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Category Archives: Media

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.

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.

Review – The Rock-afire Explosion

The show was really for me. I wanted it so Showbiz Pizza Place could never be took away from me again, because it was always going to be mine.” – Chris Thrash

The Rock-afire Explosion (2008) is a documentary about a very specific and possibly entirely unknown fandom. Showbiz Pizza was a regional pizza and arcade chain that was scattered across the U.S. It was sort of like Chuck E. Cheese, but slightly different. What is particularly special about Showbiz Pizza, and the focus of this documentary, is an animatronic band called The Rock-afire Explosion that played shows for kids. These were robotic animals programed to play unique songs and skits every hour or so while families ate their generic pizza and drank soda when not throwing skeeballs for tickets to earn lame prizes.

Documentaries about fandom tend to focus on the extremities that people go through for something they love. This obsession, whatever it may be (and I do not use obsession pejoratively in this article) is generally something that few people can identify with outside of the particular fandom in question. Generally, if the documentary well planned, it will demonstrate that these fans are not as crazy as we think, and that the viewers will learn something about themselves through the people in the film. This one accomplishes that, as well as providing a history about a rather limited topic – Showbiz Pizza and the animatronic band The Rock-afire Explosion.

It is hard to describe a place like this, because they have not really been prominent in American culture for about 20 years. Chuck E. Cheese still floats around in the landscapes of suburbia, but not at all to the same degree as the 1980s. It was a pizza place – because all kids love pizza. It was an arcade – because all kids love video games. There were prizes – because all kids love prizes. It basically hits all the notes of happiness for children. Showbiz Pizza’s slogan used to be “Where a kid can be a kid,” but these sorts of cultural spaces of childhood have been replaced by other elements of consumption and entertainment. Arcades proved to be too costly of an investment for most places, and few have survived over the years – those that did have specialized in some way in order to stand out. Since Showbiz was an arcade attached to a restaurant, they lost money even faster, as they had to compete against pizza chains that provided better pizza delivered to the home for less and arcades with better and usually more up to date games. The fact that they decided to combine these two hot buttons of 80s culture into one place forced them to cut corners on both aspects of the business, thriving in neither of the things they focused in. However, they were unique in one aspect – The Rock-afire Explosion.

This documentary is about many things – primarily it focuses on describing the legacy of Rock-afire, both by a comprehensive look at the creation/creator of the band and how fans have help to keep this band alive for decades. Each perspective is uniquely interesting and in depth. Inventor Aaron Fechter created this band for Showbiz, and shows the behind the scenes of the history of the business and manufacturing – this is particularly haunting as we witness the promise of success and the failure of Showbiz personified in the decay of his workshop. As advanced as he was with engineering and development, fans have matched him on their own (well, almost). Dedicated individuals have scraped up money for years in order to buy up their own animatronic bands (which cannot be cheap). They have set up shows in their houses, or as the film shows, created sheds larger than their modest homes to hold a space for the band to play. New owners of these animatronic bands have dedicated their lives to Rock-afire – saving money, sacrificing various economic or personal improvements to their lives, learning programing and mechanical engineering, and maintaining their own personal band (a particularly rare collectable that needs to be kept in perfect order). In essence, they have taken everything that a million dollar business put in to a franchise into a glorified collectable.

There is an underlying theme of economics throughout this documentary. Animatronics is an expensive pursuit, and while the 80’s seemed like a gilded age of Reagan-promised optimism, that was not the reality. Arcades exploded in their presence in American culture as video games grew increasingly popular, but arcade cabinets are costly and their audience was relatively specific at the time. Video games were not as omnipresent or accepted as mainstream consumption as they are now. Arcades peaked as kids shifted their consumption from spaces of culture to the home. Personal consoles, handheld systems, and digitization made it possible for every home to be an arcade, therefore eliminating the need for an arcade in every town. Smaller towns may have been more likely to have a Showbiz Pizza, as it offered the excitement of an arcade with the practicality of a family restaurant. The kids (now adults) in this documentary worshiped these locations (and more importantly, the iconic band that lived in an otherwise generic pizza restaurant), and these spaces of culture and the band in it never left them.

While there is a focus on corporate economics, there is also a more subtle, but apparent focus on the economics of the people in the documentary. The fans are so earnest and enthusiastic, and the documentary does a good job of showing them as human beings instead of objects of ridicule. However, there is a reality of social class that may help to explain this rather specific fandom. Some of the people in the documentary have been in a life-long lower economic status, and have lived in a single particular place their entire lives. Therefore, their only way to engage culture, or to escape the overbearing economic pressures of their lives, was to go to these places of cultural consumption. It was their only break away from their lives, and their only means of cultural exploration, regardless of how limited this exploration is. It is not shocking that they developed a strong affinity towards it, as Showbiz very much represented the possibilities of the world outside of their means – the world of culture, music, entertainment, fame, and the technology of the future. I do not think it is too off to say that the obsession with the band may be rooted in this – the joy of going to this special place in contrast with the limitations and struggles of their daily lives must have been explosive. The life-long dedication to something that made someone so uniquely happy is not at all strange. Therefore, in a sense, this documentary is about finding absolute joy in culturally limiting environments and situations, and doing whatever you can in life to keep that joy in your life. It is also about finding out you are not alone, that you are not crazy, and that your love is not that weird after all.

