Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sentences on Conceptual Writing, Kenneth Goldsmith

I will refer to the kind of writing in which I am involved as uncreative writing. In uncreative writing the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an author uses a uncreative form of writing, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the text. This kind of writing is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the writer as a craftsman. It is the objective of the author who is concerned with uncreative writing to make her work mentally interesting to the reader, and therefore usually she would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the uncreative writer is out to bore the reader. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to Romantic literature is accustomed, that would deter the reader from perceiving this writing.

Uncreative writing is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real intent of the writer, to lull the reader into the belief that she understands the work, or to infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of ideas the writer is free even to surprise herself. Ideas are discovered by intuition. No matter what form it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the writer is concerned. Once given physical reality by the writer the work is open to the perception of all, including the author. (I use the word perception to mean the apprehension of the sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both). The work of literature can be perceived only after it is completed.

Literature that is meant for the sensation of the ear primarily would be called aural rather than uncreative. This would include most poetry and certain strains of fiction.

Since the function of conception and perception are contradictory (one pre-, the other post-fact) the author would mitigate her idea by applying subjective judgment to it. If the author wishes to explore her idea thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decisions would be kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from the making of the text. The work does not necessarily have to be rejected if it does not look well. Sometimes what is initially thought to be awkward will eventually be aesthetically pleasing.

To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It also obviates the necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would design the work. Some plans would require millions of variations, and some a limited number, but both are finite. Other plans imply infinity. In each case, however, the writer would select the basic form and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that the fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible. This is the reason for using this method.

When an author uses a multiple modular method she usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.

Uncreative writing doesn't really have much to do with mathematics, philosophy, or any other mental discipline. The mathematics used by most writers is simple arithmetic or simple number systems. The philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and it is not an illustration of any system of philosophy.

It doesn't really matter if the reader understands the concepts of the author by reading the text. Once it is out of her hand the writer has no control over the way a reader will perceive the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different ways.

If the writer carries through her idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made apparent, is as much a work of art as any finished product. All intervening steps - sketches, drafts, failed attempts, versions, studies, thoughts, conversations- are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the writer are sometimes more interesting than the final product.

Determining what length a piece should be is difficult. If the book were made lengthy then the size alone would be impressive and the idea may be lost entirely. Again, if it is too small, it may become inconsequential. I think the text must be long enough to give the reader whatever information she needs to understand the work and framed in such a way that will facilitate this understanding.

The page can be thought of as the flat area bound by the three-dimensional volume. Any tome will occupy space; one must never disregard the physical characteristics of the printed volume. If the text is meant to reside permanently on the computer or network, its placement on the screen or printout is equally important. It is the interval between things that can be measured. The intervals and measurements can be important to a work of uncreative writing. If space is relatively unimportant -- as, for example, on a web page -- it should be regularized and made equal (things placed equal distances apart) to mitigate any interest in interval. Regular space might also become a metric time element, a kind of regular beat or pulse. When the interval is kept regular whatever is irregular gains more importance.

Marketplace fiction and forms of "purposeful" writing are of completely opposite natures. The former is concerned with making a text with a specific function. Fiction, for example, whether it is a work of art or not, must be utilitarian or else fail completely. Uncreative writing is not utilitarian. When poetry starts to take on some of the characteristics, such as staking out utilitarian zones, it weakens its function as art.

New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary writing. Some writers confuse new materials with new ideas. There is nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in gaudy baubles. The electronic writing landscape is littered with such failures. By and large most authors who are attracted to these materials are the ones who lack the stringency of mind that would enable them to use the materials well. It takes a good writer to use new materials and make them into a work of literature. The danger is, I think, in making the physicality of the materials so important that it becomes the idea of the work (another kind of Romanticism). It is challenging enough for the author to simply write with the rigidity of an idea in mind; add to that programming, design and sound and the challenge becomes insurmountable.

Writing of any kind is a physical fact. The physicality is its most obvious and expressive content. Uncreative writing is made to engage the mind of the reader rather than her ear or emotions. The physicality of the work can become a contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Rhyme, meter, texture, and enjambment only emphasize the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the reader in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an expressive device. The uncreative writer would want to ameliorate this emphasis on materiality as much as possible or to use it in a paradoxical way (to convert it into an idea). This kind of writing, then, should be stated with the greatest economy of means. Ideas may be stated with numbers or words or any way the author chooses, the form being unimportant.

