This interview Sean Dockray did with me originally appeared on the website of TELIC Art Exchange, in Los Angeles, where I exhibited work in 2008. The site appears to be "offline" but I saved the text. Update: Dockray has put the text back up. Update, Nov. 2020: The e-rat.org links disappeared again.
ISSUE I. Relationship of art to blogging
Sean Dockray: Can you describe how your artwork and your blog are related to one another?
Tom Moody: The best analogy is a DJ who is also a producer. You make tracks that are meant to stand alone (on a CD or internet player) as your creative work but can also be "slipped into a set." With added "meta" layers that blogging gives you--being able to comment on your own work and others' and how you see them interrelating.
S: And you literally are making music that you've been distributing through your blog too - it's not just an analogy. But also you will also write political commentary, film reviews, critical art history, etc. It's more diverse and strained than your analogy lets on, I think. What do you leave out?
T: Things that are adequately covered in the mainstream media: sports, tips on relationships and dieting, celebrity news, fashion. Am not being entirely flip, here, I am conscious of topics being over-covered and have a taste for the obscure, nerdy stuff.
S: What kinds of subject matter, or attitudes, or people do you tend to leave alone?
T: As you noted, the blog is inclusive. Besides the aforementioned subjects the media beats us over the head with, I guess what I omit reflects my unconscious biases and blind spots. Consciously I avoid personal, touchy-feely stuff, posting photos of myself, and I struggle not to write in the first person. It's not for shyness. The media always wants to put a face and a brandable personality with creative products and that gets very old.
S: How finished does one of your images, songs, gifs, etc. need to be for you to post it?
T: Pretty finished. If it is work in process it will usually be identified as such.
S: Are they ever too finished to post?
T: No, I'm not holding anything back. Certainly some art things I've done can't be experienced online--a DJ set with a good sound system or a room with wall-sized video or paintings. But within the limits of the blog/internet I'm going full throttle.
S: Have you read this book? [link to Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction]. I used to push it on friends and students.
T: I haven't, only excerpts. I'm familiar with Bourriaud from artists and bloggers reacting to him and commenting on him. Also his Relational Aesthetics.
S: What I liked at the time was that he was talking about art that was interactive or responding to cultural changes brought about by the Internet and computers, but he didn't include any properly "new media" work (XYZ art?). He uses the DJ and the programmer as analogies to elaborate his idea of post-production, but there is little work he discusses that would be acceptable in most tech-art programs. But, do you think he's being a little conservative by not including computer art?
T: There is a tendency in the decelerated art world to use the computer as a metaphor without actually touching the damn thing. It may not be conservatism so much as ignorance or the fear of making a judgment in unfamiliar territory. We are constantly having our radical-ness tested: we get the critical gist of sampling but not, say, hyperlinking. As for Bourriaud's ideas, I think I tend to practice relational aesthetics (a refried concept from the '70s) more than I believe in it. As an artist I'm interested in finished, stand-alone works but the blog is sloppily gregarious and incorporates and reacts to what other people are doing.
S: To me, one of the most interesting things about the recent popular net art (as opposed to net.art) is the way it emphasizes use over creation (I'm cribbing from that Bourriaud book now, I guess, but he would say post-production instead of production). It's refreshing not to have art discourse revolving around how someone did something technically, and with GIFs it's usually not a mystery. But at the same time, there is still a significant element of competition or attention-seeking, and definitely a place for the "how did you do that?" conversations. Basically, I'm really interested in going more into what you['ve] said about the social nature of GIF-making, of blog- writing, etc. Maybe an easy way to dive more into it is to explain the difference between your blogging on your own weblog, versus on Nasty Nets?
T: Agreed there is a place for the "how did you do that?" conversations but there is surprisingly little tech talk about GIFs and other "internet folk art" on the sites I've participated in (such as Nasty Nets) or follow (such as cpb.tumblr). On my old blog (more on that below) I had a fair amount of interesting how-to dialog going on in my comments but with Nasty a tacit agreement quickly developed that we weren't going there. Just post things and riff back and forth, and leave the viewer to suss out who made something and how it was made. On my current blog, though, I'm constantly talking about process.
