Friday, April 15, 2005

"When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook"

On Wednesday, we went to hear Barbara Kruger and William Gibson discuss Contested Territories: Conversations in Practice at the Tate Britain.

When artist Barbara Kruger's red and white slogans in bold Futura typeface appeared in the store windows of Selfridges last year, it was impossible not to spot the irony of using anti-consumerist messaging to promote a summer sale.

Kruger's slogans appropriate public spaces that would otherwise be given over to advertising. Her slogans appear on book covers, posters, billboards, t-shirts, matchbooks, buses, bus shelters; in galleries, subway stations, newspapers, magazines:

  • "I shop therefore I am"
  • "Buy me, I'll change your life"
  • "We are slaves to the commodities around us"
  • "When I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook"
  • "You want it, you buy it, you forget it"

When a woman in the audience accused the artist of selling out to Selfridges, Kruger replied, "There is no space outside the global market economy, so I try to work within it." Kruger did not comment on the irony of the audience member discovering Kruger's window dressings whilst shopping in the Selfridges sale!

Author William Gibson also spoke of mediating the constant flux of information we find ourselves a part of. He said his work is an attempt to model the constant flow of information of modern life; an attempt to achieve parity between it and his "authorial membrane". The aim of all his writing has been, he said, to pass the Turing Test: can you put a machine behind a curtain and have it pass for human?

An audience member asked him about his research techniques. He replied that he doesn't "do research" as such, that his mode of being in the world is as an "automated magpie": everything he sees, hears and experiences goes into the "giant skip" of his mind where it vanishes and takes on a life of its own. "Later, when I reach back in, it comes out as if the elves created it." Often, the thing comes back as banal and peculiar.

Both artists ruminated on the effects of living in an ever-connected -- a cyber -- world. Kruger wondered what it would be like to live life not viewed though a lens, and celebrated the fact that we can use the media rather than have it use us: "We can use a camera and not call ourselves photographers; we can write but not be writers." We use these things as tools, as pleasure, she asserted, to process and shape information rather than be defined by it.

Gibson claimed, "One day our grandchildren will look at us, as a species, as 'not fully human' because we are constantly connected. The nature of human experience is being altered by this stuff." And yet, he too was not casting a negative judgement on this condition, situating it within a wider, longer, historical context that includes the connective technologies of cave paintings, the printing press, telephones and TV. As such, he said, he feels a part of a long human project that predates religion.

An interesting night, for which my summary here does no justice.

Related links:

+ Webcast of the discussion. Not yet online, it seems.

+ "The Billboard Liberation Front states emphatically and for all time herein that to Advertise is to Exist. To Exist is to Advertise. Our ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen. Until that glorious day for global communications when every man, woman and child can scream at or sing to the world in 100Pt. type from their very own rooftop; until that day we will continue to do all in our power to encourage the masses to use any means possible to commandeer the existing media and to alter it to their own design."

Other links today:

+ Life lessons in virtual adultery. "If you walked into a room and found your partner in a passionate clinch with someone else you'd probably have good cause to worry. But would you worry if those doing the kissing were characters in a game being controlled by your partner and someone else?"

+ Playlist anxiety. "Sharing playlists on an office network turns out to be something like a peacock spreading his feathers for display. People actively work to create an image of themselves through the music they make available to others, just as they might by buying a new car or showing off a cell phone. Public embarrassment may now be the routine lot of the unhappy freshman who gets caught with a collection too heavily weighted toward the collected works of Weird Al Yankovic."

+ Foiling spies at the Vatican. "Computer hackers, electronic bugs and supersensitive microphones threaten to pierce the Vatican's thick walls next week when cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to name a papal successor. Spying has gotten a lot more sophisticated since John Paul II was elected in 1978."

+ What does Dubya listen to on his iPod? "George W Bush is a fan of country music and classic rock, but he also likes 'a little bit of hard core and honky tonk', his iPod playlist suggests."

+ The annotated New York Times. The NYT complete with blogging citations. Fantastic!

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