In May of 2010 Netflix posted what appeared to be two internal test movies shot around the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, CA. Titled Example Short 23.976 and Example Short 24, the films could not be found by simply browsing the Netflix site, but were instead picked up by users of unofficial twitter feeds and websites that update with each new streaming title. At slightly over 11 minutes long, the film features a kind of in-house stock footage intended to demonstrate a variety of audio-visual effects, such as time-lapse and looping. The short film also includes a series of strange, non sequitur scenes featuring a hand running through a fountain, a toy train set running on a loop, a man moonwalking while holding a laptop, the same man running erratically between trees, and finally the man reciting Marullus' speech from Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar before shifting to a series of popping and clicking mouth noises. The film ends with a blinking white dot and a series of gridded test patterns.
The films can be difficult to find using the Netflix site, but each version of the movie has its own page and is open to view and review. Much as with the Three Wolf Moon "power animal" t-shirt that gained massive popularity on Amazon.com in 2009, users began rating and reviewing the films sarcastically as artistic works rather than technical footage, praising the symbolism of hand-in-fountain or critiquing the film's "blatant liberal agenda." Other reviewers seem to have missed the punchline, rating the film poorly and demanding an explanation for the film's otherwise glowing reviews. Netflix has subsequently released the short in a variety of forms and at various lengths, in one case looping ...
In many ways Cory Arcangel's solo show, on view now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is about the failure of art and technology. This isn't to say the show is a failure; far from it in fact. Instead it's the way in which Arcangel's work frustrates the expectation that art, particularly art that engages with technology, somehow demonstrate a kind of expertise that justifies its elevation to the status of art. If the purpose of technology, broadly speaking, lies in its use-value, then it is his decided refusal of the kind of productive functionality that one expects from technical objects that makes many of the pieces on view so frustrating. Equally frustrated is the desire for an artfully crafted object expressing a unique critical vision. Instead Arcangel offers us objects that have been hacked and broken, that refuse or distort our interaction, or whose simplicity, effortlessness, nostalgia, and humor mask complex socio-technical systems. As Ed Halter noted in an interview with the artist for Rhizome in 2008, Arcangel's work seems to operate in two extremes:
You either introduce a ridiculously enormous and therefore pointless amount of work into it, or you reduce the work by using automation, or defaults, or outsourcing. So you either extend the amount of work to an enormous extent that makes it absurd, or you reduce it to nothing which undercuts its legitimacy.
Arcangel exerts incredible effort to accomplish the most banal of tasks, or produces aesthetic works that require little if any effort to manufacture — on the part of the artist, at least. In this way the works reflect on the process by which both art and technology are produced, and the means through which we ascribe value to artistic and technological objects.
In a fundamental sense, technology is deeply non-human. While we might apply a humanist logic to the function and workings of technological systems, and view technological objects as extensions of the human body and its capacity for adaptive prosthesis, the very purpose of technology is to be that which the human is not or to achieve that which the human could not otherwise do. As such, technology exists beyond the humanist understanding of the individual, the body, and the subject, particularly in contemporary network culture in which technology is in part transformed from concrete and material objects into molecular, adaptive, and often invisible systems. Much as with the animal world, technology seems to suggest a mode of communication and media beyond that of human language, a mode of being or becoming that exceeds our own.
In Insect Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2010),1 Jussi Parikka traces an archaeology of non-human media. More specifically, he is interested in the relationship between animal and machine, and the unique history of the insect as a technological model from the late 19th century through to the present. While insects are often viewed as models for contemporary media practices such as swarming, smart mobs, and collaborative forms of production, Parikka makes insects the object of his media historical project, transforming "media as insects," into "insects as media."
R-U-In?S is a project initiated by artist Kari Altmann in 2009 as a call for collaboration and participation in a new form of critical visual practice. Concerned with a set of future-driven, embodied, and often commercial aesthetics, the project has evolved from a tumblr feed to a network of multiple sites, artists, and identities. Below, Jacob Gaboury interviews Kari Altmann in collaboration with Sam Hancocks of Visual AIDS on just what R-U-In?S is and what it has become.
JG: How would you describe the vision of R-U-In?S?
Ultra-red is an activist art group founded in 1994. The group proposes an alternate model for art and activism, one in which it is not the artist's critical intervention that serves as the source of cultural action, but rather that art might contribute to and challenge the process of collective organization and relationship building itself.
I am very concerned with problematizing the class and gender dynamics of this history in particular, especially since I am using the term "queer" here in a slippery way, applying it to a group of men who may better fit its historically pejorative definition more than its contemporary transgressive one. I'd love to chat more online and in person. I'll contact you through twitter and perhaps we can get a coffee.
Honestly I just found it more interesting to talk about what the show might mean instead of whether or not it was good. People are going to see the show regardless, and I'd rather they read a piece that puts the show in a context they hadn't thought of then go in with the idea that the show is good or bad because they read it on a website. Is it the responsibility of a site like Rhizome to publish reviews that take a clear stance on the quality or validity of shows such as this? Maybe. But honestly I find that kind of work dull, particularly when it devolves into snark and shade that does more to boost the ego of the reviewer than it does to inform its readers. In fact I would argue that it is precisely those kinds of reviews that are uncritical, or at least, critically shallow.
Part of the reason I reviewed the show as I did is that I was not particularly interested in the pieces as artworks - and how they might fit into a longer art historical tradition - but more what they might be saying about art, technology, and culture. Whether or not the pieces are good is entirely beside the point for me. And, not to contradict Brian, but what the artist's intentions were when creating that piece, or whether or not he did it for the reasons I gave in my review, is also not personally of interest. And while I said in the first paragraph of my review that even though the show was "about" failure the show itself was not a failure, that does not mean that many of the pieces were not critical or intellectual failures, particularly in their failure to provoke any consideration from the viewer beyond "I see what you did there."
But when I went to the show having to actually consider the pieces beyond their immediate punchline and forced myself away from the kind of knee-jerk eat-our-own criticism that is so easy with so much of this kind of work - and so prevalent in this community - I found something that I thought was worth writing about, and that (hopefully) wasn't the same kind of critique that everyone has given Cory for years. For me the review wasn't about if the show was good or bad, it was about what it meant both for the new media art community and within the broader context of art, technology, and culture.
So while this may be a question of defaults it doesn't seem to be reflecting on technologically specific defaults, just culturally specific defaults and readily available forms.