How does a platform create a sense of community around the ideas it presents? What’s the best web infrastructure for fostering responsive arts journalism that encourages valuable, substantive conversations between writers and readers? How can the online intersect with the in-person? And what about virality? Let’s discuss the promise and pitfalls of massive reader response.
Claudia La Rocco: So as Alex suggested we’re going to start with failure. We thought we’d start with a discussion of terminology. Last night at dinner and as I think all of our talks reflected, we all have varying degrees of ambivalence about the language assigned to our panel, the phrase one of you uttered the phrase being against a language of metrics and boosterism. So we thought we’d start with some words, community, connectivity, responsiveness, value, what are the politics of these words? Are they adequate? Are there better alternatives and do they create a false consensus? Have at.
Ayesha Siddiqi: I mean I think certainly for the corporations with departments dedicated to so-called community engagement, the issue false consensus is very, very real and relevant to them but there’s also so many people using the Internet for whom community is a word that is newly available to them, describes a very novel experience, because they’re able to find peers where they didn’t elsewhere and the ability to transcend geographical and even although not to the same extent economic barriers towards connecting with each other.
I mean think of say, you know, members of diaspora, first generation immigrants, the queer kid in a very conservative high school, these are people for whom the Internet has been remarkable in terms of giving access to community, communities that are in the process of being built. But again, as I mentioned before, that’s a conversation that can’t be divorced from the existing and you know, definitions of community that we’re all sort of grappling with and what they mean to different people.
Alex Provan: And I didn’t mean to demean the genuine feeling of connecting with others in a togetherness that we associate with community, and I mean I think—I wish there were another word to use as a substitute, but I meant mostly to differentiate community as a discursive construct that is often used quite imprecisely if not irresponsibly, and that—that is of course not the same thing as the kind of—the feeling of community that you’re describing.
And I guess what I mean and what this book I mentioned speaks about, I mean it’s a kind of anthropology of community, one that—the most extensive study in book is of a queer theater organization in San Francisco and she’s primarily interested how this discourse around community shuts down and creates certain kinds of exclusion which are generally concealed in our usage of the term.
Brian Kuan Wood: Yeah, it seems that the kind of bad-faith use of these terms has, even though on the one hand one can criticize that they’re being used disingenuously, but at then at the same time it seems to be a lot more interesting to start to see them as being completely structural, right, that these are actually the protocols that we are—that we can only be following. This is like something that we were thinking about with the—with like the “Politics of Shine” issue in January and then in the part in the Supercommunity issue, where advertisement and like a projection of purpose and advertisement of what the community is or could be, this is the only—is the only way to actually exist, right, like the opposite of, you know, inflating yourself or seeming bigger than you are, trying to market yourself the opposite of this is like some kind of obsolescence or this is at least how it’s felt that we will just simply disappear if you don’t kind of project your image forward.
And the question is, really, like what kind of like strange communal dystopia does that contribute to? I mean with this I always think—I me I think it’s also very important to approach these questions on many different scales where also there is a strange kind of parity between the way like that marginal groups operate and the way that if you go up to higher echelons of power, that the way that actually power functions, like marginal practices are being used on, like, on vastly different scales and I always think of this—
La Rocco: Can you give an example?
Wood: Yeah. And I always think of this Dutch like brilliant Dutch designers, Metahaven, who are great researchers and always kind of stumble upon these extremely large scale phenomena, like they did a text on state branding where they basically beautiful formulation where they said, actually, most—it’s like also has to do with the question of the state we were talking about yesterday, like basically if you look at tourism advertising for like Greece or Spain or something, everyone knows the logo for Espana, like a circular thing, like you have it embedded in your mind, right? But these are actually more recognizable to us than national flags, so I remember who can remember the Spanish flag? Like I kind of can, but I can really remember the tourism logo, right, so this kind of marketing, this kind of marketization, it has such powerful effects that we somehow have to find ways to take it very seriously.
Siddiqi: You just said a few things like one that marketization of borders, right, has implications for the ways that communities are policed because then it relates to the way that those borders are able to be cooperated and replicated and re-instituted by places with a great deal of more power what you said about the inadequacy of the term community and the necessity for perhaps needing new vocabulary to address the different types of community at work, I think it might be productive to compare the word community to the word public, the various sorts of public settings.
