Brooklyn Dispatches: Virtually Overwhelmedby James Kalm
“Hi, my name is James, and I’m an Internet addict.”
“Hi James!” A small circle of bleary-eyed geeks sit on folding chairs in a musty church basement.
“It started a couple of years ago, when I started lurking around art blogs.” “Spawn of the Devil” mumbles an obese twenty-something wearing pajama bottoms and a Buddha patch.
“I thought I had it under control, then I signed up for a Google account…” The hook was set: I was a blogger.
The unstoppable proliferation of Internet art sites and blogs has turned online coverage into an ever-larger slice of my daily art fix. And as one of the few hardcopy writers following this new phenomenon, I’ve recently been tapped for involvement in developing its potential for a new set of aesthetics.
A couple of months ago I got a phone call about lending my art-critical chops to a project headquartered at Williamsburg’s Jack the Pelican Presents. As described in its blogspot (http://brooklyniswatching.com), Brooklyn is Watching (sponsored by Popcha!) is a conceptual art project by Jay Van Buren about “’cultural colonialism,’ marketing, the attention economy, critique, dialog, power-relationships, and the difference between potential and actual…” Quartered within the vestibule of the back room at Jack, a massive monitor tracks the status of "BiW," which purports to span “the virtual, 3D space of Second Life, the two dimensional ‘traditional’ Internet and the ultimate hipster mothership, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.” Anyone entering the gallery is invited to interact with it as “an artwork, an entertainment product, a venue for critical dialog and a marketing vehicle.”
Second Life, the creation of Linden Lab, was founded in 1999 as a virtual, three-dimensional world created by its residents. Millions of people use the site for everything from pure entertainment to-on-the-job training. To subscribe, you sign up, adopt an avatar and start exploring. You can buy land, build environments, run businesses, nurture families and do deals that supposedly render real cash (though I never saw a cent). Brooklyn is Watching has an open-call out to virtual designers to submit works to be placed on its island. Each week a panel assembles, sometimes at the gallery, sometimes virtually over Skype, to critique the latest crop of works, producing a podcast and ongoing blog posts. Technical design for the virtual island is provided by Boris Kizelshteyn, and Jay Van Buren plays ringmaster for the weekly critiques, which include real-lifers such as Tyler Coburn, Don Carol, and Amy Wilson, along with a rotating cast of Second Life luminaries like Patrick Lichty, Bettina Tizzy, and Shirley Marquez.
So far so good, and I applaud the opportunity afforded these artists to expose their work for consideration in a Williamsburg gallery setting. Leaving aside the artworks themselves and their concomitant aesthetics, which we’ll discuss later, I have to say there are aspects of Second Life I find just plain creepy. As a self-confessed technological caveman who’s having a bitch of a time just keeping up with his first life, my exploration of Second Life so far has been fraught with as much frustration as fascination. As a fan of sunshine, fresh air and the smells of the streets, why should I voluntarily enlist in a virtual existence? Like Neo in The Matrix, if someone offers me the red capsule and a chance to experience the “real world,” I’m gonna take it. But that’s not all; there’s also a strange political culture, a benign form of corporate fascism percolating through this world; although subscribers are supposedly free to create whatever their imaginations can dream up, there are restrictions and protocols that must be adhered to. Issues of censorship and morality, which have provided the premise for some of today’s most provocative real world artwork, are simply off limits. Recent tragedies and their accompanying multimillion-dollar lawsuits involving sites like MySpace and Facebook have, no doubt, put the management and lawyers at Second Life into a defensive posture to limit liability.
The artworks themselves, like any group show, vary in quality, intent and technical expertise. In many cases, an artist’s self-consciousness (aspiring to Art with a capital A) taints the work with sophomoric explication that circumscribes its visual and conceptual possibilities. Despite the constantly rotating roster of works, repeat exhibitors have emerged who have evolved an apparent affinity with the simulated space and the "BiW" honchos. Their attention-getting effects include: kineticism, or the ability to design elements that move and change; interactivity, which allows viewers to activate a range of reactions, some interesting, some just plain annoying (my avatar was attacked and dry humped by a Warholian Campbell’s soup can repeatedly spewing the text “Pop Art hates you”); and an apparently limitless palette of colors and surfaces that allow designers to simulate darn near anything in a fairly convincing way.
Despite all these options, there are drawbacks and questions. Are there simpler ways to build projects that would open up the space to artists who aren’t code-savvy über-geeks? Where does context come into play, with “sim” artists whose prime focus is recreating a version of the real world while others delve more formalistically into the particular properties of this new medium? (The possibility of Computer-Age-Neo-Greenbergian-Hyper-Formalism has been raised on the "BiW" blog.) If the corporate politics of Second Life dictate parameters on the kinds of art that’s allowed to exist there, how can one circumvent or subvert them? And finally, although there are no nails and sheetrock, how much does the time and costs of programming and code-writing limit a project’s scope and complexity? As Van Buren has stated, much of what happens in Second Life is about social relationships—a group of artists building a community and exploring the potential of a new medium. For those of you whose inner-nerds are crying out for affirmation, if you’ve got the time to invest in cyberspace, take a stroll through Brooklyn is Watching, see what you think of one of art’s burgeoning frontiers.
Meanwhile, at other locations on the web, I’ve noticed a decided change of tone; things appear to have darkened. The dynamics of many art blogs seem to go through a cycle of struggle, acceptance and recognition followed by burnout, troll attacks, and nasty personal assaults verging on slander. The free-flowing interaction of posters in real time is one of blogging’s most attractive features, but also one of its greatest vulnerabilities. The long established, much visited blogspot Edward_ Winkleman.com (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com/) recently invoked an oversight policy requiring all posts to be approved by the blogmeister. Although most sites enforce a basic level of decorum, the nasty snarking by some of the anonymous commenters at Ed’s site escalated to over-the-top personal attacks. Another hazard of the blogosphere is the unfocused blatherer. Some folks with too much time on their hands and maybe a little too much caffeine in their bloodstreams can hijack even the best sites, taking over the conversation thread with banal remarks or paragraphs full of off-subject twaddle. Last year I reported on paintersNYCblogspot (http://painternyc.blogspot.com/), a site that posts a picture of a locally exhibited painting almost daily for critique. Since then the site has gone into partial hibernation. While it’s true that blogmistress painterpaparazzi is in preparation for an upcoming exhibition, I wonder how much of the site’s inactivity is an attempt to wean-away swarms of blatherers through benign neglect.
Finally, howsmydealing.com (http://howsmydealing.blogspot.com/) is a site with a brilliant premise that’s gotten the attention of more than a few chagrined dealers. Posters are asked to comment on the treatment they’ve received from a long list of gallerists, curators and critics (even me). While providing the inside dope on plenty of local players (along with a hefty dose of misinformation), the anonymity of most of the posts encourages the vindictive and the petty with elephantine memories to flame the objects of their anger with gossip and ad hominem attacks (“I remember when he farted in Mrs. Wolinsky’s third grade class”). Rebuttals from hapless dealers have the tone of encounter group therapy confessionals. There’s also the potential for dealers to be trashed by competitors for commercial advantage.
The art blogosphere is a work in progress, and you’ve got to be vigilant of hidden agendas. As with anything online, take it with a grain of salt. Have fun, speak out, but don’t let it cut too much into your studio time; you might end up in a twelve step-program.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.