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Category Archives: Art

An Ode to an .EXE

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The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor it is the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. – Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (126). 

 

Audiogalaxy doesn’t exist anymore. The website doesn’t take you anywhere. There is no 404. It is just dead. The official Facebook page is down – only Wikipedia links and fandom pages linger. It is not coming back.

Audiogalaxy has existed in different forms and iterations. Most recently, it functioned as a music streaming service. It was a way to stream your entire mp3 collection (and multiple other file formats) and playlists from a home computer through multiple devices. A small program was installed on your computer with all the music on it, and it streamed it to your smartphone or to any other computer by simply logging into your account on the AG website. You collection stayed in one place and you could take it anywhere and everywhere. Logging into a website gave me access to the thousands of songs I loved. I didn’t need to install anything on an office computer, it didn’t upload my mp3 collection to a company’s cloud, there were no annoying or irrelevant ads, and it was completely ad free. It was, by and far, one of the greatest music-related programs I had ever encountered in my entire life. Its last day of functioning use was January 31, 2013.

Dropbox bought out the technology and the development team. It is unclear what their plans are. The Facebook page was very tight lipped about there being any sort of future for Audiogalaxy, but people speculated on possible music streaming being integrated into Dropbox. But, they work on a cloud system rather than flat-out device to device streaming. They do not exactly match in terms of technology or service. No one seems to know what they plan on doing with the AG technology or development team – not even Dropbox.  Fans were angry. While the page no longer exists, many on the Facebook page vowed to uninstall Dropbox and never use their service again.

For a bit of perspective, iTunes takes up about 200mb of space (for some reason) and comes with multiple invasive programs – some of which I don’t know the function of. Yes, it does a lot, but I’ve never had much use for it beyond playing movie trailers. It is too cumbersome and clunky for me as a music player, takes forever to load, and wants full control over your media experience.

Audiogalaxy is/was just a few megabytes and functioned beautifully – it made you forget that it was there and let you do your own thing, it simply helped.

But, there is more to this story. I had used Audiogalaxy every day for the last couple of years – but I had also used a different version of AG nearly 15 years ago.

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The original program and purpose of Audiogalaxy was very different. While it was always a lightweight, mostly web-based service, it started in the post-Napster craze of music sharing that took dial-up internet by storm. Napster allowed us to look for music and files we wanted, but it did little other than to help you find a repeatable file of a song you heard on the radio (and maybe its techno remix). AG was most useful for its ability to help you find the song, album, artist, or genre and link you to related content that you would most likely enjoy. In so, it provided a landscape of musical and artistic exploration. Before Napster exploded, young people either knew about the radio, from friends who happened to know something different, or from monthly mail-order music programs (who one time accidentally sent my older brother Cannibal Corpse instead of Red Hot Chili Peppers. We loved it). These were good ways to find something new that was relatively available, but not a good way to explore unknown aesthetics and possibilities.

As mp3’s became increasingly prominent, so did too the underlying system of labeling files. ID3 tagging helped programs categorize files based on more than file names (which were often wrong, inaccurate, or victim to trolling). You could now search for popular files in the same genre, file ripper, quality, or a variety of things. Lesser known and independent artists benefited from this, as people sharing files could help pass along something to someone else with similar tastes. Audiogalaxy benefited from this cultural process immensely, integrating it into their service. There were comment boards and community groups, allowing people to connect and communicate with each other, rather than blindly sharing. A group based on a genre could link to various artists and someone in that group could sample new music based on recommendations very quickly. I learned not just about new songs or artists, but the stories and histories of these artists and genres, how they connected to other groups, and perhaps most importantly, developed an intense need to explore and learn about the art I was consuming. AG is perhaps singly responsible for where my cultural capital is today.

I used the service rabidly, filling up my parents’ computer’s hard drive with all the weird and extreme music I could get my hands on. And hiding it at the same time, so they couldn’t hear how weird or extreme my tastes were. During a very important part of my teenage years, I found music that I really cared about rather than what corporations expected me to like (and purchase). And there was an aura of excitement to it all – not just listening to different music, but discovering it all. Unearthing the unknown. Perhaps it wasn’t the music that changed me, but the act of discovering it, and Audiogalaxy provided that in my life. It helped me develop my tastes as well as how I thought about culture and art – find my own thing, unafraid to be weird.

And apparently I wasn’t the only one, according to a Facebook fanpage.

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While users attempted to block downloads of particular songs and artists in order to extend the legal life of their service, people figured out loopholes around this process by being coy with file names and tag data. But, it was only a matter of time. The service had a relatively brief life (about 3 years) and the whole thing was shut down. The RIAA was particularly brutal and incredibly powerful, proclaiming that an industry was in mortal danger. Audiogalaxy was more than a simple program that let people send things back and forth to each other. It was more of a contemporary music service years ahead of its time – multifaceted communities, encyclopedias of information, and the limitless unknown pushing the limits of dial-up connections across the planet. The community aspect was perhaps what was most terrifying to the RIAA. It wasn’t that people were sharing files, but sharing ideas and aesthetics. Users were not only capable of downloading mainstream music for free, but learning that this music had little purpose in their lives, and to look elsewhere for new and different things.

P2P’s were no longer safe to use. Viruses plagued the unsuspecting  and people began to learn the horror stories of life-crippling lawsuits for downloading a single song. While Audiogalaxy attempted to go legit while teaming up with Rhapsody, the community abandoned ship. In 2002, BitTorrent was just getting on its feet, and people were beginning to get broadband connections as opposed to dial-up. Albums and discographies were able to be downloaded as opposed to single songs and people learned about new music from message boards and newly-developing “social networking” communities.

As a member of these communities, it was interesting to see how Audiogalaxy shaped me in comparison to others. I was able to track down obscure musicians on MySpace or talk about bands people might enjoy while on various boards. I found these artists in local record stores (if possible) and supported them through merch sales. The program, in essence, changed my life in a serious way. It wasn’t just a way to find music, but it taught me the importance of cultural exploration – something I missed out on from my small-town adolescence. I learned to not just be satisfied with what was presented to me, but to go and find things that I actually liked. As a consumer, I learned about why I liked things rather than just simply liking.

