September 29, 2004

Interface at Critical

by Nick Montfort · , 12:17 pm

global_interface Mark Marino (of the Barthian and bachelor bots) sends word of Global Interface, a yearlong, interdisciplinary workshop on cyberculture that is just starting up with a talk from Kate Hayles on Monday, Oct 4. Meatspace meetings will happen monthly at UC Riverside. as is explained in the proposal. The diverse set of participants includes faculty from music, dance, and computer science. “The interface serves as the nexus between artist, viewer, programmer, technology, and industry,” the blog for the workshop declares. Mark and the other organizers hope that this blog will foster intersections and conversation online, too, and there’s a plan to post extensive notes on all the talks.

8 Responses to “Interface at Critical”

  1. mark Says:

    Still reading through this page to see what they’re up to, but thought I’d post a partially-uninformed comment anyway. =]

    I find all this sort of stuff fascinating on its own merits, but I must say as a sociological study of cyberculture I haven’t yet found an investigation that’s convincing. Some document particular small subsets of cyberculture, particularly as practiced among artists and academics and others who are consciously producing cyberculture, but it mostly seems to miss the online culture and especially online art that is not intended as art. That sort of stuff, mostly made by people (often high school and college kids) in their spare time to alleviate boredom, makes up a huge percentage of what would be propertly termed cyberculture (and digital art, for that matter), and some of what I find the most fascinating. There’s a pretty strong anti-academic and anti-fine-art sentiment among lots of the people making it, but just because someone says what they’re doing isn’t art (or is even contemptuous of art) doesn’t mean they’re actually not producing art. Bored high school and college kids seem to usually be the first to start exploring digital mediums in unusual ways, as they have nearly unlimited amounts of free time and motivation. And in some sense these are sociologically the most interesting bits of cyberculture as well, as they’re people so ingrained in it that it’s not even really considered “cyberculture” by those participating in it, just “using the internet”.

    So I suppose my hope is that, in addition to theorists and practitioners, the field develops more bona-fide sociologists to document and learn from what’s going on “in the wild”, so to speak. (Not that I have anything against theorists and practitioners in principle; it’s an “in addition to” rather than “instead of” wish.) As it is, the intro-level books I’ve skimmed through on cyberculture (or “internet culture”, or “digital culture”) are rather surreal, making me wonder if they’re talking about the same internet I’ve spent the last decade on. Of course, I could just be reading the wrong books…

  2. Mark Marino Says:

    Thank you for posting the notice, Nick.

    The title of the talk is:
    “My Mother Was a Computer:
    Digital Subjects and Literary Texts”

    This talk will be drawn from her forthcoming book of that title, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in September 2005.

    To Mark Nelson,

    What you say is uncannily in sync with the workshop. Just yesterday we were discussing the place of sociological research within the workshop (although your insights on youth are intriguing. I’d like to hear more).

    If it gives you any sense, the faculty coordinator for our workshop (Dr. Toby Miller) is a co-appointment in English, Women Studies, and Sociology. So, you can guarantee that we will move beyond appreciation of professional artists to the everyday communities of cyberculture.

    Let’s begin the discussion here. Can I solicit some more of your thoughts? Who are some of the people you are reading? Are there sites(a few examples) of the youth culture you see as central to cyberculture. you’re interested in hearing discussed.

    I look forward to hear your thoughts and I will bring any of your suggestions to the workshop meat-ings (sorry) for discussion. We can post our discoveries on the site for further discussion online.

    To all else:
    Are there sociological texts that discuss cyberculture as Mark knows it that someone wants to recommend?

    Don’t hesitate to email me directly.

  3. mark Says:

    Posting sites is somewhat problematic because most of the stuff I have in mind as being early (or even seminal on occasion) isn’t online anymore. I’ve occasionally saved things I like, but alas not nearly often enough, and the ephemeral nature of the web makes it hard to preserve things that nobody thought needed preserving at the time. I can mention a few examples though.

    For flash animations, one that’s still findable is Brian Beaton’s sluff, formerly of Slitfinger Productions ( His site’s been down since early 2001, but some of his stuff had been reposted at (basically the index site for flash animations), where it’s still hosted. Warning: it’s probably offensive. A common theme is gratuitous, senseless, graphic violence, with style. His 4-episode “cry for help” series of stylishly music-accompanied suicide animations was a cult favorite (though never widely popular), and his “daily death” series of non-suicide deaths was vaguely more popular. He became one of the more influential animators among the flash crowd as he got really popular in early 2000. He didn’t invent the absurdist violence genre, but the influence of his stuff (in my opinion) can been seen in a lot of the stuff that’s been posted to newgrounds since then. Cry for Help doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, but I think I may have it archived on a CD somewhere. Newgrounds does have up Scrotum the Puppy, which isn’t really my cup of tea, but was his most popular series.

