Among the world’s best bars, there’s Tosca Cafe; and across the street, stands one of the world’s best bookstores, City Lights. Earlier this week, they teamed up to present a reading by Ellen Ullman of her new novel “By Blood.” It’s difficult to explain the kind of perfection this event captured. The literary history of San Francisco welled up in the room and presented the kind of event, anyone will tell you, never happens any more.
On floor 3b of the Mechanic’s Institute Library, there’s a section tucked around a corner that shelves the books of Marshall McLuhan. I’d been reading a lot of McLuhan and was scanning the section for new candidates for my reading list. My eyes passed over a title of a small book, “Close To The Machine.” I’d come and gone from that section three or four times before I finally picked up the volume. The title alone read like a poem. It was already inside something I’d been giving a lot of thought: our intimacy with the Network. Ellen Ullman wrote the book in 1997, long before the Network reached critical mass. She writes about technology with a facility and intimacy that’s very rare. Ullman is a programmer, critic and novelist with a view of the long arc of the culture of technology and the technology of culture.
Ullman’s second book was a novel called “The Bug,” and it continued to explore the world of computer programming and technology. At the reading, I asked her about the new book, “By Blood.” How and why did she decide to leave writing about technology behind? She answered that if she continued to write within the boundaries of technology, her work might stray off into the world of science fiction. Ullman’s work isn’t about the machine, it’s about being close to the machine, deep inside it, the strange intimacy we have with our technology. She said that she would continue to write essays about technology, but that her fiction would no longer be bounded by it. I look forward to both.
Even though there’s only a slight movement in this direction, it’s worth pulling on the threads to see what it’s made of. The release of “Readability“ was the latest event to bring this set of issues to mind. If you’re not familiar with Readability, it’s a program that takes long text documents on the web, strips them out of their context, and instantaneously formats them into a layout designed for easier reading. To some extent Flipboard, and the host of current text DVRs, are working in the same area. In fact, Readability has formed an alliance with InstaPaper to bring simple readable layouts to DVR-ed text.
These services beg two questions. The first: why is it necessary to strip and reformat pages in order to read them? The answer seems to be that contemporary design for commercial web sites has resulted in a painful reading experience. With the heavy emphasis on corporate branding and the high density of flashing and buzzing display advertisements competing for our attention, it has become difficult to focus on the text.
Eye-tracking studies show that the modern consumer of web-based text is expert at focusing on the text, creating a form of tunnel vision by blurring everything that doesn’t seem related. Surely there must be a cost to this kind of reading, a constant throbbing pain shunted to the background each time a text is attempted. And each time the user manages to blur out a particularly abrasive ad, a newer, more abrasive ad is designed to ‘cut through the clutter.’
In some ways the Readability model doesn’t interfere with the online publication’s business model. The publication is looking for unique page views, and these are largely accomplished by attracting clicks through provocative headlines broadcast through social media channels. Reading the text is besides the point. In another way it does interfere, the distraction that Readability removes is central to the publication’s business model, its advertising inventory.
The Text DVR model, if it can gain critical mass, will have an analytics model similar to link shorteners like Bit.ly. Data about saved texts becomes valuable in and of itself. Valuable to readers looking for other interesting texts, valuable to writers of texts looking for readers. Anonymous streams of what readers are saving now, and lists of the most saved and read items become content for the application itself. The central index of the Text DVR provides the possibility of discovery, the development of affinity groups, and a social channel for commentary on items deemed worthy of saving.
In the case of the HTML frame, the site is being presented as it is, without alteration. The “same origin policy“ ensures that no tampering can occur. With Readability, what the reader deems as the value of the page is extracted from its point of origin and poured into a new design. I’ve yet to hear any howls of outrage or charges of theft. Readability does, after all, directly compensate the author of the text. So who has the authority, and at what point is it okay, to take some ‘content’ from the web and remix it so that it works better for the user? And why has the burden of designing for readability been displaced onto the reader?
As a related phenomena, it’s interesting to note the number of writing tools designed to minimize distraction. Scrivener’s full screen mode, OmmWriter, WriteRoom and others offer authors the kind of pure writing space not seen since the typewriter, or the paper notebook.
