Illegal Art

The archive becomes problematic when we deal with artwork which is by it’s very nature labelled as illegal. The legality can be for many reasons, but for the most part it boils down to too-restrictive copyright laws that prevent the re-visioning of culture. Happy Birthday is now in the public domain. That should be a cause for celebration – but for me it was a moment of depression – for it should have have been in the public domain for many, many years.

What happens to content that is labelled illegal? Where does it go? Todd Haynes “Superstar” – a brilliant docudrama of Karen Carpenter’s fight with anorexia told with carved up Barbie Dolls lives in a legal netherworld where it cannot be publicly shown due to music licensing issues, but lives on YouTube.

It is now a muddy low resolution version digitized from a VHS tape, which was most likely a dub from yet another dub. The idea of archive is challenged not just by legality, but by analog degradation and then further damaged by digitization in a highly compressed, low resolution format suitable for playback in a web browser, stripping the film of it’s original context. At this point it is a damaged document, the equivalent of scanned, low resolution digital copy of a smeared ink duplicate of the Gutenberg bible. It moves across medium to transmission through the duplicity of record/play to simply play. There is no more original, there are no more duplicates, there is now only the stream of data.

History is suitable to be subjugated in the move to digital space. The original is denied existence in transference. George Lucas tinkered endlessly with Star Wars – the original theatrical version (which is a necessary filmic historical artifact) was replaced with modified version on modified version. Releases touting that it is the “original version” on DVD actually are not- they are original in the sense of the auteur’s  “original vision”, not in the sense that it is a verbatim replication. A pirated release based on a pastiche of sources attempted to get as close to the original as possible, but it is ultimately a digital hybrid, itself “improved upon” due to “remastering”.  Media slips – to go back in time is to dig through ebay or amazon for the original release on VHS cassette, a mediated relic that is a duplicate made from a master tape, itself a duplicate. The original has been purposely eradicated, as with every duplication the noise to signal ratio increases, the artifact accrues new attributes. In a few years, it will be all that exists.

“…….. the media archaeologist Friedrich Kittler pointed out the differences rather than the continuities between memory media: he argued that analog broadcast media, which are linear-sequential and base their storage on the principle of thetape, should be afraid, for they would be swallowed by the Internet.” (Ernst, pg 116)

And this is what will inevitably happen with old media as it is digitized. It will be consumed, recontexualized, paraded down a hall of mirrors, self-reflexive, transgenerational and endlessly transmitted. The archive will be the unplayable VHS tape, the DVD doubly encrypted with a country code preventing playback, and the digital encapsulation of the media itself inside a proprietary container. Will it be possible to play back the movie downloaded from Apple’s online video store 20 years from now?

The historian will have to be a pirate. Digital Rights Management will preclude archiving, creating instant ephemera of digital media objects, locked down to a single platform, or through a digital delivery mechanism that may not exist in 10 years. Sites will come online, and evaporate in a barrage of legal threats, and with them the content will be lost, save for’s “Wayback Machine). Digital media will be buried due to loss of playback capability, loss of platform, or due to legal entanglement that prevents it from being seen, heard or experienced. The “old media” archives will continue to exist due to their non-digital nature, so it will be the “source”. Film projectors will cease to be made, as slide projectors are today. Unencrypted media will live in the “wild”, where it can escape capture, slipping from one torrent site to the other, with every takedown notice, a new one will pop up.


When I see Brancusi
His eyes searching out the infinite abstract spaces
In the radio rude hands of sculptor
Now gripped around the neck of a duosonic
I swear on your eyes no pretty words will sway me

Patti Smith “Radio Ethiopia”

RPC (Real Politik Control) Attack

Picture-11A friend of mine’s computer was compromised last week. They used an exploit that is hard to defend against, using the actual network connectivity inherent on all modern computers, which is what made it remarkable.

I am familiar with malware, spyware, viruses etc as part of my job. They are designed to do different things, but the unifying goal is to replicate, control or disrupt. In the case of my friend’s computer, the exploit involved using network ports on the host computer, exposed on the majority of computers (unless one is using a firewall) as a reflecting surface. Send a packet in, spoof it to seem as if it is originating from the target computer, get a packet out. Send in several packets, they are bounced back on the network, seen as legitimate traffic because they are “originating” from a “trusted” computer on the network. Do this with several computers at once, and the saturation of traffic grinds a network to a halt using something called a Denial of Service attack as the traffic bounces and multiplies. It is a form of swarm attack, and the goal is to find computers which can then be added to the swarm.

