Chris Ashley, Returning 08

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Screenshot of Chris Ashley HTML drawing Returning 08, 20140108 (the HTML original appears on his blog). What could be a Bauhaus design problem ("make a color appear transparent relative to its surrounding color") or a variation on Peter Halley's cell-and-conduit grammar could also be a cartoon floor plan or an especially inept maze. There's quite a bit of wry humor in this simple-seeming pattern.

This and other quasi-pictographic works of abstract art are executed by Ashley in Dreamweaver, a program used for making web pages back in the halcyon DIY days of HTML, before developers commandeered -- some might say "stole" -- online practice away from everyday users through use of complex CSS and javascript routines. Dreamweaver essentially yields a set of coded instructions to "put this color here, put that color there," resulting in ephemeral web browser art, where the browser acts as both canvas and portable art gallery.

Ashley has continued this work as a daily practice since the early 2000s, despite the lack of critical infrastructure that could explain or validate the work. Most of the New Media websites are not comfortable talking about abstract painting, and most critics versed in Ryman and Palermo "don't know from HTML." Worse, technology changes are affecting "browser art" as a neutral, predictable space for viewing work, due to the aforementioned CSS-and-scripting hegemony but also because people increasingly browse on smartphones, which reduce screen widths and alter page layouts.

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So-called mobile ready designers don't like HTML tables, due to their unpredictability in different contexts. So what does an artist do when a medium originally premised on wide popular accessibility becomes esoteric due to changing tech? I've been saving these Ashley works as PNG files (with no loss of resolution), which can be easily resized by current browsers. But that's changing the meaning and purpose of the work, to arrive at an "archival" solution. They could also be printed-out as paper pieces but I've seen them in person and they aren't as exciting; they really need that back-lit screen glow to come alive. Lightbox transparencies? Now we're reinventing the work completely. Despite all this fretting, the art is still being made and can still be seen, so check it out!

the earth is flat (this is not Thomas Friedman saying this)

The following press release came via email, for an exhibition at carriage trade gallery, "the earth is flat":

Suspicion, vengeance, and irrationality have become the new norm. As in previous times of radical social change, zealotry and demagoguery surge as faith in the established order recedes. The collective pursuit of democratic ideals, built on Enlightenment principles never quite fulfilled, suffers waves of backlash, resentment built up from centuries of promise and disappointment. Democracy, gamed by the twin forces of privatization and media spectacle, is forced to watch its failures writ large, its susceptibility to rule by personality at last delivering the role of leader as farce.

Retreating further and further from a collective sphere into the digital bantustans of social media, the entity once known as the public concedes to the machinations and experiments of technocrats in the service of youthful billionaires whose unassuming presence distract us from otherwise obvious comparisons to robber barons of the 19th century. Mining not coal or iron but the depths of billions of individual psyches, the growth model of unfettered capitalism turns in on itself, atomizing individuals into dark recesses of a new medieval realm which thrives on irrational fervor, antagonism, and polarization.

Pit against one another and therefore the whole, society gropes backward to a darker, unenlightened past that technology promised to deliver us from. As YouTube's "recommend" algorithms, fueled by contempt and suspicion for empirical inquiry, send us down the rabbit hole of sensation and conspiracy, we're offered proof, once again, that the earth is flat.

The words "the earth is flat" in the last sentence link to a YouTube video of a BBC documentary about people who believe the Earth is literally flat and have meet-and-greet conventions in hotels where they discuss this concept. We're supposed to be horrified that "social media" makes such intellectual devolution possible. Yet the link is another time-waster, inviting us to gawk at weirdos about a subject that doesn't matter. On the other hand, perhaps the weirdos have a point, that believing in the old-style flat earth and getting together to hobknob about it is as worthwhile an activity as watching BBC and clicking YouTube links. Their concept certainly trumps New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's paradoxical, not very well thought out view that the Earth is being made "flat" by globalization (globes are round, aren't they?).

carriage trade and its director Peter Scott have a fine tradition of presenting socially critical art but it's debatable how well served we are by the style of apocalyptic writing above. Let's break it down a bit:

As in previous times of radical social change, zealotry and demagoguery surge as faith in the established order recedes.

Yet how much radical social change are we actually seeing? The established order, as in the old military industrial complex, thrives. Its current project is to get the US into a war with Iran or Russia (both suicidal). Newspapers have receded in influence but propaganda coming from the top still presents a far greater danger than flat-earthers meeting at the Marriott.

Democracy, gamed by the twin forces of privatization and media spectacle, is forced to watch its failures writ large, its susceptibility to rule by personality at last delivering the role of leader as farce.

Yet the confused electorate was not wrong in its desire to "throw the bums out of office," rejecting two horrible candidates the media had decided were inevitable (a Clinton and a Bush). The platform of the supposedly "democratic" party was so compromised and unappealing that a demagogue got in. This has nothing to do with self-reinforcing popular narratives controlled by Silicon Valley.

The second paragraph of the press release is eloquent but shifts the focus to the new robber barons without considering their role in providing cover for, and distraction from, the activities of the old ones (energy, transportation, armaments, finance), and also, doesn't consider what can be done about it -- i.e., not using social media or succumbing to its flighty narratives.