What would you think of a service that could make television programs available about 20 or 30 minutes after the initial live broadcast started? Normally there wouldn’t be a benefit to a delay. However, this service automatically deletes all the advertising from a program and removes all the in-program promo bugs at the bottom of the screen. The service would provide a cleanly designed and easily readable revised television schedule of programs for your convenience, and all this for a small monthly fee plus the purchase of small device to attach to your television. The editing process would happen on a local device after the broadcast signal had been received in the home. It’s the kind of thing you could do yourself, if you wanted to spend the time. This new service just automates the process for a small fee. And while you wouldn’t be able to interact on social channels about the show in real time — you would be able to interact with all the other users of the service in slightly delayed time.
The issues raised return us to the questions asked after the launch of Google’s SideWiki product and Phil Windley’s declaration of a right to a purpose-driven web.
I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.
While the volume of the debate faded to barely audible levels, the issues seem unresolved. As with many things like this, you may have a personal non-commercial right to remix anything that crosses your screen. However, once you start sharing it with your Twitter and Facebook friends and it goes viral—is it still personal?
When you do this kind of remix and relay in a commercial and systematic way, you run smack into the hot news doctrine. And, as soon as this kind of systematic remixing was possible, it occurred. In the early days of the wire services, the Hearst corporation would hijack foreign wire copy from competing newspapers, change a word here or there and call it its own. Last year, a company called Fly-on-the-Wall was sued for doing a similar thing by passing along investment bank research in near real time. How do we judge a commercial tool that makes personal remixing possible for millions of people? Does that rise to the level of ‘systematic?’
At the bottom of all this is the malleability of text. In the days of ink on paper, a remix would require a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. In the digital era, text seems to have no form. The closest we get to pure text is with a code editor like Vi or eMacs, or when we view source on a web page to see the mark up and scripts that cause the page to render in a particular way. But if we think about it, whenever we see text it is always already formatted; it cannot be experienced in a formless state. And text, at least on the web, can be extracted, deformatted and reformatted in an instant.
One of the cause celebres of the Web Standards Movement was the separation of formal and semantic mark up in the HTML document. Through this kind of separation, the “sense”? of the document could be given expression through an infinite number of pure style sheets. The CSS Zen Garden is a wonderful example of this kind of approach. A single semantically segmented document is given radically different design treatments through the addition of varying sets of cascading style sheet instructions. This bright future filled with an infinite variety of compelling design has failed to materialize. Instead, the reader resorts to negating the local design in favor of something that’s more neutral and readable.
The design of the form of web-based text currently has a negative value that can be brought up to zero with some user-based tools. What is it about digital text that creates this strange relationship with its form? As digital text courses through the circulatory system of the Network, for the most part it leaves its form behind. It travels as ASCII, a minimal form/text fusion with high liquidity, a kind of hard currency of the Network. Text and form seem to travel on two separate tracks. It seems as though form can be added at the last minute with no loss of meaning. However, in order to maintain its meaning, the text must retain its sequence of letters, spaces, punctuation and paragraphs. A William Burroughs style cut up of the text produces a different text and a different meaning.
In the provinces of writing where text and form are fused in non-standard ways, the digital text has blind spots. Poetry, for instance, has many different ideas of the line; where it should begin on a page, and where it should end. Imagine a digital transmission of the poems of e.e. cummings or Michael McClure. In these instances can the form of the words really be discounted down to zero? Isn’t a significant amount of meaning lost in the transmission? From this perspective we see the modern digital transmission as the descendant of the telegraph and the wire service story. It’s built for a narrow range of textual expression.
While time and context shifting will continue their relentless optimization of our free time, we need to take notice when something important gets left behind. I try to imagine a text on the web that was so beautifully designed, that to read it outside its native form would be to lose something essential. Like listening to a symphony on a cheap transistor radio, the notes are there, but the quality and size of the sound is lost in translation. We’re looking for the vertical color of text, the timbre of the words, the palpable feel that a specific presentation brings to a reading experience. The business models of the big web publishing platforms tend to work against readability and the reader. They’re designed for the clicker—the fingertip, not the eye. If things keep going in this direction, the new era of user-centered design may happen on the user’s side of the glass.
Thanksgiving day calls for a little poetry. Here’s one from William Blake’s “The Songs of Innocence”:
William Blake : The Echoing Green
The sun does arise,
And make happy the skies.
The merry bells ring
To welcome the spring.
The skylark and thrush,
The birds of the bush,
Sing louder around,
To the bells’ cheerful sound,
While our sports shall be seen
On the echoing green.