The goal here is different from a traditional virus attack. Instead of infecting a computer, which becomes a host for replication, the weakness of the network is being used against itself. It is an exploit that uses exposed ports on a set of networked computes in a sub-network to reflect against itself. One solution is to filter what the host computer sees by blocking ports, which also can filter traffic the user may want.

The lesson from this is that change often comes about today not from infection of the host, but through an exploit in the network. The overturning of the Defense of Marriage acts around the country were life-affirming – a push back against control. This used the judicial system that had set these systems of control in place to overturn them. Conservatives have a suspicion of governmental meddling, and here is an example of precisely what they would normally rail against – the Defense of Marriage acts were exactly that – governmental meddling in the lives of it’s citizens. There is an assumption of a set of conditions for control and dispersal that are not neutral for one instance, but are neutral for others –  there are flaws (or potential) that can be exploited (or utilized because they are not flaws at all, but resiliency in the network). It is not the individual – it is the swarm. Resistance is not futile, but (as Gallaway and Thacker propose) is replaced with thrust.

Reading this week’s assignments brought into focus some things I have been thinking about concerning my paper. It has to do with an artifact and what it means, both as evidence of manufactured culture, how technology shapes the document (and vice a versa), and as a virtual manifestation of documentation of a set of processes and rules of transmission inside a network. I am left with a question – what is the role of “culture” and “network” – is one a mode of transmission (protocol) that shapes traffic for the other – or are they two aspects of a greater thing – a mechanism of control.


If you obey society’s rules
You will be society’s fools
You’ll obey and then disobey
You’ll disobey but then you’ll obey
You thought your mom and dad were fools
You never wanted to listen in school
Now your mind won’t go where you want to take it
You got a ride but you’re not gonna make it
You’ll never catch up!
Dad, pass the catsup!
Clean that mess up! Listen up!

Devo – “Social Fools”

The Thing in My House

Robotic-Carpet-Floor-VacuumWe see through the interface of the surface. What happens in the interstitial space is us and the object. The interface is a Skeuomorphic, but that is gradually falling away with every iteration, were there are fewer layers (or more metaphors) between us and the task. The task is the core – the action that we perceive. The distance and time between action/reaction has collapsed, where we act on things, and the things act on us. The neural net is a loop.

There is an intentional blur between the hardware and the software. While computers can be reduced to the hardware that constitutes them (and perhaps indeed there is no software), and we as humans can be reduced to the minerals that make up us, the devil is in the details. There is a complexity that is at times breathtaking. The complexity is masked by a layer of the familiar.

it is easy to acknowledge that humans
are composed of various material parts (the minerality of our bones, or
the metal of our blood, or the electricity of our neurons). But it is more
challenging to conceive of these materials as lively and self-organizing.
rather than as passive or mechanical means under the direction of
something nonmaterial, that is, an active soul or mind. (Latour)

It is not my intent to argue for the existence of a soul, but something is there. There is a system. There is a relationship.

We build technology to be familiar because familiarity breeds adoption. We suspect that which is alien, but alienist is often the presage of the future. The context is additive, like pages in a book, building towards something, but in our case the last chapter has not been written. It unfolds.

Folders, sheets of paper, a cluttered desk, this what grounds us, the signpost that points us. The first generation Macintosh shipped with Audio cassettes and a truly excellent manual to guide users through a way of working with this device that was familiar, but new. The typography and layout was generous, the drawn images ample in size. It was consciously not like a computer manual. It was a humanistic book informed by good design. The book and cassette was a linchpin between the familiar and the new. The design was to be the interstitial to the interstitial. We leaped across media like a fish leaping out of a pond.