ISSUE II. Relationship of art to blogging (showing whole blog in gallery)
Sean: I remember reading that you actually showed your weblog within a gallery context. Was that interesting for you?
Tom: It was hard work! I did my normal blogging routine as a performance piece. A computer was installed in the project space at artMovingProjects gallery in Brooklyn, and visitors could talk with me via comments, which were an active part of my blog at the time. It was kind of a goof on interactive installations but I took it seriously in terms of being conscious of gallery hours and wanting to be as entertaining as possible during those time frames. I upped my quotient of animated GIFs so at any given moment there was some new, hopefully confectionary thing beckoning from the gallery pedestal.
Sean: Am I remembering correctly that you were throwing out questions about whether you could sell it? The performance itself, the blog posts you made, the whole blog, the computer with its browser history, any of it. I'm not trying to say it can't be commodified because rich people will find a way to buy anything. But did anything "out of the ordinary" happen during the process? For example, if someone bought your blog out from under you, that would have been highly unusual. Were there any non-standard interactions that you had with people? I'm wondering what you got out of it.
Tom: The question "how are you going to sell it?" surfaced on my blog comments and I gave my answer. By way of recapitulating that: A buyer was considering the piece (it was ultimately too much for him, I think, or too little...I don't really know his thought process). He wouldn't have bought it out from under me, in any case: what was for sale was the month-long performance, documented on DVD with the HTML pages and associated files (GIFs, mp3s, etc) for each day of BLOG, the piece. An edition of three, as I recall. What I get out of it remains to be seen. The art work is still on the market and a certain precedent has been set for thinking of blogging as an art-bounded performance work. Other people had put blogs in galleries before, but not where the blog was a disembodied surrogate for an actual breathing artist who was thinking about that particular space (among other things) and interacting with it in real time.
Sean: Yeah, by "get out of it" I was thinking about two things at once: (1) You called it "hard work," and I really do believe that when blogging becomes a performance it is a lot of work. I'm curious how this economy of generating content for free (which is often capitalized on by MySpace, or whoever) will go, and how it relates to art production. (2) By setting up this unusual situation in the gallery, I wondered if you got a new type of interaction, strange experiences, different ideas about what your blog was doing, etc.
Tom: As I said a few years ago (and I think it still holds up): "My blog is a combination of things--studio diary, ongoing documentation of past work, and a place for work-in-process, as well as collaborations, original pieces made for the web, and mini-curated exhibitions of things I like (of both an art and a web-oddity nature). I'm interested in the crossover of visual art, tech, electronic music, film, science fiction, and politics and not just replicating the art world online, with all its ancient structures and restrictions." With BLOG I extended this laboratory environment into a gallery space--kind of a road show that didn't actually involve travelling.
It also got more semantically convoluted. At some points I was blogging about BLOG on BLOG. That was pretty interesting to me, and I was gratified that at least one writer picked up on how absurdly recursive it was.
Sean: Is [the idea of BLOG] still interesting [to you]?
Tom: I would do it again, in the right venue. To some extent the piece could not be done again the same way, though. Shortly after the end of it I stopped posting at http://www.digitalmediatree.com/tommoody, which was my blog from 2001 to 2007, and which had comments, and moved to a commentless Word Press blog at https://tommoody.us, where I've been working since. I really can't say how much of that was a reaction to the intensity of doing BLOG. It was draining, both creatively, and in terms of the load of moderating comment threads, which were active during the show.