I am absolutely blown away by this documentary. While it seems overly limited, it does not fail to be engaging. It is relatively cheaply made, but deeply personal. It demonstrates how individuals hold on to one of the few things in life that made them happy while forced to participate in a system of corrupt economics that forces them to remain in your place at the bottom. The film’s focus on how people continue to participate with and share the things they love in life, to the point of personal dedication to a sort of shitty pizza chain’s fake puppet band, is actually really inspiring. I really like the suggestion of moving away from cultural spaces to personal consumer culture in the home visa vi the absurdity of 80s economics – where we thought we could just do whatever we wanted and people would make it profitable. However, the end of these pizza chains, along with the end of arcades symbolized how production forced people to consume privately – a shift of social participation to personal consumption, a shift we are seeing reversed through current internet as fans are re-uniting with what they love and creating communities around it.

I love that the filmmakers never show these people as being weird or obsessive – they are simply fans of something a little different. The main problem with the documentary is that it lacks a bit of outside context. A lot of historical and cultural background could have helped make this film much larger piece of cultural analysis, and would not have been difficult to fit in, as it is relatively short as it stands. It hints at various things, but would benefit from larger discussion. Though, it would not be difficult to elaborate on these things for a class with a lecture or discussion after viewing. While showing this in a class would be great for a discussion of fandom, the economic and cultural context of the 1980s would be helpful for demonstrating why this fandom is not as strange as how some people will interpret it. Regardless, it is an interesting film and well worth watching.

You can find it on Netflix Instant Stream or by going to http://www.rockafiremovie.com/

Internet Culture – Everything / Nothing

 

This image is an internet artifact about Everything/Nothing culture, cam culture, and cam girl culture (YM Magazine, publication information unknown). But, of course, this article only focuses on one aspect of the life style – the openness. I say “of course” here, because at that time it was a rather shocking thing to do – tell potential strangers and “fake” friends about your personal life on the internet. Facebook, however, has transformed that shock into a banal yawn. Nevertheless, this was at one point the moral panic for the parents and friends of a particular set of internet-people. Blogging was barely a thing. There were no content management systems you could just log into and make pretty and use easily. Writing about your life, openly and honestly, for a stranger to read about was a hugely subversive process. Luckily, the internet was at a point in its development where this attracted more like-minded individuals to each other than the serial killers from Lifetime Original Movies.

Liking the internet used to be a mark of shame. Having friends on the internet used to be worse – you could tell no one about it, you had to lie to other people about them, and people were concerned about your attachment to the non-reality of the computer. “My friend said something really funny today” to a meatspace human being would be a clever cover for “My friend updated their LiveJournal with a hilarious story.” Daring to meet that person was also something that required several lies. Why were you traveling to Indiana? How did you know this person? How were you friends with someone in Indiana? It took me years before I was comfortable with telling my parents I had met people off the internet, and that the majority of my now-real-life friends were from there. However, even if you were able to confess that you spent a lot of time on the internet, it was still impossible to admit that you were a blogger, or had a website, a journal, or a cam.

The internet had become/was becoming a real place. (Especially if you believe that it was not one already).

Contextualizing this panic is difficult. There was shock and confusion by the mainstream press that the internet was becoming something and someplace for more than just the nerdiest of nerds in their basements. There was more to it than that. This image is not just about describing a hot new trend for teens, it is a rudimentary glimpse at a particular and now forgotten internet subculture/subgenre. I use subgenre here on purpose. As much as there was a community to this, there was also a style. Often, the community had no particular market of connection other than we were all hanging out.

There was the community of people – some of the brightest and funniest individuals I have known online. A community of like-minded people who were complete strangers, but could now talk in real time (thanks to long forgotten programs like IRC and ICQ), people who had figured out how to do long-form writing online for cheap or free, and for the first time could actually see each other. This was the Everything/Nothing scene – E/N for short.

This moniker was a description of the overall content of posts that was created by these people, covering topics from Everything to Nothing. These were people who actually owned domains of their internet handles (or other non-corporate things that were names of communities). They churned out creative, truthful, earnest, hilarious, and communal content and strove to stand out on beautiful (aesthetically or technologically) websites – central hubs for individual or crew identities. These people were some of the first (culturally) internet literate, and demonstrated a shift of people caring about the online just as much as the off.

[I don’t include BBS in this, simply because it was structurally a very different concept than how we know the internet now, even if there are remarkable similarities.]

Almost all of these websites are dead, so they are impossible to link to. The people have aged and left handles behind. IRC rooms are now ghost towns, if the servers even exist. Radical bloggers now have jobs and families – or at least nicer apartments. Some may have even been able to sell of domains for some cash. Some were even celebrities, for a while. “You know so-and-so? You met them??” Others even appeared on TV (TechTV, before it became G4).

The programmers were uniquely talented. They created so much because there was so little to work with and we all wanted/needed more – technology that is now common places, corporate, and integrated into the lives of millions. The writers – so much creative content and each post fueling the fire for more work from everyone else. Blogs are almost at the point where the entire concept seems outdated and quaint. Anonymous identities are dead. Chat protocols are laughable (I did have students giggle and mock, “Who uses AIM anymore??” during a lecture).

The article above also alludes to the concept of caming. To explain the process now, and I have tried to people younger to me, is to sound like a grandparent. A webcam would take a static image of a person (320×240 resolution, the only way to go) – limited in environment, as the webcam generally was tied to a PC/desk, and one could upload this image to an FTP (not Photobucket, a Facebook gallery, or Imgur). This would image would constantly be called the same thing (cam.jpg, for example), in order to remain on an individual’s page or a community’s portal – collections of multiplce cam images from multiple users on display. Uploading a new image would refresh the old and something new could be seen. Programs were developed to do this automatically, and could add a limited amount of language to the images. Often a time/date stamp, a URL (as cam images were linked around to many portals), and sometimes a comment of some sort – a funny thought, a remark about their day, a song lyric, etc. If you were awake at night, you could hang out at a portal and a particular IRC room and chat with people while watching them be goofballs on their frozen cam images. If the portal was particularly good, the page would automatically refresh itself to ensure new images, and be coded so that the most recent/current images were displayed before the old ones from inactive users.