We are so much past that now, but perhaps we are not. The things we use will increasingly have the appearance of a life of their own, but like the windup cymbal playing monkey, the actions are elemental, the linkage is still there, the cymbals crash. They are agents. There is the effect, the action, and it impacts us. The loop is still there, but it is transparent at times; now these loops intersect in ways that are beginning to slip from our cognition. At times these loops between us are synchronous, and at times asynchronous. As Bill Joy once said, “The Future Doesn’t Need Us”, and perhaps that may be true. As long as the Nest thermostat has power, it will continue to adjust temperature. The whir of a robotic vacuum will keep the house clean, silent of the echoes of footsteps.

This is not my attempt to paint a bleak picture of the future of man-made things, but to recognize that we give ourselves over to these layers of action, where the action/reaction loop exists, but at times it appears that the relationship is changing. We live in a world of agency. Siri, Google and Cortana will offer us helpful advice through the sound of a quasi-human voice. Google will index all of our photographs for us. We can adjust the settings on the thermostat, we can decide where the robotic vacuum cleans the house. We still control the power that keeps these things running. Our relationship between us and these things has begun to shift, and with it we shift – to where i do not know.


The Fifty-third Calypso

Oh, a sleeping drunkard
Up in Central Park,
And a lion-hunter
In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen–
All fit together
In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice–
So many different people
In the same device.

Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle “The Book of Bokonon”


Guardians-soundtrack-499x500It starts with Ennio Morricone’s theme to “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”, crash edits into UK Sub’s “Brand New Age”, then swerves into a noisy, distorted version of “My Way” by Sid Vicious, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and from there unfolds into a stream of songs and chunks of incidental audio, including a segment from Sesame Street and a portion of a sermon by the Reverend Charles Young (“The Best Dressed Evangelist on Television” by his own account).

Mixtapes have a history with me. I began making them when I was 12 years old, with a orange Panasonic cassette tape recorder, patiently recording songs off the Armed Forces Network in Europe, during programs such as Casey Kasem’s America’s top 40. I discovered that if I put a piece of tape over the erase head, I could rewind the cassette a little bit by hand, and do a rough form of a mix between songs. In high school my friends would trade albums which we would record onto cassette, edit into playlists and trade back and forth. It reached it’s zenith when my friend Gary and I traded tapes with elaborate artwork, a mixture of music and found audio crammed into 90 minutes of record time (we didn’t use 120 minute cassettes because they were prone to breaking).

The cassette began it’s life as a low-fi recording medium for transcription (shades of Edison), but better tape formulations and innovations such as Dolby Noise reduction propelled it into a legitimate medium for music recording. It lacked the fidelity of LPs, but portability and the ability to record trumped vinyl, just as the MP3’s inferior sound quality trumps other forms of digital audio (such as FLAC audio files) because of ubiquity of playback and portability (file size in this case).

The mixtape as a cultural artifact is potent. In the early days of rap, cassettes were an informal propagation mechanism via DJ mixes, which were subsequently duplicated on boomboxes with dual tape decks. Many of these were mixes taken off the board at live events, such as show downs by rival DJ’s. It bypassed traditional forms of music distribution, connecting the artist directly with the audience. Unsigned artists would distribute tapes of their work, either as solo or combined with other artists they liked. These were duplicated and duplicated again on dual cassette players – the audio quality would degrade with every duplication, but the message was so powerful that it didn’t matter. Anyone could become a music publisher. The affordability of the cassette as a recording technology paralleled other disruptive technologies that became part of rap music, such as the Roland TR-808 Drum Machine, which empowered artists to create their own backing beats without the aid of traditional musicians. Cassettes were seen as threatening to the music industry (while they themselves sold pre-recorded cassettes) to the point where stiff taxes were levied on blank cassettes in the UK.

The physical embodiment of the mixtape has died. It is still possible to buy cassette recorders and players, but boom boxes with cassette are now only an item on ebay (the bigger and more ridiculous the better) or thrift stores. The mixtape figures as a key component in the film “Guardians of the Galaxy”, but as an arcane reference. Gone is the custom artwork and liner notes. It is not to say that the legacy itself has died; the authorship/editorial role is still there in other medium. Playlists generated on computers were never easy to exchange, so the leap was to online playlist creation. Online audio streaming sites such as Spotify and Pandora feature the ability to share playlists. It is possible to build playlists in Youtube out of songs that are posted as “videos” – an interesting subjugation of posting restrictions to make a technology do what they want. The mixtape as a physical artifact may be as dead as Edison’s recordable wax cylinder, but the compulsion to mix and share is with us today.


