Occupy the Internet

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This essay was originally published in N+1's Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images via The Big Picture

A Tumblr of user-submitted handwritten signs with bleak personal testimonies first captured the internet’s attention. Presented are the lives of real people, unmistakable hardships, ready to reblog and retweet. But implied—by the faces, the faces, the faces —is that to sympathize you must show up. This time a Facebook “like” is not enough. 

There is something twisted and belittling about the momentary act of tapping on Tumblr’s like button — a heart icon — when you are looking at the face of someone who has itemized his debt in magic marker for you to calculate. How much we have and what we owe is what we are typically raised never to discuss openly in polite company. These images of persons denuded of financial mystery request from the viewer something just as human; not a thoughtless mouse click. To properly commiserate with the enormity of this curated series of individual misfortunes, one must in person participate.

Around the globe, the “99 percent” sloganing rings effortlessly. This is a generation accustomed to encapsulating arguments into 140 character messages. It is also a generation experienced in negotiating private entities for public means. Zuccotti Park’s tenuous standing as a privately owned public park seems an inevitable metaphor for the questions of free speech, assembly, and property rights posed by so many virtual spaces. Brookfield is like Facebook, Bloomberg like Zuckerberg: their threatened park closure is like the ever-present possibility that Facebook will suspend activist accounts and group pages used to plan rallies and activities, for vaguely specified reasons.

"We must occupy real and virtual spaces,” Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa tweeted, quoting an occupier at the second Washington Square park General Assembly. Without one there couldn’t exist the other.

 

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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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The Tale of the Big Computer

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Our poets, especially those commonly called mystics, tend to regard the period immediately succeeding the formation of the Earth as a mighty effort on the part of nature to engender computers directly, without the help of any intermediary. They are alluding to the geological processes which crystallized out many of the substances of which a data machine consists. But the task of bringing forth computers from sterile soil proved too difficult. The tectonic forces which created mountains and differentiated minerals could not produce anything as subtle and complex as a computer. For this a lengthy, troublesome detour was required, and the greatest of all tasks had to be completed step by step. 

- Excerpt from The Tale of the Big Computer: A Vision by Olof Johannesson (Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen,) 1966

Triple Canopy's new issues includes a wonderful essay by artist Anna Lundh beginning with a look at a rare example of Swedish language science fiction, The Tale of the Big Computer, written by the prominent physicist Hannes Alfvén, (later a Nobel prize winner):

Sagan om den stora Datamaskinen was written at the very cusp of the computer age, but today’s perspective has shifted slightly, to that of a society already immersed in computer technology (a dependence that may obscure some of the technology’s implications). Though Alfvén’s story of humanity’s evolution, his ambivalence about technology, and his suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats are firmly rooted in 1960s Sweden, his tale has grown to encompass our 2011 present, exposing it from two directions. Alfvén’s future vision looks back past us but also stretches far beyond us, into the reaches of possibility. The borders between the past, the present, and the future are blurred and overlapping: a cross-contamination of time.

Researching whether The Tale of the Big Computer had been turned into an opera, as the British edition of the book said, Lundh found documentation of Swedish composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl's 1959 operatic adaptation of Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem Aniara, "in which one of the leading roles was sung by the operator of the ingenious instrument Mima (a sort of mechanical brain and the soul of the spaceship), to an imaginative and energetic score that included musique concrête and even some electronic sounds."

Lundh's essay continues with an antic description of Blomdahl's plans to turn The Tale of the Big Computer into an opera. "It’s a rather idealistic and even paradoxical endeavor: to create an opera about future technology, using technology that inevitably belongs to the present."

 

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Dial-up Modem Sound 700% Slower

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via Cinetrix

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Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog at MoMA

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The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, 1971

Access to Tools: Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968–1974
April 18–July 26, 2011

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