These paragraphs are not intended as categorical imperatives, but the ideas stated are as close as possible to my thinking at this time. These ideas are the result of my work as a writer and are subject to change as my experience changes. I have tried to state them with as much clarity as possible. If the statements I make are unclear it may mean the thinking is unclear. Even while writing these ideas there seemed to be obvious inconsistencies (which I have tried to correct, but others will probably slip by). I do not advocate a uncreative form of writing for all authors. I have found that it has worked well for me while other ways have not. It is one way of writing; other ways suit other writers. Nor do I think all uncreative writing merits the reader's attention. Uncreative writing is good only when the idea is good.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Low Tech/High Concept: Global Events Shift Ideas about Technology and Art, Jenny Hager

Low-tech/High Concept outlines a current shift in ideas related to technology and art. This shift is attributed to recent world events and the cultural response to those events.

In a time of war, our president's recommendation is ridiculously low-tech, calling for duct tape and plastic sheeting. This seems a rather absurd response to the advent of war, but in times of crisis, it appears that low-tech is reliable and trustworthy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education's immediate response to the events of September 11 was to work with telecommunications experts to evaluate which current methods of communication would be affected in various crisis circumstances and then develop back-up systems that would include low-tech communications strategies and non-traditional approaches.

The events of September 11 have been deemed a highly efficient use of, "Low Tech/High Concept." The terrorists hi-jacked commercial airplanes using box-cutters and proceeded to fly the planes into American cultural symbols of power. These attacks weren't about access to high technology or warfare; these attacks were made by men who had an immense amount of determination and some kind of axe to grind. Professor Mary Kalantzis of RMIT University said, "Evil, terrorists, oppressors, martyrs, men of God--it was about meaning and humanity, not the genius or might and science of technology and the market which so dominates the thinking of advanced democracies."

Currently, the events of September 11, along with the dot com bubble and the downturn in the economy has caused an apparent shift in the winds that dictate technology as it relates to the world. This current societal trend is a natural response to the circumstances of which we live. It is no wonder that a concurrent shift is taking place in the art world, a re-visiting of low-tech/high concept ideals, in place of the former "technotopia".

Co-founder of MIT's Wearable Computing Project Steve Mann has written an article about the response to terror. Mann's article "Post Cyborg Path to Deconism" from CTheory is a haunting look at America post 911. Mann begins the article with an explanation of cultural ideas in a time of threat and terror. He says, "The cyborg-age of yesterday is connected with ideas of postmodernism, deconstructionism and posthumanism (itself, somewhat related to the ideas of cyborgism). But these ideas, along with culture jamming, as well as my own sur/sousveillance situationist street theatre, have become ineffective in the contemporary age of Terror. " He continues, warning against government high tech methods of "protecting" its citizens and postulates that there may be more "television cameras than television receivers."

This post-911 belief that low-tech solutions will counterattack terror is fueled by the belief that low technology is simple to control. Pre-911, this wasn't the mass cultural belief; in fact, high tech defense and security strategies were our focus. Strangely, the reality is that criminals, hackers, and terrorists all use low-tech strategies to breach security. Utilizing social engineering, dumpster diving and tailgating tactics, criminals, hackers and terrorists can gain access to privileged information, equipment and "secure" areas. What we discovered from 911 is that no amount of technology can protect us. And that in order to feel more secure, we also need to consider alternative methods of communication, physical security (the elimination of non-passengers inside airport terminals, for example), and using common sense. Here's a low-tech concept - we've learned to trust our judgment if something seems askew.

The point is high tech isn't always the best solution, particularly in the world of art. In The Death of Computer Art, Lev Manovich illustrates the two distinct worlds of the computer art world, which he calls "Turingland" and the art world, which he calls "Duchampland," drawing the conclusion that the two worlds will never converge. Manovich believes that the two worlds he describes have two distinct sets of values. One of these characteristics is the issue of content. The art world, as Manovich explains, "is oriented towards the 'content'" as the computer art world "is oriented towards new, state-of-the-art computer technology rather than 'content'." When speaking about ISEA and Ars Electronica, he says, "These gatherings do play an important function of being a buffer zone, an interface where the world of culture at large and the world of computer culture meet each other. Sometimes we even see artists genuinely pushing the boundaries of new media aesthetics, i.e. going beyond what is already accomplished by flight simulators, new computer games with their AI engines, MIT Media Lab projects, etc. In short, on occasion artists are able to compete with computer researchers, rather than simply creating new demos for commercial software, thus functioning as "memes" for computer industry."