Old John with white hair
Does laugh away care,
Sitting under the oak,
Among the old folk.
They laugh at our play,
And soon they all say:
‘Such, such were the joys
When we all, girls and boys,
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing green.’
Till the little ones weary
No more can be merry;
The sun does descend,
And our sports have an end.
Round the laps of their mother
Many sisters and brothers,
Like birds in their nest,
Are ready for rest;
And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.
Allen Ginsberg set Blake’s poem to music, and I often hear Ginsberg’s voice as I sit reading silently.
I’m generally not enthusiastic about photography in museums. Walking through New York’s Metropolitan Museum last week, I could have easily passed by a show of contemporary photography called ‘Surface Tension.’ I found something about the title intriguing and decided to walk through the exhibit. While there were a number of pieces that merited further exploration, it was Ann Hamilton’s piece ‘abc‘ that stuck with me. At the dawn of a new era of multi-touch interactive personal computing, there’s something about Hamilton’s video image that has a haunting resonance. It’s a kind of visual poetry, even visual thinking, that connects on so many levels.
The Network has been infused with humanity, with every aspect of human character— the bright possibilities and the tragic flaws.
On May 29, 1919, Arthur Stanley Eddington took some photographs of a total eclipse of the sun. Eddington had gone to Africa to conduct an experiment that might determine whether Newton’s or Einstein’s model was closer to physical reality.
During the eclipse, he took pictures of the stars in the region around the Sun. According to the theory of general relativity, stars with light rays that passed near the Sun would appear to have been slightly shifted because their light had been curved by its gravitational field. This effect is noticeable only during eclipses, since otherwise the Sun’s brightness obscures the affected stars. Eddington showed that Newtonian gravitation could be interpreted to predict half the shift predicted by Einstein.
My understanding of the physics is rather shallow, my interest is more in the metaphorics— in how the word-pictures we use to describe and think about the universe changed based on a photograph. Where the universe lined up nicely on a grid before the photograph, afterwards, space became curvaceous. Mass and gravity bent the space that light passed through. Assumed constants moved into the category of relativity.
The Network also appears to be composed of a neutral grid, its name space, through which passes what we generically call payloads of “content.” Each location has a unique identifier; the only requirement for adding a location is that its name not already be in use. You can’t stand where someone is already standing unless you displace them. No central authority examines the suitability of the node’s payload prior to its addition to the Network.
The universe of these location names is expanding at an accelerating rate. The number of addresses on the Network quickly outstripped our ability to both put them into a curated index and use, or even understand, that index. Search engines put as much of the Network as they can spider into the index and then use software algorithms to a determine a priority order of the contents of the index based on keyword queries. The search engine itself attempts to be a neutral medium through with the nodes of the Network are prioritized based on user query input.
Regardless of the query asked, the method of deriving the list of prioritized results is the same. The method and production cost for each query is identical. This kind of equal handling of Network nodes with regard to user queries is the search engine equivalent of freedom, opportunity and meritocracy for those adding and updating nodes on the Network. The algorithms operate without prejudice.
The differential value of the queries and prioritized link lists is derived through an auction process. The cost of producing each query/result set is the same—it is a commodity—but the price of buying advertising is determined by the intensity of the advertiser’s desire. The economics of the Network requires that we develop strategies for versioning digital commodities and enable pricing systems linked to desire rather than cost of production. Our discussions about “Free” have to do with cost-based pricing for digital information goods. However, it’s by overlaying a map of our desires on to the digital commodity that we start to see the contours, the curvaceousness of this space, the segments where versioning can occur.
We’ve posited that the search algorithm treats all nodes on the Network equally. And more and more, we take the Network to be a medium that can fully represent human life. In fact, through various augmented reality applications, human reality and the Network are sometimes combined into a synthetic blend (medium and message). Implicitly we also seem to be asserting a kind of isomorphism between human life and the Network. For instance, sometimes we’ll say that on the Network, we “publish everything, and filter later.” The gist of this aphorism is that where there are economics of low-or-no-cost production, there’s no need to filter for quality in advance of production and transfer to the Network. Everything can be re-produced on the Network and then sorted out later. But when we use the word “everything,” do we really mean everything?
