At Trail Blazers #9, successful surfing involved thinking expansively about the connections among concepts, and navigating obstacles that emerged along the way—in particular, the dreaded Facebook captchas that waylaid several surfers in nearly inescapable eddies of traffic light identification. The excitement rose throughout the day thanks to a steady stream of internet hits from DJ Molly Soda and the expert play-by-play of journalist Katie Notopoulos.
Trail Blazers is a web surfing competition devised in 2010 by Olia Lialina and her study group at Merz Akademie, Beautiful Zeroes and Ugly Ones with Dragan Espenschied. Across nine editions, Trail Blazers has asked surfers to navigate the web, beginning at a given starting point and ending at a specified destination, using only a single-button mouse: no back button, no Google searches. The structure of this e-sports format forces participants to use hyperlinks: the web’s most defining feature, but one that is in decline as platforms attempt to recirculate users within their own walled gardens. Also, as Dragan pointed out in the wake of Trail Blazers #7 in 2014 (hosted by Rhizome at the Rockaway Beach Surf Club), even very informative sites tend to organize content according to timelines, with the most recent posts at the top. As Dragan wrote, “...time is very difficult for humans to navigate in, even in calendar-based systems, clearly expressed by such fuzzy date-naming schemes as ‘last month’ or ‘one year ago.’”
In Trail Blazers 7, the winning surfer Joe Pugilisi edged out runner-up Martha Hipley by heading straight for Twitter directories in every trail. Showing all Twitter accounts by display name, the Twitter directories are a powerful index for the web. (Per Dragan, “Twitter's key for being the almanac of the digital world is allowing not only persons but actually any *concept* to have an account.”) It’s the best social network for interacting freely with nonhumans, and this makes it a powerful tool when completing Trail Blazers trails.
For this edition, trails were designed to resist immediate resolution via the Twitter directory. This sent surfers to a range of other directories. In trying to find Arcangel Surfware, surfers visited Wikipedia, finding the page for Stavanger. They looked for Instagram posts tagged to the New Museum, where Arcangel Surfware held a pop-up alongside the surf competition. In the end, though, the winning strategy for this trail was implemented by surfer Max Read, who thought to visit the Twitter account of Rhizome.
Other trails were designed to test users’ ability to navigate within particular environments. Olia Lialina’s sponsored trail, in which users were asked to navigate from this image on PicMix to any image tagged with the keyword “steampunk” on Blingee.com. This proved to be very challenging, as Blingee does not have an obviously accessible directory of all keywords. To find it, surfer Max Read clicked from one Blingee to the next, aiming to choose the most steampunk image on each page, until he found one with the correct label.
Because the trails chosen involved some level of obscurity to avoid short-circuiting via the Twitter directory shortcut, this year’s competition put new emphasis on general cultural knowledge, not just eye-hand coordination or an understanding of taxonomies and indexes on the web. Surfers asked, but what is discogs.com? What is a Humvee? What does Ethan Hawke look like? Who wrote The Four-Hour Work Week? Important questions, to be sure.
Congratulations to the winning surfers:
- A walk-on from Columbia who was awarded a Cory Arcangel drawing
- Max Read, who won an Arcangel Surfware swag bag
- Lauren Studebaker, who won the Olia Lialina sponsored prize, a copy of the Asymmetrical Response catalog
And for the sake of posterity, the trails:
(Rush challenge: Any image of a Humvee)
(Rush challenge: Any image of Ethan Hawke)
4. www.sharperimage.com to arcangelsurfware.biz
Rush challenge: Any image of a neck pillow
5. twitter.com/LilNasX to add 'Old Town Road' (original or remix) to your wantlist on discogs.com
(Rush challenge: Any image of a Cyrus)
(Rush challenge: Any image of a top hat)
(Rush challenge: Any image of a top hat)