SPAM Digest #5 (Feb 2019)
A quick of the editors’ current favourite critical essays, post-internet think pieces, and literature reviews that have influenced the way we think about contemporary poetics, technology and storytelling.
‘Terminology’ by Callie Gardner, Granta
I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve recommended Callie Gardner’s astonishing piece, ‘Terminology’, to friends and family. Sometimes you read something and it’s as though the world decided to refashion its atoms around the text, wear it like a brand new garment. I had to cry a little, admittedly, to realise this. I guess I was reading the essay in darkest November and found myself astounded by its honesty and light. It’s not all sunshine, but it’s definitely a form of waking up, of gradual awareness and loosening. ‘Terminology’ begins with a sleeper train, a world where people wake up in carriages and put on what they want to, unbound by the violent constraints of our usual distinctions. These people keep their differences, but the differences are no longer scars of history, privilege.
The sleeper train is going somewhere. This future is open, potential; this future is based on care. This world, this place we drift towards on the train (I say we now, because I too want in on this world), is named Iris, ‘after the Roman goddess of the rainbow’. Iris, perhaps, is without terminus, the people that live there ‘speak a language with a hundred pronouns’. If this is a utopia, it is ‘an unscientific utopia’ that nevertheless glows with what already exists, what is within our reach: the charge of a ‘queerness in everything’. It is a mantra, a lullaby world and ‘a wish given flesh’. I wish every essay began with a world like this, a speculative projection towards where we could be when we open up, seek some generous expanse to sink into, flexing our selves afresh.
‘Terminology’ is about the body. It is about appearance and disguise, about survival, performance, expectation. It is about the precarity of the genderqueer person in public space, the social ties they might make out of safety, necessity. It draws attention to the everyday actions the genderqueer person might make for the sake of their own survival. The fact that we occupy space radically differently, depending on how society chooses to stratify our identities and consequent vulnerabilities. ‘Terminology’ moves from the hypothetical experience of the genderqueer person to the author’s own encounters with daily microaggressions, media representation and social relations in public, creative and professional space. Gardner describes, acutely, the violence of misgendering, intentional or otherwise: its physiological effect on the body, akin to a kind of dissociative paralysis, abjection. ‘Maybe this makes no sense to you’, Gardner writes, ‘It doesn’t make much more sense to me’. This is an essay of admission, working through, coming to terms, learning respect.
The reason I constantly recommend ‘Terminology’ is that it states the fundamentals with absolute clarity: ‘language is not ours to use without consequence’. It asks for an ethics in which we question what our words might do in a certain context, how we make and shape reality with discourse. Recently, the songwriter Kiran Leonard put it so eloquently in an interview, arguing that tenderness and cultural responsibility is ‘about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating’. The world of Iris is a world we might make with a more commodious language, one which permits an expanded, plural sociality.
Gardner tentatively imagines what Iris would actually look like, the features of its ecology and landscape. I am reminded of the work of Queer Nature, ‘a queer-run nature education and ancestral skills program serving the local LGBTQ2+ community’: a collective who make it their mission to make links between the survival skills queer populations have developed for themselves, ancestral wilderness skills and other forms of marginalised knowledge. Wilderness, conventionally the domain of dominant hetero-male, becomes a queer space in which collectivity and silenced forms of self-reliance map onto the terrain as an active, responsive, symbiotic space of wonder, vulnerability and healing: an ‘Ecology of Belonging’, as Queer Nature put it. There is, in queer ecology, a blurring of active/passive as a binary. Survival might be about avoidance or withdrawal as much as presence and action.
Walking through Gardner’s imaginary Iris, we realise we won’t reach this space without confronting questions of identity around capitalism, sexuality, culture and ‘nature’. What is it to feel something as natural at all? Since society likes to police what is considered ‘natural’, how do we frame queer subjective experiences of embodied reality in collective contexts, without essentialising? There is the beautiful admission that queerness is not just about who or how you do or don’t fuck, but also about how you live, how you need to live. The doing of gender and intimacy. And looking for a language, a vernacular, a cultural narrative through which you might play out that life, which is not defined essentially but perhaps intuitively, iteratively, interdependently. Gardner calls for the necessity for nuance in a world where the conditions of survival often confuse the bounds of romance or friendship. If ‘gender is only history’, then we have to really reflect on where we are here and where we are going. Sadly, we aren’t going to wake up from the sleeper train in a lovely, wholly unbound country. But this isn’t to say utopian thought is useless. For Gardner, wanting a place like Iris is not a weakness but actually ‘a resource’ for recalibrating the self within dead-end, heteronormative histories.