The neutral medium of the Network allows us to disregard the payload of contents. Everything is equivalent. A comparison could be made to the medium of language— anything can be expressed. But as the Network becomes more social, we begin to see the shape of our society emerge within the graph of nodes. Sigmund Freud, in his 1913 book entitled Totem and Taboo, looks at the markers that we place on the border of what is considered socially acceptable behavior. Ostensibly, the book examines the resemblances between the mental life of savages and neurotics. (You’ll need to disregard the archaic attitudes regarding non-European cultures)
We should certainly not expect that the sexual life of these poor, naked cannibals would be moral in our sense or that their sexual instincts would be subjected to any great degree of restriction. Yet we find that they set before themselves with the most scrupulous care and the most painful severity the aim of avoiding incestuous sexual relations. Indeed, their whole social organization seems to serve that purpose or to have been brought into relation with its attainment.
Freud is pointing to the idea that social organization, while certainly containing positive gestures, reserves its use of laws, restrictions and mores for the negative gesture. The structure of societal organization to a large extent rests on what is excluded, what is not allowed. He finds this common characteristic in otherwise very diverse socio-cultural groups. Totems and taboos bend and structure the space that our culture passes through.
In the safesearch filters employed by search engines we can see the ego, id and superego play out their roles. When we search for transgressive content, we remove all filtering. But presumably, we do, as a member of a society, filter everything before we re-produce it on the Network. Our “unfiltered” content payloads are pre-filtered through our social contract. Part of the uncomfortableness we have with the Network is that once transgressive material is embodied in the Network, the algorithms disregard any difference between the social and the anti-social. A boundary that is plainly visible to the human— and is in fact a structural component of its identity and society, is invisible to the machine. Every node on the Network is processed identically through the algorithm.
This issue has also been raised in discussions about the possibility of artificial intelligence. In his book Mirror Worlds, David Gelernter discusses a key difference between human memory and machine memory:
Well for one thing, certain memories make you feel good. The original experience included a “feeling good” sensation, and so the tape has “feel good” recorded on it, and when you recall the memory— you feel good. And likewise, one reason you choose (or unconsciously decide) not to recall certain memories is that they have “feel bad” recorded on them, and so remembering them makes you feel bad.
But obviously, the software version of remembering has no emotional compass. To some extent, that’s good: Software won’t suppress, repress or forget some illuminating case because (say) it made a complete fool of itself when the case was first presented. Objectivity is powerful.
Objectivity is very powerful. Part of that power lies in not being subject to personal foibles and follies with regard to the handling, sorting, connecting and prioritizing of data. The dark side of that power is that the objectivity of the algorithm is not subject to social prohibitions either. They simply don’t register. To some extent technology views society and culture as a form of exception processing, a hack grafted on to the system. As the Network is enculturated, we are faced with the stark visibility of terrorism, perversity, criminality, and prejudice. On the Network, everything is just one click away. Transgression isn’t hidden in the darkness. On the Network, the light has not yet been divided from the darkness. In its neutrality there is a sort of flatness, a lack of dimensionality and perspective. There’s no chiaroscuro to provide a sense of volume, emotion, limit and mystery.
And finally here’s the link back to the starting point of this exploration. A kind of libertarian connection has been made between the neutral quality of the medium of the Network and our experience of freedom in a democratic republic. The machine-like disregard for human mores and cultural practices is held up as virtue and example for human behavior. No limits can be imposed on the payloads attached to any node of the Network. The libertarian view might be stated that the fewest number of limitations should be applied to payloads while still maintaining some semblance of society. Freud is instructive here: our society is fundamentally defined by what we exclude, by what we leave out, and by what we push out. While our society is more and more inclusive, everything is not included. Mass and gravity bend the space that light passes through.
The major debates on the Network seem to line up with the contours of this pattern. China excludes Google and Google excludes China. Pornographic applications are banished from Apple’s AppStore. Android excludes nothing. Closed is excluded by Open, Open is included by Closed. Spam wants to be included, users want to exclude spam. Anonymous commenters and trolls should be excluded. Facebook must decide what the limits of speech are within the confines of its domain. The open internet excludes nothing. Facebook has excluded the wrong thing. The open internet has a right to make your trade secrets visible. As any node on the Network becomes a potential node in Facebook’s social/semantic graph, are there nodes that should be taboo? How do we build a civil society within the neutral medium of the Network? Can a society exist in which nothing is excluded?
