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<nettime> Enduring Messaging: are microcommunications an art form? Tom S
Tom Sherman on Sat, 15 Nov 2008 05:00:00 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Enduring Messaging: are microcommunications an art form? Tom Sherman, 2008

[the following text first appeared in the Fall issue, Vol. 25, No. 3, of
Canadian Art, Toronto, September 2008]

Enduring Messaging: are microcommunications an art form?

by Tom Sherman, 2008    twsherma {AT} syr.edu

           The 21st century is awash with messaging. Instant messaging,
text messaging, voice messaging, email and social-networking profiles with
digital photos and video galore. Messages are traded in real time and left
all over the place to be picked up later. Messages are signals that confirm
and reaffirm one's presence. I send messages daily, hourly, periodically
and relentlessly; therefore, I exist, and control the way I'm perceived, to
a certain extent.

           Microcommunication technologies adorn our bodies. This gear
augments our senses and teleports our appearance. Where are you now? I'm
over here. I feel like getting a bite to eat. I'm all dressed up and
looking for action. Listen to me. Check out my new look. I'm completely up
to date. I'm wired and I smell good.

           Messaging is where it's at. Meat space is still ground zero. Our
physical bodies are the base track, the flesh and bones architecture for
our fashion statements. But we are connected to satellites and a vast menu
of other social worlds through little screens, buttons and earphones. The
rhythm of our walk is punctuated with ring tones, beeps and voices that
come out of nowhere. There is no such thing as an interruption anymore:
attention is defined as the heavily perforated veil of our consciousness. I
give away my attention by the split second to incoming traffic. The mobile
phone I pack demands my voice and fingertips and mug shot. My phone is my
lifeline, a sweet nothing, a rant waiting to happen, my eyes and ears at a
distance-a game, television, jukebox, tiny movie theatre and art gallery.

          Back in the mid-1960s, prominent artists like Andy Warhol and
Joseph Beuys were saying that everyone was an artist and anything could be
art. Few took them seriously. Warhol said he wanted to be a machine so he
could make and spew out images without giving a thought to their meaning.
Beuys was one of the last German romantics. He said everyone in our
societies, including the bakers and bankers, had great creative potential
that they should and must realize, or our societies would fail. Surely
Warhol and Beuys were tossing rhetorical grenades to threaten the status
quo of an art world straitjacketed by the marketplace-driven conformity of
galleries and museums. Stuffy, elite, commodifiable art was wearing very
thin in that volatile epoch of civil rights and emerging ecological
awareness. Fluxus and neo-Dada sentiments were making a lot of sense. Art
has always had a tendency to define and segregate itself, to pull away from
life through refined aesthetics and social and economic exclusivity. Art
and life must be reunited in a major way from time to time.

          Of course, Warhol and Beuys did very nicely in the system they
were attacking. They understood that art was about ideas and social energy,
and that materialistic cultures would attribute great value to drawings,
paintings, prints and sculpture, the hard currency of creativity that
anchored magnitudes of free-flowing ideas and images. Warhol made art about
publicity, celebrity and ubiquity. Beuys built social sculptures,
transforming dialogue into political organization, methodically and
comprehensively. Both changed art radically for the balance of the 20th
century and into the millennial decade.

          We are now scurrying around in this post-historical heaven or
hell (depending on how you look at it), a hybrid space where anything and
everything goes. There are patterns of organization, pockets of order
within chaos: classic natural forms are overwhelmed by the ornate clutter
of glue-gun assemblage; photography and video get bigger and brighter than
paintings; theatrical cinema dies and is reborn on the walls of museums;
abstraction and geometry make a comeback. The figure and hand are
everywhere again. The artist makes something out of nothing (quilts made
from belly-button lint); the artist takes rare and valuable things and
reduces them to rubble (smashing violins and pianos in acts of reverse

          The early 21st century is a time of collapsing boundaries:
between disciplines and roles, between nations and societies, between
corporations and institutions and networks. Art and life are no longer
easily differentiated categories of experience. Great masses of individuals
across the globe are acting like artists, composing and grooming
self-portraits and building their own social sculptures on MySpace,
Facebook and YouTube. Locative technologies, mobile telephony and
computing, including GPS, encourage the exploration of landscape and
reports from the road. Digital photography and streaming video pour into
riptides of voice and text messaging.

