The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

An Objectively Better Square: Beyond Cryptoart's Aesthetic Field

NFT boosters try to claim the Blockchain is for every kind of artist. But what practices lie off the edge of the cryptoart map?

Having a map, even a rough, personal one of the aesthetic space of cryptoart, can help make conflicts clearer, but it can also create a false picture of unity. A big dense chart acts like an impressive net, a dramatic atlas. There's so much stuff on this map, after all, it's gotta encompass the whole geography of digital art!

But... any glance at the history of new media shows how much territory sits off the corners of the map. Part of what helped me see the negative space in my own attempts to map out cryptoart was actually the book When The Machine Made Art and its coverage of early conflicts between computer artists. One incident in particular stood out to me. The authors describe how the artist Copper Giloth (a bunch of whose collected works are online at least until Vimeo takes them down for failing to pay their new extortion fees I guess) created really striking installation/video pieces on feminist subjects. According to the authors, "she found her peers in the computer art movement to be 'uncomfortable', preferring instead to avoid highly politicized topics."

Now, personally, I have a really hard time imagining a piece like "Clothes Hangers", which directly discusses the reality of in-home abortions in the absence of abortion rights, sitting comfortably on the big cryptoart map. I certainly didn't come across anything like it when browsing this year's hot sellers! The closest I ever got to anything resembling feminist art was a photographer and model who poses naked in rugged natural environments, then digitally collages that work with OTHER rugged natural environments. (I'd link it but I can't find it again--the "nude" tag has been overwhelmed by some dipshit spamming minor variations of the same fleshy GAN art.) I like the work, but, I can't help but feel it's a little undercut by the first of her works on Superrare: a self portrait with a videocollaged seascape, in the shape of the playboy logo, released as part of playboy's corporate cryptoart sale bonanza. There is plentiful art of women as luxury goods, but the increasingly ballyhooed cryptoart #representation for women remains scarce on the ground.

Anyway, nothing even that challenging will end up on the up and coming platform "Art Blocks" (🙄). They say so themselves--tout it even! "Artists/creators are selected to deploy projects at the sole discretion of the Art Blocks team," the project states sternly. No decentralization here! Wait why would the project need to be on a trustless, distributed system like the blockchain if it's completely centrally curated? Errrr mumble mumble moving on: "We reserve the right to curate the content on the platform without explanation. That said, no content which could be considered even remotely offensive to anyone will be considered."

Now, they've failed at the outset here, as I do in fact find the vapid banality of the works of Art Blocks offensive, but this statement is just so funny to me. Like yeah man nothing I like to see more from a curatorial statement than "we have selected our works to have not a single trace of sentiment or belief about anything." I think we can see here evidence of a fracture already forming, a desire to distance Art Blocks from Pepe with a Hitler Mustache Twerking and the like. 

The whole project has a sweaty vibe to it, an earnest nervousness. They want you to know that they take very seriously the carbon output of the Blockchain, for example. And they've got carbon offsets! Don't pay attention to the fact that a bunch of these other scam investment vehicles just burned the fuck down in California, please. We can just keep belching carbon into the atmosphere to make something that looks like a Google Tilt Brush scribble indefinitely because we planted some trees. They have heard us and they are taking our perspectives on board. More significantly, though, they are separating themselves from other cryptoart projects. They have seen the possibility that the whole board might be dragged down in the wider field of production, and they have taken steps to jettison themselves from the segments acting as a cringe anchor.

In doing so, however, they've recapitulated, in perfect second as farce style, one of the great schisms in computer art. Consider Radix's "Insipidrals". The piece or rather mathematical set of all possible pieces is described as "Escher-style tiling of a plane, gone wrong." No, bro, not really: Maurits Cornelis Escher could fucking draw. But sure it's a tiling spiral pattern of some boxes. Weird and kind of juvenile to describe something so banal as "gone wrong" but whatever. Reload the page a few times. The spiral is different each time, you see? This is because the "artwork" is in fact a process, an algorithm, which (the project breathlessly describes) operates "deterministically" from a uniquely generated hexadecimal hash. Each time a token is created, a unique data string is also created which will always generate the same image. Like if every time you made a Minecraft world, that world was impossible for anyone else to create. This would suck, but it is, I suppose, a technical innovation in the space.

This represents the purest expression of the intersection of cryptoart with process based art. In fact, it finally finds a way to truly legitimize process-based computer art, the oppressed precursor to cryptoart. This art situated itself as modernist, pure, apolitical, and guided by aesthetic and process.

And a whole lot of other computer artists hated it.

By the 1980s, as chronicled in When The Machine Made Art, not only did a whole slew of practitioners feel that the critical establishment overlooked computer art, the establishment was actually right to do so. Harold Cohen described computer art exhibitions as "mail-order catalogues: everything marvelous, everything up to the minute or just dressed up, and nothing ever presented or discussed, under any circumstance, in terms of its significance." Does that sound familiar to some of my criticism of crypto art? Most delightfully, Brian Reffin Smith does a derisive tapdance all over the field in 1989's "Beyond Computer Art" in the computer art journal Leonardo. Yeah, a computer art journal published a piece that gleefully opens with "Let us first agree that most 'computer art' is old-fashioned, boring, meretricious nonsense; and then that most of it is done by people whose knowledge of contemporary art and its problems is more or less zero; and then that most of this 'art' is actually a demonstration of the power of a few companies' graphics systems." Can you ever in a billion years imagine any crypto booster site having the balls to print a critique of cryptoart like this? Never. Never ever ever.

