Jan Robert Leegte’s title leaves little to be explained. From sunrise to sunset in 12 minutes, and from a fixed angle, we see the famous Jetty rendered in blocky pale yellow over equally clunky, rich blue water, below slow-moving Tetris-shaped clouds. With digital facility, Smithson’s piece has been taken from its Utah site and injected into the non-site of Minecraft. Gone are the inconsistent pinks, reds, and purples of numerous Jetty photographs. They’ve been replaced with the bright color blocks of a Minecraft world.
Minecraft—in which users are encouraged to “build anything they can imagine”—provides an ideal support for Leegte’s Jetty. The game has an inherent Romanticism, evidenced by its creation of an open, natural world, in which players wander, survive, marvel, and build. (Nicholas O’Brien’s video game The Wanderer (2012), may have most rigorously explored the implications of digital Romanticism.) Visually, Minecraft doesn’t disguise its particulate texture, foregrounding instead the raw pixelated material of synthesized images. The sun and moon emerge as squares from a flat horizon. The jetty itself has a too-perfect straight line and a clunky curvature, reminiscent of the balance of rough texture and precision in Smithson’s Jetty.
That Jetty is—by design—subject to the chaos of nature and decay. It was a place where, as Smithson wrote, “No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.” Leegte’s jetty, though, isn’t subject to that kind of change. The monitor could break or the lights could go out, but the Minecraft jetty won’t sink under water or crumble apart. It exists in an algorithmic landscape, which embraces variability within ...
The Supertask (Yesterday's Today), installed at LEAP, Berlin, January 2013
Your work displays an interest in the interplay between narrative and identity. How do those notions inform your practice?
My interest there mainly originates in questions around myth and reality in regard to the development of new technologies, which all tend to have their proper narratives. Any such effort requires the expense of resources and as such has to be 'sold' to society in one way or the other. In the twentieth century this often happened for political ends whereas today arguably narratives of business are more dominant again. Technologies that originated in vast government projects have transitioned into something else. The Golden Institute from 2009 which is set in an alternate history 1980s America was the first project to have the question of the technological narrative at its center and also the first piece in which I worked with an actor. This was a conscious move that aimed to give this fictitious narrative an identity – in this case the strategist of a think-tank which develops and deploys fairly radical energy technologies. The character, Douglas Arnd, is loosely based on historical figures such as Herman Kahn, who was one of the first to point out the importance of narrative in regard to technology. In Forever Future from 2010 he was joined by another character, Robert Walker, who in a sense is the disillusioned customer of the dreams of the 1950s, yet refuses to let go of his dreams of life in space. As a reaction, he constructs a sort of earth-bound spaceship, helping those unfulfilled visions to survive while also hoping that this may be a cure for his own nostalgia for the futures that he never got to live. Both men's identities are probably fairly American, but ...
Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013
I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the foundations and origin of Metahaven.
Metahaven is a strategic graphic design agency. We make anything between a conference, a publication, an interview, a product, a visual identity, a policy document, or a set of floating appearances on the Internet. We are not only interested in the development of hypothetical image, but also in its realization. Some of our projects are an identity proposal for the Principality of Sealand, which is an off-shore micronation which played an iconic role as a “data haven” during the late 1990s dotcom boom. In 2010 we released Uncorporate Identity—a design book for our dystopian age. Some parts of Uncorporate Identity were about dismantling and attacking the “brand state”—the notion of promoting or creating reputations for countries—and by proxy, about dismantling branding itself. We have also attacked and criticized Joseph Nye’s notion of “soft power”—the power to attract—which is arguably the only political concept which branding has ever heard of. One of our upcoming projects is a collaboration with the Iceland-based think tank IMMI, thinking up a set of images and messages for the excellent and forward-thinking legal, energy, and social environment which Iceland has created for internet and cloud hosting. We recently interviewed two people who are involved in this: Eleanor Saitta and Smári McCarthy. Both of them work for IMMI.
Metahaven in collaboration with IMMI, Data / Saga, digital models and sketches, 2013
You've spoken of current conceptions of branding a processes of consolidation as opposed to differentiation. In a post on your Tumblr related to an exhibition at the Museum of Display in Antwerp, you write that the process of assigning identity is "a surface or screen by which an organization mirrors its surroundings, both in the physical space as well as in information space." In an article you wrote about 4 years ago in e-flux, which was also published in Uncorporate Identity, you suggested that state branding had to become "more concerned with both the structural standardization implied by network power and a pluralistic understanding of decentralized and distributed political alternatives being developed on various scales." How do you feel design and branding can function to create a multiplicitous understanding of identities that operate within political contexts?
Metahaven, Uncorporate Identity, Lars Müller Publishers, 2010
A brand is a socially and economically sustained form of prejudice. Branding is the management of first impressions, and to that end, it is inherently deceitful. To establish the few initial thoughts people have about something is a very hard thing to accomplish by design, but is swiftly and almost irreversibly done by uncontrollable events; reputations literally shift overnight. The main way in which branding has been embodied in politics is through the concept of soft power. As the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video showed, American soft power can be affected, inversed even, overnight, by only a handful of pixels.
Not soft power, but “network power” should be regarded as the structural force behind presence and identity. This idea, which is explored in more detail in Uncorporate Identity, takes globalization as a process unfolding through various standards: of communication, exchange, payment, travel, language, etc. Such standards both enable and limit actors in their agency and choice of alternatives. Importantly, such network standards are ultimately predominant over the positive or negative emotions associated with particular actors in or on the network. In the case of the Innocence of Muslims video, for example, American soft power is volatile, while its network power—YouTube—is stable. In other words, the network power is a prerequisite to even have soft power.
Still from Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths 2013, HD video with 5.1 surround, 13'. Commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Jerwood Visual Arts.
Your video installation Us Dead Talk Love, currently on view at MoMA PS1, makes use of hi-def and surround-sound technologies. How do you approach these in your video installation process? How did you approach the installation specifically for Chisenhale?
It's predicated on immersion, I suppose. An attempt to address the body whole, rather than privilege sight, hearing. This might begin with a redressing of the balance between ocular and aural, and pan down to take in the whole wobbling form, up to some emotional affect – the surround sound penetrating, the visuals interrupting and shifting themselves between depths of field and vast cosmic spaces; infinitesimal motes of dust. These technologies are corporeal in their totalising address, which I see as dichotomous to the material reality of the technology – which seems to be dissipated or perhaps simply deferred to some desperate mine in some OTHER continent. The combined effect being one of possession – the work finding its home entirely within the body of the audience.
You've spoken of the tension between text or writing and filmic realization in your work before. How did this tension come into play during the production of your work in Us Dead Talk Love? Was it exacerbated or sublimated by your chosen technologies?
If I had to choose, I'd say sublimated – though I think that it's more straightforwardly performative. The one to and of the other. New media as a home for these things. Whether that's somewhat apologetic for the a failure of these things to stand alone is moot, I hope.
You've mentioned before your exposure to Hollis Frampton. What influence did Frampton have on ...
Badlands Unlimited is an art publishing house making “books in an expanded field.”