“Submit Here”: Control in Online Cultural Production and Comment Culture
For my digital art work, I developed a concept for a series called “Thanks for Watching…” and entitled my work, King of the World! In it, I presented a triptych of visual images mined from web searches of various cultural touchstones, including the Hollywood film Titanic and two recent news stories, one of which dealt with a natural disaster and another that dealt with a corruption scandal befitting our media age. Then, I provided a familiar feature to online culture: the comment box and submit button. This interface permitted users to both interact with and participate in the experience of the art work by typing in comments in response to the images provided. However, unlike traditional comment strands or lists, the text comments were sent directly to the image. I created software that randomly placed the text comment over its corresponding image. The more comments that were submitted; the more the image was scripted over by the text.
Digital art has been inherently hybrid in nature. Digital art forms do not conform readily to neatly static or hermetic categories. Likewise, King of the World! did not follow or replicate a single prescribed category or theme of digital art. Furthermore, like the evolving definitions of “new media,” this digital work was not only situated in a dynamic and diverse field, but it also reflected the historical, cultural, technological, and artistic contexts in which they have been created. So given the hybrid nature of the art work, it was only fitting that I presented a range of readings into the analysis of my work and its relationship to the wider field of digital culture. I examined formalist structures, intellectual property, interactive and participatory characteristics, and the “comment culture” of Web 2.0. Furthermore, some issues prevailed. Thus, these ideas emphasized the nature of controls, called protocol, embedded in technological structures. Such protocols have driven particular forms of behavior in our “new media” environment, have favored notions of intellectual property, and have limited forms of meaningful public discourse online. As a digital artwork that addresses these issues, King of the World! has presented a digital microcosm that reflects particular creative and social gestures extracted and deconstructed from its larger, more complex digital environment, embedded in our everyday experiences. Moreover, as a work of art, it provided an aesthetic space to more carefully consider and critique our online culture as an artistic form.
STRUCTURE OF THE WORK
Overall, the work was created as a triptych. While this format might seem far afield from digital work, the triptych was both a significant technology and a cultural form. As a technology, triptychs could be made of three panels that could be stacked for transportation during pilgrimages and other religious missions. The panels could also be hinged together and thus create a self supporting structure that “stood” when the two side panels were turned in. This format was a way of disseminating religious imagery and beliefs and it could turn two-dimensional imagery into a sculptural form or a portable altar. The triptych has also had a long history as a cultural form to convey important subjects. Triptychs were known to have existed in the Roman Empire and were a celebrated format for religious art in the Renaissance. Generally, it was intended that figures depicted in triptychs were to be worshiped or honored, such as gods or the deceased. Sometimes, triptychs depicted significant persons or buildings embedded in the various representations of important cultural events. Important religious allegories were often represented in triptychs such as the Holy Trinity with the Father-the Son-and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Family with Mother Mary, Jesus and Joseph, or the Crucifixion and other stories of sin and redemption. Typically, the triptych was put in a public space, such as a church, for the reverence of worshippers. Importantly, the imagery and the significance of what it depicted would have had shared cultural meaning. Though privately, a triptych could also act as a small memorial to one’s ancestors, and thus, preserved one’s lineage and identity. Likewise, contemporary video artist Bill Viola used a triptych in his 1989 work The City of Man. While this work involved the video projection of three scenes onto screens, Viola still tapped into religious allegory and his work presented symbolic representations of Paradise, Life on Earth, and Hell.1
With this rich tradition, the triptych was a potent format to disseminate cultural images and bestowed upon them a level of cultural focus or artistic attention. Also, though I did not intend for any religious symbolism by using a triptych, these images have allegorical possibilities where the images show a mythic vision of tragic and transcendent Love; Man’s relationship with Nature or Man’s struggle on Earth; and Man’s sinful downfall. The images for my digital triptych were mined through Google web searches using its “Images” tab. My search terms were “King of the World Titanic,” “Chris Christie Sandy,” and “Rupert Murdoch Scandal.” I then further selected and edited images from the databank provided and pre-selected by Google’s protocols. The first search was a catch phrase that became synonymous with its source, the 1997 blockbuster movie Titanic that became an icon for both financial and cultural success. Many visual remixes and spoofs, such as cartoons, have played off this phrase and scene in the film. Meanwhile, the other two images were from major news stories. Chris Christie was the governor of New Jersey, when this past October, “Super Storm Sandy” hit America’s Eastern Seaboard with a mix of a nor’easter storm and a hurricane. Rupert Murdoch was embroiled in an international phone hacking scandal that resulted from misdeeds and corruption at his media conglomerate, News Corporation. As a result, a British Parliamentary committee required Murdoch to testify on the matter last year in 2011. Taken together, these images have composed an interesting juxtaposition or “remix” of shared cultural references.
