more new romantics

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It's not sporting to criticize an exhibition in advance, without seeing it, based on the premise alone, unless it's called The New Romantics and you like some of the artists and shudder to see them branded that way. Hence the present upchucks of sarcasm.

Of the following only three can be held accountable for the newromanticization of their work, and those are the ones who organized the show (in bold): Mark Beasley, Tim Berrensheim, Alexandra Gorczynski, Ryan Whittier Hale, Claudia Hart, Jeremiah Johnson, Brookhart Jonquil, Sophie Kahn, Alex M. Lee, Sara Ludy, Shane Mecklenburger, Jonathan Monaghan, Mikey McParlane and Michael Mallis, Brenna Murphy, Nicholas O’Brien, Jaakko Pallasvuo, Jon Rafman, Nicolas Sassoon, Jasper Spicero, Kate Steciw, Katie Torn, Krist Wood, ATOM-r (Mark Jeffrey and Judd Morrissey), Zach Blas, Ann Hirsch, Miao Jiaxin, Mikey McParlane, and Vincent Tiley.

Will the show convince us that any of the artists are participating in the tradition of Kaspar David Friedrich, Wagner, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Gary Numan, and "Bela Lugosi's Dead?" Do we need to be reassured that this or that chiptune musician or Google Street View appropriator is actually working in the Romantic tradition? Can anyone making art, music, and videos with Apple products ever truly be called romantic, given what we know about Steve Jobs and Foxconn's dark Satanic mills? (Microsoft users are automatically disqualified. But what about Linux -- can a nerd be romantic?) Is a cyberpunk author romantic, or a realist about present conditions? Are glitch artists romantic merely because they dismantle? Are we talking here about romantic in the sense of "feeling romantic when you sip coffee and talk to the barrista at Starbucks"? If not, why not?

hat tip Jules Laplace, a romantic fellow, for the coffee GIF that paired so well with Eyebeam's New Romantics logo.

new romantics, go back to the graveyard

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When you think of "new romantics" and "internet" the first thing that probably comes to mind is goth girls posing in cemeteries.
Possibly that wasn't the first thing that popped into the heads of the curators of Eyebeam's upcoming exhibit with the unapologetic title, The New Romantics. "Just as the Romantics responded to the industrial revolution," the curators postulate, "this group of artists are similarly responding to the current information revolution."
Ever since William Gibson envisioned Haitian voodoo spirits inhabiting cyberspace, writers have been trying to depict computers and the internet as something other than what they are: soulless cold environments created by nerds to be inhabited by other nerds. The internet is the domain of numbers, statistics, menus, and multiple choice tests. The only way to imagine it otherwise might be something like David Cronenberg's fleshy "game pods" that attach to your spine with an umbilical: a "dream space out of meat space" governed by murky synaptical potentials rather than precise silicon robotics. In the real cyberspace we inhabit, however, no amount of pouty romantic acting out can overcome that it's going to be converted to pixels and aiff files and reproduced on a page where it will be tabulated with like counts and stored with thousands of other similar expressions.

my new romantic drawing above was made with the Computers Club Drawing Society "Chibi Paint" software (and resized to fit here)

The New Conformists, at Eyebeam

After finally seeing "The New Romantics" show at Eyebeam (a closing reception was last night) I read Paddy Johnson's Artnet interview with Nicholas O'Brien, one of the three curators. Her questions drip with understandable skepticism and the answers are not satisfactory. Johnson asked if technology was making us lose our sense of awe, and O'Brien replied with an observation about his college-level digital art students:

They not only feel overwhelmed by access to our history, but I think they are overwhelmed by the amount of things that need to be considered and the amount of things that should be considered when being a responsible artist in the 21st century.

"Responsible artist in the 21st century" -- there's the problem right there. Can you be a romantic and be that? It suggests a better title and concept for the show than "The New Romantics." This is a show of up-and-coming new media artists who aren't overwhelmed by choice, aren't opposed to using the tools and algorithms of consumer society they're told they must use to exist responsibly in the modern world (Apple computers, Samsung screens, 3D printers), and are all looking for validation within an academic system that expects them to work and teach responsibly. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The New Conformists.

Some of the work was good and would have been better if viewed through a non-Romantic lens. I particularly enjoyed Jonathan Monaghan's baroque decoration flying apart and slowly drifting through a virtual cubicle environment, Krist Wood's collection of physics-modeling demos by one- or two-time users culled from YouTube and elsewhere, Katie Torn's Tanguy-esque collages, and other non-romantic works.

Completely missing from the show was the lo-fi or DIY trend in new media that's as close as the field gets to a Romantic impulse, in the sense of the Arts & Crafts Movement's response to industrialization or William Blake's contention that Isaac Newton killed the cosmos. This rebel, self-help tendency has been manifested in the past with the Bent Festival (circuit bending), Blipfest (chiptunes made with "obsolete" gear) or anyone trying to make their own computers or an alternate, non-corporate/government Internet. At Eyebeam it was Apple gear as far as the eye could see. Sorry, Steve Jobs was not romantic.

