Category Archives: collective

reading as collective enterprise

In this excerpt from an interview with Michael Silverblatt, the host of KCRW’s Bookworm, Junot Díaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao articulates an aspect of the communal nature of books that isn’t often brought up: he argues that we learn to read communally, and that this isn’t necessarily a mode of reading that we should move away from. Here’s the audio – there’s a fervor to Díaz’s argument that doesn’t come off in a straight transcription:

(This is an excerpt; the full version can be downloaded from the Bookworm web site.) For those who can’t listen, a quick synopsis: Silverblatt, looking at the way Díaz uses science fiction and diaspora culture in his novel, sees a similarity to how James Joyce uses Dublin in Ulysses, as a lens through which to scry the world; in Oscar Wao bits of sci-fi and pop culture become a “vast encyclopedia of the world”; the universe reveals itself in particular. Díaz then takes that idea and runs with it: as a reader, he sees his own book as a single part of an “enormous conversation of books”:

Nobody learns to read outside of a collective. We forget – because we read and we read alone – we forget that we learn to read collectively. We learn with our peers, and a teacher teaches us. . . . When you read a book – and especially like this book, where there’s gonna be Spanish, there’s gonna be historical references, there’s gonna be nerdish, as they say, forget the elvish, the nerdish, there’s gonna be fanboy stuff, there’s gonna be talk about Morgoth, about dark side, about John Brunner’s science fiction books, about Asimov, about Bova, about Andre Norton, about E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman, you know all this weird esoteric stuff, amongst all these Dominican references, Caribbean references, urban black American references, all this nerd talk, all this kind of hip “we went to college” speak – the reason that’s all there in one place is the same reason that reading is a collective enterprise. When we did not know a word when we were young and learning, we would ask someone. We forgot – I think many of us forget – that praxis, that fundamental praxis. What I want is for people to read and remember that reading, while we may practice it alone, in solitude, it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange . . . .

on appropriation

The Tate Triennial 2006, showcasing new British Art, brings together thirty-six artists who explore the reuse and reshaping of cultural material. Curated by Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle in Zurich, the exhibition includes artists from different generations who explore reprocessing and repetition through painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, installations and live work.


Marc Camille Chaimowicz
Here and There… 1979-2006

Historically, the appropriation of images and other cultural matter has been practiced by societies as the reiteration, reshuffling, and eventual transformation of artistic and intellectual human manifestations. It covers a vast range from tribute to pastiche. When visual codes are combined, the end product is either a cohesive whole where influences connect into new and very personal languages, or disparate combinations where influences compete and clash. In today’s art, the different guises of repetition, from collage and montage to file sharing and digital reproduction highlight the existing codes or reveal the artificiality of the object. Today’s combination of codes alludes to a collective sense of memory in a moment when memories have become literally photographic.
One comes out of this exhibition thinking about Duchamp‘s “readymades,” Rauschenberg’s “combines,” and other forms of conceptual “gluing,” (the literal meaning of the word “collage,”) as precursors and/or manifestations of the postmodern condition. This show is a perfect representation of our moment. As Beatrix Ruf says in the catalogue: “Artists today are forging new ways of making sense of reality, reworking ideas of authenticity, directness and social relevance, looking again into art practices that emerged in the previous century.”

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Jonathan Monk
Twelve Angry Women, 2005

We have artists like Michael Fullerton, who paints contemporary figures in the style of Gainsborough, or Luke Fowler‘s use of archive material to explore the history of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Repetition goes beyond inter-referentiality in the work of Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who combines works he made in the 70s with projected images of himself as a young man and as an adult, within a space where a vase of flowers set on a Marcel Breuer’ table and a pendulum swinging back and forth position the images of the past solidly in the present. In “Twelve Angry Women,” Jonathan Monk affixes to the wall twelve found drawings by an unknown artist from the 20s, using different colored pins that work as earrings. Mark Leckey uses Jeff Koons’ silver bunny as a mirror into his studio in the way 17th century masters painted theirs. Liam Gillick creates sculptures of hanging texts made out of factory signage.
Art itself is cumulative. Different generations build upon previous ones in a game of action and reaction. One interesting development in art today is the collective. Groups of artists coming together in couples, teams, or cyberspace communities, sometimes under the identity of a single person, sometimes a single person assuming a multiple identity. Collectives seem to be a new phenomenon, but their roots go back to the concept of workshops in antiquity where artistic collaboration and copying from casts of sculptural masterpieces was the norm. The notion of the individual artist producing radically new and original art belongs to modernity. The return to collectives in the second part of the 20th century, and again now, has a lot to do with the nature of representation, with the desire to go beyond the limits of artistic mimesis or individual interpretation.