This is a link to a cam portal that is relatively close to the past. Some of the code is a bit more fresh, but it is right on.

Like I said, sort of a boring explanation of an outdated concept. However, this was completely radical for the internet and its denizens. We could actually see each other – not just scans of old photos, or poor quality digital camera pictures (if you were able to afford one of these…), but semi-live images of people being people. You could express your identity through a 320×240 jpg. The bonding grew by being able to know each other on a more intimate level. We were not just words or nicks, we were people.

Caming was sort of like Twitter, in a way. Limited means of expression – a single, small still image, limited text on said image. You could custom build a portal to share who/what you wanted – sort of like a retweet of someone else. You could re-mix/retweet (crude photoshops) someone and re-share it on your URL. There was even a sort of Follow Friday, particularly with cam signs – Your Name on a Post-it. I would argue that the processes are very similar. (More on caming and TwitPic a bit further down…).

But, more important than that, caming was a part of your online identity (if you did it). As I mentioned, it was the first time we could really see each other online in a semi-live context. We had proof of who we were, as we had pictures that could refresh of us at any given time. Our physical bodies were intimately tied to our digital identities in a way that previously did not happen. We weren’t just words on a screen or a nickname. Our lives weren’t just technological engagements. We were our nicknames, our websites, our posts, our content, our bodies, our jpgs, ourselves. The intimacy of the digital connected to the offline and vice versa. There wasn’t a difference to us/them. It was all the same and we had made it that way.

This aspect of the internet is gone now. I am not a curmudgeonly old man complaining about how the youth does not get it, because they have their own thing to get. However, for the most part, we had to grow up with the internet and develop it as we developed ourselves. Now everything is just here. We wanted to be creative and had to develop the technology to do so. So many things that the scene developed (and never took credit for, never tried to make money from) are standard place for young people (Stickam, Twitter, Twitpic…). These concepts more or less existed in somewhat crude (but less crude than you would think) forms 8-10 years ago. We had to be creative to be creative.

Currently, every output on the internet for creativity is a corporate owned entity with a privacy policy (even something like Canv.as or Reddit) (and there are exceptions like Dump.fm). Of course youth culture will develop their own things (and have) as the need arises. They will create (and have) amazing things with what has already existed for them. They will use and are using corporate products in similarly subversive and transgressive ways. The old people just will not see it right away. They never do.

[Theory based on a statement in above paragraph: Anonymous as transgression through hacking – Internet scenes were previously able to create things for themselves, develop tech, and develop scripts/apps/etc. Everything is corporate controlled and made now, so there is no output for that energy. Therefore, they seek to rebel against the enforced limitations, even if they are not conscious of previous openness…]

I recently fell back into the E/N scene through a private Facebook group and watching everyone talk about our internet histories and what was accomplished has been very inspiring.

This is a fantastic presentation from NotACon 2005 by StephTheGeek – a staple in E/N and camgirl cultures. While caming was a huge part of the E/N culture, camgirls were equally important. They were often the face of cool for a particular community – “So-and-So is on this site’s cam portal? It must be awesome…”. It became a culture of its own, providing intimacy, openness, community, and sexuality. And it wasn’t as heteronormative as one might think. Also, note how much of this presentation is NOT about sexuality. It was not really about breaking ground in that aspect of life as it was a logical extension of the openness of the overall culture. Some people were just willing to go that bit more and it was not a big deal. It was their life. It was all a part of who they were. (This would be a place to start talking about Foucault…).

I made this joke on twitter, but I am actually sort of serious about it, “camgirls used to all be awesome web coders because dudes had not yet figured out how to exploit nerdy looking women for money as a fetish.” The camgirl scene (not every camgirl was involved with nudity and not every E/N woman with a webcam was a camgirl. Camgirls were all sizes, ages, and races and there were camboys) had such an immense sense of sexual empowerment to it all – in brotalk that means there was a decent amount of nudity at times. These women were in control of their sexuality and willing and proud to display it for themselves, friends, and the community(ies) on the internet (Note: I did not say they were willing to display FOR the internet, as that lacks agency (and the internet was much smaller back then…). They were also fully in control of the means of production. Often these women were very talented webcoders and graphic designers. They created some of the best looking and surprisingly advanced websites around. If you watch all of the very interesting video above (and I recommend it), you will hear a lot of the tech talk, which is in of itself rather interesting. For example, you will hear Stephthegeek describe a pre-Twitpic version of Twitpic as a common part of her blog life a year before Twitter was even invented and three before Twitpic launched. Being a “professional” camgirl was barely for profit. Sure, people made some money and got some Amazon gifts, but that never seemed like the point. (Though maybe you could spot the scene’s decline when it did…).

The image above focuses on a woman and is right to do so. They were not only central to the Everything/Nothing scene, but very often the driving force. While so much of this was about putting yourself out there, women were often the ones who were actually brave enough to do so. And of course men would often gawk and drool, but it was often an attraction based on respect (of their site, of their code, of their writing, etc) – even if most of us were assholes.

I miss this homebrew sense community – people who found each other by chance or luck, without the help of a search box or a ReTweet. I miss how things were not always tied to my name and where I live. I miss not having to Accept a corporate statement to participate. I miss how the internet used to be. We all wanted to be there, we all wanted to contribute. Overwhelmingly, what people have missed the most, according to the Facebook Group’s catch-up thread, is the creativity. Did it just die, or did it move elsewhere? The answer is both, really. We do not have to be as creative in some senses, but we still are in others, and in new ways as well. We are still subversive and transgressive.