Cut to almost a decade later.

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In 2010, it took me by surprise that Audiogalaxy still existed, had the same loopy logo, and was providing an incredibly effective and free service, albeit entirely different than its original inception. Instead of downloading music from others, a user was able to stream their library of music to different devices. You could have an extensive collection of music at the touch of a finger on your memory-limited smart phone, or keep your sanity at work by having all of your music to listen to via a web interface. By logging into their website, you could listen to all of your music. Your computer became a cloud rather than paying a large company like Apple or Google to be the cloud for you. You had full control over your files and experience. There were no ads or algorithms competing for your attention.

In grad school I researched, typed, and graded papers in my office through insane A.M. hours while listening to black metal, dark ambient, alternative rock, new wave, comedy, podcasts, or any number of files without lugging around my laptop or needing to constantly update and organize an iPod through the horrors of iTunes. At jobs, I edited boring corporate blog posts and media presentations while comforted by sense of individuality and life outside of office walls.

But, this too was short lived. Audiogalaxy was bought by Dropbox in late 2012 and shut down its service entirely on January 31, 2013. No one knows how Dropbox plans to use the AG technology or development team, but fans are afraid. Again, years ahead of its time, AG fans fear that a company will charge money for simple and effective service that they’ve grown to love and use for free.

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I still have Audiogalaxy installed on my computer. Its little logo sits lifeless and gray in my running programs list. I don’t want to uninstall it. I don’t want to kill it. I don’t want it to be gone from my life again. To me, it isn’t simply a program. AG’s essence, its process, its community, its freedom, and its passion became a fundamental aspect of who I am as a consumer, a fan, and as a human being. It feels odd to suggest a personal connection to a program, but I don’t think I was ever more connected to an .exe file.

While Audiogalaxy taught me about new music, it also taught me about myself.

R.I.P. Audiogalaxy 2002/2013.

Planning for Burial – Quietly

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[I]t is a relief to have some utterly banal sound pierce the darkness that we lie in, and to jar us out of the hypnagogic terror that would convince us that we are alone with the phantasms of our minds. – Thomas Bey William Bailey (174)

 

Planning for Burial

Quietly CD reissue (limited, with bonus tracks).

Digital album.

Enemies List Home Recordings

Planning for Burial make an audacious claim – Death to false gloom. The credo firmly asserts the idea that “yes, this is all real.” This is not to be confused with doom. Doom and gloom may go hand-in-hand in some contexts, there are noticeable differences. The former suggests a noticeable reality, a pending and altogether real shift of the inevitable – wide scale and encompassing. Gloom permeates strictly within. A personal melancholy that is experienced by the individual. Though it is something one can identify with, one’s gloom is their own. That is part of the enigma, struggle, and beauty of Planning for Burial.

With contemporaries such as Enemies List artists Have a Nice Life and Giles Corey, or other shoegaze projects such as Sun Devoured Earth, Planning for Burial is a part of a prolific and engaging indie music culture. But, where Giles Corey might eulogize that “No One is Ever Going to Want Me,” the sadness of Planning for Burial seems different. Alfred Tennyson might have proclaimed that “’Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” Planning for Burial adamantly denies this proposition.

The metanarrative of the band supports this. One need only follow the band’s tumblr in the twilight hours to catch glimpses of haunting pain. Cryptic posts written in drunken hazes alluding to past events, impossible realities, constant hurt, and lost love. While some may only sympathize, being able to identify with the struggle is perhaps what makes Planning for Burial so mesmerizing. The gloom is real. All of our gloom is real.

It is perhaps an odd comparison to make, but I am reminded of listening to Navicon Torture Technologies while wandering around my college campus. While they sound nothing alike, Lee M. Bartow left the same impression on me – this is real. Songs of such inner-hatred echoed in my headphones as one man attempted a form of artistic and noisey emotional revenge. It seemed like the only way he could deal with heartbreak, loss, betrayal, and pain (his “Personal Apocalypse” series of songs really comes to mind). Listening to him back then helped me process my own gloom. I get the same feeling as I listen to Planning for Burial. As the band stated in a correspondence with me in late 2012, “[gloom] to me is about feeling…it’s a feeling that comes through me best through music, I believe.”

Quietly works differently than most PFB releases. The album Leaving often presents a loud, clashing, distorted drone as a sense of gloom. I have tried to share the beauty of “Oh Pennsylvania, Your Black Clouds Hang Low,” with others, only to have them be immediately turned off by the carnal screams within the first few seconds. Even “Humming Quietly” has a sense of immediacy and synaptic anxiety feedback that the album Quietly contrasts against. Herein lies the rather splendid way in which Planning for Burial is able to capture gloom – in noise, in quietness, and in the noise of the quiet.

A series of guitar notes, brushed up against and plucked, loom over frequencies in the background. Mild feedback oscillates between the delicate balances of here and there. The album itself is quieter than others, but “quietly” is an adverb and means more than the presentation of the music. The albums captures, in a sense, the ways in which those who manage the day-to-day, but suffer in the invisible heartbreak of life. The music is able to haunt rather than intrude, lingering in the listener like a memory. Its quietness is no less powerful, emotive, or deafening. The vocals are just within listenable range – there, but not quiet identifiable. The words are there, but you can’t quiet capture them. They drift, like a dream after you wake up, away from consciousness and into a lingering sensation. This is not to suggest that “quiet” is “nice” or “relaxing” or any number of positive connotations.  There can be a violence of emotion that is singular, personal, and hidden. The album forces a pain, luring in one with an aesthetic of ambience but contrasting with distortions, noises, and emotions. Quietly is an ethereal experience, allowing the listener participate with the quietness around them and the emotions muted inside.

 

 

 

 

Bailey, Thomas Bey William. Micro-bionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century. [London]: Creation, 2009. Print.

