On a Universal Serial Bus
(Sternberg Press, 2015)
In the age of Dropbox and cloud computing it is not difficult to imagine the USB flash drive’s future techno-fossil status. Yet as a presently universal interface, pathway, connector, translator and storehouse, the flash drive is a simple and even obvious way to distribute digital works of art. Universal Serial Bus is a publication in the form of a USB memory stick, an abbreviated term for Universal Serial Bus. Published by Sternberg Press, this project catalogues electronic works from the design-art-publishing collective Dexter Sinister’s 2015 Kunstverein München exhibition, On a Universal Serial Bus. In what can most simply be described as an artist’s book that can be plugged into any computer, Universal Serial Bus traversesthe space between print and web media language, making the case that a flash drive can serve as a digital mirror for the printed book.
The object itself comes in an elegant, ultra-slim metal casing, minimally packaged in a plastic sleeve and emblazoned with the recognizable USB trident logo, whose three spears end in a circle, a triangle and a square. Like the logo, which symbolizes the power of the USB to deliver the same data to a range of different devices, Universal Serial Bus functions as a courier. By taking advantage of the capabilities of this ordinary technology and then ultimately moving beyond the form’s established conventions, Dexter Sinister demonstrates that the USB format is not only a solution to the design problem of how to effectively publish digital works of art, but is also an imaginative container for work that broods on the mechanics of distribution. At the most basic level this medium can encourage users to think about the tools we use to send a message.
Dexter Sinister is David Reinfurt and Stuart Bailey. Their smartly sardonic work, which defies easy categorization, fuses aspects of graphic design, art, publishing, editing, writing, archiving, and against-the-grain distribution. Reinfurt and Bailey were both trained as graphic designers, but with an interest in the interplay of graphics and language, in mischief and aloofness, and in Dadaist experimentation, they also are identified more easily among conceptual artists. In a piece in the final issue oftheir signature design magazine, Dot Dot Dot, in print between 2000 and 2010,Bailey writes that “we’re just trying to stay focused on the fact that we’re in the business of communication rather than graphic design.”
Dexter Sinister’s engagement in publishing is focused on anything that can be transformed, summarized, repurposed or multiplied. They bounce across media and pluck from their own archive. Take for example, Bulletins of The Serving Library, the group’s biannual journal that follows from where Dot Dot Dot left off. The magazine, done in collaboration with Angie Keefer, is published both in print and in the form of free PDF pamphlets online. These materials fit under the umbrella of The Serving Library, the physical library that they are building via their own publishing program. The newest issue of Bulletins of The Serving Library is a “best of” digest featuring 140-character summaries of all previously published essays. Stock-taking and reassessment are central to Dexter Sinister’s practice: for them, publication, documentation and reappraisal are equally significant gestures.
Universal Serial Bus contains four video and performance projects produced by Dexter Sinister between 2008 and 2015. The files loaded onto the flash drive were also included in the exhibition at Kunstverein München as a series of installations, with a room dedicated to each project. Serving as a “tour guide,” is an explanatory “ReadMe” video file, illustrated by a simple animated graphic asterisk and narrated in a synthesized robo-monotone by curator Isla Leaver-Yap. In considering the tension between the digital files stored on the flash drive, the physical exhibition in Munich and previous iterations of the same works, the project opens up to a world of philosophically poignant techno-Baudrillardian moments. Is Universal Serial Bus, like a standard exhibition catalogue, an abridged copy of the Kunstverein München show? Or is the show, as its title On a Universal Serial Bus might suggest, a physical copy of the files on the flash drive? Does the project even have a defined physical or digital origin?
Dexter Sinister’s interest in obfuscating the boundaries between the original and the copy can be couched alongside their simultaneous mistrust of and devotion to logos and graphic identity systems. Identity, a three-screen projection originally commissioned for a 2011 exhibition at Artists Space, is a condensed history of branding. Falling somewhere between animated history and informational cultural critique, it charts the corporatization of cultural institutions through analysis of the logos and tightly structured branding systems of MoMA, the Pompidou, and the Tate. The video, also narrated by Isla Leaver-Yap, is a delight to watch and is just ambiguous enough. While casting suspicion on cultural branding machines and the alternate visual language they require the public to learn, Dexter Sinister happily and frequently use logos themselves, revealing the efficacy of the institutions that they are trying to critique. Dexter Sinister’s name is taken from heraldic terminology for right and left, and their interest in the rules and variability of heraldry extends to the many symbols that they design or borrow. The logic of Universal Serial Bus is framed by the USB logo and the asterisk, the former representing a system of communication and latter, the subjective voice of the artist. More than a design history lesson, Identity invokes the paradoxes of branded corporate identities, illuminating them as distributable forms of communication, just like a book, a PDF or a USB flash drive.
There is an issue that persists throughout Universal Serial Bus,however, and it has more to do with Dexter Sinister’s practice than with this particular publication. The problem is exemplified by True Mirror Microfiche Video, a video from 2009 presenting a complex offshoot performance based on the collective’s 2008 Whitney Biennial contribution, in which they set up a functioning, mirrored version of the Whitney Museum Press office. Only interesting—or comprehensible—if you already are familiar with previous Dexter Sinister works, True Mirror Microfiche Video reveals the issues intrinsic to deeply self-referential art practices. Dexter Sinister is best when their work is contextualized within other aspects of their output—often in the excellent texts published in their magazines. But taken as a singular work without that contextual support, True Mirror Microfiche Video reads as an inside joke. This brings up a problem for audiences who are in effect obliged to know an entire oeuvre in order to understand one part of it, prompting the question: Do all projects merit redistribution?
Dexter Sinister is hardly the first to think about how everyday delivery systems for information can be purposefully misused in the name of publishing. But with Universal Serial Bus they do so elegantly and intelligently, presenting users with an unconventional artist’s book experience that raises fundamental questions about the relationship between digital publications and the archive. Whereas an e-book is a relatively fixed digital scroll, a flash drive is a mutable archival tool and parallels an artist’s website as much as it does a traditional codex. To the extent that a USB has the capacity to contain anything an artist has ever made or simply a few works edited in a sequence, the limitations of this tool are only governed by how many megabytes it can hold. Functioning as both a stand-alone publication and a condensed archive of Dexter Sinister’s recent digital work, Universal Serial Bus addresses ideas oscillating between form and function, conjecture and fact, and medium and message, all carefully collected, collated, and ready to be plugged in.