King of the World! also considered how photographs, television and film (now all available online) have been seen as capturing and conveying reality. Photographic images or stills taken from the television or film have simulated a depiction of reality as seemingly unmediated. However, the pictorial frame, the authorship of the image itself, and the methods of copying and distribution all have belied an image’s ability to seemingly report “just the facts.” Yet, these aspects of authorship and control were not always readily recognized by the public at large. Notably, since these images were sourced digitally, they lent themselves to easy manipulation. By altering the formal aspects of these digital images such as color tones and by cropping, I hoped to make more apparent the authorial mediation that would otherwise be latent in photographs. These visual alterations highlighted the delivery of the images as artistically mediated, not just clipped from “real life” as it were. The source images were appropriated, but then recontextualized. This approach was similar to techniques used by Pop Artists, early video artists of the late 1960s and 1970s, and in net art of the late 1990s, as well as post-modern photographers of the 1980s. This method of appropriation reconstituted an existing cultural form through a new artistic frame by empowering the artist’s authorial voice through acts of selection and manipulation.
DIGITAL ART AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
The method of producing this work has also reflected a hacker’s ethos. I sought to produce a new cultural form by accessing existing cultural forms and technologies, but not out of an interest to own or to accumulate property. The programming software that I used to create the work was even a temporary demo version of Max 6, a proprietary form of technology. Hackers have wanted information to be freed of the confines of the “commodity form” and have depended on such freedom to allow them the access needed to produce new cultural forms.2 By contrast, a vector has been a means for infection and, as a metaphor, the capitalist vector has been a means of controlling property and has provided territorial expansion over the collective body of human creativity for the capitalist class. As McKenzie Wack stated in “Hacker Manifest [version 4.0]” of 2004, “Information, once it becomes a form of property, develops beyond a mere support for capital – it becomes the basis of a form of accumulation in its own right… [Moreover] A stock of information is an archive, a body of information maintained through time that has enduring value. A flow of information is the capacity to extract information of temporary value out of events and to distribute it widely and quickly.”3 Online culture and social media have made these archival and flow structures apparent.
When developing the World Wide Web in 1989-91, its founder Tim Berners-Lee had intended it as both a system for retrieving information and as a platform for publishing information; that is as a medium for archiving and for mass, user-friendly, distributed communication. Now, corporate interests and behaviors dominate the web. They have built and maintained the telecommunication and internet infrastructures and devised protocols to limit and to guide online audiences. Web searches have increasingly favored aggregated information that is sponsored by corporate interests and various forms of online media services have aggressively archived and hoarded information for the purposes of controlling information dissemination.
INTERACTIVE AND RESPONSIVE
As stated in Myron Krueger’s seminal essay, “Responsive Environments,” “[interactive] environments… suggest a new art medium based on a commitment to real-time interaction between men and machines… It accepts inputs from or about the participant and then outputs in a way he can recognize as corresponding to his behavior… Response is the medium!”4 In some regards, my work resembled interactive aspects of Myron Krueger’s Metaplay drawing of 1970. While my work certainly did not have the complexity to create free-style drawing in a fully realized architectural space, King of the World! similarly invited participants to interact with existing cultural images and one user’s input would build off the previous users’ inputs. However, in Metaplay, the initial images were made by another participant and users could interact directly with each other’s drawings. On the other hand, for my work, I pulled the existing images from a wider field of cultural production. Also, my work did not allow for participants to control where their text ended up in the visual field, and thereby prevented them from predicting or controlling where their text would end up in context to another’s text. This provided an interesting element in the work’s response to the participant’s input. This quality also reflected the ulterior mechanisms of control embedded in commenting structures, masked by its unassuming, innocuous, and inviting interface.
Indeed, my interest was not solely a formalist one. I also wanted to consider the commercial, social and political mechanisms, behaviors and structures embedded in its presentation of data, its interfaces and its protocols. As a work of art, it was not politically or culturally neutral, but neither was online culture. Following the shift in internet based art in the early 2000s, King of the World! was less about the formalist structures of the internet and more about how software art could manifest these increasingly corporate online behaviors that lay behind more recently internet developments.
Commenting online or through social media has exemplified recent internet and networked culture often referred to as Web 2.0. As Geert Lovnik has stated in his recently published Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, “As one of the most common (because simple) forms of communication, the practice of commenting is not only central to blogging and forums but defines the experience of social networking and twittering too (also known as micro-blogging), which are entirely focused on responses. These innumerable, mundane forms of public discourse increasingly constitute the everyday interactions of the online billions.”5 While borrowing Lovnick’s phrase “comment culture,” I have not focused on Lovnick’s particular interest in (what he has deemed) “mass hermeneutics” – that would be to create a process of archiving, cataloging, interpreting and solidifying such mass comment culture – to render these dynamic fragments of text into a canon and thus formalize them into a more inert cultural form.6 In this way, Lovnick has seemingly suggested a possible form of stasis for this ever expanding flow of comments. While this implication was intriguing, I more specifically examined behaviors and protocols exhibited by comment culture, though in this inquiry, Lovnick’s insights still proved informative. In my estimation, comment culture has related to notions of participation, interactivity, social media, surveillance and cultural production – issues that corresponded to our study of digital art and aspects of my work.
