A Sharp Knife is a Good Knife
Internet.org seems to say it all in this one page reproduced above, and yet this perception that "it works" clearly merits some scrutiny.
Yesterday's UCI Design Alliance session on Space Surface Interface: Enter through Design emphasized the work being done in the region and by the campus's own faculty to think critically about some of the issues also raised in Lev Manovich's chapter on "The Interface" in The Language of New Media. I served as moderator on the first panel, and my coauthor of a new article about coming out videos on YouTube in a new collection from Routledge, Jonathan Alexander, moderated the second panel.
I was particularly pleased to introduce longtime Virtualpolitik pal Miles Coolidge who offered his reflections "on design as a force" not "design as a métier." In his own case he dates his own consciousness of the "entropic roots of design" or what could be called "Design Degree Zero" back to a set of photographs that he took as a member of the Junior Firefighters, which eventually became Fire Hazards (1977/2005). Ironically, as he pointed out, many of the same trends in contemporary photography of the nineteen sixties and seventies that were present in the aesthetics of more august artists like Ed Ruscha, who produced Various Small Fires, were also manifested in the work of his twelve-year-old self.
He also showed work from his series Garage Pictures (1992), which was originally titled "In its Place," since Coolidge sees in such spaces "not mess" but an "aggregate of decisions." He noted that in person the garages seemed messy, but the camera performs a task of organizing, so that he described one subjst looking at the final print and exclaiming, "There’s that wrench! I’ve been looking for it for months!" In displaying the garages of a retired engineer, a Chrystler salesman,, and an auto mechanic, Coolidge said that he was skeptical about "reading character from image," because these spaces are flexible and less coded than living rooms, while also being more private and less public. Like Foucault’s heterotopias or JB Jackson's understanding of the vernacular in opposition the institutional, Coolidge argued that they merited the photographer's attention.
In contrast, he showed photographs from his series Elevator Pictures (1993-4) that featured built environments that are emblematic of institutionality that can be read intuitively. He claimed that the elevator serves as a metonym for spaces that are institutions. However, the elevator is also like a camera, from same industrial era, with an analogous aperture, and in answer to similar set of needs. As someone who studies institutional rhetoric, I enjoyed the fact that elevators in the series included those from Cal Arts, the Institute of Cultural affairs, the Daily News, the UCLA Graduate Research Library, the Museum of Natural History, and a City of Santa Monica parking structure.
Finally, he showed pictures from Safetyville (1994-1996), a bizarre 1/3 scale set of buildings in a mock city maintained by minimum security prisoners and visited by school children. Having been mentored by German photographer Bernd Becher, he described himself as deeply influenced by the "typological method of photography," so he appreciated the "broad array of building types" in Safetyville, which included branded structures from Chevron and McDonalds, 70s wood exterior design, underdeveloped buildings with "for lease" signs, telephone switching facilities, skyscrapers, and police stations. However, he also explained how the micropolis was also strangely skewed both by the fact that it was a set piece for a lobbying group for the insurance company and because of the dissonance between the scale of buildings and the scale of texture, such as grass or concrete. In explaining the absence of people in the frame, During the question-and-answer session, Coolidge said that human beings in photographs often distract attention from the remaining ninety percent of the image. He also cited Vilém Flusser in The Shape of Things to argue that design is much like Flusser's "good" knife: if its goodness is defined by its effectiveness, it can be difficult to hold simple moral propositions about it.
Coolidge was followed by Sean Donahue of Research Centered Design who showed a number of images about surfaces of the earth and surfaces of bodies to suggest possible social consequences and opportunities for interventions by designers. In emphasizing the ways that design can make political interventions, he showed an installation by a student called Flipping for a Living in which the Taylorist logic involved in repetitive tasks for low wages could be expressed as a problem of information representation, as visitors to the gallery can see how many burger flips are needed for health insurance or other basic necessities. For example, it takes 916 flips to earn a tank of gas, and even the number of flips to be able to purchase a burger itself can be calculated. He also showed material from those at swingtherapy.org or the "guerilla swing project," who install swings with instructions to improvise unsanctioned play in pocket green spaces.
There were also digital tie-ins to some of the installations the Donahue included. The Pink Project from Make It Right placed pink roofs on the vacant lots of the Ninth Ward, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which kept the issue visible on Google maps, and in the U.K. protestors in front of Parliament marched carrying blank signs in bright digital green to allow activists to add messages later digitally to people who would otherwise be restricted to a petition zone.