Smith extensively derides computer art made by programmers totally disconnected from both the traditions of art and from contemporary problems that art might respond to. At one point he calls them Thatcherite opportunists, it whips. In this, though, he's directly firing against another extensive and theorized segment of computer artists, artists who saw the abstraction of computer art, and its apolitical nature, as its strength. This segment saw computer art's purpose as both to demonstrate that science is farkin' cool, and to reestablish aesthetic principles that had been lost with avant garde movements such as Dadaism. This is, for Smith, precisely the problem: that what could have been a revolutionary medium for art was taken over by people who might just as happily gush to you about the latest predator drone designs or explain how actually these cubes and spheres are a bulwark against cultural degeneracy. Sound familiar?

Most brutal is the critique that this artwork largely acts as a simple tech demo for tech companies. Art Blocks streamlines and entwines the tech company and the tech demo in a true Escher causal relationship. The art is a tech demo for Art Blocks, and the advertisement for the product is the final product itself and the aim of the whole endeavor. Participating in the ecosystem involves creating more tech demos, which can be sold to support the ecosystem (or echosystem perhaps). It's a perfect perpetual motion machine, completely self sustaining... aside from the coal burning power plants.

This isn't how it has to be, though, and I think it's notable that Smith ends his polemic with a call for a very different sort of computer art. And there's plenty of interesting precedent. Take this work by Vera Molnar:

Ah wait shit fuck hold on wrong slide lemme just:

There we go! Molnar developed these by iteratively distorting the process used to create the squares and other shapes that the computer generated. Like Art Blocks, it would find itself on the left side of my diagram, rubbing shoulders with grammar based procedural generation and neural networks, artwork focused on process. Why do I find this older work more compelling than the contemporary work done on the blockchain?

Well... when push comes to shove I guess it's because it's not on the blockchain.

That's not just a moral stance but an aesthetic one. "Aesthetics" is a pretty broad term of an entire philosophical discipline, not just "disinterested white male spectators" judging art's objective qualities. Jacques Ranciere for example is interested in an aesthetics less focused on what "looks good", and more interested in uncovering a whole sensory regime, a whole understanding of art entwined with an epistemology and phenomenology of the world. Molnar described herself as iterating on her squares in order to find images she found more aesthetically pleasing, but what interests me is not the final product but the aesthetics of the process, the experience presented by her own images of difference and similarity. This suggests not a pure return to a conservative focus on "good art" but instead a sensible interest in difference and plenitude, that one of these squares is not "objectively better, concede now please." In fact, describing the squares that way makes no sense, precisely because they are part of a potentially unbounded series enabled by the computer. Each contextualizes the others. Far from being disinterested and apolitical, that has profound implications. After all, why are reactionaries so deranged about proving the objective superiority of squares if not because they overidentify with the "superior" squares and are terrified of their "obvious" superiority being stripped away? At its best, this mode of computer art embodied this destabilization.

Thank god that the immutable blockchain came along and provided them with an out: the objectively superior randomly generated products could be pinned to cork like a dead fly and the whole rest of the genus gassed to death before that infinite procedural multitude started to suggest that maybe YOUR particular square isn't all that FUCKING SPECIAL.

The aesthetic of generation is most remarkable, if anywhere, in a context where the procedural generation refuses the boundedness of the individual implementation but rather expresses a diversity of alternatives. It's just not compatible with the crude embalming methods and the hobbling print limits of sites like Art Blocks. If these aesthetic qualities of digital art matter in the slightest, their place either on the blockchain or unbounded and free on the internet also matters.

This is the kind of scrutiny that the medium or movement or disruption or intervention of NFTs must face up to if it wants to be taken seriously. Like, I'm opening my arms here, and saying please go ahead and prove to me that your generative art has value, and if you can, prove that your generative art isn't just more Clement Greenberg modernism welded onto a blockchain cause that's how you could make a quick buck. If you really want to wow me, justify your artwork while standing next to, like, art of a giant Elon Musk head ejaculating dick shaped rockets full of shiba dogs toward the moon. Cause that's what you have to do as long as your art sits on these marketplaces!

And you better start learning fast to make distinctions, because I don't think the rosy paradise of diverse-but-unified cryptoartists can last for long as the real players start to arrive. I'm talking about people who have the ability to swoop into the space, make a ton of money while the field is trendy, then disappear back to comfort when the market crashes. The very people cryptoart boosters are so eager to define themselves against.

The High Art World.