The question of queer futurity versus Lee Edelman’s ‘No Future’ is of course a complex and rich one, which I haven’t space to go into here. What’s more interesting is the fact that this essay celebrates the possible while recognising difficulties and limits within the imagining of a place like Iris, as much as reminding us what happens in lived spaces like queer communities. Ultimately, ‘Gender is at once a material condition and a psychical state’. This essay, ‘Terminology’, is one of those rare places where the actual extent of what that means is acknowledged. Nothing covered in this essay bears easy solution or simple resistance, position. Identity, standpoint, community and experience are entangled in questions of occupation, flux and, frankly, difficulty. I learn a lot within its gauzy bounds, I find clarity of a sort; I look at the world around me anew, and I feel an openness in myself that, for once, I lack words for. I realise this is okay, I just need to read on; there is so much more to understand. ‘Citation’, as Gardner reminds us, can be used ‘as transfeminist practice’. As such, I encourage your own turning to ‘Terminology’: to follow its list of transfeminist writers, to think about your own version of Iris; mostly, to read and to listen, to drape this warmth over your shoulders, share it with others, without condition.
‘24 Hours Watching DAU, the Most Ambitious Film Project of All Time’, by Hunter Dukes and McNeil Taylor, Hyperallergic
This SPAM Digest might break the rules a little bit—it’s a review of a review, and it has absolutely nothing to do with poetry—but do bear with me; I promise you I’m getting somewhere.
Last month, Mac Taylor and Hunter Dukes (yes, those are two real-life people; have you ever seen a better pair of names) went to Paris for the premiere of DAU, a film project of Tom McCarthian inclinations, and insane if not obscene logistic, aesthetic, and conceptual ambitions. Directed by the young Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, DAU tells the story of Soviet physicist Lev Landau; Khrzhanovsky hired thousands of actors—or “participants”— as he refers to them, and deployed them to a custom-built set in Ukraine reproducing a research-facility. As Taylor and Dukes report:
From 2009 to 2011, the amateur actors stayed more or less in character. They lived like full-time historical reenactors, dressing in Stalin-era clothes, earning and spending Soviet rubles, doing their jobs: as scientists, officers, cleaners, and cooks. The film set became a world of its own. In all, 700 hours of footage were shot; this was eventually cut into a series of 13 distinct features, collectively titled DAU.
Apart from my obvious fascination with this Reamainder-like gargantuan re-enactment (did I mention I love Tom McCarthy), what really struck me was the format this project was shown in at the premiere:
To enter the [sprawling] exhibit, which runs through February 17th, you must apply for a “visa” through DAU’s online portal, choose a visit length (the authors of this article opted for 24 hours), and fill out a confidential questionnaire about your psychological, moral, and sexual history. Respondents answer yes or no to such statements as:
I HAVE BEEN IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH AN IMBALANCE OF POWER.
IN THE RIGHT SITUATION, EVERYONE COULD HAVE THE CAPACITY TO KILL
Downloaded onto a smartphone, this psychometric profile becomes your guide to the exhibition. In theory, your device can unlock tailored screenings, concerts, and other experiences. In reality, none of this technology has been implemented in the theaters or museum. But it does not matter.
The premiere organisers chose to design and explicitly articulate the experience of a world around the experience of the world of the film; and to tailor this experience, in turn, around the premiere’s visitor themselves. Apart from sounding like a lot of fun, this exploitation and amplification (if not redoubling) of film’s world-building capacity made me immediately wonder: what would this practice would look like when applied to poetry instead of film? (I know, I have a one-track mind.)
One of the traits that poetry and film seem to me to share is the potential to conjure up alternative worlds that seems obey to their own logic and set of rules. Like film, long poems or poetry ensembles (pamphlets, collections, sometimes entire oeuvres, or to a lesser extent magazines) often seem to respond to aesthetic parametres of their own making, and to establish a certain unique space for experience that can only be accessed through the artwork itself. We all know what the world of David Lynch is, and what it is like—we know what it looks like, what it feels like, what is allowed and what is not allowed within its limits. And we know the world of Gertrude Stein or John Ashbery or Sophie Collins the same way; there’s not only a tone to this space of experience, but a also a flexible and entirely nebulous set of rules that seems to dictate—to code, if we want to throw in a sprinkle of the gratuitous post-internet buzzwords we SPAM people are suckers for—how the world behaves and how it responds to our attention.
