Hello, world! | art and the Cloud

This article was originally published on the Digi Commissions website as part of the Truth of Transience programme.

For more original artworks and essays commissioned by Full Circle Arts please visit the Digi Commissions website.

The original essay is below.


Hello, world! | art and the Cloud

By Kevin Burns

It’s really important not to eternalise the present, and to be ready for the next thing.
Rick Prelinger 1

It seems par for the course that discussions on art often become translations into some issue important enough to have funding behind it. As a freelancing artist and writer, I am well accustomed to chasing the dragon. However, so working with art and technology has the unusual distinction of mixing two equally insular subjects: I have solved enough minor computing issues among my family to know that, for the average user, the computer and the sculpture are objects of equal mystery. This seems reason enough to try and affect some mutual understanding, but there is a better reason: the gathering of the Cloud.

If you have yet to hear of ‘the Cloud’ you will undoubtedly do so very soon, and I don’t just mean during the next sentence. To put it conservatively ‘Cloud Computing’ refers to moving computing from personal hardware to the Internet. This article is being written with an online word processor, inside a Web-browser like Chrome or Firefox, etched into the Bytes of some Google data centre in some place I’ve likely never heard of. This is what the Cloud is: the growing virtual space of the Web. The more we do with it, the bigger it gets.

The avant garde of industry, exemplified by ‘tech startups’, take advantage of the so-called Cloud dividend 2 to innovate in their fields with a creativity bordering on science-fiction. The potential reach of a human being to make and harness virtual spaces has never been so pronounced, but where does this find the practice of contemporary art?

Hito Steyerl’s film How Not To Be Seen. A Fucking Didactic Educational .Mov File mocks an instructional video of remaining invisible in a digital world. Recently shown at ICA (London), Steyerl treads a taught line in this work, making an aesthetic of disappearance, reflecting and inverting notions of privacy under the Web 3. Art Post-Internet at Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA, Beijing) is a survey of contemporary practice bracketed by the ‘post-internet art’ trend, attempting the redefinition of art for the age of the Internet 4. Rhizome (New York) annually presents Seven on Seven, a conference pairing seven artists and seven “technologists” to work in teams of two on an ‘art jam’ to develop something new over the course of a day 5. Through art making, exhibition making and interdisciplinary practice, momentum is growing around issues intersecting the Internet and art.

Sarah Browne is an Irish artist whose research-led practice presents an encounter between art and contemporary technology. Her film, Something from nothing, forms the mainstay of her show Hand to Mouth at the CCA Derry~Londonderry and (upcoming) IMA Brisbane. The film arises from Browne’s research into subsistence economies and observes conditions of labour among a range of Shetland women in different fields of work: a knitter, a sex worker, a member of the youth parliament, a photographer, and the artist. Inspired by images of 1950’s Shetland women unendingly knitting with the aid of tools, pouches and pin-cushions strapped to their bodies, at the core of the film is an awareness of textiles as a ceaseless form of labour. This is seen as a precursor to modern working practices, where Cloud technology offers a similar ‘flexibility’ to work unendingly.

In particular I saw a connection between the activities of hands busily knitting, or texting on a mobile phone, whilst walking: mind and body active at once, constantly busy, voluntarily mining all the body’s physical and mental resources in order to be productive. 6

Navigating the roadways of Shetland, an iPhone daydreams out of the window. In the bottom right corner the profile picture of ‘Ms_Gorgeous Scotland’ speaks to us…

Sarah Browne SomethingFromNothing (3)

Sarah Browne SomethingFromNothing (1)

‘Something from Nothing’, Sarah Browne (2014)
Film stills: courtesy of the artist and CCA Derry~Londonderry

Conversing with the artist over Skype, Ms_Scotland recounts her working conditions as an escort, detailing the role of her website in her work. The appearance of the subject’s profile picture at the bottom right of the frame references the Web, yet it is clearly not present in its original capacity: the projection at the CCA is larger than any laptop display, and the optical black of the film is not so black as the wall surrounding it; even the lack of light is described by the bulb. Browne’s labour as an artist thus relies on this interplay between the digital material of the iPhone camera and the physical conditions of exhibition.

Owing in large part to my unerringly nerdish obsession to spot computers ‘in the wild’, I cannot help but notice that the artist uses a Macbook Pro to conduct her Skype call. This leads me to consider how we may discern something natively discursive in how Browne works. We can glean that the operating system of this Macbook is, unsurprisingly, OS X (the most recent version of Apple’s desktop operating system). OS X has a distinctively ‘skeuomorphic’ user interface, which is to say that the interface mimics physical objects and spaces. This is most prominently employed in the ‘app dock’ (the row of icons in the bottom centre of the interface), where the icons are rendered as three-dimensional images closely styled after their ‘physical’ world equivalents: eg. the Mail app is represented as a postage stamp, Contacts as an address book. Even the window surrounding the Skype interface is a panel of metallic silver with subtly tapered corners: the texture, colour and shape of the aluminum Macbook.