At dinner last night that was one of the things we talked with was the ability to to be in a moment which we have ever-increasing public and more dialogue, whether it’s a culture of TV criticism in the age of shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad or the ability for marginalized voices to sufficiently antagonize the racism or the misogyny of establishment media and while there’s an idea of an ever-increasingly active public sphere with ever-decreasing amounts of power, so a really active public sphere that has no power.
Provan: And this relates to what you were saying about visibility in a surveillance state, right? However much agency and presence you might have within the public sphere, that might—that could very easily have no political effect or no possibility of achieving any political effect. There’s not a direct influence.
Siddiqi: Well, it was positive political effect, because they’re certainly seeing policies being—that were produced with respect to the political effects of these online engagements, so the ability of I mean state agents have always been able to, and have to infiltrate various political organizations, but I’m thinking of all the cases that a Facebook status has led to the harass and detention of people, so whether it was recently a black man who expressed dissatisfaction with the police on Facebook and it was perceived to be an active threat against a cop and he was charged or the student in England who—whose academic research at a university on terrorism was interpreted to be, you know, researchers becoming a terrorist and he was put in jail and those are not uncommon.
There have been a lot of people who’ve you know, been met with significant, like, you know, state, political repercussions for the things that they have expressed or shared online and the ways in which those expressions can be used as evidence against them and so that’s just one of the ways in which the social position of anyone is replicated on their—within their online presence and it’s still—we are not escaping the policing that state does, and we’re not escaping the borders and cooption that corporations always practice on us when we do what we’re doing differently online.
La Rocco: And I also think that there’s this incredible dislocation, right? The differences between how we use these technologies and then how we view how others are using them. I think of, you know, all of the incredible and ferocious shaming of people who’ve said things, you know, that have met with disapproval on various social media and this idea of how can anybody do this, you know, how could anybody be so stupid as to do this, but of course we’re doing this all the time, and there’s this way in which—you know we’ve been talking about various speeds and what are the speeds at which we want to exist, and one of the things that occurs to as being related to that is the—there’s a way in which the ability to improvise is being completely leached out of our culture, because everything is so quickly, both set in stone and decontextualized.
We were just saying that right after our talks it’s fascinating to look through Twitter and see all of the ways that we’ve all been misquoted or taken out of context and that that’s immediately but that’s something of course that we also do all the time to other people, so there’s this idea we think of the, you know, the state and the corporation as an abstract and an other, but it’s as you were saying it’s absolutely us. We are the appalling supercommunity.
Wood: Yeah, I mean with this this seems to come also, it seems to come with like a profound dislocation of notions of public and private that used to be quite clear, where we don’t really know the difference anymore between—yeah, I mean also on different scales, between like also on private feelings and between interior feelings and outside world, almost like some kind of—yeah, almost like in like a Russian novel or something, where you have a hard time distinguishing between grand narrative and personal and private emotions but then also just economically or politically public sphere and private sphere are intermingled to the point where it becomes very hard to sustain this moral division between public good or you know, private self-benefit. And in a way it’s kind of—it can be almost like liberating to just kind of like, you know, chuck these notion, because they’re really, if you look at how most publics were constructed formally, it really came from the state, right? Publics are usually confined by nation, and they’re usually subsidized by states, and you know, I mean.
Provan: I think publication and circulation of media has a lot to do with that. I mean, not to go back to Michael Warner, but he has another book called Letters of the Republic which is all about the formation of an American national identity, not through coercion of the state, not through, you know, some sort of false consensus, but rather through the development of communication networks, and through various documents and publications through which people could recognize each other as readers and therefore as part of a public, which, you know, in certain ways preceded the constitution of a nation.
Wood: Right, right, Michael Warner is really important for this as a queer theorist, right, because queer theory, he’s writing about counterpublics, because as I remember in the essay, at least it is actually antagonizing and working against a public consensus, so in a way, like queer thought is so interesting for always having trouble with the cleanliness of the division, if you want to for example even just in queer politics, like if you want to bring the queer community above water, you just equalize gay marriage and then you have taxpayers and everybody can be a nuclear family like in the Jetsons or Leave It To Beaver style.
Provan: Are we entering the Jetsons period finally?