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Liam Gillick
Övningskörning (Driving Practice), 2004

On the other hand, appropriation as a form of artistic expression is a postmodern phenomenon. Appropriation is the language of today. Never before the advent of the Internet had people appropriated knowledge, spaces, concepts, and images as we do today. To cite, to copy, to remix, to modify are part of our everyday communication. The difference between appropriation in the 70s and 80s and today resides in the historical moment. As Jean Verwoert says in the Triennial 2006 catalogue:

The standstill of history at the height of the Cold War had, in a sense, collapsed the temporal axis and narrowed the historical horizon to the timeless presence of material culture, a presence that was exacerbated by the imminent prospect that the bomb could wipe everything out at any time. To appropriate the fetishes of material culture, then, is like looting empty shops at the eve of destruction. It is the final party before doomsday. Today, on the contrary, the temporal axis has sprung up again, but this time a whole series of temporal axes cross global space at irregular intervals. Historical time is again of the essence, but this historical time is not the linear or unified timeline of steady progress imagined by modernity: it is a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities born from the local conflicts that the unresolved predicaments of the modern regimes still produce.

Today, the challenge is to rethink the meaning of appropriation in a moment when capitalist commodity culture has become the determinant of our daily lives. The Internet is perhaps our potential Utopia (though “dystopian” seems to be the adjective of choice now.) But, can it be called upon to fulfill the unfulfilled promises of 20th century’s utopias? To appropriate is to resist the notion of ownership, to appropriate the products of today’s culture is to expose the unresolved questions of a world shaped by the information era. The disparities between those who are entering the technology era and those forced to stay in the times of early industrialization are more pronounced than ever. As opposed to the Cold War, where history was at a standstill, we live in a time of extreme historicity. Permanence is constantly challenged, how to grasp it all continues to be the elusive task.

nicholas carr on “the amorality of web 2.0”

Nicholas Carr, who writes about business and technology and formerly was an editor of the Harvard Business Review, has published an interesting though problematic piece on “the amorality of web 2.0”. I was drawn to the piece because it seemed to be questioning the giddy optimism surrounding “web 2.0”, specifically Kevin Kelly’s rapturous late-summer retrospective on ten years of the world wide web, from Netscape IPO to now. While he does poke some much-needed holes in the carnival floats, Carr fails to adequately address the new media practices on their own terms and ends up bashing Wikipedia with some highly selective quotes.
Carr is skeptical that the collectivist paradigms of the web can lead to the creation of high-quality, authoritative work (encyclopedias, journalism etc.). Forced to choose, he’d take the professionals over the amateurs. But put this way it’s a Hobson’s choice. Flawed as it is, Wikipedia is in its infancy and is probably not going away. Whereas the future of Britannica is less sure. And it’s not just amateurs that are participating in new forms of discourse (take as an example the new law faculty blog at U. Chicago). Anyway, here’s Carr:

The Internet is changing the economics of creative work – or, to put it more broadly, the economics of culture – and it’s doing it in a way that may well restrict rather than expand our choices. Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it’s created by amateurs rather than professionals, it’s free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die. The same thing happens when blogs and other free on-line content go up against old-fashioned newspapers and magazines. Of course the mainstream media sees the blogosphere as a competitor. It is a competitor. And, given the economics of the competition, it may well turn out to be a superior competitor. The layoffs we’ve recently seen at major newspapers may just be the beginning, and those layoffs should be cause not for self-satisfied snickering but for despair. Implicit in the ecstatic visions of Web 2.0 is the hegemony of the amateur. I for one can’t imagine anything more frightening.

He then has a nice follow-up in which he republishes a letter from an administrator at Wikipedia, which responds to the above.

Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing work. It’s of consistent high quality, it’s one of the great books in the English language and it’s doomed. Brilliant but pricey has difficulty competing economically with free and apparently adequate….
…So if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it’s going to have to be a good Wikipedia. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won’t be anything.

Let’s discuss.

treasuremytext: a networked SMS book

treasuremytext is a free British service that allows you to save text messages from your phone to the web on an anonymous, communal log, or “slog.” Recent messages appear in a column on the main site where they can be read by all and sundry, subscribed to by feed, and even loaded onto an iPod as plain text files. jill/txt has a transcript from about two weeks back:

trying to convince myself that there was nothing there but i still find myself thinking about you
night nimet . . . . i miss you
How about sorting that taxi out for next week? For real?
Ok smart arse when you are there then! And then i will fix your issues for you, all of them!
U have beautifull eyes
Dont ring ill b down bout halfpast babes
Me to hes just arrived txt u l8r baby
Nite nite xxx
Nite nite fat sexy bum.Txt u tomoz nite nite xxxx

Not exactly prize-winning stuff, but has a nice dreamy flow of chatter plucked out of the air. Reminds me a bit of a game I played in elementary school where you go around a circle and improvise a story in broken-off pieces. Reading the site today, the entries seem to have taken on a smuttier tone. And a good number aren’t in English. But an intriguing experiment nonetheless.
But it would be more interesting if the logs had some focus. Something like the City Chromosomes project, which is building a networked chronicle of the city of Antwerp, all by SMS.