In the early days of the Network, it was owned and occupied by technologists and scientists. The rest of humanity was excluded. As the Network absorbs new tribes and a broader array of participants, its character and its social contract has changed. It’s a signal of a power shift, a dramatic change in the landscape. And if you happen to be standing at the crossroads of technology and the humanities, you might have a pretty good view of where we’re going.
The Winter Solstice brings us the day with most darkness and the least amount of light. As that moment passes, the days begin to grow longer again. There are many markers for the end of the year, but this one seems the most significant to me. Sometimes called midwinter, it’s the moment when Autumn and Winter touch and the momentum of the seasons begins to change. We think of Spring as the time of new beginnings, but Winter is when the light begins to return.
This last trip around the Sun was a rough one. While the light has been growing since November 4, 2008, we’re only starting to feel the warmth. Surviving through the tough times requires an excess of spirit— where the material world withdraws, the imagination begins to fill in the gaps.
What I learned from William Blake is, don’t give up. And don’t expect anything.
- Patti Smith
In thinking about a way to sum up the past year, Patti Smith’s song My Blakean Year kept returning to my thoughts. Smith takes heart in the story of William Blake’s perseverance and faith in the face of utter rejection during his lifetime.
While Smith has learned to play the guitar, she has a limited range. The song My Blakean Year seems to be a sort of talisman, a point of connection for so many threads of her life.
The song gives her a solid foundation on which to stand and perform. It’s the thing that makes rock and roll portable for her. She can scale her performance to a small gathering, a large stadium, or a network television audience.
Having survived her own Blakean year, the song serves as a reminder to honor the past, but engage with the present.
This last year was Blakean for so many around the world. Times are rough, and while we can see the light beginning to grow, we know there are still the tough Winter months ahead. The song serves as a reminder to keep the faith, don’t give up, and don’t expect anything.
my blakean year
In my Blakean year
I was so disposed
Toward a mission yet unclear
Advancing pole by pole
Fortune breathed into my ear
Mouthed a simple ode
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
In my Blakean year
Such a woeful schism
The pain of our existence
Was not as I envisioned
Boots that trudged from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
Boots that tread from track to track
Worn down to the sole
One road is paved in gold
One road is just a road
In my Blakean year
Temptation but a hiss
Just a shallow spear
Robed in cowardice
Brace yourself for bitter flack
For a life sublime
A labyrinth of riches
Never shall unwind
The threads that bind the pilgrim’s sack
Are stitched into the Blakean back
So throw off your stupid cloak
Embrace all that you fear
For joy will conquer all despair
In my Blakean year
Upon closer inspection, however, an uneasy sensation of looming menace begins to manifest itself. Composed of a wiry, nervous line, these creatures bear a resemblance to birds only in their beaks and feathered silhouettes; they appear closer to deformations of nature. The hand crank conjures up the idea that this “machine” is a music box, where the birds function as bait to lure victims to the pit over which the machine hovers. We can imagine the fiendish cacophony made by the shrieking birds, their legs drawn thin and taut as they strain against the machine to which they are fused.
I’d like to take a moment to delve beneath the surface of the machinery that makes up the micro-messaging ecosystem. The micro-messaging service Twitter approaches a kind of frictionless channel for messaging. Everything about it seems to be built for growth and speed. After the substantial speed bump of signing up and orienting yourself in the system, both listening for, and creating messages are very simple. Select the other people (and pseudo-people) you’d like to follow, type fewer than 140 characters of hypertext into a text field and press update.
It’s been noted many times that the follow social structure – the directed social graph – allows for the rapid expansion of social linking. A participant is able to follow many others without the requirement of reciprocity. I follow you, you don’t have to follow me. And the retweet has emerged as a method of transmitting messages across multiple overlapping social graphs. Hash tags have become a conventional method of indicating a message tied to a particular event. All of these tools are dedicated to the acceleration of the growth of the Twitter network. Twitter’s trending topics and search functionality allow users to find high-velocity memes as they begin to achieve broad circulation through the social mesh.
Examples of the benefits of the speed of the Twitter network abound – news about the earthquake in China, the plane landing on the Hudson River, reports on wild fires in Southern California, etc. The news media, feeling somewhat usurped here, has also brought the negative aspects of this lack of friction in the system. Usually this kind of story is meant to point to the filtering role of their own editorial facility. The New York Times put a Twitter contretemps involving Stephen Fry in the first section of their newspaper.