Wood: Maybe Jetsons is a bad example. It’s a really important debate within the queer community, like, are we supposed to actually—like are we supposed to actually be, do we want to be accepted and normalized under these terms? Wasn’t there actually something about deviant practices and there was something to be defended in being marginal. Maybe we don’t want to be a part of the public in these terms. Maybe we want to have our private culture.
Siddiqi: I mean what you’re saying about the porousness of the membrane between public and private, immediately for me provokes the questions of erasure and entitlement, because dissolution between public and private and the way it’s carried out on the web, how many of you have seen articles which are essentially a series of tweets captured and aggregated so this popularity of aggregation as a form of content creation and publication to various outlets and there have been a number of very well funded established media outlets that entire sections that are populated by exclusively through aggregation, and of course what and who they’re aggregating is not something that is compensated, it goes back into the patterns of the exploitation of the people who are newly accessing public spaces, spaces in which they’re able to speak and participate.
But again it’s not on equal terms, it is again an exchange that is normalizing free labor and what I’ve—you know, the way I see people talk about this use of, you know, to use a particular example of tweets in this particular way, is it’s a bit unsettling, because you know, oftentimes you’ll hear the argument, well, it’s publicly available. It’s right there. You posted it so you must, you shouldn’t be surprised then when people then share it or take it outside of the, you know, to use the word the community in which it was shared, so if you’re having a conversation online with the community of your choosing, that is not necessarily to say that—to welcome outsiders, people who are necessarily not part of that community to come in and take what you’re putting out there for their own ends and purposes, and this has real consequences, because I mean the people who are aggregating that material in those tweets are generating sites of revenue for themselves, those pages filled with the uncompensated words of others are creating revenue through ad clicks for all of these outlets and whichever outlet that may be, I mean —
Provan: Huffington Post especially.
Siddiqi: Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, there’s no one who hasn’t been guilty of doing this. But the argument I’m repeating again is if it’s publicly visible, we are entitled to use it, I mean it’s a bizarre like replication of rape culture logic of visibility meaning that if I can see it, I’m allowed to take it. And that to me is related to the question of borders of community and how they’re maintained, how they’re policed and who gets to really own them and enact them.
So all of the people I secreting and establishing interesting, necessary, vital vibrant communities online, the borders of their communities is not something that they’re able to exercise control over and their exposure to not just violence and harassment from others, the but also exploitation in more subtle, but perhaps no less violent ways, from people who are trolls, right? I mean that’s another word that gets used very often, but has a range of meanings of what constitutes trolling, because that’s a way of antagonizing communities.
La Rocco: And the question of context becomes so important. Thinking about performance pieces that get replicated online. There’s been in recent years an explosion of technologies that can really go a bit further in terms of capturing, you know, live performances and on the one hand this is great, right, because these works can be disseminated and everybody can see them, and on the other hand, you know, a lot of works, if you take them out of their very specific context of who’s in the room, who is the community that it is initially for, they become something else entirely.
I remember performers in a particular group being really upset that they had been recorded, and they no longer own that image, right, and then the image gets, you know, edited and put up as a clip on YouTube and it becomes pornography, because it’s the context is stripped away. And I think that was a—we were talking about this last night, right, the what is the sort of the tension between wanting to control the work that you’re making and then this, you know, this drive for dissemination and for circulation.
Provan: And it’s especially easy to control it if nobody cares about it.
La Rocco: Yes.
Provan: Which is why most of us probably haven’t had so many problems in this regard.
Siddiqi: I mean I guess what we’re talking about I guess is the attention economy, right?
Wood: I always think of, I mean also with the public and private kind of thing, I always think of this reformulation of the gated community, in terms of as a kind of productive principle for marginal groups that Marjetica Potrč, I think she’s a Slovenian artist, she described the kind of model of the gated community that was being used by marginal communities in the Amazon to resist the corporate like resource extraction, and but she described it as this almost like a certain kind of like a panopticon or something where on a very in a very basic way, you have your security is ensured through like a one-way—through one-way visibility, where you can control who enters. Like you can leave and enter as you like, but you control who enters. So you can see out, but no one can see in. So it becomes actually like a technology of opacity of protecting yourself and maintaining a certain kind of amount of control over what you do.
La Rocco: I wonder how you each relate to that and with the particular, you know, publications and organizations you’re involved with, and yeah, just how you navigate.