Sarah Browne SomethingFromNothing (2)

‘Something from Nothing’, Sarah Browne (2014) Film still: courtesy of the artist and CCA Derry~Londonderry

The graphics of the computer interface become a kind of symbolic material. If we consider the importance of ‘material’ to Browne’s research on Shetland (ie. historical textile practices), it is worth bearing this symbolism in mind. Just as the knitters of Shetland labour(ed) unceasingly with the materials strapped or otherwise attached to their persons, we may observe the ubiquitous graphic interface similarly tethering contemporary workers to their labour. This begs the question, ‘If the computer is the tool, what is the material?’ That tapered, metallic silver panel around the Skype window. That little profile picture of Ms_Gorgeous Scotland.

In Sarah Browne’s digitally rooted work, these interfaces are material rendered into the product of her film and cast in light upon the wall. Among its many accomplishments, Something from nothing excavates this virtual materiality.

The embedding of the Web in public, personal and corporate contexts presents this virtual material in an historic level of availability. Today the Web is synonymous with the Cloud, although it may be more accurate to say that the Web is the platform and the Cloud is what we do with it. In other words, the Cloud is a virtual space described by what we do.

In one sense ‘space’ is characteristically virtual. By way of illustration, the Grosvenor building at the Manchester School of Art is a ‘purpose built’ art school where studio-based learning still lives today much as it always has. In contrast, the Righton building next door is home to non-studio programmes and a hub of offices for the school’s academics, but it was originally a department store, and as legend has it, a ramshackle music venue in between. How are we to understand these shifts in how to regard the bricks and mortar of the Righton building? I propose that in the relationship between buildings and spaces we may reasonably discern a reflection of the Web and the Cloud. Buildings are platforms, spaces are described by what we do with them.

righton interior 1080p

Interior of the Righton Atrium, ‘a view from the interior’
Reproduced under Creative Commons license: Attribution­NonCommercial­ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

It is nonetheless difficult to entirely remove the Righton building from its history. One need only look upwards at the white, wooden balustrades along the landing of the upper level and the sides of the grand staircase leading up there, to know that this not a place designed for its present institutional function. They don’t put ornate skylights in art school office buildings! The functioning of the building does benefit from its former life – it is a bright and pleasant, open-plan site of education – but more importantly, we should understand that the functions of the building are contained in a very physical sense by its history. Save for tearing the whole place down and rebuilding, the logic of the department store is an immutable aspect of the Righton building.

This, I believe, provides a useful point of comparison with the relationship between the Web and the Cloud. We could describe the Cloud as a modular, ‘historyless’ space; it adjusts to what we do because there is no historic site that must be maintained. The walls and fittings of the Righton building, however, have a currency that is ultimately more valuable than that of which occurs within them. The school must adjust to the building. The identities of the department store, music hall, and the art school are, in this sense, virtual spaces within the unchanging structure.

If the defining characteristic of the Web is an historic realisation of virtual space (the Cloud), I think an artistic strategy for addressing and being-of this era relies on engagement with, or at least an awareness of, this notion of the virtual.

Goldin+Senneby is an ‘artist’s firm’, a collaborative framework set up by artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby. G+S work in episodic projects addressing virtual constructs, such as corporate ‘offshoring’ or the online world ‘Second Life’, often through contracting research, production and performance from third parties. Their work produce(s) feedback loops artistically, as noted by Hinrich Sachs:

Places, documents, stories and even the economic conditions of their work take on a discursive quality… in this aesthetic strategy of distributing responsibility in such a way that intentions become invisible, the mind map of present-day management culture is reflected. 7

bliss-600dpi 1080p

Bliss_(location) 1080p

[Top] Bliss, Microsoft: Used with permission from Microsoft
[Bottom] After Microsoft, Goldin+Senneby: reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution
Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license

Goldin+Senneby’s 2006-2007 work After Microsoft is an investigation into the source of the desktop wallpaper Bliss, the desktop of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. The work was initiated in the context of the imminent end of XP, nearing the release of its successor Windows Vista in January 2007. Through interviews and exchanges with concerned parties, including representatives of Microsoft and the photographer of Bliss Charles O’Rear, G+S locate the photograph at a vineyard in Sonoma Valley, California and re-photograph the scene. It is exhibited as an installation of the re-photography, with a narrated voice over which begins with the bleak intonation, “The most distributed image ever is being phased out.”