…that little tweet set off a frenzy of vitriolic attacks and counterattacks on Twitter, drawing an untold number of people into an increasingly charged debate and thrusting brumplum — in reality a man from Birmingham, England, named Richard — unhappily into the public’s angry glare. It was an example once again of the extraordinary power of Twitter to distribute information and to sway the opinions of vast groups of people in tiny amounts of time.
While the frictionless micro-messaging environment can accelerate important, or amusing, messages (news, stories, jokes, musings), it can also assemble and ignite an angry mob at lightning speed. And if we look at the tool set we’re offered, everything is oriented toward accelerating people, memes and the growth of the Twitter network. In this frame, value is equated with high velocity and numbers of retweets, likes, mentions, @replies, followers and now, list memberships. We’re looking for what, or who, is going viral.
But if we examine the often banal items that achieve virality, we have to question the value = virality equation. Often the high numbers are a result of lowest-common denominator dynamics, it’s not the cream rising to the top. There are certain kinds of viral items that we’d prefer to be vaccinated against. We’d like a micro-messaging Center for Disease Control warning us about time-wasting viral memes spreading through the Network. Where are the tools to retard the spread of a meme? Where’s the don’t like, or the visible gesture of hiding something from your messaging stream. It’s as though we’ve put a poll in the field that only asks for a positive response and excludes all negative reaction. Feedback loops require both positive and negative inputs.
Feedback is a mechanism, process or signal that is looped back to control a system within itself. Such a loop is called a feedback loop. Intuitively many systems have an obvious input and output; feeding back part of the output so as to increase the input is positive feedback; feeding back part of the output in such a way as to partially oppose the input is negative feedback.
Negative feedback helps to maintain stability in a system in spite of external changes. It is related to homeostasis. For example, in a population of foxes (predators) and rabbits (prey), an increase in the number of foxes will cause a reduction in the number of rabbits; the smaller rabbit population will sustain fewer foxes, and the fox population will fall back. In an electronic amplifier feeding back a negative copy of the output to the input will tend to cancel distortion, making the output a more accurate replica of the input signal.
Positive feedback amplifies possibilities of divergences (evolution, change of goals); it is the condition to change, evolution, growth; it gives the system the ability to access new points of equilibrium.
One method of judging the relative merit of the memes circulating through the stream is to pay close attention to the silences, the negative gestures. While the wisdom of crowds may have crowned an item the real-time meme of the moment, there’s a simple way to filter for value. Using a small portfolio (lists, if you will) of people who’s opinion you respect – look to see if they remain silent on a topic. In the task of discovering value, this kind of silence is golden.
In the early stages of growth, accelerants are essential. As a Network matures, unless it develops a deeper tool set, it simply becomes a twittering machine. The value it appears to create is illusory, and so the commons begins its descent to knee-jerk reactions to the high numbers generated by the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the inevitable result is that overlapping publics contract and the social space becomes a much more private circulatory system. The crucible of dispute, debate and dialogue that produces real value may only emerge away from the public network of accelerants where the social contract allows such differences (both positive and negative feedback). One of the better statements of this kind of contract was for the Nettime mailing list:
Nettime was vector for experimenting with net critique that would confront it with the possibility of inventing new forms of discourse and dialogue in a new medium. Consensus is not the goal. There’s no governing fantasy according to which the differences within this ‘group’ will on some ever-deferred day be resolved. the differences are Nettime; they might be dialectical, implying each other, or they might be differential, making absolutely no reference whatsoever to each others’ terms. Net critique, if understood as a shared practice in and against a never pre-defined techno-local environment, contains many modes of possible participation.
In navigating the electrical storms and fires of the micro-messaging Network, we’d do well to have some tools in our kit in addition to that can of gasoline.
The difference I suppose is one of presence—of the energy field that envelopes the performers and the audience for the duration of the performance. It must be felt directly, it can’t be translated into video or text and transported for decoding and consumption at a remote endpoint. My first experience of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal was the piece called ‘Palermo Palermo’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’d read about her work extensively, but this was my first taste.
Pina Bausch passed away yesterday, she was 68 years old. Bausch had just completed a new work, and was preparing for upcoming performances. She was one of the few artists who was required viewing in my book. If you could see a performance, there was no alternative, you must go. Now we must try to do the impossible; conjure a semblance of what it was like to be in the presence of a performance.