Siddiqi: How we navigate what? Sorry?
La Rocco: Navigate, you know, the desire to control your work. If that is a desire, to have it correctly contextualized with understanding that, you know, what the economy is that we’re in, and the, you know, the need or the pressure to have everything be circulated, be disseminated.
Provan: And that’s been a big issue for kind of something that has an animated concern for Triple Canopy. I think we started by looking at various magazines from the 60s and 70s, which were new media projects at the time, Aspen was especially important to us, and like Aspen, for instance, was a magazine in a box that was delivered to your door, and within that box, you could find foldable sculptures, records, films, texts, and it was in some ways an exhibition packaged as a publication, and it made a very convincing argument for an expanded notion of what the magazine could be and for the various material supports that can constitute a magazine, and it also—it also I think opened up new relationships between authors and readers and publishers and editors, and not by coincidence, Aspen commissioned Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author and published it in in the box with these various media and to encounter that text now in a reprinted in a collection of essays is kind of travesty.
But it has this additional force within that environment. So we started with this idea with a highly regulated environment in which to encounter works of art and literature. And we, you know, developed a platform which made it especially difficult to—for that work to travel elsewhere. You couldn’t print anything, the pages were organized horizontally, so to copy and paste an entire essay, you would have to scroll from slide to slide to slide and go through the same manual operation many, many times and generally people don’t even have the attention to read something for more than two minutes, much less to spend five minutes copying and pasting so that was an effective and somewhat antagonistic move that you know, probably diminished our readership.
But you know, nevertheless, we have—like we care about developing an issue over a period of a year and a half, and we’re very insistent on certain pieces responding to other pieces in certain ways, whether or not that is how they will be encountered by the majority of readers, which is why it is especially surprising when a project that we publish becomes extremely popular and starts to circulate in an entirely different environment that we have no control over whatsoever. Which is not to say that that is regrettable at all. It is just not—at least initially it was not part of our calculus.
I was also curious how you thought about Performance Club about the kinds of discussions of live art that ensue after the performance ends?
La Rocco: Yeah, well it used to—I guess the initial iteration of the Performance Club existed in what I didn’t realize until yesterday it was was a golden age of comments on websites before they migrated elsewhere. It was astounding to me how immediate the conversation—how immediately the conversation began and how strong and thoughtful it was, and it was quite—it became very easy to see that there was no community that I had created, right? It was just there already and it wanted, it wanted a place to go to. And so I sort of got lucky with what I built.
Provan: But that also happens at a time when people are interested in these particularly vexing questions about how to represent and preserve and circulate performance, and it’s not like you establish this as receptacle for videos and increasingly realistic representations of an experience, of a performance in the time and space, right?
La Rocco: I think when it comes to performance that I’m a hopeless luddite and I just think you have to be in the room. It’s fine to watch a video but it’s not the thing. It may be the same way a PDF printout of something you made. It’s not the thing, right, it’s just a facsimile.
Provan: I think it also has to do with how you imagine something being received in five years, ten years beings and maybe valuing that over its immediate reception.
La Rocco: And just thinking about the ways in which you know, the ways in which I understand things that happened in the past performance, thinking about, you know, visual art and performance in particular. It’s through writers, you know, it’s through—unless—I mean most of the time you know, I understand, you know, Marina Abramovic’s walk across the Great Wall because of Cindy Carr, you know, and not because of the detritus that was at MoMA as part of her retrospective. And I think the conversation around ideas within performance was always more interesting to me than you know, one of the constant criticism of my criticism is that I don’t give enough description, which I also thought that—I was very happy with that criticism.
Wood: On the issue of distortion. Speaking as an editor it’s really terrifying to have things munched up and changed into other things because you want a certain amount of control and precision. Like, there is this, but then on the kind of—in terms of like the way that image and texts circulate online, I think it’s something that in a way, at least for the journal, it was something that we never thought of really so much formally or as something that happens formally or technologically, but maybe we kind of preempted it by thinking of in terms of this kind of like global distribution of discourse, right? So the distortion that we originally saw was—wasn’t so much like—it was like a kind of original distortion.
Provan: The premise of distortion.