The internet used to be a global concept. I had friends in New York, California, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Indiana, Washington, Canada, England, Germany, Japan, and various other locations. I could travel and know someone somewhere. What we have now on the internet is something different. Facebook changed the digital landscape from being global to being interconnected localities. You know longer found strangers and befriend people, you are just more linked with the ones you already know. Do teens now have a sense of exploration when they think of the internet? Do they discover new things and new people, or is it all carefully controlled? Maybe it is just easier to find people? Well, there are probably those strange few who venture out and discover others, but I wonder if it is anywhere near the same extent.

I might muse on this some more later, but I encourage any feedback.

There is a lot more to be said about all of this. I am barely scratching the surface.

Perhaps next will be my history of pre-social networking indie kid websites?

 

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.

Skyrim’s Most Difficult Choice

I have been having a difficult time with an element of Skyrim. It is not the random dragon battles. It is not the quests of morally dubious intent. It is not collecting things for my home. It is not even a particularly important part of the game itself, as it falls under the Miscellaneous section of the side quests. The issue I have been teetering on the edge of for 50 levels has been what political affiliation I want my character to take part in.

I became the master of the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. I stole, blackmailed, and murdered, but everyone seemed to deserved it, or at least I was told this by my peers. I do not have a problem going to a random cave to slaughter a group of people or Falmer, because I am always attacked first. Their actions against me justify the use of violence against them. I have let evil gods loose on the lands, stolen cultural treasures for personal profit, and recovered a lost flute. These are things of great significance that should have forced me to pause and consider my actions, but the narrative set up of Skyrim always justifies your quests as a part of the overall experience. This makes the gamer act rather than think, and the more we get to know what we are doing, the more interesting it seems. If there is a “purpose” that a quest encapsulates, then it is ethically okay to do, no matter the action.

One aspect of this game is lacking this experience. While I have accomplished much throughout my play through (I am not yet done), I am ultimately hesitant over which side of the political argument I want to join. There are the Stormcloaks and the Legion. The Stormcloaks are an independent group of people opposing the Empire due in part largely because of a ban against worshiping the Man/God Thalos (hero to the Nord people). While there are eight other deities of worship available, these are meaningless to the Nord, who simply want the freedom to worship their one. Thalos, however, is a slap in the face to many of the other cultures. Not only does He represent murder and war to many of the elves in the game, but perhaps the most objectionable quality of Thalos is the fact that he asserts that a man (read: human/male/white) is equal to or superior to the spiritual gods that are the basis for almost every other history and culture in the land. This quarrel is presented under the guise of religious freedom, something that is very important to the makings of America (a primary audience for the game), thus this is an important narrative drive for the player, regardless of its banal inclusion.

The Stormcloaks also oppose the seemingly corrupt Empire. While they do not suggest a democracy as an alternative, they certainly are suggesting that the Empire is too big and too invested in the lives of the people and forgo the consideration that there is a delicate social fabric that Empire holds together. While the game suggests that the Empire is infected with outside influence, an influence you are often fighting personally throughout the game’s narrative (therefore the influence is bad, not the Empire itself…), it does little to demonstrate the political and cultural reasonings for seemingly odd alliances and compromises. The game even sets up the main character as an enemy of the Empire, as you are due to be executed for unknown crimes as the game opens (even though you may have deserved it).

The Stormcloaks are not all positive, though. Their champion is a murderer, someone who somehow learned how to dragon-shout a King to death (even though the Graybeards have stated that no one has gone to train with them in some time (I’m not all the way through the game, so I am not sure what the story may be here…)). The cause is violent and has seemingly little regard for anything other than their own goals. Many even accuse the Stormcloaks of racism, including fellow Nords.

If one takes time to pause and consider, the Stormcloaks are the Tea Party of Skyrim. They want their freedoms (as they have defined them), regardless of cultural and political developments. They want smaller and less powerful government – one that stays out of the personal lives of the people (even if it is still a monarchy). Perhaps something that has had the biggest impact on me is the disregard of other cultures, to the point of hatred. While public officials may not openly state their mistrust of a president’s birth certificate, many of the supporters do. Many of the positions the party stands for are based on a hegemonic normalcy that positively supports the long-standing privilege of white, male Americans. Many of the goals of the Stormcloaks only support the ideologies of the Nords, and only “True Nords” at that (just in case you wanted your masculinity and culture questioned if you chose that particular race of people).

You do not have to pick a side in the game, but there are achievements on the line. This is a narrative cue that the gamer should do this, as it is a part of the overall experience of the game and the character’s life. Herein lies much of my struggle for what to do. The political scuffle is so non-important to my day-to-day activities that it holds little to no bearing on my in-game life. There are dragons that need to be killed, after all. One side thinks they are right and the other thinks that they as well, and there is little interaction between either group and my player besides petty rumors that are randomly shouted at me as I walk by, or passive aggressive comments by regional leaders. The entire aspect of the game is optional, and is not at all pressing to me as a player if it is not pressing to my character as a social entity.

The question bothers me so much because of how the game narratively structures the opposing sides. As a democrat, the Empire is the side I feel most politically aligned to, however they are treated as corrupt, lazy, ineffective, imposing, and destructive of tradition. Most importantly, perhaps, against their case is the fact that they lack a strong, charismatic figurehead. This is what makes the Stormcloaks most appealing, I would argue.

