On March 10, 2016, Triple Canopy published “Copy of an Original of a Copy,” an edited transcript a conversation that took place as part of the magazine’s Pointing Machines issue. The conversation, which I moderated, was devoted to the challenges posed to legal conceptions of images, objects, and data, especially as they concern intellectual property, by emerging technologies. The participants were Edward Lee, Jennifer L. Roberts, Sergio Muñoz Sarmiento, and Allyson Vieira; they discussed 3-D imaging and printing, which may (eventually) augur an age of networked production in which endlessly manipulable, ownerless objects can be outputted whenever and wherever the requisite hardware and software can be found—not to mention the printing of body parts and the reproduction of antiquities.
In the March 2016 issue of Frieze, I published “The Last Platform,” an essay about “what it’s like to stand on the precipice of virtual reality.” Below is the essay in full.
I load the YouTube videos of early adopters with headsets strapped to their faces. Within a few moments, they begin to squeal, curse, flap their arms, jerk their heads and, occasionally, stumble to the floor. They feel themselves to be piloting fighter jets, careering across wooden tracks in a rollercoaster, or standing at the edge of a canyon so artfully contrived as to make their stomachs clench. Their cerebral cortexes seem to peel away from their bodies, which makes them look ridiculous, and also makes me think: I need to try this.
The last time I experienced even an approximation of virtual reality was at the age of 12, when my joystick-weaned neighbour was given Nintendo’s Virtual Boy as a gift from his parents. We retreated to his basement and donned the cumbersome plastic headset, which submerged us in a realm of rapidly refreshing LED lights and three shades of red. We played Mario’s Tennis until our heads ached and our measly spines were on the verge of collapse. The next-generation headsets in the YouTube videos are made by Silicon Valley start-up Oculus VR, and look like rectangular welders’ goggles refashioned by Alexander Wang. When the ride is over and the users unveil themselves, they appear startled, discombobulated, cross-eyed. ‘How’d they put this in here?’ one exclaims.
According to Mark Zuckerberg, who in 2014 directed Facebook to purchase Oculus for US$2 billion, virtual reality will ‘empower people to experience anything’ and may very well be ‘the last platform’. While this language sounds mildly apocalyptic, the business plan is merely the supercession of our current phenomenological experiences: sitting and staring at screens, clicking and mousing with aching fingers to manipulate representations of data. The Oculus Rift, scheduled for commercial release this month, portends a ‘natural interface’ in which all markers of mediation evanesce. No tools, no icons, no windows, no swiping or pinching; you behave exactly as you otherwise would, but you inhabit the body of another person or bacterium; you drag race on Mars or crawl the ocean floor; you copulate without consequence or go to work without getting out of bed.
In his essay ‘The Ultimate Display’ (1965), computer scientist Ivan Sutherland eagerly described an interface that would deliver a room ‘within which the computer can control the existence of matter’, such that virtual handcuffs would be confining and virtual bullets fatal. All sense of artifice would disappear. But late-20th-century VR experiments failed to migrate beyond the heavily funded realms of NASA and DARPA. Now, thanks to the enormous market for gaming systems and various technological advances, the VR fantasy seems to be on the verge of fulfilment. VR systems are being trumpeted as tools for treating injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, fear of public speaking and training surgeons, astronauts or football players. Gaming companies and film studios promise to engross viewers and elicit visceral and emotional responses. Facebook plans to pivot toward ‘immersive videos’, if not telepresence.
At the same time, artists like Ian Cheng, Jon Rafman, Jacolby Satterwhite and Daniel Steegmann Mangrané have recently exhibited works designed (or adapted) for the Rift. Artist and programmer Rachel Rossin, the inaugural Virtual Reality Fellow at New Inc., the New York New Museum’s incubator and workspace, says that VR enthusiasts are split into two factions: those who believe that it is an ‘empathy machine’ that will colonize journalism, film and marketing; and those who exhilarate in the exploration not only of virtual environments but the phenomenological experiences that occur in them – and, ultimately, the way we understand ourselves in relation to those experiences. Rossin recently showed me I Came and Went as a Ghost Hand (2015), a sparsely populated realm of meshes and textures elaborated from images of her home, studio and paintings, all designed for the Rift. I swivelled in my chair and cautiously rotated my head as a white-gloved hand conveyed me through the simulation. I gradually lost awareness of the cords that linked my head to the computer and found myself increasingly absorbed despite the purposeful artificiality of the environment, in which fragments of images have been shorn from Rossin’s everyday life and then slotted into grids and mapped onto the models that constitute video games.