CFP: Heavy Metal and Popular Culture

 

This website is not officially related to the conference. I know a couple of the people in charge of organization and I am passing along this great call for presentations to any potential readers of the site. A link is easier for me to share via Twitter/Facebook than a pdf or e-mail.

If you have any questions about this conference, leave a comment and I will either answer it myself (as I am somewhat in the know) or forward the proper contact information to you.  I hesitate to leave anyone’s email on here without permission (besides where to send your abstract).

Heavy Metal and Popular Culture
April 4 – 7, 2013
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio, USA

The Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, in collaboration with Heavy Fundametalisms: Metal, Music and Politics and the International Society for Metal Music Studies (ISMMS), announce the International Conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture. The Program Committee of the International Conference on Heavy Metal and Popular Culture invites proposals for papers, organized panels of 3-4 papers, and scholarly posters. The online submission deadline for all proposals is 1 December 2012. The conference will take place on the campus of Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, April 4-7, 2013.

We envision a highly selective conference featuring cutting-edge scholarship on heavy metal’s many facets and forms. Papers will be organized into a single track of programming over four days—there will be no overlapping sessions. Featured at the conference will be keynote lectures by Robert Walser, Laina Dawes, and Keith Kahn-Harris, a screening of the film Motörhead Matters, three roundtables featuring Niall Scott, Steve Waksman, Deena Weinstein and other international metal scholars to be announced, and a special exhibit on facepaint and masks.

We welcome proposals involving all facets of heavy metal musical life throughout the world, with a focus on the intersections, circuits, and mutual imbrications of heavy metal and popular culture, globally and locally. We especially welcome proposals addressing the following themes:

  • Heavy Metal Consumption: In what ways has mainstream popular culture changed, prefigured or reversed the consumption of heavy metal? How has heavy metal, as a subculture, sound or style, affected popular culture? Are there new forms of popular culture for which heavy metal has become an influence? Is the intersection of heavy metal, popular culture and consumption creating new questions about authenticity, aesthetics, and soundscape? (In other words, what does it mean when obscure 1980s thrash metal tracks wind up on Guitar Hero?)
  • Heavy Metal, Popular Culture and New Media: Given the rise of new media for heavy metal (social networking media, music and video systems online, gaming, music downloading technology), how has heavy metal further saturated the landscape of popular culture? Are the sounds of heavy metal changing with new technologies and popular media?
  • Heavy Metal Clothing Style: From the fantastic costumes of bands such as Gwar to the ubiquitous heavy metal t-shirt, the fashion of heavy metal is a vital part of its allure, its popularity, and its criticism. Why is heavy metal style both controversial and popular? Where and how has heavy metal style intersected with fashion locally and globally?
  • American Heavy Metal Popular Culture and Its Circuits: From films such as Heavy Metal Parking Lot to Kiss’ commercialism and the Osbourne family’s reality television programs, mainstream American popular culture has held a particular fascination for heavy metal, fomenting moral panics against it one day and celebrating its integrity and authenticity the next. How did American popular culture and heavy metal become so mutually imbricated? Are American popular culture’s heavy metal appropriations altering the scenes in other countries and cultures? Do local scenes, including those within the United States, seek to resist mainstream popular culture or embrace it?

Research Poster Sessions
The poster format provides an opportunity for conference attendees to meet informally with authors and discuss research. Each author attends her/his respective 60-minute session, distributes abstracts, and answers questions. Supporting sound and/or video examples (on personal computers and utilizing battery, rather than A/C power) will be coordinated with other presenters once the Program Committee has formed sessions.

General Guidelines
Accepted presenters will not be required to pay conference attendance registration fees. The committee encourages proposals from graduate students and independent scholars. An individual may submit only one proposal. All proposals must be submitted through the online electronic submission process.

Proposals must specify whether the proposal is for 1) paper, 2) poster, or 3) either presentation format, the latter to be determined by the Program Committee as it builds sessions. Individual or joint papers should be no longer than twenty minutes. Posters will be organized in block sessions. For complete session proposals, the organizer must include an initial statement of 100 words explaining the rationale for the session, in addition to proposals and abstract files for each paper.
Include the following for all submissions:

  • Proposer’s name, e-mail address, and institutional affiliation or city of residence
  • 250-word proposal
  • 100-word version of your proposal suitable for publication in the conference program (.doc, .docx, .txt, or .rtf format). Include proposer’s name and email, and the proposal title in this file.
  • Audio and visual needs: CD player, DVD player, digital projector. Please also specify IBM or Mac platforms, and any special needs. Request of special audio and visual needs does not guarantee their availability, but presenters will be notified if their requests cannot be met.
  • Specify whether you are a student.

All materials must be electronically date-stamped by December 1, 2012 at midnight CST and emailed to Clifford (at) ucmo (dot) edu with “HMPC Submission” in the subject line and required documents attached. For further information regarding the submission process: Amber R. Clifford-Napoleone, Chair, HM&PC 2013 Program Committee, Wood 136B, Department of History and Anthropology, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, MO 64093, USA.

 

PBS’s Problematic Representation of GIFs, Culture, and Art

Works of art are their own standard of judgement. They themselves stipulate the rules they then follow. – Theodore Adorno (AT 243)

[Before I get into the article, I would first like to thank Douglas Schatz for allowing me to use his art within this post. I first saw the Off Book video on his Tumblr, and his comments inspired my own in a brief Tumblr exchange that became this post. I’m sprinkling in some chosen GIFs at random to help add some color and life to an otherwise long post. While one of my main criticisms about the video in question is the lack of alternative view points, I don’t exactly bring up these alternative points of view myself. His work helps to elaborate a bit on alternative voices, but there are many more types, styles, and aesthetics.]

Recently, PBS put out a short documentary about the animated GIF. This is a part of their Off Book video series that explores contemporary art, artists, and the ways that people share and participate with it. While this is a noble goal, I question the majority of what this video is doing.