The game sets up a strong dichotomy between the main character and Ulfric Stormcloak (the leader of the “rebellion”). On one hand, the main character is a surrogate for the gamer, and thus a surrogate for the gamer’s morality. This makes much of the game’s quests easy to do – the game tells me that necromancers or Forlorn are bad because they attack me, therefore my murder of them is good. The character’s morality is never in question or even really challenged by the game – you just do things, and because the character is the gamer, the character is the figure of good. On the other hand, Ulfric is the rouge hero of many people. While his actions are morally bad, he is doing them for morally good reasons. Therefore, we are presented with two heroes to the people of Skyrim – an official hero and an outlaw hero.

This basic structure is something that Robert B. Ray classified as the “Thematic Paradigm” in his book A Certain Tendency of Hollywood Cinema (1985). He states:

The movies traded on one opposition in particular, American culture’s traditional dichotomy of individual and community that had generated the most significant pair of competing myths: the outlaw hero and the official hero. Embodied in the adventurer, explorer, gunfighter, wanderer, and loner, the outlaw hero stood for that part in American imagination valuing self-determination and freedom from entanglements. By contrast, the official hero, normally portrayed as a teacher, lawyer, politician, farmer, or family man, represents the American belief in collective action, and the objective legal process that supersedes private notions of right and wrong. (58-59)

While Skyrim does not tidily fit this description, the characters are close enough. It is not that these two characters exist in game that makes the political choice so difficult, but rather that American media has traditionally paired these two heroes together as a way of accomplishing the impossible. We have been trained through popular media to accept these pairs of unlike heroes as the ultimate form of purpose. Mulder and Scully, Luke and Han, Riggs and Murtaugh, Turner and Hooch. The game is suggesting through its narrative and character structures that the Stormcloaks are the right choice for the gamer. Or, as Ray states, “in other words, when faced with a difficult choice, American stories resolved it either simplistically (by refusing to acknowledge that a choice was necessary), sentimentally (by blurring the lines between the two sides), or by laughing the whole thing off” (65). You either do not pick a side, because there is really no compelling reason to do so, justify your acceptance of a violent racist because of his thematic and heroic characterization in opposition/support to your own (in opposition to a rather non-compelling alternative), or break the insistence of the game’s narrative and choose the Empire.

For the record, I support the Legion.

 

 

Ray, Robert B. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985. Print.

Leviathan and the Ethics of Consumption

… the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. … The condition of man … is a condition of war of everyone against everyone. (Hobbes, Leviathan)

[Update: The more I think about this post, the more compelled I am to preface it. The basic argument stands as a ‘people are able to think critical about the media they like’ approach, which isn’t terribly new, complicated, or even an interesting point to make. I wanted to emphasize my own moral complications about the horror of his action versus being a fan of someone’s music for several years. There was an attempt to highlight the ways in which black metal has been celebrated over the recent years for its artistic authenticity and to contrast that with the fact that it is still a rather violent, bleak, and problematic subculture. It complicates a lot of cultural perspectives about consumption and art. Some of the comments nail the complications better than I did, and I appreciate the fact that people have read the piece and have added to it. Leviathan was and still is a rather difficult topic to handle. He was eventually found guilty of some of his charges. Something certainly happened in his assault arrest, but it doesn’t seem to be as horrendous as the original charge against him. Noisey also released their 3-part One Man Metal documentary series featuring Wrest. And he comes off much different than he does in interviews, particularly part 3.]

I am going to write about the new Leviathan album, even though I have not yet listened to it. In the context of this article, I do not think I need to – I am discussing True Traitor, True Whore as a cultural object, not as a piece of music. I have been a fan of Leviathan (and the various and entirely different projects of Wrest (aka Jef Whitehead) – Twilight, Lurker of Chalice) since I made a special order for The Tenth Sublevel of Suicide album at my local music shop in my first year of college. He is responsible for some of my favorite music, black metal or not. All of his albums are haunting and leave an impact on the listener in some way (if they listen to black metal, or are brave enough to try). His latest release is looking to be no exception, and has many people declaring it the album of the year (considering the releases so far, that is absolutely no easy task).

But, this article is not directly about this new album. I am insanely excited to hear it, but a review/deconstruction will have to come later.

Regardless of the name of this site, and the misconceptions of popular culture being entirely mainstream culture, it is not my intention to define black metal (or even metal) to a potentially unknowing audience. As a genre, black metal has been around (arguably) since the late 70s/early 80s and has been global since the mid-to-late 80s. It is notorious for murder, church burnings, upsetting politics, radical imagery, and for its sound alone. It is not appealing to a mass audience, and was never intended to be. However, it is a cultural trend that has existed for nearly 30 years, and someone should have some minimal exposure to it, even if it is just jokes from Adult Swim’s Metalacolypse or humorous internet lists. The genre has managed to escape a large portion of cultural exposure, but you can walk into a Hot Topic and buy tee-shirts from a number of more mainstream acts (Cradle of Filth, for example).

As a bit of a primer for any future posts on the topic of black metal, I am aware that many people may not be particularly aware about the historical, cultural, and musical developments of the genre. Black metal has made its way into academia, which means that it has some tangible amount of mainstream exposure. There are some fantastic academic sources on the topic (covering history, culture, philosophy, globalization, etc):

  • Lords of ChaosA good start at the history of black metal. It sometimes romanticizes intention and ideology, as well as some potentially problematic issues with the writers (in terms of being participants rather than objective historians), but it does a great job at discussing the genre’s roots.
  • Extreme Metal – This is probably my favorite book on metal, as it deals with a holistic approach to multiple genres. It is constantly interesting and very well written.
  • Hideous Gnosis – Notorious in the black metal scene for being full of shit (and it mostly is…), but an important work of philosophy that is at least trying to engage the essence of black metal in different ways. The collection suffers from being overly disjointed and non-applicable, but some pieces stand out.
  • Metal Rules the Globe – This book is technically not out yet, but a good collection of essays about metal and how a genre and culture develops on a global and local scale. Metal is a global genre, and this volume offers a lot of great insight on perspectives that are not generally considered.
  • Metal A Headbangers Journey / Global MetalTwo important anthropological documentaries on the genre. Accessible and well worth the time. They strive to discuss the function and purpose of metal music in peoples’ lives.