Wood: Yeah, in the actual foundation, like the canonical foundations that actually that has been already scrambled, and so the question is like how to actually speak about art in a coherent way granted that the shared references are already kind of so fragmented that automatic consensus can’t be taken for granted. Of course, this is a kind of, you know, this is not something that exists so much in like in New York and in the US in general, of course, because the canon in this part of the world is kind of subsidized by institutions and which strengthen the idea of this kind of clear lineage, and progression, but this is—but in many place this has already been distorted and unrecognizably. Mangled. Corrupted.
La Rocco: Here’s—there’s a little bit of a belief that we’re not being positive enough. Our public.
Provan: You may have gotten the wrong panelists.
La Rocco: Yeah, sorry. Sorry, you guys.
Wood: This is positive.
Provan: This is just being here, being negative together is so positive.
Siddiqi: None of our critiques offer a rejection of anything. It’s mostly inspired for an idea to have a better status quo than the one we’re trying to address here now.
La Rocco: I guess I would ask this—well, I mean it’s beautifully, the language is beautiful, the sentiment is not beautiful, but you said that visibility in a surveillance state is not power and I wonder if you were—either of you two would have thoughts as to what is power and what does true ownership look like? You know, is it possible? We are getting questions about the best web platforms for creating community in a positive way …
Wood: I think it’s really important as Ayesha was saying that yeah, suggesting which is like that even though in spite of all of this distribution of agency, that the—like still and this is really, really important, like still the centers of power are still really the same, like the police are the police and the government is the government, right? And but then with this, I always think of this thing from 2010 that was kind of like a weird pilot project, maybe people might have heard of this in the UK that David Cameron did called Big Society, which is kind of a strange thing for one of the conservatives to do.
Provan: There’s no such thing as society.
Wood: But then you flip it.
Provan: There is such a thing as big society.
Wood: But then you flip it and you make it bigger, so now after his predecessors.
Provan: Zero times 100.
Wood: Yes, exactly that. There is no such thing as society, suddenly now there is, no, there is society and there’s a big one, but what was it? There is basically a kind of conversion of the functions of government into a social network, it was like the welfare state turned into Facebook where you know, rather than having schools and hospitals and these kind of like silly old-fashioned things, right, you have the government functions as you know, where also the government has to give resources, then you start to—– the government actually tried to kind of like roll back its role from a supporting—something that supports with resources and supports as a kind of like weird telephone operator that basically patches people together, so it administers to like big website and it was a pilot project, I don’t think it was actually implemented but I think he was kind of testing the waters to see how wacky things could possibly get with this where basically if you break your leg or something, sprain ankle and I need a doctor, they will find you a doctor, where you say if I want to learn something, I want to learn particle physics why, Big Society will find you someone in your neighborhood who can teach you about particle physics, right.
La Rocco: That person always exists in one’s neighborhood.
Wood: It so profoundly liquidate the traditional function of the state which is to administer and manage like the resources of the people, it converts that—it converts that so profoundly that it actually starts to become kind of—that’s then that’s Jetsons, and Manchester isn’t getting any funding from London and starts to scratch its head and says what is the contract that is holding us together if no resources are changing hands.
La Rocco: It also assumes a certain privilege of who would be hooked into these networks to begin with. I mean it made me think about something I heard about, you know, how in Detroit many people have like ambulance plans like that if you were in an accident, that you have somebody that you call to take you to the hospital, because the ambulances don’t work, which is, you know, you can get a—you can get an $8 cup of coffee, but you can’t get an ambulance.
Wood: Yeah, but these are basic life functions, also, that the state performs. They can’t be deferred to—you can’t Facebook your ambulance, like, so then the why question is then how to like return to ethical questions of how power is supposed to operate, when there are all of—when the terms have changed so much, and where the terms have changed, but also the kind of the way that the ethics, the way that the ethics have changed around them.
Siddiqi: I think the thing that’s changing is what types of labor and the types of labor that are making these platforms valuable, their interpretation, because I don’t think—I mean that lack of power that I was referencing was actually a reproduction of the same social vulnerabilities that people experience offline, right?