This video made some rounds on the internet, partially in thanks to BuzzFeed and Mashable. I saw this video posted several times on my various friend feeds, and felt compelled to comment on it based on what little I know about the history and culture of contemporary GIF art. I have only been following the GIF scene for a year now after I was introduced to dump.fm by a friend of mine, but I have been following peoples’ art and thoughts on GIFs pretty heavily since then. The community is active, creative, but remarkably poorly represented because of this video. The mass exposure online through various content aggregates (like BuzzFeed – the scourge of internet journalism) only makes the problem worse, as the video’s ignorance of history and culture surrounding the GIF, the internet, and its related art scenes only propagates that ignorance to those who are otherwise unaware and watching due to mass exposure. While I know a thing or two about GIFs from being online for the past 15 years and following these new communities, I do not wish to suggest that I am the ultimate expert. I am trying to not put words in the mouths of the artists in the video, but rather focus entirely on its context. I do not speak for the GIF community. In essence, this piece is less about GIFs and more about the removal of art, creation, and expression from artists, communities, and cultures in a capitalist society.

Let me get a few things out of the way – the video at least attempts to explain, on a technical level, what the animated Graphics Interchange Format is (even though it fails to name the creator of the format…), gives a little bit of history about its expansion post-Netscape, and a humorous exchange about pronunciation at the end. It is a bit of a general overview, and not factually accurate in most cases (more on that later), which hurts the legitimacy of what these people are talking about. It does note a bit of historical context regarding the internet’s “abundant” (which is a value judgment I would prefer not to have included) use of flame animations and Under Construction signs in the early days of the web. Browse around on http://www.internetarchaeology.org and you will see what I mean, if you do not remember what the internet was like more than 10 years ago. However, the video is quick to trivialize these examples as lacking purpose and aesthetic.

I am not exactly sure where to start with this criticism, but I think it is important to set up a bit about the artists featured in the video and the production company in charge of the content.

Kornhaber Brown is the company responsible for the Off Book series. Though their website is relatively vague about what they do, they primarily develop brands vis-à-vis content creation for corporate clients (alliteration unintended). There are lots of lists of work, but few samples of what they actually do, but my analysis is leaning towards them being an advertising agency that focuses on content creation that does not call themselves an advertising agency because it makes them sound more hip. While its Youtube page states that PBS is putting out these shorts, I really question this. I have the feeling that PBS had little involvement in this process. Kornhaber Brown’s own website states that they prefer to do all the work, as it would no doubt keep an editorial stance away from their process. What we end up with here is an ad agency who makes content for other companies that ends up serving as advertising for their own work. There is no care in accuracy, need for multiple voices and points of view, or desire to create a product that is anything other than a quick consumable to link around for viral exposure – I notice that their staff page does not feature anyone who focuses on research. The company’s essential mission statement, as taken from their website (which I’d rather not link to, for political reasons, but it is their name dot com) says “We are primarily content creators, so we like to handle the entire production process.” To me, this says that PBS had nothing to do with this video other than that they hired a company to make some slick videos to attract viewers. However, the standards at PBS for research are considerably higher and they should take responsibility for their product.

Douglas Schatz’s blog post about the video points out that all the artists featured in this have major corporate backers: “Mr. GIF works for MTV [Viacom], Toper Chris works for Tumblr, Reed/Radar/Beck/Burg work for major fashion brands, etc.” This point compounds on the previous paragraph in really problematic ways. It seems like an overly careful selection of people – this is perhaps a conscious decision on the filmmakers’ part, but also a benefit of the money put behind these artists. Major corporations and those with financial power have defined these people as experts in their field and masters of their craft and therefore worthy of the attention of others. In doing so, the companies backing these artists have purposely eliminated the voices of others and have carefully controlled an aesthetic, and thus controlled how and where the corporate definition of art and culture is distributed. What a GIF “is”, “means”, is “capable of” is now established by Viacom et al and a form of art is transmogrified into a way to generate profit.

Prominent cultural theorists Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer discuss the problems with this in their essay “The Culture Industry” stating:

They [artists] are confined to the apocryphal field of the ‘amateur’, and also have to accept organization from above. But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programmes of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. – Adorno and Horkheimer (407)

Art and culture are victims to “the absolute power of capitalism” (406). This means that it is controlled in terms of production and distribution. Companies select who the artists are and they define what art is. Therefore, to be a “proper” artist, one must have a sponsor – all other artists are merely amateurs and thus offer no legitimacy in the work they produce or their point of view. Originality and uniqueness are spotted and gobbled up quickly by companies and become integrated into the industry of culture and are thus properly contained and controlled. Adorno and Horkheimer also note that artists are always a part of this system suggesting that regardless of having a contract, the desire for success and wealth is so strong that it becomes the ultimate goal, and thus are controlled as well. The final sentiments are perhaps a bit harsh, but speak to the overwhelming power of capitalism. Culture and art become products for sale and profit. Consumers buy culture and art because they are produced and made desirable and the companies profit. Let me just repeat that – companies manufacture abstract concepts and sell it at gigantic profits or use it indirectly as advertising. All of this speaks to the destruction of culture by capitalism, and one could go on and on about that, but I have other points to make.

Taken aside from the economic manipulation of our world around us, this process establishes a destructive hierarchy. Since companies can establish what is art, they thus define what is not, and with binaries comes power and privilege. If the cinemagraph is high art, then the flame GIF is trash. If cinemagraphers are artists, then the dumpers are not. 

The aesthetic is controlled in this instance and thus so is taste. This includes the consumer in the dialectic of power – one should only like what is “art” or thus be subjugated as a luddite. One should buy into Viacom’s GIFs rather than participate and make their own, because theirs will not be art and people will not like them. Capitalism has made liking anything outside of The Culture Industry dangerous to the point of heresy. The video is very clear in defining the flame GIF and Under Construction sign as garbage, rather than a part of the developing tradition of GIF art. If an artist creates something like this, they will be labeled as unsuccessful, unimportant, or simply just BAD at what they do. For the consumer, liking them in any way, shape, or form establishes the individual as a low-class, poorly cultured, misinformed, and uneducated person. They enforce their iron rule so that they only way to be proper is to participate, which means giving MTV money, participating in a capitalism system of standardization and pseudo-individualization. No one wants to be a juggalo.

