Widening the Scope: On Intangibility, Embodiment, and Ephemerality By Marvin Lin | June 15, 2015
On March 17, the Walker's design director Emmet Byrne and shop director Michele Tobin released Intangibles, an online collection of intangible products/artworks created by artists and designers. We asked Marvin Lin, editor-in-chief of music blog Tiny Mix Tapes, to respond to the collection.
Much of our lives revolve around intangibility, including our consumption of art. From live performances to museum visits, value is often placed on the experience of art, not on the physical and material components that make much of it possible. But how we value intangibility is tricky in certain contexts. During the Baltimore protests, the racism and injustice that led to the looting of material objects and the destruction of property were considered intangible concepts to those on the periphery, but tangible realities to those who experience them through material loss and economic disparity. Or consider the problematizing role that technology plays in making us increasingly more comfortable with intangible experiences yet complicating how we assign value to them: What leads us to favor a newly purchased vinyl album over a folder of MP3s, despite the latter getting more play? Or what about the difference in value between a conversation over coffee and that same conversation online?
The Walker's new online collection further destabilizes our valuations of intangibility by shifting the context. Instead of just peddling the usual wares — generally speaking, objects that can be held — the Walker's online shop page is now also selling what it calls Intangibles, a multidisciplinary collection of art/products whose primary purpose is to call attention to their intangibility. So instead of retro drinking glasses and billfolds, we have a ZIP file and disappearing photographs; instead of stamp sets and watches, we have burning paper and a screening for a film that has yet to be made.
The concept of intangibility unifies the collection, but what it means to be "intangible" is immediately put into question by the artists. In a time when digitizing is eroding both our bodies and our traditional sociopolitical contexts, several of the works from Intangibles aim to re-embody experiences whose tangible forms have been altered, de-emphasized, or made obsolescent. These works range from being incredibly involved (BodyCartography Project offers 25 "performance interventions" in which an artist will meet its buyer in a public space at an agreed-upon time and perform a dance) to incredibly simplified (K-HOLE is selling a champagne cocktail with an uncirculated mint penny dropped inside, topped with prosecco), but all speak to this reclamation of tangible, bodily experience as understood through spatial orientation, a compensation for a physicality that we've been slowly forfeiting to the data stream.
Other Intangibles meet this displacement by challenging our very concept of material existence. So we have works like Suburban Seastead by Andreas Angelidakis, who is selling digital property on the online virtual world Second Life for 1 million Linden dollars ($3,986.12), and Anonymous Fantasy Online Identity by Metahaven, who, for $299 more, could create a visual online identity to use when you enter your new virtual home for the first time. While these artists are ostensibly designing virtual lives, there are material implications to avatar construction and digital renderings: being an image on screen is also being a node in a network, which involves hard-drive space and bandwidth limitations, data centers and power grids, racks and cooling fans, cables and wires burrowed in our soil. So, when artists offer PDFs (Claire Evans), voicemails (Martine Syms), apps (David Reinfurt), and JPGs (Boym Partners), they're also inexplicably roping in a complex network of technologies that enable their very transmission and reception, acting much like containers for intellectual property (which is, incidentally, one of the most widely accepted forms of intangibility).
But any serious examination into intangibility also implicates temporality, so it's no surprise that many of the artists explore art's relationship with time. And what better way than through music? Composer Nico Muhly, for instance, wrote 12 ringtones for 12 separate buyers, but his sold-out piece — titled Canonical Tones — wasn't complete until each ringtone was installed and played by each consumer. Another music-based example comes from CFCF, whose Targeted includes selling micro-jingles and Instagram soundtrack music. But perhaps the most ephemeral experience goes to photographer Alec Soth's Disappear With Me (also sold out), which involved sending 25 original photos to each buyer through Snapchat, a mobile messaging app that automatically deletes photos and videos after being viewed. The piece is most significant, however, not because of its intangibility, but because of its inherent fleeting nature, becoming Soth's way of not only aestheticizing a communication tool, but also adding value to time itself. The ephemerality of Disappear With Me was really Soth's way of enhancing the ephemerality of the buyer's own experience, where it's less about the rarity of the artwork and more about the transience of the transaction. In other words, tangibility, in this context, becomes a question not about whether you can touch the art, but for how long it can be consumed.
This general uneasiness over ephemerality — an obvious consequence of a digital consciousness — manifests most clearly in anxieties about the future. While an antiquated stereotype of the artist portrays a tortured soul laboring over the creation of a great piece of art intended to "withstand the test of time," the artists here are often resisting that egotistical desire to project themselves or their artwork into the future. In fact, some of these Intangibles are interesting not because they disengage from the future, but because they are about the future itself: Claire L. Evans's FutureAbstract tailors PDF summaries of science fiction books to your "most relevant future" (determined through an online quiz), while Julian Bleecker and Near Future Laboratory's Design Fiction Services allows buyers to customize their own future through an audacious variety of options (ranging from a Quick Start Guide to something that doesn't yet exist to a "Wikipedia-esque History of a Fictional Company Related To Your Idea").
The absurdity with which these artists approach the future speaks in part to the idea that all art, regardless of definition, is ephemeral. From an audience's perspective, art has never been a solely tangible experience anyway; we're not meant to "touch" paintings in order to experience them, and any materials used to create so-called tangible art won't last forever — thus, making all art inherently time-based.
But there’s a reason why Intangibles is billed as a shop of products without physical form. By using the shopping platform to exaggerate the conceptual dissonance, Intangibles is able to depict the modern consumer experience in an artistic manner, to re-fetishize scarcity and entrepreneurship in an otherwise overbearing free market, to disrupt the internalized values that we assign to actual tangible products. But beyond complicating these tenuous market relationships, beyond expanding what it means to be an artist in a digital world, beyond asking challenging questions about our differing values of art and commerce, what we also end up with is a subversion of the very idea of intangibility: Through their emphasis on "making impressions" rather than "leaving imprints," the works in Intangibles allow us to rethink our bias toward physical objects and re-envision our aesthetics on a grander timeline, offering lateral pathways that cut through the level of tangibility and place us on new timescales altogether.
After all, if you widen the temporal scope, everything starts becoming ephemeral — widen it a little bit more, and everything becomes intangible. ☐
Marvin Lin is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor-in-chief of music webzine Tiny Mix Tapes. He has served as an editor for Pitchfork and the University of Minnesota’s alternative magazine The Wake, and authored the 33 1/3 book Radiohead’s Kid A. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find some of his writing at tinymixtapes.com as “Mr P.”