Online culture has not only provided media platforms and interfaces for user participation, but it now expects, if not demands our participation, lest we fall behind. Commercial platforms, including social media, have encouraged and exploited the eagerness of the commenting masses. This ever growing field of online commenting and social media culture has fed off people’s desire to create and to disseminate one’s thoughts, pictures and video via a social forum. New media participation has created an outlet for those who hope to garner recognition by others. Commenting has provided an affirmation akin to what Roland Barthes called in his famous essay, “Le Plaisir du Texte,” the pleasure of text, or rather the pleasure of creating meaning. However, as Roy Ascott was well to point out in 1984, it has not been the act of creating text in solitude that drives this networked behavior, but rather the active participant in the network is connected through a “the web of relationships” to other people, ideas and images.7 Given the current conditions of Web 2.0, online sociability has been highly privileged, though the network structure itself and its protocols have become dominated by controlling corporate and governmental interests.
With both the pressure and the desire to participate, online commenting has become essential for sensing the effects of our networked culture.8 Yet, in such a media landscape crowded with vast comments, many have been overlooked. Moreover, online respondents usually do not address or interact with each other, but instead speak out as individuals tossing out informal and/or uninformed opinions. Such actions do not constitute dialogue, discussion, or debate. Moreover, often neither comments, nor replies directly confront a text or artwork; in this context, this means a commenter does not specifically address an authored cultural form to thereby expand its cultural interpretation. My work obviously made a commenter’s text directly interact with the images, but that did not forego a conclusion that the content of the text would consider the images in any meaningful way. As Lovnick pointed out, while we readily present ourselves online for circulation, our comments and replies have rarely truly engaged with others, but rather they have stimulated and simulated online traffic.9
Notably, gate keeping also has been built into most commenting interfaces. Before posting a comment, you must sign-up, register your personal information, and be archived, just so you can be counted. The social media industry and other commercial interests online have promoted commenting as an aspect of free cultural production, but have mapped and mined the results for profit. Sometimes, just the sheer scale of mass participation has provided platforms for advertisers. Interestingly, comments attract an audience and encourage more responses. Crowds gather and mass psychology has tended to set in. What is deemed popular and current has an ability to “trend” quickly and to draw a sharp spike in interest via social media and other media coverage. What is considered old news or irrelevant has fallen to the way side.
As an anecdote to the current comment culture, Lovnick has suggested we need to regain control of our online production by developing better skills and tools for research and annotation that may provide us with more relevant information and enable richer responses to cultural interpretation.10 However, this would require a more considered approach to our current search engines, now dominated by the commercial interest of Google. Furthermore, other forms of cultural production could more creatively respond to existing information and other cultural objects, but this would require more accessibility to proprietary material. By considering these alternative methods of responding online to the cultural forms presented to us, the protocols that control our social engagement online have become apparent.
Notably, I have come full circle in my analysis and have returned to issues of cultural production and intellectual property in the digital age as a form of new media participation. King of the World! has attempted to highlight the tension between various forms of cultural production online. It concerned itself with the aspects of an artist’s own search through the online cultural archives, as well as the data mining conducted by corporations. It also addressed technologies of cultural dissemination. As reflected in its series title “Thanks for Watching…”, online culture still has to wrestle with broadcasting behaviors and structures that leave the audience passive observes and consumers of digital cultural production. Yet, online and digital cultures have enabled creative endeavors such as my work, while still presenting risks and challenges. As a metaphor for this situation, the mined images and the commenting feature must vie for attention in my work. By putting both the images and the comments in the same visual field, King of the World! has profiled the potential of artistic discourse.
1. “Bill Viola’s The City of Man,” Media Kuntz website, http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/the-city-of-man/images/3/
2. McKenzie Wark, “A Hacker Manifesto (Version 4.0)(2004)”
3. McKenzie Wark, “A Hacker Manifesto (Version 4.0)(2004)”
4. Myron Krueger, Responsive Environments.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort (MIT Press, 2003) 385.
5. Geert Lovink, Networks without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2011) 51.
6. Lovink, 50 – 62.
7. Roy Ascott “Art and Telematics: Towards a Network Consciousness.” In Art and Electronic Media, (Themes & Movements, 2009) 233.
8. Lovink, 58
9. Lovink, 52.
10. Lovink, 59 – 61.