Donahue insisted, however, that having community participation was critical. In his own project L.A. Has Faults in MacArthur Park, he tied earthquake education to community empowerment rather than to designed objects that may never become integrated into local urban practices. As other examples he showed the storefront of Brooklyn Superhero Supplies and the mobile trailers for Story Corps.
The second half of the day was introduced by Peter Krapp's talk, "Push Button from Power to Placebo," in which he explained that "new controls" may not be as visible as the simple eye-catching mechanisms from the industrial age that still persist as the "buttons" on web pages, since access is rapidly disappearing into black box routines, and users can expect to learn less about how machines operate. To explain this interest in efficient motion, Krapp showed the research films from Frank Gilbreth's work on motion study, many of which are in the Internet Archive. (For more on Gilbreth, see this retrospective film.)
Krapp asserted that the rhetoric of the button, so important in both Coolidge's elevators and nuclear control systems, could be traced back to the "we do the rest" advertising appeals of the Kodak company in 1888 and the surveillance culture launched by fingerprinting in 1892. Even a critique of industrialization such as the film Modern Times could be placed in the role of corporate advertising, as IBM did with its Charlie Chaplin character. Krapp argued that such systems encouraged people to be more machine-like and read from J.C.R. Licklider's complaint that machines would often fail to meet human beings love of contingent programming, redundant languages, unitary objects, and coherent actions that are alien to the computer, although "men will fill in the gaps." To show how human beings could be imaged as being resized, rescaled, and cut and pasted in relationship to digital interfaces, he showed a number of comic strips from Brewster Rockit, including one in which a character exclaimed, "Great galaxies I’m being cut from my reality!"
For Krapp, "the language of the interface is the language of probability." To provide more mediation for contemporary subjects, Krapp pointed out the existence of computer interfaces that prevent use, such as Steve Lambert's SelfControl, an open source program that prevents the user from accessing the internet for a set period of time. He also projected scenes from Thescene.com, a series of online videos involving characters at NYU engaged in interpersonal dynamics and DVD hacking that is largely told through pop-up windows and on-screen text messages and button clicking. Rather than only liberate, Krapp observed that games punish or reward humans trained to be more machine-like. Yet like the door close button in James Gleick's Faster and the mechanism for political participation symbolized in the button of Slavoj Žižek, Krapp argues that we should get beyond accepting the button's instrumentality.
For those who can't get enough button-pressing, check out "the big red button that does nothing" that generated so much user feedback and narrative, since it was experienced as broken since it failed to deliver on the promise of the hyperlink. I also recommend giving the full time to this big red button page.
Next up was Antoinette LaFarge, who pointed out that the surface may be given a spatial dimension in certain sciences. She also drew up a schema in which "Interior of object/surface/human being" parallels "Interior of machine / interface / human being." For LaFarge, "Surface becomes a screen, a space of signification." To illustrate her ideas she showed video and screen shots from Playing the Rapture (2008) in which gamers in either Christian or environmental apocalypse, in which keystoning was a set element. She also highlighted her work in the cybernetic system of rumor information represented by Demotic (2006). In closing, she asserted that those in front of a contemporary computer screen were no longer users but beta-testers, which present fundamentally "different models" of user experience. In keeping with the apocalyptic theme, during the Q&A, LaFarge pointed out the existence of variations of what is called "the last page on the Internet," which can be seen here, here, here, and here.
The last speaker was Robert Nideffer, who like LaFarge will be part of an international group of artists participating in an upcoming Blizzard World of Warcraft themed art show at the Laguna Art Museum. He explained his 2003-2005 work in crafting unexceptional.net with component interfaces and a blog to tell the story of a central character, Guy, by taking users through different kinds of quests that include location aware phones and technologies that use text to speech and speech to text to give players in particular hotspots descriptions of other players and those players' inventories. To project the physical body of Guy and astral body of Guy, Nideffer relieved on several representational strategies, including the comic books that the central character and forlorn lover produces.
He also showed his game parody or game essay WTF? which plays around with the cultural conventions surrounding the 11 gigabytes of data installed on one's computer and 11 million fellow players engaged in playing World of Warcraft. In thinking about these "little bits of text going back," Nideffer hoped to combine game theory and game critique, just as the media analysis of the Gulf War that he did as his dissertation was produced as a CD-Rom. In WTF? we see Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and feminist theorist Mary Daley appearing as characters, as some of the issues of race, class, and gender that were also raised in the recent anthology Digital Culture, Play, and Identity. He described his game-making philosophy as being shaped by the early game about Central American politics Hidden Agenda.
In closing out the session, Nideffer previewed his contributions to the Laguna Art Museum show which shows Hieronymus Bosch style adaptations of The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Garden of Earthly Delights with representations of the avatars of the world's best players.