          A lot of this social-networking activity involves simply using
micro-telecommunications technology, wireless transceivers, to develop
identity/security blankets, a way of fighting against the crushing void and
lonely vacuum of urban life. Artists have always sought attention for
similar selfish, survivalist reasons. For those who choose to fortify their
identities through social discourse, there are plenty of good
socio-political reasons to send messages, such as collapsing civil
liberties and environmental devastation. Networks are a dream come true for
activists of all stripes.

          There is little money to be made in personal messaging today.
Messaging doesn't pay unless one is manufacturing or selling a messaging
device, or owns and manages a network, or authors software for social
networking, unless the messaging activity is directly linked to supporting
currencies of scarcity and exclusivity such as the stock market, bonds,
real estate, precious metals, unique physical objects, limited editions,
"smokestack" media like television or movies or the transformation of
celebrity into rare live appearances. Messages that support these firmer,
more economically viable activities function as references, instructions
and indexing mechanisms for the economy of scarcity.

          Untethered personal messages, discrete and free-flowing, have
little concrete value on their own. Messages by their nature are fleeting,
short-lived and impermanent. For the most part, messages are not archived,
although virtually all messages are retrievable by date and time.
Increasingly, place is also embedded into a message, thanks to packet
switching and global-positioning systems. Occasionally, recorded messages
are used effectively in criminal cases, where their content, date, time of
issue and place of origin establish evidence of guilt.

          It is interesting that Andy Warhol published transcripts of his
recorded phone conversations in his 1968 book A: A Novel, and that Joseph
Beuys went to some trouble to document his public interventions, defining
his dialogues with his audience as public sculptures, experiments in
distributed or decentralized authorship. For Beuys, a failure to control
the content or flow of a public meeting was not a sign of an unsuccessful
interaction within the social sphere: the record of engagement became the
currency of involvement.

          Today, personal messaging is our primary mode of communication.
Messaging is the act of going public with a thought or image or video
stream instantly, hourly, daily-a kind of thinking out loud or speaking in
media. Marshall McLuhan predicted a return to orality with the introduction
of electronic, speed-of-light modes of communication. How much fun would it
be to bring McLuhan back to life and hand him an iPhone!? Today's digital,
electronic orality is practised across a full range of media.

         The act of writing a novel, or spending a year improvising in a
studio before bringing out a suite of paintings for a public exhibition, or
pulling together the resources to make a feature film, is a different kind
of communication: perhaps Messaging with a very large capital M! With these
more deeply considered, more substantial compositions, value is created by
concentrating thought and action into a self-critical, rigorous process of
refinement and selection, leading to releases of greater complexity,
density and scale. Surely a work of art and a phone call made to order a
pizza are not the same kind of message. As storm after storm of raw
messaging rages and howls, maybe the public's hunger for considered,
seasoned releases of well-cooked art will increase and deepen, and
traditionally respected art activities, no matter how arcane (or perhaps
the more arcane the better), will be appreciated and devoured by people
with a natural immunity to psychologically and socially addictive messaging