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new romantic meaning not romantic

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Knowing that Sara Ludy has been included in Eyebeam's upcoming The New Romantics exhibition, let's take a look at her website. This work is romantic in the sense that Mies Van Der Rohe, Lionel Feininger, Gerhard Richter, and David Cronenberg are romantic, which is to say, it's not romantic at all. If anything, the work turns a clinical and classical eye on clichés of romanticism: open, airy spaces, model communities in the exurbs, travels through psychedelic inner worlds. The persistent vibe is one of authorial distance and analysis: even the found internet junk, such as 3D advertising from the retail and real estate sectors, has a calm, measured feel. This could be construed as "new romantic" only if the term "new" means "anti-" or "not."

A couple of examples. Ludy describes Pan GIFs as "a series of animated gifs displayed as tiled backgrounds. Each gif is composed of two photographs that alternate with a linear transition, creating a repetition which both embraces and attempts to break the mundanity of everyday landscapes and architectures." By means of a simple, sweeping left-to-right pan one photo gradually eclipses a second, different-angle view of the same subject (a forest, a wall with cast shadow, a plant in a planter). While the scan is occurring a clear reading of both images breaks down. Because the GIF is "tiled" the scanning movement repeats across the entire screen, providing a view rather like an insect's compound eye. This causes a single predominant color or texture momentarily to colonize the screen. The lurch into a de-familiarizing zone of pure form is a classical technique, even though the underlying images may be romantic ones of gardens and hillsides. But even the disrupted tropes aren't that romantic: they seem to have been chosen for a vibe of sterile alienation.

Or consider the 2011 video Transom: "a space portrait of Market Station in Leesburg, VA," where "historic buildings were uprooted and relocated to form [a] commercial complex in the 1980s." Instead of the usual tear-downs of historic structures to make way for a new office/retail complex, the Leesburg project rehabbed some old buildings and moved them to the complex, so that "a railroad freight station, a log house, two barns and two gristmills" (per Wikipedia) can now lead a zombie existence as the site of "high-tech and legal offices, retail shops, and restaurants." Ludy's virtual walk-through of the vintage architecture strips out its real-world textures, reducing it to the cold, angled planes of 3D modeling. Like the Pan GIFs, a series of slow wipes prevents our getting any real sense of the physical presence of these "old time" buildings. The drone-y background sounds make this feel like a tour of Chamber of Commerce hell. Visually seductive, severe, cerebral, the work comments on a romantic ideal of a vanishing America rather than embodying it.

animated GIF Q and A

The interview below, which "Dump.fm - IRL" curator Lindsay Howard did with me a few weeks ago, was slated to run in an arts mag's online edition in connection with the show. Some problems developed with the publication timing and it unfortunately hit the cutting room floor. In a post-gatekeeper world this isn't the tragedy it once might have been - the Internet is the Internet; information wants to be free - so I'm happy to present it here on my "blog":

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Do you consider GIF making your foremost artistic practice? Why does the GIF form appeal to you?

I don't consider GIFs my main medium but they are part of a family of older tech stuff I like including bitmaps, MIDI, and simple HTML design. GIF stands for "graphics interchange format" and it's a filetype that is in the public domain (no patent limitations) and not tied to any proprietary software (such as Adobe's Flash format). Most browsers read them and they're easy to make and load. To some they are a joke--a throwback to late '90s message board avatars, But there is a strong cult of users, including visual artists. I like them aesthetically as "moving bitmaps" but part of their appeal is also that they've fallen through the cracks of the software giants' plans for world domination. Google Images doesn't include an "animated GIF" checkbox (only non-moving GIFs, and only in the advanced search), the Safari and Chrome browsers handle GIFs poorly, Facebook doesn't allow them, and people complain that even tumblr limits your ability to use them. They are becoming like the abandoned playgrounds and swimming pools taken over by skaters in the '70s, or the zone of the "recently outmoded" that, according to Dan Graham, is a good place for artists to be working.

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What good is a community and why do you think we're drawn to them, both on and offline in creative environments? Is "working together" worth it? What are its benefits and what are its faults?

Visual artists wrestle with these questions in the "online era" in ways they haven't since the Romantics gave us the lonely-person-starving-in-a-garret model. Music groups and film crews traditionally work collaboratively, while the art system rewards individuality and "trade secrets" (e.g., obscure chemical processes for making "unique" paintings). But then, suddenly, technology makes it possible for artists rapidly to pass ideas, sketches, processes back and forth and even actively alter others' work, so that attribution among the various sharers becomes blurry. From discussions I had earlier in the year on Paddy Johnson's blog about painter Amy Sillman's show, I gather this potential loss of authorship is freaking some people out--traditional painters scoffed at technology and made declarations about holding the line for "tactility" and realness. Others are more willing to swallow the damage to their egos in order to reap the benefits of picking their colleagues' brains.

I read this comment of yours on a blog post:
"It has been interesting to watch big names on the Net (net art wise) come to [dump.fm], assert a personal style, and then sink or swim in the permanent tidal wave of in-jokes and sensory overload. Some get it into it and adapt their styles to the house and others never come back."
How does one create artistic voice within a group without jeopardizing the community rhetoric?