Adorno is a massive pessimist, though. I think we can all agree that just because capitalism exists, it does not mean that art cannot also exist. However, his message still holds incredible bearing. All of this is just a framework based on the company making the video and the people in it – there is much more to be said, so let us dig in.

Within the very introduction, as we are meeting the artists and learning some brief ideological stances on their art – there are some fairly problematic statements being made. I am going to try to not be too nit-picky in terms of rhetoric (there are some problems with history and technology) and focus more on ideology behind statements. The majority of the creative forces represented here are immediately relating GIFs to photographs. Mathew Reed of Reed+Rader and Jamie Beck open the video by discussing photographic based GIFs, but dangerously balance the mediums they use for their work with the purpose of the work itself. Reed states that “the animated GIF for us was just a photograph that can move” followed by Beck’s statement “this is a photograph that is still alive.” Relating back to Adorno’s points above, what we have in the first 20 seconds of this video is a particular enforcement of what a GIF is and should be. A GIF is being equated to a photograph in order to establish a false sense of legitimacy of their own work, linking it to a historically established art form. In doing so, it is intrinsically linking their particular art with high-brow capital-A Art, as well as creating an importance in terms of political meaning and representation. If a GIF is “like a photograph”, then all of the importance of photography is automatically linked to their own work. In doing so, they are implying that anyone not working in photograph-based GIFs is essentially false and unimportant. Because they are working with photography, there is the implication of being more real, honest, or authentic in terms of their own work, which can carry a sense of legitimacy behind it. However, it also implies that no other form is capable of doing so, that a GIF of a splotch of rotating colors holds no value or purpose, and an artist attempting anything other than photographic GIFs does not know what they are doing.

Patrick Davidson speaks about the differences of GIFs between a Web 1.0 culture and a Web 2.0 culture. Web 2.0 as a distinction rather than a philosophical stance has always bothered me – what is the difference between the two? There is usually an association of socialness associated with Web 2.0, but the internet was always a social space, even before HTTP and browser-based surfing was the standard. BBS cultures were incredibly social, sharing, and had art scenes as well. Therefore, to say that art or images were pragmatically different is a little absurd. The historical notion of Web 1.0 being 30 years old is iffy and inaccurate, and enforces the same shift of power in the work of these artists, “ours is the best, theirs is old and bad.”

I will say, in Davidson’s defense, he is my favorite in this video in terms of his message. He is also been participating in the dialogue against this video in a very respectful and open way, and I really admire that. He also has admitted that the above his comments discussed above were basically due to a lengthy interview and a bit of tired rambling. So, I accept and respect his stance, but I think it is still important to comment within the context of the video.

What is being presented is the idea that GIFs somehow went away, or were deemed a bit silly (IE: not art, not important, not relevant, not profound) until approximately 2007. I think that stance is wholly inaccurate. While it may be true that I see more GIFs on a daily basis now, and that these GIFs are serving different functions than before, to suggest that people were unconscious of their potential is really hard to backup and statements like this. This false distinction make the work of these artists seem more important, cutting edge, and interesting, as if they caught on to something that we were all missing. Going back to Douglas Schatz’s tumblr post, he is quick to remind us that the conscious use of GIFs as art, in a contemporary context, is as early as:

2003-2004 culminating in The GIF Show at the RX Gallery in SF at the beginning of 2006 which featured Cory Archangel (who recently showed at MOMA), Tom Moody (critic/artist published in the New York Times among other major publications), Paper Rad (a collective that’s been killing it in a variety of mediums for the last 10ish years) and other artists who have since become very accomplished.

It also discredits places such as http://ytmnd.com/ – which was one of the first big social content creators. They have consistently used GIFs to demonstrate their work since 2000. Tom Moody adds:

A YouTube commenter made a good point: a successful campaign to discourage GIFs because of lingering patent claims may have put a dent in their use, but the patent lapsed in ’03 in the US. 4chan and YTMND used GIFs all through the ’00s and speaking as a maker/enjoyer of GIFs from ’03 to the present they never seemed the least bit scarce. I think this “return to GIFs” is a juicy-sounding story hook for editor types but has little basis in reality – GIF use has continued throughout the 2.0 era.

YTMND and 4chan are important to add here because they are NOT corporate spaces; they are places of social participation and transgression. The use of GIFs in both of these communities has been a staple for their entire existence, but because it is transgressive, corporations are quick to ignore their significance because they are places that cannot be controlled.

The idea of dating this shift in the purpose of GIFs is minimally important, I think, other than as a factoid that should be accurate. If one wants to look back at the history of the novel, some of the first books of prose narratives are questioned as being novels because of the idea that they were not consciously “writing a novel”. The idea of a novel, as a cultural object, did not exist. It does not devalue their art or how they made it, but simply establishes some historical cultural markers. While people have been making GIFs for quite some time, and some even doing so for the purpose of creating an artistic image, the idea of creating GIFs as art is something that is we don’t really associate with a pre-2000s internet. If I had to stake a claim at why, I would suggest the abundance of Flash during this time period, and how artists and animators were focusing on that, rather than GIFs. There is“bigness” to Flash that perhaps attracted artists with something to say who may have overlooked the minimal idea of a single image file. Because of Flash’s layering and animation system, one could suggest that Photoshop’s similarities made it so the skills of animation translated into the skills of image manipulation. As we adjusted to one form of creation, we applied these skills to others. One could also suggest that piracy was more difficult, and thus the software to make GIFs was more exclusive. There was also a lack of patience in terms of internet bandwidth speeds – no one wanted to wait around for a simple image to load when they could experience more content otherwise.