Bliss is a scene of pastoral perfection, whose vivid colours were (and to a degree, still are) integral to the branding strategy of Microsoft. As the desktop of the most popular graphic operating system in history, Bliss has appeared and reappeared on innumerable occasions on millions of screens, symbolically linking each of them in one huge virtual space. It is as though ‘the Cloud’ is one of those cumulous formations high above the hill. Goldin+Senneby’s re-photography of Bliss revisits that hill years later. What is left is an expanse of gold and purple hovering above a barely discernible green. Grapes have returned with their colours dulled under an overcast sky. What happens when the wizard behind the curtain is revealed?

Remembering Sach’s observation of Goldin+Senneby that places, documents, stories and even the economic conditions of their work take on a discursive quality, we should view the continued life of this re-photographed image as one such discursive quality. There is something distinctly unvaluable about the image: it is available to download from G+S’s website, but at a primitive 800 x 600 pixel resolution, do we really want it? 8 Investigations reveal that an image purported to be the ‘original’ has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by one ‘Simon Goldin’ in resplendent 3,200 x 2,400 resolution 9 : this stands in marked contrast to the proposition of the Bliss photograph originally purchased by Microsoft for a large, but secret, sum under terms of non-disclosure.

The ‘open sourcing’ of the After Microsoft photograph on Wikimedia Commons alters something about the original Bliss image. This hill in Sonoma Valley was once pictured, sold as a stock-photo, anonymised by a non-disclosure agreement, then transformed into a corporate brand. The value of the Bliss image is reliant on an unlikely combination of its ‘singleness’ – being ‘owned’ by Microsoft – and on its extensive reproduction. By placing After Microsoft in common ownership, Goldin+Senneby fragment Microsoft’s monopoly over this place.

To suggest that After Microsoft merely subverts the corporate machinations of Microsoft, however, would be too neat and pleasing an answer. Rather, it approaches Bliss as an investigation into the alchemy that makes a hill into a brand, clouds into the Cloud: these legal arrangements are revealed as the boundaries of virtual spaces.

Much as Bliss is animated by distribution rights and a non-disclosure agreement, Goldin+Senneby’s After Microsoft is granted autonomy by the virtual construct of open Licensing (Wikimedia Commons). One need only utilise another virtual construct, the Google search engine, to discern its ongoing autonomy by searching for ‘visually similar images’:

Google Image Search

Screenshot, the author (2014)
Google search for ‘visually similar images’ to After Microsoft, Goldin+Senneby

Common ownership has lead to After Microsoft anonymously replicating across the web. The image has become part of popular discussions around Bliss, almost entirely uncredited to Goldin+Senneby – just an image in the wild, virtual material for everyone. The instruments designed to make virtual material ‘real’ have thus been used to remove the singleness that typically defines an art product. Goldin+Senneby have engineered a work of art that, I argue, uses the virtual constructs of the Cloud to obliterate itself.

I am reminded of our friend, the Righton Building. There is a reason why it remains such as it is, why the spaces of the department store, music hall, and art school have lived only as virtual spaces within: it is a Grade II Listed Building10 – the building itself is protected by a virtual construct that turns history into a legally defined site.

In the European Court of Justice’s recent ruling against Google on the ‘right to be forgotten’ case,11 it has been decided that search engines may be compelled to delete search results related to individuals deemed to contain inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant information. In light of this ongoing expansion of virtual constructs so competing for design of the Cloud, for mastery of the Byte and the mortality of the information therein, the proposition of a ‘post-internet art’ seems somewhat premature.

1. “Kadist” Wednesdays After Microsoft by Goldin Senneby with a Reading by Rick Prelinger
http://kadist.org/en/programs/all/14112. Bussgang, Jeff “The Cloud Dividend.” The Huffington Post
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-bussgang/the-cloud-dividend_b_5063055.html3. “Hito Steyerl” Institute of Contemporary Arts
http://www.ica.org.uk/whats-on/hito-steyerl4. “Art Post-Internet” Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
http://ucca.org.cn/en/exhibition/art-post-internet/5. “MAY 3, 2014” Seven on Seven 2014
http://rhizome.org/sevenonseven/6. “Filming in the Shetland Islands” Sarah Browne
http://www.sarahbrowne.info/news/filming-in-the-shetland-islands/7. “Hydra, the Chicken and the Egg” Hinrich Sachs
in Goldin Senneby, Headless. Toronto, Canada: Power Plant, 2009

8. “After Microsoft” Goldin Senneby

9. “Bliss (location).jpg” Simon Goldin.

10. “List Entry 1197781” English Heritage

11. “PRESS RELEASE No 70/14” Court of Justice of the European Union