But, I should get back to Leviathan and Wrest. His music has always had a big impact on me. While it is a one-man project (which is not all that rare in black metal), all the music is well constructed, atmospheric (even if that is a cliché description), and he develops his sound in an interesting way from album to album. Wrest’s voice is almost always indecipherable, but being able to understand lyrical content has never appealed to me. This is, in part, due to metal’s inherent way of being emotionally evocative rather than lyrically illuminative. This is not the genre of singer-songwriters spinning narratives of nostalgia, love, and ennui.

As I said above, I am here to talk about the upcoming album, and again, I have yet to hear it (though, if you would like to send me future advance copies of any upcoming music for the purpose of a similarly elaborate article, I’d be thrilled). So, this article is less about the album as a piece of music, and more about the album as a cultural object. This particular context is important to discuss because of the controversy of events leading to its creation and release, as well as the intense cultural capital surrounding its distribution.

Things get complicated from here.

In January of 2011, Wrest was arrested for allegedly choking his at-the-time girlfriend, and beating her unconscious. He allegedly sexually assaulted her with his tattooing equipment, and beat her unconscious again. The article linked above is quick to mention Wrest’s physical appearance, noting his beard and tattoos, and wearing all black. For any Foucault fans out there, this is a classic example of the panoptic gaze, declaring his guilt through the judgement of his character. The crimes are deplorable and it is not difficult to put guilt on someone accused for this sort of assault – especially when someone is a black metal musician. Black metal is not unfamiliar with artists and crime, and the rhetoric of Leviathan’s albums and song titles have always had an uncomfortable air of violence and sexual aggression – including Fucking Her Ghost in Chains of Ice”, “Mouth Orifice Bizarre”, “The History of Rape” and others. So, it is increasingly difficult to separate Wrest’s work from his actions, considering his upcoming album is entitled True Traitor, True Whore and features album art prominently displaying the hand he allegedly used to assault the woman in question.

Black metal has also always capitalized on the actions of individuals – either in directly making Varg Virkernes one of the most recognizable names in the genre, or by bands simply building cachet from the sensationalized authenticity. But, generally speaking, the actions that have stood out by these musicians have been rare. Only a small handful of black metal musicians have done anything of questionable morality.

Colleagues and friends of Wrest have spoken out in his defense, stating that he didn’t do the crime of which he is accused. They claim they saw the woman hit herself, and that she has a history of falsely accusing people of rape. When Blake Judd speaks so candidly and honestly about his own life in the interview, it is hard to imagine he is making things up about Wrest. Though, it is also difficult to take everything as truth when speaking in defense about a friend and colleague. One should be aware of both sides of the story.

Ultimately, Wrest has not been convicted, and little more about the case has come to light. Wrest had time to record a new album and approached metal’s most prestigious record label to release it. Profound Lore consistently puts out amazing albums that gain serious critical acclaim, even from unlikely sources like NPR. Generally speaking, if PL releases it, it has to be good. Invisible Oranges and Pitchfork have released exclusive tracks from the upcoming release, and they sound incredible, different, and interesting.  The album is pushing the genre down creative roads and each song is intensely fascinating. But, the aura of Wrest certainly helps to put the listener into a particular state of mind when listening. Guilt or innocence aside, the crime haunts the album and artist, and thus, haunts the mind of the listener. When metal is often about making the listener feel something, and when black metal is an extreme of that goal, it is difficult to consider that this affect on the listener is deliberate – either in the construction of the album or in the culture that surrounds it. In that context, is it not successful? Is it not an accomplishment? You are not supposed to necessarily like the feeling – and this goes for any art, in a general sense – but it is supposed to make consider it. While, I do not associate the songs I have heard so far to be evocative of violence (physical or sexual), there is something profound in these tracks, and that alone is both enjoyable and important.

Within the press for the upcoming album, there is also a certain amount of discomfort with journalists and reviewers. Due to the allegations against him, people have already stated their disavowal with Wrest and his work, or choosing to only discuss the album as a piece of music alone.

Obviously, alleged sexual assault is a serious issue– one that put Whitehead in the category of Burzum (the project of convicted murderer Varg Vikernes) as a band to boycott. As music writer Chris Weingarten Tweeted (and I Retweeted) at the time: “ATTN Metal fans, today is the day you throw your Leviathan and Twilight records in the trash.” I did feel that way. I was disgusted by the details of the alleged crime. And I still am.

http://pitchfork.com/features/show-no-mercy/8660-show-no-mercy/

[Though it should be noted that the writer of above (Brandon Stosuy) continued on to ignore this particular perspective and declares, “I’d prefer to confront controversial art instead of brushing it under the rug.” There are people who do not share this point of view.]

For most of us, it is difficult to separate the life of the creator with the art they create. This is not necessarily bad or unthoughtful, but simply something that occurs. Keith Kahn-Harris, writer of Extreme Metal and MetalJew.com often discusses the work of Burzum and the conflicts he feels when listening to the music, both as a Jew and as a fan. He states:

[T]here’s no way of ignoring the context of which Burzum emerged – a violent, misanthropic world of church burnings, suicide and murder. Even if the history of the early 1990s Norwegian black metal is often romanticised, sensationalized and its extremity exaggerated, you cannot ignore the fact that Vikernes burned down several historic churches and murdered his erstwhile friend Euronymous of the band Mayhem. Nor can you ignore the fact that even before his imprisonment, Vikernes embraced pagan neo-Nazism and once even sent a letter bomb to the Israeli band Salem.