‘Palermo Palermo’ began with the stage completely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling wall of cinder blocks. As the lights in the auditorium dimmed, the audience was confronted with this wall. Slowly one detected movement, something was happening to the wall. It was falling backward onto the stage, and it struck with an incredible crash. The air was filled with dust, the stage was covered with broken cinder blocks, the music started up and dancers appeared—running madly across the field of broken stone.
My last encounter with Bausch’s ensemble was in Berkeley, at Zellerbach Hall. I happened to be sitting in the first row, and during a particular sequence in the performance, Dominique Mercy was asking people in the audience to make a snoring sound. This was my one contribution to Bausch’s body of work— a loud snore from the first row.
The Rite of Spring
Il lamento dell’imperatrice
Pina Bausch settled in, and lived her life, on the boundary between dance and theater. Her interest was not in how people move, but rather in what moves people. Her pieces were without beginning or end, constructed from the real-time lives and emotions of the dancers performing the piece. Standing at the edge, or perhaps a bit beyond it, there are no hard and fast rules about what can and cannot be included in a performance. It’s a rare artist who can consistently create passionate, engaging works from that position over a long career.
Lee Yanor’s short film on Pina Bausch captures the movement of the choreographer’s hands. Her works often had a mythic scale to them, but they began, perhaps, with her hands thinking through the movements that moved her dancers through the dance.
Pina Bausch, may “…flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Forms of Life: Stream Culture, the Finite and the Infinite
Thinking, for a moment, about a particularly difficult human-computer interface problem with a dynamic set of requirements… which I suppose is any problem of this kind. The problem itself points the limitations of representation; as the solution forms, life moves on. The problem can also be expressed in terms of data and databases– the only data that exists in a database is the data that’s entered; and it doesn’t change unless energy is expended to change it. It’s a snapshot of a moment. Certain problems like Search are amenable to employing robots for the gathering of data. But what we think we’re doing when we search for something continues to change.
There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
We play a series of finite and infinite games in the pursuit of the infinite game of continuing the play. The rather large portfolio carved out by interaction and human factors designers plays along this edge– the finitude of the designed object against the infinity of its use within a form of life. William Gibson expressed it simply as: “the street has its own use for things…” The street is a particularly rough game whose object is primarily to continue the play.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the book Philosophical Grammar describes how the fundamentals of an interaction (a finite game) relate to its expression in a system of representation. It’s a succinct story about how the front-end relates to the back-end of a certain kind of web application.
Let us imagine that chess had been invented not as a board game, but as a game to be played with numbers and letters on paper, so that no one had ever imagined a board with 64 squares in connection with it. And now suppose someone made the discovery that the game corresponded exactly to a game which could be played on a board in such and such a way. This discovery would have been a great simplification of the game (people who would earlier have found it too difficult could now play it). But it is clear that this new illustration of the rules of the game would be nothing more than a new, more easily surveyable symbolism, which in other respects would be on the same level as the written game. Compare with this the talk about physics nowadays not working with mechanical models but “only with symbols”.
Imagine what the Network would look like if it were only composed of finite games. Now imagine a Network in real time composed of both finite and infinite games. In building an application for this Network, would you use the same techniques with an infinite game as you would for a finite game? How would they differ?
Here’s another fragment from Carse:
Although the rules of an infinite game change by agreement at any point in the course of play, it does not follow that any rule will do. It is not in this sense that the game is infinite.
The rules are always designed to deal with specific threats to the continuation of play. Infinite players use the rules to regulate the way they will take the boundaries or limits being forced against their play into the game itself.
The rule-making capacity of infinite players is often challenged by the impingement of powerful boundaries against their play– such as physical exhaustion, or the loss of material resources, or the hostility of nonplayers, or death.
The task is to design rules that will allow the players to continue the game by taking these limits into play– even when death is one of the limits. It is in this sense that the game is infinite.
This is equivalent to saying that no limitations may be imposed against infinite play. Since limits are taken into play, the play itself cannot be limited.
Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
There’s a sense in which the hyperlink allows the infinite to be contained within the finite. Or rather, it extends the finite into the infinite. In an open Network, hypertext links to hypertext, which links to hypertext. And by the word “text” we refer to all media types. The “hyper” in “hypertext” means the referent is not present, but directions to its location are ready to hand. (The signs within a language work this way, although sometimes the directions can be ambiguous and aren’t always legible.)
