Articles – Issue 26 Online Journal of New Media Tue, 09 Dec 2014 00:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mr. Kurtz, I Am a Tool Mon, 12 Jan 2009 18:05:58 +0000 As you might have taken notice, this month marks a kind of new resolution in the SWITCH Journal. After more than a decade major changes are a foot and I am considering a resolution of my own, a new start that is inspired by Steve Kurtz’s Autumn lecture at University of California Berkeley. In this review Kurtz’s lecture, I am asking for an absolution. I beg your indulgence, dear reader, I have to confess that: Steve Kurtz makes me feel like a tool. A tool of economic systems, employment, religion, the market, and that amazingly hegemonic institution of education. I am without a doubt quite infatuated with the systems of civilization and the rule sets which constructs it. Academia’s model has led me to apprentice under many very influential and knowledgeable mentors. The benefit, of course, is that the model has led me to apprentice under many very influential and knowledgable mentors and has allowed me to become conversant with the professional practices I am pursuing. Looking critically at authoritarian structure, I have always seen that my participation as an excellent opportunity to learn, a didactic moment where I can fully engage and voice my politics (if you want to be smart, hang out with people smarter than you). Kurtz’s discussions about the micro-fascisms that can develop from losing perspective through this practice have created a small crisis and re-evaluation of these beliefs.

Many of my left leaning colleagues can tell you what a shill I can be. Such as the way I stood up at a national arts conference and pre-ambled  “I am here to defend the market…” in response to a particularly acrimonious and vicious critique of the excesses of industry and business. And I have debated countless times that the culture of the arts has an automatic and reactionary mistrust of dominant culture directly founded in the Modernist traditions without a truly critical update for this century. And yet I cannot help but feel puny and complicit in seeing the ramifications of Kurtz’s experiences in stepping slightly outside norm.

Kurtz did not immediately cut to his very well-known saga with the NSA and the Attorney General’s office. Instead, Kurtz started by exploring a lineage of his projects that interrogated the edges of the very narrow strip of ‘acceptable behavior’. He brought to light the Foucaultian ideas of the internalized control mechanisms known as micro-fascisms; Kurtz made quite a good case about the tragedy in self-regulation: a tragedy of self-censorship in order to continue to interface the invisible mechanisms that hold society together. 

Stepping over the boundary is really easy, Kurtz contends. And he demonstrated that it doesn’t take much more than an adult man playing with Hot Wheels toy cars on a city sidewalk to elicit an immediate sanction by law enforcement officers. The execution of swift sanctions by the military, police, politics, and the economy against those who step over the border of the hegemony can quickly train the ‘good citizen’. This conditioning can become engrained very quickly because of course the sanction usually leads to a loss or exclusion from the beneficial attributes of belonging to society. 

Thus an internalization of the ‘power’ becomes a selfish survival mechanism that also has a chilling effect on our creativity and freedom: an internal dialogue in which we can limit our own exploration of our discipline. Kurtz told a story about one of his travels in Europe; he had identified the perfect location to site his performance: a tower in the city center and connected with the city government. Immediately, he thought his project, using the tower to release microbes, was an outrageous request and had decided not to pursue it. Within his own mind a small fascist voice said “They’ll never let you do that.” Luckily, the curator assured Kurtz that they should try. The city council did approve it because, they were approached reasonably and understood that it was an artist performance. This is the internalized voice of authority and we can hear it say, “We can’t ask for that! They will never let us into city hall.” 

The automatic silence of the creative, critical, and vital voice by these internal dialogues is tragic; it is a paralysis of creativity. 

“It doesn’t have to be some kind of radical speech, it can be something very simple like we apologize for the sewage flowing around in the harbor.”

Kurtz posited that the spectrum of acceptable behavior is narrowing and is continuing to do so. The rise in fundamentalist sentiment since 2001 is not just confined to religious organizations. The fear of the ‘unknown’ has created ludicrous reactions in secular government as well. Loosely written and even more loosely interpreted acts such as the ‘Patriot Act’ threaten all of our freedoms. The threat is not limited to the novice practitioners like myself. You might have more than a decade of published work using biology and still be detained by the FBI and charged with ‘bioterrorism’ and threatened with twenty years in prison. A reification of the micro-fascisms; another lesson in how to be ‘the good citizen’.

And so I confess to you, the readers and the artists. I am guilty of silencing myself when I should have spoken my mind. I am guilty of asking permission. I am guilty of not asking permission because it was an outlandish idea. I am guilty of fearing to place an electronic device in public. 

It has never been more important to teach critical thought. It has never been more important to practice critically. For my absolution, I promise to play with toy cars on the sidewalk in front of Starbuck’s and release mists from the highest balconies at San Jose State, and leave little mysterious gadgets on the local bus. Please tell me what you will do.

My apologies, 

Thomas Asmuth


Steve Kurtz’s lecture at ATC can be watched in it’s entirety at:
photo courtesy of Eileen Chen photo courtesey of Eileen Chen

Chance Operations Mon, 12 Jan 2009 17:43:46 +0000 Chance Operations

In Fall 2008, I co-curated a one-night exhibition and performance event on the theme of chance. In this essay, I describe the projects in the show and present documentation, focusing on the innovative use of media and approaches to chance as structure. The project took place at the Climate Theater in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood and was organized by the Climate Curatorial Collective, which for this project included co-curators Victoria Heilweil, G. Cole Allee, Jen Cohen, Brendan Leonard, Kaliisa Conlon, and Liena Vayzman. “Chance Operations” presented 14 projects that engage the theme of chance in practice, process, motif, presentation or execution. As we approached the US presidential election, the artists in this one-night exhibition and performance event interrogated the line between the random and predetermined through video projection, interactive sculpture, multi-media performance and visual art.