One may view this as a rant against Burzum, but he prefaces this acknowledgement of Burzum by review his latest album – “Vikernes produced something cold, sublime and ineffably beautiful.” Again, Kahn-Harris is a fan of Burzum. One might see potential conflict in this, but he concludes his piece with this particularly apt statement:

The acceptance of Burzum within much of the contemporary metal scene provides ample illustration of the ways in which an overriding love of music can cause people to overlook or collude in dangerous politics. The flipside of this though is that Burzum’s music can also undermine Vikernes dangerousness. It may be then that leftist Burzum fans should feel no guilt. The more albums Vikernes produces, the less he will be a threat to anyone or anything.

Justin Davisson goes on further to discuss this tenuous relationship between artist and audience in his essay “Extreme Politics and Extreme Metal: Strange Bedfellows or Fellow Travelers?” (which can be found in the amazing collection of essays in The Metal Void: First Gathering – a clear predecessor to Hideous Gnosis, but with actual intent, purpose, and application). He states:

Music from bands like Graveland, Absurd, Nokturnal Mortum and many other like-minded bands can easily be found in record stores in the traditionally liberal cities of San Francisco and Berkeley, California.

This is not really surprising or shocking in any way, but uses some interviews with shop keepers to help explain the point, stating that music buyers can be extremely conscious of the politics in the music they buy, but that this is not always the case.

[W]e have a couple of older Jewish guys, who both wrestled over Burzum to begin with but both eventually decided they love the music and have chosen to just ignore the politics. I think that stuff is abhorrent, but a lot of the music is amazing.

H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories warning America about the dangers of race mixing. Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. Ezra Pound was a fascist. We forgive a lot of these thoughts and actions because of their historical and cultural context. And, quite frankly, they are all amazing artists, worthy of our praise.

But, there are just as many artists today with questionable politics. Famed science fiction writer Orson Scott Card opposed gay rights (this is a particularly good article on how video game fans reacted to a highly-rated game for Xbox that was based off of a story of Card’s). Roman Polanski raped a child. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, posted some bizarre and extremely misogynist rants on his website. These actions always shock their unknowing fans, but Card is still a best-seller, Polanski is still making critically acclaimed films, and Dilbert is still in most newspapers.

You’ll have to excuse the divergence away from Leviathan here, but I’m going somewhere with it.

Chicago’s Nachtmystium, fronted by Blake Judd, is known for pushing their music into new directions. Their earlier albums represented a traditional form of black metal, but their music has been growing increasingly “psychedelic” in nature, pulling in clear influences from very non-metal genres. Nachtmystium embodies what Kahn-Harris (applying Foucault’s concept) describes as transgression, “implying a sense of testing and crossing boundaries and limits” (Kahn-Harris Extreme Metal, 28). Nachtmystium’s most recent album, Addicts: Black Meddle part II (the album name a plays on Pink Floyd), describes itself on the album’s cover as “[continuing] to blur the chopped lines of metal and psychedelia, only this time cutting in a little bit of dark wave to help bring you down.” This contrasts to the advertising of Swedish contemporaries, Watain, who released Lawless Darkness a week before Addicts. The album describes itself as “up-to-date Bathory worship,” implying a traditional black metal sound. Nachtmystium boldly transgresses away from the notion of an “authentic” black metal sound, and admits it right on the front of their albums. Judd states, “I just feel that those bands are marketed for what has happened outside of the music, not so much involving the music. There’s guys selling crack in Chicago that are scarier to me than [Gaahl of Gorgoroth],” Nachtmystium rejects the idea of marketing their albums based on the actions of past bands that made their genre notorious, and chooses to focus on their own music, transgressing away from the idea of marketing on the aura of the past, and of limiting their own creative output to the historical standard of music for the genre. Addicts is described as including “dance beats, juddery eighth-note alternative rock, psychedelia,” and is described as including influences from Neil Young, Joy Division, and Interpol as well as “[a cross] between extreme metal and music recognizable as ‘pop.’” This review emphasizes the way in which Nachtmystium has brought in outside influences and has created hybridic music away from the clichéd sound of tradition.

Black metal has traditionally been associated with “corpse paint” – white face paint and blackened eyes, Satanic symbols, and “infernal names” – referring to yourself as a demonic pseudonym (Kahn-Harris, Extreme Metal, 38). These iconographic symbols, along with the particularly hateful worldview, are frequent throughout the culture, and particularly heavy among Scandinavian bands, and have become defining features of a black metal band. Judd formerly referred to himself as “Azentrius,” and subscribed to these symbols of black metal, but has removed all from his band, transgressing away from the traditional notions of what it means to be black metal.

These symbolic notions of black metal has haunted Judd’s recent career, particularly accusations of racism and bigotry. The band was dropped from the Scion Rock Fest in 2009, a large extreme metal festival, because Toyota Motor Corporation did not want a racist band on their tour. Judd has a long past in the black metal scene, starting when he was in his teens, and the actions of his youth have haunted his career. During an interview in 2005, Judd was fully encapsulated with the traditional black metal lifestyle, including using a pseudonym, wearing corpse paint, and subscribing to an aggressive view of the world. Judd was quoted in the interview discussing the talent of his influences versus, “something not found in 99% of TV-fed ‘bands’ through MTV and other Zionist means of demoralizing young American’s artistic standards.” In reaction to this, Judd states, “I probably didn’t realize exactly what I was saying. I made a stupid comment as a kid,” Judd admits to his words, but also is aware of the ideologies prevalent in black metal culture. In his youth, Judd subscribed to the notions of black metal, including many of the negative aspects of the genre. Though he is clearly aware of the boundaries and limits of the genre, particularly in the ways one must act to be an authentic member of the culture, Judd’s transgression away from these boundaries is embodied in his rejection of traditional black metal ideology, discourse and ultimately in the rejection of traditional black metal culture.