The hyperlink embedded in a static document system originally opened this door. But the static document is giving way to the dynamic document and a series of hypertext fragments populating a stream of information and thought objects moving in real time. Described as a kind of stream culture, our tool set to engage with the possible set of streams is remarkably absent. Somewhere a stream is emitting the information we need to know, but can’t find with our standard set of queries. Instead we gather around to argue whether or not it’s actually a stream we’re standing in, and whether our feet are actually wet.
In thinking about building a tool for the stream culture, will the techniques developed for use in finite games be sufficient? — or will we need to crack open a bottle of new wine?
“Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”
Writing Under Erasure: The Art of William Kentridge
The fluidity of William Kentridge is astonishing. My mouth hangs open in awe. It’s difficult to even find the words to describe what he does. I’ve just returned from the members preview of his major exhibition at SFMOMA called William Kentridge | Five Themes.
As Kenneth Baker of the SF Chronicle says, “Even people only causually involved with contemporary art tend to bookmark memories by their first encounter with the work of William Kentridge.” Mine was about 4 or 5 years ago at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I happened upon a small exhibition of charcoal drawings and one of Kentridge’s “drawings for projection.” These hand-drawn films are composed through a process of making a set of charcoal drawings corresponding to the main scenes of the film. A drawing is created, one frame is shot, then a portion of the drawing is erased and redrawn. Another frame is shot. And so on. The palette of the narrative becomes a palimpsest.
The film was called “History of the Main Complaint” and was made after the establishment in South Africa of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The narrative plays out through a ‘medical’ investigation into the body of Soho Eckstein, the white property-developing business magnate– and it eventually works its way around to point the way toward the emergence of conscience and the possibility of reconciliation. This is not agit-prop theater, its politics are filled with poetry, ambiguity and some sharp edges.
Kentridge’s process of drawing a film is a fundamental artistic act, a gesture in four dimensions. Thousands of individual drawings are created and destroyed in the process of making the projectible drawing. Marks are made, erased, new marks are made and erased– and the camera catches each state of the drawing. These fleeting moments of being exist only on film, the individual states of the drawing flash into being and are at the same time, both irretrievably lost and leave ineffaceable traces.
The SFMOMA show includes a performance of Kentridge’s design for Mozart’s The Magic Flute through projections on a very large toy theater. The YouTube videos have embedding disabled, so you’ll need to click the links to view them.
While working on Magic Flute, Kentridge concieved another piece called “Black Box.” It’s a stunning piece of work. Stop whatever you’re doing, go to SFMOMA and watch this work from beginning to end. It’s another mechanical theater piece consisting of animated film, kinetic objects, drawings and a mechanical actors/puppets. It is a powerful piece of political theater, a Trauerarbeit machine. (These videos don’t do it justice)
Kentridge discusses the role that memory and mourning play in his work:
There was a term someone introduced to me that I’ve kept in my head for Black Box, it’s the word Trauerarbeit – the work of mourning. Freud writes about that in 1917 in Mourning and Melancholy.
Freud talks about how memory compares to reality and what it takes to arrive at an objective view once the lost object is actually gone. It’s a process of detachment and de-vesting.
A Trauerarbeit machine on stage could turn, and things would come out of it.
Kentridge works without a detailed plan, here he discsuses the moments before the real-time flow of his work begins:
“Walking, thinking, stalking the image. Many of the hours spent in the studio are hours of walking, pacing back and forth across the space gathering the energy, the clarity to make the first mark. It is not so much a period of planning as a time of allowing the ideas surrounding the project to percolate. A space for many different possible trajectories of an image, where sequences can suggest themselves, to be tested as internal projections. …It is as if before the work can begin (the visible finished work of the drawing, film, or sculpture), a different, invisible work must be done. A kind of minimalist theater work involving an empty space, a protagonist (the artist walking, or pacing, or stuck immobile) and an antagonist (the paper on the wall).”
A contradiction must be captured, Kentridge must make a clear mark that preserves the ambiguity of his original impulse. It’s writing under erasure. Time, memory, history, humanity and reconciliation inhabit his work.
It happened at some point. While I’ve been following Kentridge for a number of years, I missed the moment when he emerged as the artist for this generation. If you’re not conversant with his work. Seek him out, his work touches all the notes in the central narratives of our time. And indeed, time itself.