Nevertheless, going on with Davidson’s inaccurate history, he furthers his interview by stating that “[in 2007-2008] people start to realize that you can use GIFs for tons of different things”. There is a really important point here, but Davidson is not making it. In the open Google document transcription/discussion, Will Brand hints at it when he states “…like attracting attention to an ad, or getting someone to email you, or showing that your website is incomplete or…”. He is making a joke about the practicality of a GIF as an eye-grabbing ad, but there is something more going on. If, as Moody states above, companies were leery of using a GIF for marketing purposes in the earlier 2000’s, and people were “finding new uses for them” due to their lack of corporate attention, we can clearly see how corporations are coming back to the GIF in order to control the art and content created with them. If it is clear that people “saw the possibilities” because it was being ignored by the capitalist system, then it is all the more troubling that almost every artist in this video is describing their work in an advertising and marketing sense and we are not hearing any voices saying that GIFs are capable of anything else.

Davidson’s next point suggests that GIFs are more important now than before because of the ease of access to distribution, where social sites will host images for the user rather than having to track down an FTP or use the space of a message board. I find this a little offensive because it seems to lack a cultural understanding of internet communities and creators before this current decade. Personal sites were common, so was FTP access. Yes, it was expensive, but often communities were able to share through subdomains – this is how the creativity of the E/N scene flourished. Having a place to store an image is not a groundbreaking revelation to the internet, Photobucket was hugely prominent and free to use as early as 2003. While it is easier than ever before, not many people as one might think take advantage of Tumblr or Imgur as a host – these are still fairly specific markets. It suggests that there is something “special” to the now of the internet, and in particular, the established artists, that was not there before. Again, it is discrediting the content, creators, communities, and files of the past.

As far as Davidson’s statement about postmodern GIFs, I will just allow you to read the discussion on the debate page. I just do not see a reason to address it because it seems to be flying out of nowhere.  It is just an inappropriate and misinformed use of the word.

TopherChris’s segment follows, discussing the explosion of Tumblr usage. The focus on Tumblr is interesting to note. Over the last year, brands, ad agencies, and marketing firms have been struggling to figure out how and why to use Tumblr to reach its young audience. Now, connect that back to the idea that an ad agency made this video, and you essentially have a commercial for themselves as being hip enough to understand Tumblr and youth culture. Very subtle.

TopherChris does bring up an interesting point to the ideas of repetition and the ways context and meaning change over time, but it is dropped very quickly. He is, though, one of the few people to discuss ideas of humor, which has always been heavily prevalent in animated GIFs. There is a subtle connection to the creation and distribution of GIFs to personal cultural capital as well, but in a community context such as Tumblr, where it is more about sharing, I question the importance of origin – but perhaps that is the point? It is the idea of collective sharing, distribution, and participation that give GIFs their importance, particularly on Tumblr. I still really question the ways in which GIFs have changed over time as being something that is SO SUDDENLY different. I think it is a lot more subtle and slow than people are giving credence to. GIFs based on TV and movies are not terribly new , they have been around as long as we have had digital versions of shows and movies and imaging software – but, the way Tumblr users has developed this to fit the limitations of the service is more interesting. When Tumblr allowed multiple image posting without making a Flash gallery, which opened up GIFs to be a bit more than what they were before on the site. This is not a fundamental change in the file form, but a change in its delivery. Therefore, the fact that GIFs have changed is a sort of meaningless idea when it is more so the technology and websites that have changed. TopherChris is, at least, speaking about GIFs on a cultural level, but it is still problematically narrow in perspective. 

There is a very radical shift in the video at this point – where GIFs were seen as dorky internet fun becoming more something, we are now seeing GIFs as being declared high art. I have a lot of problems with this.

Pamela Reed and Mathew Rader work for the fashion industry as GIF artists. The artists are very quick to celebrate and discuss their own work with putting down any sort of stance on the development of culture in a greater context. “Douglas LL Cool J” notes this shift in tone and states:

It’s such a weird flip from “hey isn’t Internet Culture great” to “well, we get paid a lot of money to take pictures of clothes that 90% of internet users can’t afford”. If internet memes are meant to showcase the open and democratized spread of cultural ideas (no-technorachy bro), why are we focusing exclusively on production that is funded by one of the most closed industries. Given that the fashion industry has a long and painful history of hardcore IP protection, it’s weird that fashion GIFs are used as the prime example of art in the reddit/Tumblr culture where authorship has next-to-no meaning.

The point is apt. If you are discussing the GIF as a medium, then why are you focusing on exclusivity? There is not anything particularly interesting about what Reed+Rader do, the just throw a bunch of still images into an animation sequence. Where the limitations of GIF as art above focused on ideas of conscious art making versus casual GIF creation, this establishes the dynamic one step further. These two instigate GIF as high art by associating it with both photography and with the fashion industry, thus limiting the perspective of art and the possibility of creation. Because of their connections with other well-established mediums of art, they are able to include themselves in that upper echelon and damn others. More than that, there is a quaintness to how they address their outside influences. It is an admission of commodification of lower forms of art for the inclusion in their work for profit. Adorno addresses this concept as well by stating “if a movement from a Beethoven symphony is crudely ‘adapted’ for a film soundtrack in the same way as a Tolstoy novel is garbled in a film script: then the claim that this is done to satisfy the spontaneous wishes of the public is no more than hot air” (Adorno, Horkheimer 407). The quote does not fit exactly, as Adorno was a bit of a snob when it comes to art and asserted that all mass produced work was garbage. But, if we can suggest that that premise is outdated, and all art regardless of its class associations are equal, then we see a producer of art-for-profit grabbing something from culture that was made to satisfy expression, incorporating it into their own work in order to suggest some sort of appeal or market, and profiting on the works and successes of others under the guise of creativity and art. It is a bit of a mixed metaphor, but I think it works.

However, Reed makes a point asking, “Why put a still picture online now that the image can now move?” Is this not a rather destructive statement to what they actually do? Why put a GIF online if you can just put a on a video? The statements being made by these artists are going nowhere and offer no insight in what they do or how they do it.

Reed does add that there is some unfavorable editing in the video. She states “To us, it’s about creating worlds and characters, clothes just happen to be a part of that. The worlds of fashion, art and commerce are getting more and more blurred and what we are trying to prove is that you can work in all these venues, it doesn’t need to be so black or white.” Again, we see an established difference in terms of their work as high art through the privilege of the fashion industry.