This is also combined with two early Nachtmystium albums being released on Vinland Winds and Unholy Records and Regimental Records, labels noted for connections to white supremacist organizations. Judd stats that the releases were not authorized, as Miles Raymer explains, “[the album] was a CD-R, and Vinland simply burned more copies without the band’s permission.” Judd claims he simply didn’t know Regimental Records was affiliated with racism, as it was a small D.I.Y. organization, and when he found out he demanded they stopped distribution. These controversies have been detrimental to Nachtmystium’s ability to tour, as promoters are unwilling to be associated with the band. Raymer is quick to counter these weak allegations of bigotry with several simple facts, “Judd collaborated with Robert Lowe of Lichens, who’s black…Bruce Finkelman, his [former] boss at the Empty Bottle [bar], is Jewish, as is Nachtmystium’s manager, Merrick Jarmulowicz.” (All quotes from this paragraph are from this article – it is particularly good).

The band furthers to comment on the allegations with their new logo for merchandise stating the slogan, “White Powder Not White Power,” rejecting the associations of black metal and hatred, and playing on the notions of drug use with the band’s musical experimentation. Judd does not just comment on the ideas of racist allegations, like some Scandinavian bands, but openly and aggressively rejects the ideology and its cultural connections to black metal, again, actively transgressing away from the standard approach of traditional black metal.

Point being – Nachtmystium is not and should not be wholly represented by their actions, past, present, or future. Neither should Leviathan, or any other artist.

As creatively transgressive as Nachtmystium is, Metalsucks.net is still prone to criticize Judd for his drug use. Critics and academics have latched onto black metal for its authenticity, its creativity and constant development, and its unignorable presence (both in sound and in the aura of its creators). This has romanticized the genre and its history and culture to a certain extent. We are horrified at the supposed actions of Wrest – but forget that black metal is a big “fuck you” in almost every possible meaning. We can glorify the genre all we want, but one shouldn’t forget that there are some seriously bad dudes (again, in a general sense – Wrest has yet to be convicted). Blake Judd is there to remind us about black metal

We are not your leaders
We are not your friends
We are thieves and cheaters
We live at the end

We don’t want your loyalty
We reject your trust
We ignore your sympathy
We do what we must

– High on Hate – Addicts: Black Meddle pt II

While black metal is worthy of our critical attention, it is also constantly there to remind us of this sometimes mortally troubling relationship between artist and audience. In the case of black metal, it is easy for us not involved to separate ourselves from the things we do not like and to celebrate what we do. For the artists, it is very much their entire lives condensed into their work, and one can not glorify and ignore parts of a life on a whim.

A friend of mine once described her thoughts on art to me, after she had read a book for a class. I can’t remember the title, but that is not important, her words stuck in my head. They are thoughtful, sincere, and powerfully apt (as she usually is).

I do like the way that this author describes the way that art works. It gives form to the immaterial, confronting the viewer with new interactions with the materials that surround us, thereby creating new thought processes rather than objects of knowledge.

I have always been drawn to more formalist approaches to things, as I like to work with processes of intent and purpose, and I think that this really nails down the purpose of art. Though I could certainly go into Benjamin or Adorno, I like the simplicity of this statement more and it focuses on the audience, rather than the artist. It gives the consumer agency in the artistic process.

The Tweet mentioned above is destructive for several reasons. It removes the idea that audience is able to think critically about what they are consuming. It strips the listener from being able to enjoy any type of art, and it revokes their ability to acknowledge and think critically about those responsible for the things they like. This is probably why the stance was later rejected by Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy. Keith Kahn-Harris can like Burzum, and I can continue to like Leviathan.

In a sense, Leviathan’s TTTW is a perfect example of why cultural literacy is important, and how badly it is ignored in contemporary education. Though we should be aware of the aura surrounding of a piece of art, never should it be able to overshadow the consumer’s ability to interpret, negotiate, criticize, or enjoy a piece of art. A piece of art is not attempting to convince us of any particular ideology, but only to make us think. Our ability to critically engage a piece of art is not entirely dependent on role of the artist and we should not allow the creator to have all the social and cultural power in this dynamic relationship. Negating the ability of the consumer to think critically is damningly destructive and ignores the purpose of art in the first place.

The ability to be critical is an ethical action. Geoffrey Harpham states in his book Shadows of Ethics that:

It is also the office of criticism to promote literature’s immediacy, concreteness, vitality, and affective richness, and so to assert the claims of literature as a way of understanding human life that is superior to philosophy. –Harpham, iiiiv

It is not unreasonable to replace “literature” with “art” or even “culture”. The study of culture, art, media, music, or any related concept is important, and these can all tell us something about the understanding of human life – even True Traitor, True Whore. Good art (and I use that phrase begrudgingly) should make us feel and think, but exactly what is up to the consumer. It is not unethical to consume art by seemingly unethical individuals as long as you are able to think critically about what you are consuming. One should not feel troubled about buying a Leviathan album, but one should be aware of the context in which it was created.

I can’t wait to buy this album and listen to it very loudly in my car.