Chance as a structural operation in art spans a renowned modernist history including the Surrealists’ passion for the ‘chance encounter of an umbrella and sewing machine on a dissection table’ and love of randomly generated works such as the exquisite corpse and automatic writing, Dada linguistic games, Marcel Duchamp’s found objects, John Cage’s sound compositions and the postmodern dances of Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer. The Chance Operations exhibition injected a technological update into this history by creating a space and time for 21st century work to unfold in the intersecting arenas of digital video, live human movement, social interaction, cell phone divination, live capture video loop, and other innovative permutations of human-technological chance encounters. The fact that the event took place for one night only intensified the ephemeral and unrepeatable nature of the projects and social interactions. An atmosphere of excitement and chance interaction permeated the various rooms of the Climate Theater and adjoining Gallery Nine spaces.

Chance Operations artists’ raw materials spanned from the low-tech stuff of daily life — recycled paper, social rituals, physical interactions, card games — to the high-tech — multimedia digital processing and manipulation using the latest in digital technology. From Luis Delgado’s loteria card performance and Double Vision’s randomly generated dance to Victor Cartagena’s interactive video and Lynne Marie Kirby’s chance-spurred “Meltdown,” the artists in the show played with elements of chance, probability, or divination

Double Vision’s “Veritable Vicissitude” performance used chance elements to enable the audience to create a dance work in real time. One performer lead a game of Connect Four for attendees. By playing the game, attendees were given a winning card to apply to the dancers. Audience members with winning cards were be able to move individual dancers to a certain cell (i.e. A3) and then present them with a game card marked with a symbol for the phrase the dancer then performed. In this way, audience members collaboratively or independently create new choreographic works by directing location and phrasing of all the dancers. Both the audience and the dancers thus engaged in chance operations.

Similarly engaging visitors as active participants in the creation of experience, Kathleen Quillian and Gilbert Guerrero’s “Open Composition for an Indeterminate Social Ensemble” imbued an element of chance into the social ritual of drinking wine at art gallery events. Prior to the event, the artists placed stickers containing one word each from an undisclosed body of text onto the plastic beverage cups used to serve wine at the Chance Operations event. Throughout the night, as beverages were served and people moved around the galleries, the words on the cups took on new linguistic and social meanings in response to the random configuration of the words and the changing contexts of the word possessors.

In Tim Thompson’s “Captured Accidents,” a handheld security camera was attached to a game controller, which let the artist start and stop the recording of video and allowed the overlay of up to four video loops, which are processed and projected live. Moving among the Double Vision dancers and audience members, Thompson captured, overlaid, and digitally processed video of chance images and movements. The video post-processing was affected in random ways by pressing buttons on the game controller, resulting in a live interactive fusion of chance and choice. Marguerite Harris and Louis Rawlins’ immersive video environment, installed in the stairway where visitors entered the space, pivoted on a time-lapse delay between video input and output, allowing a playful interaction with the technology and chance immersion in the resulting projection.

Mary Franck’s “Anomaly” is an interactive adaptive sculpture/installation that acts as a sound generator and controller. The sculptural component is large tree made of welded and bolted scrap bicycle parts and pipe. Bike wheels in the horizontal plane, suggesting branches, are fitted with magnets and sensors, allowing them to act as the giant knobs of a huge electronic instrument. The sensors on the wheels connect to a MIDI controller, which connects to a computer. Max/MSP patches manipulate sounds entirely sampled live at the event, responding to the aural texture of the sampled environment and controlled in a complex way by individuals’ voices and physical manipulation of the bike wheel ‘branches’.

Kirkman Amyx explored the mathematical dichotomy between chance and predictability in “10,000 Dice Rolls.” The artist photographed the outcome of 10,000 individual rolls of a single dice. Each dice was allowed to fall from a predetermined height, landing randomly. Utilizing the 10,000 resulting digital images as data, Amyx compiles various photographic composites and a 6-minute video as visual manifestations of the experiment. The result is an engaged metaphorical inquiry into chance and probability in all aspects of life, from the prosaic to the cosmic. Working with the chance elements and interruptions of the sleep cycle, Valerie Mendoza’s photographic installation “Insomnia: 279 Days” presents flat bed scans of the artist’s face and body parts, reenacting sleepless nights. Each image is numbered sequentially, as if imposing a numerical order and control on an otherwise disordered system of logic. Besides each number appears a word or phrase from the artist’s journal.

Alan Disparte’s “Stenograft” sculptural/video installation with sound documented the motion of a three-dimensional wire armature holding a stick of graphite and driven by a series of sounds to create a two-dimensional drawing. As the sounds deepen, the resulting drawn line becomes symmetrically replicated. The evolution of image and sound create visual and auditory complexity, referencing cell division and time compression.

In the recycled paper installation “the air we breathe.. a prelude to FREE ” Niki Shapiro invoked chance through strict parameters following string theory model to transform pages of colorful consumer catalogs into airy abstract sculptural forms. The resulting cluster of air balls and wall of paper shapes appears biomorphic at a distance, but reveals traces of the source media on closer inspection. In addition, Shapiro made and distributed recycled catalog-page flower boutonnieres, functioning as time capsules and fortunetellers at once. Beth Lilly’s “Oracle @ Wifi” (the title is a pun on the ancient Greek Oracle at Delphi) intersects fortunetelling with the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. Lilly has created a system of visual divination using her cell phone to create images in response to anyone who calls in and requests a reading for a particular question – on the seventh day of every month. Instead of shuffling a deck of Tarot cards, chance imagery is created by the artist’s constant shifting of location. Callers keep their question secret until after the artist takes three photographs and emails them to the asker, who then reveals their question.

Liena Vayzman

Text copyright Liena Vayzman 2008, All rights reserved

Submitted to Switch, SJSU online journal, Oct. 30, 2008