Jeremy Couillard, another artist who works with VR, is similarly focused on the disjunctions between what we perceive and what we feel to be real, but also on the possibility of legitimate transcendence. His Rift simulation, The Out of Body Experience (2015), is informed by Bob Monroe, who developed a quixotic programme for controlling consciousness in order to journey beyond space, time and death – making him the perfect avatar for VR. When I began the simulation, I was seated in a featureless room and inhabiting an alien body, while incomprehensible incantations were whispered into my ears. Soon, I departed the body, floated up a stairwell, burst through a portal and was deposited into a desert landscape strewn with cartoonish creatures and fragments of video-game architecture: swaying saguaro cacti, desiccated grass, polished tile floors. The whistles of orbiting birds melded with synth swells in the binaural soundtrack, and my stomach momentarily shot towards my throat as I dropped down a cursorily rendered cliff. Again, despite the disregard for realism, I was engrossed.
I was also relieved. After reading so many slavering articles, I had come to think of VR as the apotheosis of linear perspective, measuring space and quantifying nature to create an image of the world which seems so immediate and transparent that the medium is effectively erased. But Couillard’s and Rossin’s works unabashedly disclose layer upon layer of mediation and turn the dream of the natural interface into a joke about accessing the unconscious, which has been converted into a storehouse of internet imagery and video-game archetypes.
Of course, the creation of individual artworks that meaningfully reflect on the medium will not extinguish corporations’ rhapsodic visions of computers generating immersive environments so indistinguishable from the real world as to drain that concept of meaning. Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus, recently credited his faith in VR to the lecture delivered by Morpheus inThe Matrix (1999) about the nature of consciousness: you glean a minimal amount of data from your environment in the form of electrical signals, which your brain uses to construct a convincing illusion, which means that nothing is real! We are ‘inference machines’ and not ‘objective observers of the world’, Abrash said to a crowd of Facebook developers. As such, we can – and, therefore, should – use technology to construct experiences that, for all intents and purposes, count as reality.
The rhetoric of Abrash and his cohort has as much to do with religion as vision. Computers long ago set us on the path to liberation from our bodies and a world of our own making. How could we not pursue such salvation? As the philosopher Bruno Latour has observed, the fundamental move of science is the conversion of nature into a diagram we can comprehend. But never before have diagrams yielded images so fantastic, so convincingly natural, that our bodies might confuse them for what they picture. What will we do with these images now that we have them, and what will they do to us?
I am currently at work on a book tentatively titled Arbitrary Units: Culture in the Age of Quantification, for which I recently received an Arts Writers Grant from Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation. Arbitrary Units will examine the tools and objects that shape our world and, increasingly, shape the ways in which we create and understand art. Our age is particularly concerned with putatively objective knowledge, with the administration of nature, and with statistical categories as the fundaments of identity. The book aims to understand how artists process rapid technological change—whether or not digital tools serve as their subjects or means of production—and how we might understand the effects of recent seismic societal shifts through artworks.
Subjective Assessment is a sound work—meant to be performed but also presented in recorded and installation versions—that narrates the experience of an expert listener undergoing a test to determine what sound (in digital form) should sound like. The work was first presented at the New Museum of Contemporary Art on May 8, 2015, as part of the programming for “Surround Audience: The Generational Triennial.” The work was subsequently presented as part of Istanbul Biennial 14: “Saltwater: A Theory of Thought Forms,” September 4–November 1, 2015 (a version of the project appeared in the exhibition catalogue); at the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, on November 3, 2015, while I was a visiting artist in the sculpture department; and at the New School for Social Research on May 24, 2016; and at the Norwegian Festival for Non-fiction on October 29, 2016. In 2017, a version will be published by Triple Canopy as part of an issue devoted to standards and standardization.