         The problem with a strategy of Messaging in-depth (art is
Messaging with a capital M) is that you may become too deep for your
audience. In the 21st century this increasingly means just about any
audience. The absolute erosion of our attention spans and our lack of
compassion for anomalous, eccentric, complicated thinking have contributed
to a profound diminishment in the global appetite for resolved art.
Scanning the surface, skimming and searching for patterns and sharing
reactions through more-or-less constant real-time banter (instant
collective feedback) is the most common mode of perception for the time we
live in. Launching open-ended, unfinished statements that elicit equally
open-ended, generative responses, like a never-ending phone conversation or
a rapid-fire instant-message exchange, is the order of the day.
         Can personal messaging, the quick and dirty, fragmented messaging
that is inseparable from daily life, be considered an art form? The easiest
argument against ordinary messaging as an art form involves lack of
quality. Most of the millions of messages issued everyday are
inconsequential and inane. Then there is the broader doubt about whether
something so common has any value. People are quick to point out that while
there may be millions of passionate, intelligent, creative people authoring
messages, freshening up self-portraits, defining social scenes and
highlighting landscapes and locales on MySpace, Facebook or YouTube, how
can anyone find exemplary individuals amid the clamour and roar of the
networks? How would we identify and enhance the profile of truly remarkable
artists without institutions like galleries and museums and their
gatekeepers-the critics, curators and dedicated audiences supporting these
institutions? Can important innovators and role models emerge in cultures
dominated by inclusive, indiscriminate networks? Networks to date haven't
functioned like galleries and museums, catalogues or magazines. And don't
these massive social networks engineer psychological and social conformity
through their software templates?
         The problem with messaging is that the vast majority of messages
don't add up to anything substantial and they don't last. The massive
quantity, habitual banality and short life of messages work against
messaging as an art form. Messages are disposable and impermanent. No one
can stay on top of messaging-archiving messaging is a nightmarish problem.
Even if enough digital memory were to exist to archive everyone's messages,
how then would we find anything interesting in the glut? CSIS, the CIA and
Google are working on this problem. Maybe someday soon quality artists will
be plucked out of the din like terrorists?

         Maybe someday there will be clusters of messages, retrospectively
assembled by discriminating individuals, that will endure and find
audiences well into the future. Correspondence (anything from love letters
to key arguments over aesthetics or business decisions) will no longer just
form an informative background or context for artworks. Figure/ground
relationships will be completely inverted-the ground will rise up to become
an undulating surface of spotlit figures as hungry audiences pan through
message dumps searching for significant exchanges. Looking for needles in a
haystack will become the most critical and alluring quest of all. In an
information economy characterized by abundance, the new scarcity and value
will lie in identifying and verifying information-rich messages that were
once cloaked by privacy and obscurity. Encryption and deception will not
prevent audiences from digging up messages of exceptional value.

         More than four decades ago, Warhol and Beuys offered prototypical
directions for giving aesthetic form to messaging, for exalting vernacular
communication. For Warhol, creating a database of personal messages, be
they recorded phone conversations or quick and dirty Polaroid portraits,
was a kind of research and at the same time a new kind of creative
notation, a highly textured record of social interactions. Beuys recorded
lengthy verbal wrestling matches in halls full of people, stressing quality
over quantity as he struggled to maintain the integrity of his romantic and
very green agenda. He used video recordings of his social sculptures as
mediated sources of feedback that allowed him to gain strength and focus
before leaping again and again into deliciously complicated and
unmanageable public debates. Both Warhol and Beuys then issued countless
limited-edition prints and multiples as the tissue and sinew of their
respective extensive bodies of messages.

         Today, messaging surrounds art and artists with the roar of the
vernacular velocity of information. Copy and paste has evolved into ripping
and stripping image, sound and text files in preparation for replication,
sharing and transfiguration. Compression and decompression create
equivalence between messages of different material densities and very
diverse content. It is no longer possible to determine the significance or
place of a certain class of image or artwork. Audiences for culture and
art, just like artists, navigate and concurrently propagate torrents of

        The predominant voices of the millennial decade are vernacular
voices, the voices of the people, in all sectors of society, armed with
digital cameras, MP3 players, laptops, personal digital assistants, avatars
and videophones-miniature wireless transceivers linked by global high-speed
networks and spewing multimedia. Individuals of all stripes are now
functioning the way only broadcasters used to, transmitting and relaying
information around the clock. With copyright essentially broken, the volume
and diversity of exchange are unprecedented.

       Maybe someday, common everyday messaging will be considered an art
form, forcing everyone to operate with more style and aesthetic integrity
if they hope for any attention. If exclusivity and innovativeness remain
necessary criteria for defining art, then surely there are pockets of
value, absolute gems within the drone? Vast segments of our societies,
functioning the way artists, curators, reviewers and critics have
functioned in the past, are already asking this question as they contribute
unwittingly to a new aesthetic, purpose and definition of art in a
frenzied, open-source orgy of messaging. 

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