    Probably the most avant-garde stuff I can recall is Taco the Wonder Dog (or, rather, TAOC TEH WODNER DOG), a product of Kevin “Fragmaster” Bowen, who hops around the internet and seems to have been involved in millions of projects. The site moved a few times—it used to be hosted by, then by, and now seems to have dropped off the net. One random piece seems to be archived on some guy’s site here, episode 4 of the Crunchy Savior series. Most of the TAOC animations were self-consciously flash animations, with an emphasis on bad production values—figures that were drawn in MS Paint, music produced by singing off-key, and so on. In parts vaguely Monty-Pythonesque. This particular one almost has a plot, but is still mostly schizophrenic. Some of his stuff had more plot, and some of it was seemingly just random crap thrown together in no particular order, with a style of a 4-d collage—MS Word clipart, heads of politicians, poorly drawn figures, snippets of HTML code, windows error messages, and just about anything else appearing and disappearing on an always cluttered screen, and always with grating but usually appropriate sound tracks of him singing, screeching, looping samples from the evening news, and so on. People at the time differed on whether it was sublime genius or just random crap thrown together in no particular order. I tend to think much of it was pretty good. Some of his more recent stuff is Fireman Comics, a 2001-02 endeavor that’s still online, but it has a much different style with strong plot.

    So that’s two that come to mind on the flash side. Non-flash stuff is a whole other issue, but I’ve typed enough in this box for now I think…

  4. mark Says:

    Oh, something I was going to mention but left out: An interesting aspect of a lot of this digital art coming from various online subcultures is that it is very tightly intertwined with the subcultures from which it comes (even more so than traditional art, in my opinion). It’s not presented as stand-alone art, or even as art at all, but instead just arises somewhat naturally as one part of the normal functioning of a community. Someone might be participating in a webboard discussion, and throw together an “MS Paint rendition of the presidential debate” to humorously illustrate their post. Sometimes people make entire flash animations for one-off reasons like that, and a lot of the more well-known series started from things like that.

    This makes it somewhat hard to judge, because much of the time it can stand separately only partially, because it relies on a whole set of shared experiences and values that make it interesting, funny, and so on. Since it’s specifically intended for the community it’s made for, there’s no attempt to make it appeal to a wider audience, because that simply wasn’t the point of making it: it’s very contextual art.

    That’s also a bit of my problem with the “cyberculture” books, in that it’s [i]very[/i] easy to misinterpret subtle aspects of cyberculture, and slightly irritating when one you’re part of gets mangled. One example I recall (but I’ll have to see if I can find which book it’s from) characterized’s board members as speaking in “hacker lingo”. Strictly speaking that’s true, but they almost invariably do so ironically: when someone says “lolz dood that r0cks!” or “ok y dont u stop posting!#% liberal, more like LIEberal am i rite?” there’s a whole set of conscious references intertwined there that any regular would instantly recognize, but which are hard to piece together from outside. (Which is common in “real culture” too: as any language learner knows, idiomatic expressions and culturally-rooted humor are the hardest things to pick up on.)

  5. zombiegluesniffer Says:

    “a little bit of psychology, a little bit of biology, a little a bit of neurology, a little bit of fuckology” no fun. you don’t have a clue. is “lolz dood that r0cks!” really too difficult? you probably don’t like tyrone williams either. data/research replaces thinking. look 4 the dada. even a coyote pissed on the wall street journal. don’t hacker lingo. you got the most boring academic research brain. read gregory ulmer or take drugs or just take it easy.

  6. nick Says:

    I became aware of the work of Taco the Wonder Dog through his YOU ARE A CHEF!!!!!! (THE MOVIE), a Flash piece, no longer available online as far as I can tell, that is based on Dan Shiovitz’s interactive fiction You Are a Chef! Dan’s game was written in two hours as part of a SpeedIF contest. It is rather silly, but Taco’s animation unfolds new dimensions of absurdity.

    I think “low brow” or “no brow” cultural production of this sort is quite interesting. We could just look at animutations, slapped-together Flash pieces, re-edited videos, quotes, and the like as cultural detritus, or just say people are having fun and then laugh and ignore it, but perhaps mark is right that it’s worth figuring out how this type of stuff fits into our culture and what purpose it serves for its makers and for others who encounter it.

  7. mark Says:

    While I am interested in how it fits into culture, I thought I’d clarify that my bigger point is that I’m interested it as bona fide art as well. I think there’s a strong tendency to take people at face value when they claim something is “experimental art”, so many things are “art” simply because someone has claimed they are. My claim would be that many things not claimed as art are equally art, because IMO the act of saying “this is art” has no bearing on whether it is art or not.

    So I’d be willing to call the Taco stuff avant-garde digital art, in the fullest sense of the term, and think it rivals anything I’ve seen from self-proclaimed artists—and in fact would be shown at art shows and recognized as art in art literature if “Fragmaster” had been from that culture and chosen to present it as such. Basically, he hasn’t sold it as art, but I think he could have if he had wanted to.

  8. nick Says:

    mark, I agree that these sorts of works can be fruitfully considered as bona fide art. I didn’t mean that they should be considered only in a pop culture/cultural studies context, but rather that they have a place in culture as much as self-professed art does. They can be considered as aesthetic experiences, one can ask about their poetics, etc. I also advocate considering Eliza/Doctor as electronic literature, even though Joseph Weizenbaum had no notion (or almost no notion) that it was such. I don’t think someone has to file a declaration that he or she is an artist, or a writer, in order to create meaningful work worthy of a careful look.

    It is important, too, that different pieces are produced for and situated in different contexts. The Taco pieces weren’t produced for museums or for the Turbulence site any more than Stephanie Strickland and Carolyn Guertin’s V:Vniverse was produced for albinoblacksheep. Some people are self-declared artists and writers with long-term projects that are self-consciously artistic and literary. So I think there’s a challenge: to avoid ghettoizing particular works while also being aware of the contexts in which they exist and the different sorts of rhetorical and creative purposes they serve.

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