the next step in copying will be made from digital form into physical form. It will be physical objects. Or as we decided to call them: Physibles. Data objects that are able (and feasible) to become physical. We believe that things like three dimensional printersscanners and such are just the first step. We believe that in the nearby future you will print your spare sparts for your vehicles. You will download your sneakers within 20 years.

The benefit to society is huge. No more shipping huge amount of products around the world. No more shipping the broken products back. No more child labour. We'll be able to print food for hungry people. We'll be able to share not only a recipe, but the full meal. We'll be able ...

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