Although Manovich recognizes the significant contributions of both worlds he describes, he concludes that ultimately the two worlds will not become one.

A year and a half after September 11, a society that once was driven by the same ideal as the computer art world, "new, state-of-the-art technology", now is shifting back towards the ideal of the art world "content." 911 shifted the values of a society once dominated by technology.

This newfound low-tech approach to culture can be seen in security, business, marketing, and in the art world, but September 11 isn't the only reason for the cultural shift from high tech to low-tech/high concept. Fertilizing the seeds of low-tech was the dot compost. When the bubble burst, so did our aspirations of a techno-savior. From a purely financial standpoint, the corporate backing for emerging technologies and technological research fell through, especially projects involving artists. Part of the myth and magic was gone. And how about the "culture jamming" that Steve Mann refers to? Isn't he correct in saying that it has become quite difficult to differentiate between "culture jamming" and "culture spamming?" Pop culture is inundated with technology. With all of technology's conveniences and advances, why do we still desire simple human interaction and low-tech interfaces?

Despite the achievements of scientists and artists alike in areas such as surveillance, artificial intelligence and VR, we still must leave room for the physical experience of objects and people. CADRE invitational guest Margaret Morse said, "Lev Manovich called this [the computer] the greatest art work of the second half of the twentieth century. I don't think of it is as an artwork. I think of it as a genius, but not as an artwork. To me, an artist would be actually taking us away from this and developing other potential interfaces."

Low-tech/high concept art often uses the natural world to reference the virtual world. Artist, writer and curator Beryl Graham deals with interactivity in her work, both high tech and low tech. Some of her low-tech games include "Cooties, Left Brain/Right Brain, and MASH (Mansion, Apartment, Shack House)." What is appealing about these low-tech games in particular is that they're instruments for engaging in random conversations. The games are made from a single sheet of paper and are free, interactive and accessible. They can be bi-lingual or non-language based.

Americans place a lot of value in technology, and that probably will not change. However, lately, more respect has been given to the experiential quality of engaging the physical world. When CADRE invitational guest Peter Lunenfeld spoke about his own project, Media Pamphlets, he compared the experience of reading printed material to that of riding a bicycle rather than riding a motorcycle. It's a different kind of experience, one with a different set of values and motivations. Lunenfeld referred to the experience as "non-motorized." He said, "You want an experience that you want to push yourself rather than rely on a machine to move you."

Spiritual, mental and physical health are also becoming more important as our bodies become more and more plugged into technology. People who work and make art through the use of computers suffer from neck and back pain as well as strained eyesight. Perhaps as our everyday way of life becomes more mediated, the artist's current tendency will be to move toward the natural world. In reference to Lunenfeld's Media Pamphlets, Morse said, "Maybe in a way, what Peter Lunenfeld was doing with the books reminds me of my own mood lately. My own mood is that I am drawn away from things that are completely related to media and computers and the things that somehow invoke that with material objects, and remind me that entire world is mediated and I don't have to look at the computer, move cursors, use my mouse, and all that sort of things in order to actually be dealing with a world that is completely mediated."

Pre-911, in conjunction to her exhibition at DeCordova Museum, "Make Your Move: Interactive Computer Art", new media artist Jennifer Hall, who received her master's in visual studies from MIT, was ironically giving advice to Patti Hartigan of the Boston Globe to "plug out," saying that artists especially should "be both inside of it and outside of it," in reference to technology. Hall is troubled by the idea that as a society, we are always picking up the pace, moving faster and further, always trying to get a step ahead of nature with technology. September 11 changed this, if only but for a fleeting moment.

Technology is a part of everyday American culture. Digital technology is familiar; millions of Americans own DVD players, cell phones, personal computers, and TiVo. The news uses animated headlines and graphics to describe war and local events. There's even a virtual first down line painted on the field during televised football games. Technology is omni-present.

Mann said, "Although the rise of dot commerce, and with it, the growth of spam, certainly destroyed the distinction between culture jamming and culture spamming, Terrorism, and perhaps, more significantly, the response to terrorism, have given birth to a new impotency of inverse culture." In a society that is entirely surrounded in technology, during a time of eminent war and conflict, it is a reasonable response to retreat to a world more physical and familiar. This is not to say that innovations will not continue in the world of science, technology, or art, but it does seem that currently there is a societal regrouping in its ways of thinking.

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