Sean: I remember the transition. There was a time when I was being reactionary and I hated weblogs. But then I became a fan of yours because it had active comments and the discussions were often pretty thoughtful. I even participated in a few of the discussions under a generic screenname (yes spd! really to foreground ideas instead of who was writing). When you moved to no comments I was a little disappointed, but I think you made an observation that has grown on me: it's a lot of work to deal with spam; and discussion operates on the Internet across sites, without necessarily needing a "comments" section. Could you elaborate on that (or correct me if I'm wrong)?
Tom: Comments impose a power relationship: bloggers can edit and take their time but commenters generally can't. People assume the blogger is deleting comments s/he doesn't like (I only did it with abusive/obviously psychopathic statements I didn't feel I had an obligation to host--but was amazed from some recent Rhizome discussions to read that people think moderators delete comments willy-nilly. If I had done that I would have no commenters.)
My current mindset is, since blogs are easy to get and run, a good way to have a conversation is with hyperlinks between blog posts where everyone can produce with a "home court advantage." This isn't very spontaneous but better for the kind of writing/thinking I'm most interested in. The conversations can also be visual: e.g., mixing and remixing others' GIFs. Or musical. This is happening, it's not entirely a wish.
ISSUE III. Translating art from blog to public space (specific GIFs)
Tom: A question for you, Sean. For the Distributed Gallery show, will you be using DVD players to display art in the host locations, or will it be possible to display a GIF (as a GIF or rendered as a Quicktime) from a computer hard drive? I'm curious how my GIF imagery will be displayed for reasons of sizing, resolution, etc.
Sean: It will be halfway in between actually. We are using these little Compact Flash video players that were recently donated to us from the California Video show. I believe they are usually meant for playing looping advertisements on buses or in supermarkets or at gas stations. For our purposes, they will behave more or less like a DVD player, but we can drag and drop video files from a computer onto the CF card and play right away. I need to look at one to see the make and model to let you know about resolution, frame rate, preferred encoding, etc. But my impression is that it is similar to a DVD. I will follow up about this in the next couple of days.
Tom: Almost every show I've done lately involves a different way of translating or adapting the animated GIFs on my blog for display in public space, with a unique set of technical issues that changes the art in some way, requires workarounds, and potentially leads to new content (or disaster). I've never tried converting them to Flash--that would be a bitmap-to-vector transfer, which is somewhat like converting abacus to algebra, as I understand the formats from reading Marcin Ramocki's essay on them. (See http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2008/08/02/bitmap-catalog-a-response/)
Sean: Here is a quick FAQ for the players: [link -- player accepts .mpg files used in the DVD process to make MPEG 2 files, the DVD standard]
Tom: Thanks. Do you know what kind of monitors you will be using? Here's the problem. Animated GIFs look crisp and simple on a computer screen but the process of converting them to MPEG so they can be played on DVD players makes them mushier. I've been able to make the mush less noticeable by showing the converted GIFs on cathode ray (CRT) screens. It hides the anti-aliasing and artifacts and adds some additional visual "oomph." If you are using LCDs for the Distributed Gallery the compression of the GIFs will be more noticeable. Not a big deal, I just wanted to make you aware of it.
Sean: This is fine with me. I am actually a little less interested in purity of the images (or faithfulness to the original medium) than I am in what happens through the translation into something else. We['ve] talked a bit about how so much material from the "world" is translated into gifs, blogs, discussions, etc. Not so much yet about the reverse (although I think this comes through strongly in the work, as well as the 2D images that you post of your studio -- world back onto net). As it turns out, there will be 3 CRT screens and one fairly small LCD flatscreen. The flatscreen is necessary for fitting within the changing room or a tiny store, Ooga Booga. There really isn't much volume in there to accommodate a TV!
Tom: That's great to hear about the TVs. My concern with the presentation details isn't so much about faithfulness to the GIF. It's about wanting a good art experience as opposed to a half-baked one in the debased medium of "MPEG 2." My hope is that the unfamiliarity of a looping computer animation on a TV set in a non-art setting will be enough to make up for a loss of impact the images might suffer through multiple translations.