Every single one of the worst people in the highest echelons of fine art has jumped on this trend. Everyone from Ai Weiwei to Damien Hirst to Douglas Coupland, all the Young British Artists and Neo Pop dudes, they're all minting NFTs. Which is weird, right? I thought this field was supposed to be "exactly the community of multidisciplinary artists historically excluded from the art world". And yet curiously it seems to be the exact same guys?

The ultimate beneficiaries of comics being For Adults Now were superstar creators, not your average inker, colorist, or letterer, let alone your average zine artist. The ultimate beneficiaries of the collapsing of cryptoart into computer art into the big pink square of art that is diverse and yet unified will not be, for the most part, independent artists, but hucksters. And who is better at huckstering with art than someone like neo pop artist Douglass Coupland? I want to talk about Coupland in particular because amidst a bunch of utterly insipid, appropriative, fairly shitty gif art that I 1000% do not believe Coupland animated personally lol, are several gifs he (or his assistants) put together of Conway's Game of Life. The Game of Life genuinely is one of the most beautiful and influential pieces of computer art to exist, a procedural game where "cells" change color based on the cells around them. Life inspires so many partly because it is capable of shocking complexity and fascinating, lively patterns generated by a few simple rules. So simple are the rules in fact that they can be implemented fairly easily even by novice programmers. I think that Life, at its best, inspires an incredible sense of connection between the biological and artificial, and also blurs the line between artist, tool, and audience.

Coupland, by taking the interactive and dynamic Game of Life and transforming it into a looping proprietary gif, has systematically murdered its organisms and displayed it as a garish, colorfully bleeding hunting trophy. He has through the violent domination of the natural world in the form of Proof of Work reasserted the boundary between Artist and Audience and Tool, between Man and Machine and Beast. This is not lively vibrant matter. This is wallpaper. This is a bear skin fucking rug. God it doesn't even look good. Why are pop artists so obsessed with arbitrarily colored polka dots? Is this supposed to be a reference to Damien Hirst's equally insipid dot paintings? Because it doesn't work at all: the interest in Life is in the emergence of patterns that seem at once biological and artificial, with a detectable but not trivially predictable order. Making them all different colors collapses the effect entirely into just noise!

Noise and fragments. That's just it, isn't it? Capital melts all that is solid into air. It has to, for the capitalist class to continuously revolutionize the means of production and find new avenues to compete, desperately racing ahead of the closing jaws of the rate of profit's fall. The tokens might not be fungible, but everything else is, and wow would you look at that there's now investment vehicles that let you invest in a portion of a stock pegged to a collection of artwork, so I guess even the art can be fragmented and turned into a fungible investment vehicle!

It should come as no surprise that the whole complex field of digital art, even the whole complexity of the cryptoart field of social production with all its internal contradictions and tensions, would be just another trouble slap slap slapped away with the slapchop. The wild unrestrained nature of generative art making it hard to commodify? Dice that shit with some leeks and tomato and stick the remains on superrare or foundation app. Doesn't matter what any of this shit means, doesn't matter what debates are happening or have happened about the different forms of art. Will it blend? Oh. You know it.

Wait wait wait. I remember something that felt relevant to this-

Oh right! It's Copper Giloth again, in her piece "As I Said". The piece is at once abrasive and playful, a musical rendition of the title broken vocally down by collaborator Mimi Shevitz into phonemes, and remixed and overlaid to form a repetitive, rhythmic noisescape. On the screen, a primitive computer rendering takes the component parts of the video--text "AS I SAID (IT)" and "LISTEN", a series of numbers and registration marks, and simply drawn hand cymbals (also audible in the music), and breaks them down, overlays them, repeats them, splits them up.

The title suggests an obviousness to the speech: something already stated, something that shouldn't need to be repeated. But that opening just plays over and over, without ever getting anywhere, chopped up and sliced and diced by audio editing and human vocal performance and algorithmic decomposition. To me, the piece suggests the exact way that technoculture and its broader enabler, capital, take what we say and believe, even our most strongly held convictions, and dice them up, rendering them meaningless. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that this piece suggests the way the objections or beliefs of people marginalized by this culture--female computer artists who dare to make "political" work about their own bodies and right to abortion access, just to pick a random example--get chopped up, distorted, and rendered unintelligible by this culture.

But there's also a playfulness here that really appeals to me. Sure, it's abrasive, but there's also a sing song quality to the performance and the hand cymbals and the constant remixing of the text on the screen in rhythmic time to the music, that suggests Giloth and Shevitz just might be sticking their tongue out at this culture. "LISTEN" the text briefly commands at the beginning, but the piece frustrates our attempts to get to its meaning or even make out the words spoken or displayed. They turn the machine's power to chop and repackage on its head, and use it to produce something that's a little uneasy, a little unpleasant, a little playfully out of reach, a little defiant.

It suggests that there is a wealth of possibilities for digital art far beyond the totalizing reach of NFTs. If there's any point in taking cryptoart seriously at all, it might be this: that if we can break apart "cryptoart" as a monolith we can start to see what art practices get favored and what get marginalized. Maybe we can even start to imagine an alternate space for creative practices ignored by both the gallery system AND the world of NFTs.

This Has Been

An Objectively Perfect Square

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