A bit bam-boogie and a booga-rooga
My cassette’s just like a bazooka
A bligger, a blagger, a blippity-blop
Well, I’m going down to the record shop

Yeah, and the boss said, “LP, single, picture cover or plain
I’ve got all the hits and all the big names
I’ve got biggest discounts in my store
If you buy three records, I’ll give you four”

C30 C60 C90 Go
Off the radio, I get a constant flow
Hit it, pause it, record it and play
Turn it, rewind and rub it away

Bow Wow Wow – “C30 C60 C90 Go”


Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 4.07.18 PMDouglas Englebart, the innovator that helped bring many of the components of the modern computer into being, talked about the “Augmentation of Human Intelligence”. The problem he was trying to solve was one posed by Vandevar Bush with his Memex. The Memex was a re-conceptualization of a machine for numerical analysis into a codified linkage of a slurry of data and information, made personal by our own linkages. The leap that needed to be made is where everything became data. The microfilm became digital, and with it came video, audio, numbers, text. At some level, it is all the same. We give it context in it’s representation, a tenuous bond to a physical object that has evaporated forever.

The superficial translation of the Memex is the Web, with it’s hypertextualized existence, but the reality is that we are not there yet. The web relies on predefined linkages that are tranversed; they are not arbitrarily created as an intellectual flow; we simply follow the bread crumbs. There is a sense of determinism in how things are structured. The hierarchies for their structure may not be completely cognizant to us when we look up something on the web, but they exist. The game is rigged. The web can only go where it knows to go.

With the previous technologies – there was an extension of the senses outward. Digital connectivity is as focused inward, for we complete the circuit of information. The language that is used is idiomatic, a combination of symbols and signifiers we translate through mental triangulation. The software determines what we can and cannot do, and we adapt, as we always have in the face of new technology. We see through the telephone, we are transported in space by the television. Our minds connect, transverse. We are the software in the machine, our cognition becomes the executable code ignited by the dead digital.

If the telegraph was an extension of our nerve net, augmentation is a seeing inwards. We hear and see in distance and in time (past and present). These technologies of the past collapsed time and space, and with that our conception of them. We thought in film, we thought in television, but it was a layer of linearity in our non-linear consciousness. The edits are of our choosing, we remember the film codified by our attributed meaning, the parts left on the cutting room floor that don’t fit. The veneer is peeling away, the nerve net is exposed. The dots and dashes codified to a new code, and a code after that, drilling down layers through language, impressions, imagery, imbued with what we are we are.

Where we are is only the beginning. It is not personal yet. The resolution is still low. We can capture more colors than we can see, and the frames flicker past at a rate that is beyond our ability to discern the quantification of motion in individual frames. The data is structured in a relational database of fluid cells, where the linkages spill one into the other. There are smatterings of it here and there, but the connectedness is still partially externalized. Englebart’s Augmentation is only just begun.

I should probably end this by saying that I continue to believe we can actively choose the world we want to live in. This may be delusional thinking on my part. Do I want to be part of the machine? No. Do I want to become software? No.


Please could you stop the noise, I’m trying to get some rest
From all the unborn chicken voices in my head
What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)
What’s that…? (I may be paranoid, but not an android)

Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”

I Can See You

picphoneAt the 1964 World’s Fair AT&T showed off the PicturePhone. While it was not the first marriage of the telephone and television, it was significant because AT&T intended to make it available as a commercial product. It featured a futuristic design, and fair goers could use it to see each other over a short distance. It completed a vision of two way television communication that went back for years…..back to the inception of television itself.

I was part of that era where it was taken for granted that we would eventually have such a technology. Dick Tracy’s wrist television. Numerous science fiction movies featuring two way conferencing going back decades. I remember seeing it in a Flash Gordon serial featuring interplanetary visual communication. I was a technology and science geek as a kid, so it of course fascinated me.

So the question begs to be asked, what happened? There is of course the technical issues that prevented it from becoming reality. AT&T’s system required special leased lines for two way conferencing, and the Picturephone itself was expensive to rent (back then, you rented telephony technology, not buy it). But I think there are other reasons at play here. It has to do with a sense of proximity and connectedness.