Subjective Assessment was developed during my 2013–15 fellowship at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. On September 23, 2014, I performed and discussed an early version of the work at the Aspen Art Museum as part of Autumn Equinox: Magnetism Talks.
Subjective Assessment incorporates sound and narration to describe a typical “expert listener” undergoing a test meant to determine what sound should sound like, meant to turn him into a listening machine. It places the audience within the sensorium of a middle-aged, white audiophile whose favorite band is King Crimson and whose memories of listening to ABBA while cruising Kentucky highways cannot be vanquished, though his ears train on the audio file’s frequency response. In narrating the experience of the expert listener, Subjective Assessment describes how we produce and experience culture in the form of digital files, how imperfect technological processes mold our conduct.
Click here to download an excerpt of the recorded version (which is a work in progress).
In October 2015 I published “Chronicle of a Traveling Theory” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press), edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter. The essay discusses on how International Art English became a byword for the devolution of the language of criticism in the globalized, Internet-addled art world. On December 21, 2015, the essay was reprinted in Triple Canopy. It begins:
International Art English is now an ineluctable, flagrant feature of the art-writing landscape. Prior to Triple Canopy’s publication of Alix Rule and David Levine’s essay by that name in June 2012, many readers may have had a vague notion of certain common linguistic peculiarities to be found on the websites of Chinese museums and Parisian galleries, in the press releases issued by Chelsea galleries and in the pages of German magazines—in all manner of venues that employ language to represent visual art and aesthetic experience, whether for promotional, educational, or critical purposes. Within six months of the publication of “International Art English,” those readers and many thousands more could not help but recognize the lexical tics (“spatiality,” “globality,” “potentiality,” “experiencability”), double adverbial terms, dependent clauses, adjectival verb forms, and past and present participles that so pervade writing about art. For the essay’s boosters as well as detractors—about which I’ll say more later—International Art English (IAE) has become a byword for the devolution of the language of criticism (and the diminution of the authority of critics) in the globalized, Internet-addled art world, but also for the possibility of redemptive reconfigurations of that language. This is true to such a degree that recent articles reiterating the phenomenon, whether published by the BBC or online content mills, have dispensed with references to the original essay.
On May 30, 2015, I participated in Superscript 2015, a conference at Walker Art Center devoted to arts journalism and criticism in the digital age. I gave a talk and participated in a discussion as part of a session called Connectivity and Community, which included
Claudia La Rocco, Ayesha Siddiqi, and Brian Kuan Wood. The prompt asked: “How does a platform create a sense of community around the ideas it presents? What’s the best web infrastructure for fostering responsive arts journalism that encourages valuable, substantive conversations between writers and readers?”
I responded by distinguishing between “community” and “public,” and explaining why I find it helpful to think of Triple Canopy’s work in terms of the latter and not the former. “A community may be foundational to—or may arise from the activities of—a magazine, from its editors and readers and contributors,” I said. “But our motivation has not primarily been to support or dramatically enlarge the community that birthed the magazine and has for the past eight years sustained it. This has to do with the atomization of culture and the way in which the digital economy has come to understand (and profit from) individuals as quantities of relatable data points. It also has to do with the way the word community is used—so often to identify voluntary, non-economic, unequivocally good activities rooted in empathy, kindness, selflessness, belonging; and so often fallaciously.”
On May 4, 2015, I moderated and organized a discussion as part of Frieze Talks 2015, Next Top Models: New Forms for Artists’ Collectives. The discussion, which included Abdullah Al-Mutairi (GCC), Jamal Cyrus (Otabenga Jones & Associates), and Dena Yago (K-HOLE), related to an essay I published in Frieze in 2013, “All for One.” It explored how artists’ collectives today are learning from or deviating from previous historical collectives, such as General Idea, Group Material or Art & Language. The panel looked at how artists’ collectives today are enacting local and national politics, and how some of them are using techniques of branding and marketing to define their practices.