So when you’re talking about public and private and racial entitlement, where power still is, and isn’t, I mean as much as these corporate platforms produce their own ideologies and condition certain behavior, Facebook especially doing just straight out experiments on its users and trying to elicit particular emotional responses and making various industries increasingly independent so it’s not just your DIY project that’s dependent on say Instagram censorship rules or say if WordPress decides to shut down one day and the work that you may have been putting on there for years disappears, etc., it’s also the sense of entitlement to ownership we also practice as individuals and who we’re taught to expect to feel power over and so as much as different types of people are using these platforms, they are not at all in the same boat and by this I’m talking about neither obvious examples, a woman online has a very different experience than a man.
A woman talking about American foreign policy and she is wearing a hijab in her avatar has a very different experience online than anyone else. A lot of American foreign policy pundits who are white and/or male, they’ll have their name or something in their Twitter bio in Arabic script it’s like a popular trend to do. And it’s so funny to see that when it’s such a like, you know, bullshit hipster gesture, and all of the people for whom, I mean of—again, like a person of color’s experience online is conditioned by being a person of color.
So as much as there is a new distribution of agency, the social vulnerabilities are the same, and the storytelling and the ability to own narratives by producing them yourself from within your own community for your own community, makes more salient the things that are going to make you a target, and so your racial, national background, your sexual orientation, and so that’s what, as much as we call out the corporate seats of power, we—it’s useful to also recognize the ways in which we participate in those power dynamics, because again, we are also doing, that the entitlement we may feel over the image of—you know, I was thinking about this on the last podcast I recorded was about this, the entitlement we feel over black images, right? So when you look at the trends of sharing—communicating via memes and GIFs and vine, right? So you are how many times has the reaction GIF or the meme in that conversation been of a black entertainer, from say a reality show or a rapper?
And the particular entitlement of that culture product, you know, by everyone else, that’s not really new, that’s part of a tradition in American culture, and is replicating like very longstanding historical relationships to—who the producer of culture are and who are the people that ultimately gain the benefits of it. And just thinking about how much that entitlement to the way we use, you know, pop cultural icons as personal avatars, the very grim juxtaposition of that to, you know, the country in which that’s the norm, we don’t have a comparable ability to, you know, empathize with that black pain. I mean if we did we wouldn’t have as many police shootings as we do, right?
So it’s this, I think so many of the things that digital culture makes visible are existing facets of our society and culture. And what’s new now is our ability to more effectively intervene in them because it’s not just a racist newspaper, right? It’s us on Twitter. And I think in carrying that relationship to the circulation of imagery and the ways that we talk about these things is just as useful as calling out the, you know, ideologies and practice by the corporate platform owners.
La Rocco: Should we take questions.
Provan: Yeah, I mean maybe that we could talk briefly about something else, but I’m just curious about how—hike, we could talk about the circulation of images and words in terms of how in a concrete situation power might be exercised. I mean I think it might be useful to talk about what, Olga was describing earlier in terms of the Tania Bruguera situation because it’s a very straightforward metric for figuring whether or not anything that we do has anything to do with what we can do with exercising power in a meaningful way. Of in this case we can’t know what will happen in the coming weeks and months, but that is, I think that to me is at least a more tangible, if not more meaningful way of understanding what kind of power we might possess and whether it’s worth anything.
Siddiqi: Well, I also want to use the same thing you did in your presentation, you made a really great point about not treating community as a—like to mean exclusively like positive. To have positive connotations and I would want to do the same thing with power, right? It’s not that these things don’t have power, it’s that they have a particular power and it may or may not be used for good.
So think of the “Je Suis Charlie” phenomenon and Charlie Hebdoand how that became and people who were unaffiliated tweeting their alliance with an outlet that was producing commentary that aligned with a longstanding active state agenda and the ways in which, you know, so many—so much of the theater of solidarity and protest, that “Je Suis Charlie” and Charlie Hebdo and the response produced to me, to me it very clear the through lines I think you alluded to before, between borders of state and culture and marketing and I mean I’m thinking that among the responses was all of these various heads of state standing in solidarity with this racist publication and saying that the way that—and the way that the stakes were, you know, incorrectly framed to be that of freedom of speech.
Wood: Freedom of expression.
Siddiqi: Exactly who was advantaged in that conversation, because the participants spanned various seats of power or lack thereof, but the actions were firmly within —
Provan: That’s why I think it’s useful to talk about people organizing everything and speaking in order to achieve a very specific end. Rather than in order to, you know, enrich a spectacle of solidarity.