Proximity is the sense of being with someone. We are used to the false proximity with the telephone. It is a intermediary that feels transparent to us – we listen through the technology. It is intimate in that the receiver is against our ear. I imagine the person in the room with me, the expression on their face as they talk. I fill in the gaps that are missing. I think this is a key reason the PicturePhone failed – beyond people they knew – they simply didn’t want that kind of intimacy with those they didn’t know.

We would think that the PicturePhone would enhance this feeling of proximity, but there was still something artificial about it. I felt it many years ago when I used teleconferencing systems in meetings. It felt fake. I sat several feet away, talking to a screen. The way the camera was arranged, the person on the other end was not looking me in the eye. The illusion was obvious by the intermediary of television, where we know what is on the surface is not real, but an illusion. It was hard to escape that feeling. But now – many years later – I do teleconference, but in only one way. On my phone or my computer. I regularly ichat with people – such as my nieces who live 5 hours away. It is natural for them, and holding my phone a foot or so from my face, it feels intimate for me. The arrangement of the camera to the screen refocuses the eye so that I make contact.

Connectedness is the sense of physical/technical connectedness (network) and mental connectedness, and these two are tightly linked – as the network extends us. The PicturePhone failed because it required a networking topology that was not ubiquitous. There was little appeal to pay for an additional service that only a few could afford. The topology kept it out of reach of most people, a classic chicken and the egg problem.  Ubiquitous networking (ironically, wired computer networking is called Ethernet) changed it’s use, for now it was all just a stream of data – the data network itself does not discriminate, and it is always available. With technical connectedness comes mental connectedness (we hear and see through the ether). My iphone is constantly with me. It feels like an extension of me. The topology is an extension of my senses. In addition, this connectedness extends to those I feel connected to. I typically do not want to videoconference with those that I do not feel connected to. Someone at work calls me with a problem they want me to solve. I am not interested in videoconferencing with them. My nieces – I do, because we are separated by distance, and the video layer collapses that distance.

I grew up in era where the videophone felt inevitable, but like many innovations, it had to come from outside. The telephone company wasn’t successful with it. Radio was not invented by telegraph companies. Television was not invented by those in film…..lineage has been covered in the readings for this week. The center is often not as interesting as what lies outside.


Action, time and vision
Action, time and vision
Everything’s as clear as time
See the movement, see the mime
We’re in vision and the four boys crack
In ATV, V, V, V, V, V, V
Action, time and vision
Action, time and vision

Alternative TV – Action Time and Vision

The Grounded Wire

The Grounded Wire

circuitThe fragmentation of American politics today is rooted in the speed and ubiquity of the wire. It began with the telegraph – “It decentralized the newspaper world so throughly that uniform national views were quite impossible, even before the Civil War”.  (Mcluhan pg 257). These fragments take shape, coalesce around gravitational forces of reflexive media.

“The public character of parliamentary deliberations assured public opinion of its influence; it ensured the connection between delegates and voters as parts of one and the same public. (Habermas, pg 83).”  The wire connects. It does not discriminate on the traffic, but it becomes an instantaneous semaphore signaling via coded messages that flicker across distances. Time collapses where reaction is in seconds. In the last few days, we have seen a drama unfold where the position of the speaker of the house is in a state of flux. Innuendo is broadcast and a potential candidate steps aside. The message was indeterminate, encoded in a way to cast suspicion without actually bearing any scrutiny, a piece of flash paper that dissolves in a puff of smoke. The wire grounds the circuit; the energy is diverted away.

The mirror is crack’d. It reflects an idealized vision that can never be realized, a Camelot that is but a projected image filtered on a screen. The result is an endless surge of more opinion, calls of insurgency, a realized shutdown and showdown. The river is broad, but filters into narrow tributaries where the water eddies. We touch the wire, it pulses in a rhythm that meets with our consciousness, filtered messages that speak the words of an mediated authority we imagine to be in front of us, but is not here.


And through the wire You are secure
And through the wire We can talk
And through the wire We can walk
And through the wire We’re clinging like leeches
And through the wire We push out tailormade speeches
And through the wire We get so strange across the border
We get so strange across the border

Peter Gabriel: “….and through the wire”