Dump.fm has a "house style" in the sense that bigger and brasher images and animations win the moment. "Things that pop on the Internet" eclipse quieter, art historical images. Graphic confections, moving images, fast-reading images, artifacts from geek culture and what Beau Sievers has called "forum culture." But within the mega-style of that image barrage individuals do stake out their own turf, unconsciously or by design. Dumper Erik Stinson wrote a blog post a few months back called "The Dumping Styles of Several People." I frankly could not write anything as perceptive and spot-on as that piece but I can mention a few broad general categories of individual styles such as "meaningful retro gifs" (TheKraken's term, meant disparagingly), use of slogans and text, animation wizardry with code or scripts, dumping iconic celebrities in the Cage/Hilton/Bieber mode, a taste for psychedelia and abstract patterns, frequent use of the "altar" format (http://dump.fm/altars), and so on.

One of the things that interests me about talking with pictures is the difficulty of conveying an opinion. How do you explain ideas with images, or what's an example of something being talked about?

Every image has political meaning--not necessarily in the propaganda sense but in the sense of some usage, place, or struggle in the human community. (This is in spite of efforts by, say, abstract artists to strip out such connotations.) But images are also sensitive to context, so that captions or adjacent pictures can completely change them. This happens on dump.fm often. A photo of Radiohead's Thom Yorke in a glassed-in helmet from the vid for "No Surprises" appears next to an image of a space-helmeted Keir Dullea in the movie 2001. Two seconds later, the same Yorke photo appears next to a paparazzi photo of Paul Rubens for a "separated at birth" gag. The theme changes from "reflections on space helmets; 60s vs 90s icons" to "men with elfin features; 80s vs 90s icons." Or someone posts a GIF of a middle-aged woman with bangs and oversized eyeglasses munching on an ice cream bar, next to the glitter text caption "frump.fm." Seconds later the same image bears the caption "as performance art." Context and meaning shift before your eyes.

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What sort of implications and connotations come from using shared/found images in your art? What energy gets created by juxtaposing images from seemingly disparate sources?

As a painter, pre-Internet, I started out making single, iconic images, then got interested in diptychs and punning (or negating) relationships among pictures. I judged a show once where I was allowed to supervise the hanging and made a kind of mega-multi-panel work, to the annoyance of some of the artists. This process, or tension, between single and multiple images continues online. As I mentioned above, authorship issues can get tricky. Even after Sherrie Levine's and Jeff Koons' appropriations people want a clear line to be drawn where ownership of an idea stops and starts.

How would you describe the relationship between your blog and your art? What does an artist gain by "revealing the mechanics"?

Four or five years ago there weren't that many places to talk about the shared concerns of "gallery art" and "new media art." My blog comments were briefly a "go-to" place for that, and I had active threads of up to 60 or 70 comments. Paddy Johnson's blog is currently the best place for this kind of cross-disciplinary chat, although her threads tend to be dominated by whichever crowd is addressed in her topic. The comment process was enjoyable for me and I learned a lot but moderating the threads got to be a chore. I moved to my current URL in '07 and disabled comments. I now like having discussions in the form of blog exchanges where longer posts can be written and mulled over without the pressure of an immediate response. My blog started as a kind of open notebook or open sketchbook and lately it's returned more to that function. I'm idealistic still about publishing it on the "open Net" (or what Google is now alarmingly calling "the public internet") but am feeling increasing peer pressure to move everything behind the Facebook sign-in. I probably won't, but resistance is futile, as the Borg used to say.

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How does a physical gallery expand and limit the conceptual ideas of the web? Why do you think net artists and curators hold onto the idea of the physical gallery?

Am reading Boris Groys' book Art Power. He keeps coming back to the idea of the museum/gallery/exhibition as a frame for all other aspects of life, that is, a space of contemplative distance capable of accommodating any readymade. Products, commercial images, behaviors, designs can be plucked from a stream of humdrum exchange and "made fresh" through viewing in an installation context. Any fragment or artifact of the Web can potentially be given this treatment and we value the gallery frame enough to keep trying. Unfortunately mistranslations occur. On a recent thread at Rhizome.org we discussed a "net art" piece by Guthrie Lonergan called "MySpace Intro Playlist." Originally this was a semi-anonymous list he made on YouTube of the videos people were using to introduce themselves on their MySpace pages. When shown at the New Museum the videos were treated as ordinary "found video," without the possibility of navigating them as you would on the web (moving back and forth among videos, checking out the original context, clicking away from the list via sidebar links, etc.). Instead, the intros were strung together one after another so that the viewer was required to watch them in serial fashion, which wasn't as much fun. The chic museum setting called more attention to the age, ethnicity, and class of the video subjects so they seemed like a mostly de-empowered "other" offered up as anthropological entertainment for the well-heeled. I'm a huge fan of Lonergan's work but preferred the earlier, "net" incarnation of this particular piece.

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top image is a remix of a frankhats piece; other GIFs are mostly mine or files I saved from the dump.fm chatroom and manipulated further