The final segment of the video deals with cinemagraphs. These are quickly established in contrast to GIFs, and it makes me angry. I find many of the statements made by these creators to be somewhat deluded in order to serve their own established personas. Kevin Burg states that “I think there’s opportunities in this kind of hybrid medium to show people something they’ve never seen before. We have these moments that can just exist forever.” There are a few things going on here. First, Burg is quick to mention that their work is a hybrid medium, not the lowly and pathetic GIF. This connects to the statements above about how their work is more closely related to photography than to something else. Not only that, but the music of the video changes to a somber and serious piece. It established this form of GIF as more auteured and separate than those wacky GIF makers we saw previously.

Cinemagraphs focus their animation on a single element of the image, rather than the image as a whole. Why they would instigate that their concept of “a moment” is somehow different than a moment in any other GIF is a little absurd – time is passing in both, it just features selective stillness in one to emphasize that moment. Time is time. Paddy Johnson elaborates on this with a tongue-in-cheek quip by stating “Read: There’s something special about capturing a moment in time, there’s something more special about capturing three seconds of moment in time. No explanation offered as to why a loop is more interesting than a still, a short, or a feature. Not saying there isn’t a conversation to be had, only that one was never started.” The makers of cinemagraphs want to make sure that consumers think that their work is profoundly different from anyone else, but their explanations are hollow.

My main problem with cinemagraphs is the fact that there has been a very careful campaign to give them a new title and to make sure there are distinctions between cinemagraphs and GIFs. The concept of cinemagraphs privilege a specific way of making a file format as “art” when people have been making GIFs for 25 years. It has its own term because it does not want to be associated with animated GIFs – the very thing it actually is. It applies concepts like “beautiful” and “ugly” to be delineated in ways that are illegitimate, forced, and privileged. They get away with this due to careful marketing of their own work and its closeness to photography and the lens rather than digital paintbrushes and computers. They even enforce this idea in a more subtle context by not participating in the humorous discussion at the end of the video of how to pronounce “GIF”. Why? Well, they do not make them, remember?

There is a Tumblr that focuses on displaying the failed cinemagraphs of users in the community, labeling them cinemacraphs. This helps to illustrate the point of privilege. Burg and Beck discuss their work on some sort of elevated plane of existence, where it is a “magical warp of time” that becomes “fascinating” and “emotional”. They are also quick to point to their creative process, as Beck states, “To dream of something and then create it in a camera and share it with people and let them dream with you, just for a moment.” The word choices are elevated, and they associate how their work is created with a camera – a mark of elegance and distinction. While they use photographs (or possibly stills from raw video files), the reality is that it is simply a clever use of Photoshop layers and animation. Yeah, it might be slightly tricky for some (and you cannot just make them out of previously created GIFs, as the Tumblr above mocks), but its simplicity is something that the creators want to hide as much as possible. They want their techniques to be secretive and deceptive in order to secure themselves as achieved artists.

Each of their statements is littered with hyperbole in order to self-aggrandize themselves and their work culminating with the statement that their work is “essentially something you’ve never seen before.” The very idea of that is insulting.

While this is a bit divergent from my main point, I feel it is worth including. Tom Moody has a really interesting discussion about cinemagraphs in a post entitled “Hair GIFs and the Male Gaze”, Hair GIFs being a humorous take (credit to Paddy Johnson for the term) on how cinemagraphs usually seem to animate hair wafting in a nostalgic breeze in an otherwise still frame. He quotes Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.

Like the gaze of the privilege of patriarchy, the camera’s gaze enforces a system of power over women. This is an important point to bring up due to some of the statements of the artist involved. Beck states “It’s so voyeuristic. You look but you feel like you should look away, but then you can watch it, and then you can watch it some more and it’s like ooooh.” This is an oddly placed bit in the discussion and forces a sexualized perspective at the consumption of their own work. Voyeurism is that system of power that Mulvey is talking about, where the audience watches over the powerlessness of women and engage in the powerfulness of men. Moody adds “you’re supposed to be staring at her” and thus enforcing power over her. Beck seems somewhat oblivious to this connotation, which I find a bit troubling. They capture forever a moment of a sexualized woman, and she becomes powerless in her GIF form, forever victim to the gaze of the viewer. Its associations with the fashion industry just seems to perpetrate the power of gaze over models and the enforcement of beauty and aesthetics over women because of it.

Granted, this previous thought was more of a tangent. Someone else can go on and elaborate on this concept. It is valid and there is plenty to say, I am only piggy banking off of Moody. Please do not make me write another one of these.

The concluding points are brief, but also worthy of a word or two. Each point seems to suggest that the process of what is going on is “too new” to understand, “is art” because of their new uses in culture, or demonstrating some sort of fundamental change in ideals that are “more than” a simple file format. Nevertheless, the enforcement of this as art is still there, and with that enforcement comes the establishment of hierarchy that we can see demonstrated in this video. Why does it have to be “art” when Davidson seems to be implying something more along the lines of communication, expression, and culture and TopherChris equating it along the lines of cultural participation? The limitations of this video become entirely destructive to what is going on in the culture of GIFs. While I am more inclined to think that Davidson and TopherChris have more to say than the video allowed, the commercialization of art is heavy throughout, even in a meta-context of the company behind the video. It not only fumbles any sense of understanding to an artistic process, it completely misses decades of cultural development that is linking back to anonymous BBS art crews and beyond. This takes the easy road by finding the most noted artists rather than taking the time to research the actual movement and culture. The criticism and developments of the GIF scene, mostly done by the community itself, are entirely lost due to the narrow focus of the filmmakers.