Sean: [Well,] I feel like this translation between mediums, contexts, situations, whatever, is an important part of your work. I asked you to do this show assuming that you would show moving images that refer to, if not belong on the Internet. I imagined your animated gifs on a television in an antiques shop, in the back hallway at a cafe. I'm actually curious how you feel about GIFs becoming a stranger in their own land - they were super common on the Internet just a few years ago, but now with YouTube and other ways of watching video, they're verging on obsolescence. Obviously there's a long history in art of aestheticizing the recently outmoded - how has it been working with something that is passing from ubiquitous to something of an oddity?
Tom: Verging on obsolescence? Au contraire, GIFs are flashing in the backgrounds of YouTube user pages and next to millions of chatboard screen names on the net. Animated GIFs are an integral part of many commercial web pages and they also have a large and devoted culture of makers and appreciators on the artist side. Sites such as http://gifanime.tumblr.com/, http://lalblog.tumblr.com/, Mike's Digital Pog Page, the aforementioned http://cpb.tumblr.com/ and Nasty Nets, are all recent sites that mix artist and non-artist made animations in GIF form. These are not net.artists pining for the old Web but essentially the next generation.
Again, quoting earlier writing: "Animated GIFs have evolved into a kind of ubiquitous 'mini-cinema,' entirely native to the personal computer and the World Wide Web. Almost anyone can make one and almost every browser will read them. In other words, no YouTube compression, no wait time, no subscriptions or proprietary formats to view, and they can be made in the most elementary and cheap imaging programs. They are the purest expression of the democratic web and along with JPEGs and PNGs comprise its most authentic visual language." (see http://www.artfagcity.com/2008/08/05/img-mgmt-psychotronic-gifs/)
Judging from my stats I have hundreds of thousands of GIF loads from my site every year; many of these are not from my blog but hotlinked from my directory. I did an art installation where I captured 60 different uses of one GIF from my site by people on the open Web: http://www.tommoody.us/panel-notes/
Sean: That installation looks fantastic!
"Mini-cinema" is interesting. It obviously evokes all the pre-cinematic display technologies from zoetropes to phenakistoscopes and praxiniscopes and a million other scopes and tropes. And they share a looping animation structure, as well as silence (which means sound, if added, comes from elsewhere). And if you bought a zoetrope back in the day, it wouldn't be hard to draw your own. But what do you mean by "native"? (Alexander Galloway often makes use of that word for protocol.)
I agree with you about the gifs being kind of ubiquitous - and I know you've spent a lot of time thinking about them - but what do you make of the shift in the web vernacular to Flash and CSS and PDF's from GIF's and HTML? Do you think GIFs have more staying power because they are kind of marginal (or ornamental, or peripheral, I'm not sure which is the best word here) parts of a web page?
(An aside, because I'm not sure: Isn't GIF a proprietary format? I remember banging my head against the monitor trying to create animated gifs from programs! I blamed it on Compuserve!)
Tom: Thanks for the kind words about the installation. The GIF patent lapsed a few years ago so they are now open source. There was once a controversy about them, outraged web pages, etc, but that's all over. By native I mean belonging to the web as opposed to the movie industry, books, music, TV, etc. The GIF evolved as a low res graphic format for web pages and they really have no other use. They have staying power, I believe, because every browser reads them with a minimum of fuss. If you are viewing pages with GIFs on an outdated workplace operating system it will not tell you that "additional software is required to view" or "ActiveX controls are disabled for this file"or "do you want to check for software updates?" as often happens with video or streaming media. Browsers just load them, promptly, and that's it. I realize this may not always be true, as the CSS and Adobe conspiracies make us all more dependent on paid designers and bloated retail software.
Regarding 'mini-cinema' and silent movies, I just learned that several of my GIFs will be screened (along with Olia Lialina's, Paul Slocum's, and some others') with a piano accompaniment for an event in Chicago. The music is described as "Italian futurist piano." I'd love to be there to see/hear it.