The elitism represented in the video removes the egalitarian ideology of internet creation and participation and enforces a the importance of profit in creation. The fact that an ad agency is behind this video is troubling because it suggests obfuscates the idea that someone would make something without monetary gain in mind, the perspective driving the video is skewing the ideologies of the art and artists represented within. In doing so, they revoked the agency of creators that has been developing online as a way of rejecting the obsequious media industry that has been bombarding consumers for decades. We have seen the media conglomarates running scared about how individuals have been finding other things to do other than consume – mainly create, participate, distribute, and others. This is demonstrating a panicked attempt to bring in that outside creative force back into the capitalist market forces and in doing so, misses the whole point about why this scene is so important and cool in the first place. Technology does not make art – it is a cultural and personal process. A medium may be new, but expression and creation are timeless.

Here are some more links for further reading:

Paddy Johnson: http://www.artfagcity.com/2012/03/14/to-do-annotate-the-pbs-animated-GIF-transcript/

 

Tom Moody: http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/07/pbs-does-animated-jifs/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/15/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-2/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/18/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-3/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/pbs-does-animated-jifs-part-4/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/21/off-book-new-art-needs-new-gatekeepers/

http://www.tommoody.us/archives/2012/03/17/hair-GIFs-and-the-male-gaze/

 

Douglas Schatz: http://whenthennow.tumblr.com/post/18918438259/oh-god-fucking-damnit-why-do-these-uniformed-jerks

 

Google Transcript:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/15LFzToq8ouubPRBvLy2xqJHW2u13iL8rYvFdfoDpSSk/edit?pli=1

 

Sources:

Adorno, Theodore, and Max Horkheimer. “The Culture Industry.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. Third ed. London: Routledge, 2007. 405-15. Print.

Adorno, Theodore. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. C Lenhardt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1984.

My GIF to you.

R.I.P. Mike Kelley –

In 2001, I was 17 years old and a senior in high school. During this time, I was enrolled in AP Art (as well as other AP courses). I took several art classes in high school, usually 1-2 a year. This one was special though. AP Art was a course that people wouldn’t just take for no reason in particular, they actually had to care about it. Because of this actual interest in producing and expressing things, we were allotted an incredible amount of freedom. Some people focused on photography, some people did illustrations, some people did water color landscapes. The goal of the class was to have a little bit of everything, but when that requirement was met, you could do what you wanted.

I did detailed drawings of animal skulls on the bodies of stuffed bears with brown pencil on tan paper. I took photos of the minutiae of my life as a teenager. We did ink prints and ceramic work. But, my main focus was on acrylic paint on canvas boards.

They were these 12×10” boards of pre-made canvas, stored in these large moving cabinets that I had to maneuver and manipulate and dig around in in order to find them. No one else really used them, so they were sort of disorganized and scattered around in the storage area.

I took these tubes of acrylic paint, mostly dark colors – black, deep reds and blues, browns and I diluted them with water to various degrees. I discovered that this was a neat way to get a variety of colors in a brush stroke and throughout the painting depending on how long I had been using that particular color or how much water was added. It was a hard process to control, if you figured out the perfect combination of paint and water for that day, it would be impossible to figure out the next day.

A lot of my paintings were done in a single class period. The canvases were small, and the diluted paint made it easy to cover surfaces quickly.

I would sometimes draw these little scenes on the canvas boards in sharpie marker first. Just single panels of weird little dudes standing still. I never thought about it, just doodled a scene. Then I’d paint over the top and use a paper towel to soak up the paint over the people. This is not to say that any of this was groundbreaking art, it wasn’t anything more than lame high school expression.

I sort of just sat at the side of the room every day. I remember everyone else usually bustling about or doing something very serious. Here I was just doodling crap without any though and smearing paint over it all. My teacher had known me all through high school in the various art classes I had. She was tall, blonde, tan and a middle aged single mother. She was funny and always positive. I can’t remember her name anymore, and I feel sort of bad about that. Though my teacher was never a particular fan of my work, she allowed me to do it and she graded me fairly (probably more than fair). Sometimes she would just walk up next to my area and sigh about how she just didn’t get what I was doing – not that there was anything TO GET, but I could have been trying at something better. But, her complaints were always with a smile and a wink, and sometimes that is the great motivator for youth – an adult suggesting you can do better.

Eventually, she organized a field trip for us to a proper art museum – The Art Institute of Chicago. Since we were in the advanced class, she wanted to expose us to the huge possibilities of art, and to see things that would inspire us in our own work. Since it involved crossing state lines, we had to rent a REAL bus, which wasn’t cheap, but this was back when Clinton was in office and high schools had money and before students were educated solely for a graduation test.

I don’t remember the trip at all, but I remember the museum. I remember walking around alone, ducking down a hallway opposite of anyone’s path I crossed from class. But, in particular, I remember spending most of my time in their modern and contemporary art exhibit. There were a lot of video pieces there – a man’s face projected on a stuffed doll, answering psychology test questions; videos of clown torture; but there was much more. Sculptures made of twisted wire, painted boxes, abstract expressionism. One piece that I remember standing out to me was Kelley’s Eviscerated Corpse, seen above. At that time I wasn’t bothering to learn or remember an artist’s name, but I never forgot that particular piece. Not that it was particularly relevant, just stored in the back of my brain, nowhere in particular.

I remember some of the people in class scoffing at the section and making fun of how it wasn’t really art. I remember being angry at them. In the gift shop at the end of the trip, I spent what little money I had on a book that was about that exhibit. It was expensive, as things in museum gift shops always are, but I wanted to be able to take these pieces home with me. I still have the book and still look at it from time to time.

The next class, I remember quite vividly my art teacher coming up to me and saying, “You know, Tim…I wasn’t going to tell you this. But I looked at the stuff in the contemporary art section, and I saw people who do what you do.” She laughed and walked away. It was an admittance, of sorts. Not that I was suddenly some sort of art genius, but perhaps that things we don’t agree with aren’t always a waste of supplies.

In a very real sense, even though Mike Kelley didn’t hold a huge place in my life, he taught me a lot of things. It was okay to keep doing what you were doing, even if some people didn’t like it. Sometimes you need to open your mind a bit to something you aren’t familiar with. Perhaps most importantly, though, he reminded me (even years later) that it was okay to be weird.