Dukes and Taylor rightfully call DAU ‘a beguiling collection of moving images that call into question our basic assumptions about film production and consumption’, and I wonder what a poetry project with the same goal would look like. Apart from the cool re-enactment part, I imagine what it would be like if poetry could be tailored to one’s history or personality; spending a day moving from venue to venue to take in bits of an orchestrations of poetry readings running 24/7. It probably wouldn’t work; it definitely wouldn’t work. But it got me thinking about what an alternative modality to deliver poetry IRL would look like. There has definitely been lots of experimentation (although never enough, IMHO) with the visual presentation of poetry: I’m thinking of Crispin Best’s pleaseliveforever, a poem that refreshes itself every few seconds into new L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E/lol combinations of words (what is the poem, then? The structure? The algorithm?); his poem that fades into lighter gray, only to darken into normal text as you keep scrolling down the page (what was it call? where did it go? Help @crispinbest). I’m thinking of video poems and surreal memes (yes you can @ me, those are poems). But readings are rarely stranger than a just a reading. We should get thinking about they could become weirder. Does anyone know how to make holograms?
Image from Internet Machine by Timo Arnall (2014). image credit: Timo Arnall.
Having been fascinated by Søren Pold’s writing on literature and translation in relation to the interface, I knew when I saw this new roundtable discussion that it would most likely be making SPAM’s February Digest. This discussion, made available on the Electronic Literature Review website, brings together the above speakers to discuss many of the ideas explored in Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Pold’s 2018 publication, The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities, and Clouds (The MIT Press).
Covering a diverse range of theorists, artists, designers and academics, the speakers take as their focus the idea of the metainterface, examining how interfaces have moved beyond the computer into cultural platforms, such as net art and electronic literature. Forming part of this analysis are considerations of how the computer interface, through becoming embedded in everyday objects such as the smartphone, has become both omnipresent and invisible. Through exploring the different relationships that form between art and interfaces, the authors note that whilst during many smart interactions the interface becomes invisible, it tends to gradually resurface, the displaced interface then creating a metainterface. Their argument is that art can help us to see this, with the interface becoming a site of aesthetic attention.
It is the question of aesthetic attention, in varying forms, that runs through this discussion, offering the reader a profusion of references of artists whose work examines the metainterface. One piece that stood out to me was Camouflaged Cell Concealment Sites by the Canadian-American artist, Betty Beaumont. This piece consists of a collection of photos taken of cell phone towers disguised as pine trees or Saguaro cactuses. As Lisa Swanstrom notes in the discussion, they’re terribly disguised, but ones that you could still overlook if you weren’t paying attention. Similarly, Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network, is a book that makes visible the materiality of the internet through mapping the global network of fibre optic cables that runs along seabeds. In bringing these works to our attention, Swanstrom notes how both examples are questioning the aesthetics of infrastructure, as both are trying to reveal something about the ways in which we experience it, not just know of it.
Responding to the question of what our role as critical users of the metainterface is, Pold draws our attention to the fact that we are always a part of the interface and have to work from the fact of being embedded, as there is essentially no outside. This invites the question of how the artists and writers can respond to the conditioning of self into the metainterface. As Andersen points out, whilst there is no safe haven ‘outside’ of the interface, there are certain tactics that can be developed as a user. The example given, a chapter entitled Watching The Med by Eric Snodgrass in his work Executions: Power and Expression in Networked and Computational Media (Malmö University, 2017), points to how real users operate in the Mediterranean Sea (now a highly-politicized landscape) by switching between different GPS technologies and Twitter to ‘recombine media in a tactical way’. The key idea to take from this is that whilst a reconsideration of our approach to tactical media in the condition of the interface is necessary, it doesn’t mean we cannot operate on platformed versions of tactical media such as Facebook or Twitter.
Another point of focus in this discussion I found especially captivating was the consideration of the posthuman machine in relation to the reformulation of labour, in particular Scott Rettberg’s consideration of the interface as an intermediate layer between humans and machines. In questioning whether we are moving towards a system in which the interfaces themselves generate human labour for the benefit of corporate entities, Rettberg poses the question of whether we can be alienated from our labour if we are not conscious of being laborours? This leads into a contemplation on the condition of cultural tiredness, an awareness that a certain media platform, such as Facebook, is packed with problems regarding social interaction and data protection, but still we continue to use its service.
Cautious of covering more than needs to be said in this digest, I will close by returning to the fundamental question that Pold and Andersen put forward in their work: the role of art and literature in shedding light on the behaviour and ontology of the metainterface. I find it interesting to learn that Pold started out by studying literature, before moving into a study of digital aesthetics. Perhaps it was the combination of these two domains that allowed him to see the act of reading the everyday interfaces of life as a literary act. This seems to be echoed in Andersen’s response to the question of art and literature’s role in an age of environmental crisis and metaintertface, whereby he looks to Walter Benjamin’s definition of an author as a producer. To see the artist or writer as ‘someone who produces not only the narrative, but who is a realist in the sense that he or she reflects what it means to produce in the circumstances that you are embedded in. So, the role of the author in the 21st century is to ‘not only to use the interface as a media for the production of new narratives, but also use the interface, and reflect the interface as a system of production’.
With questions such as ‘how are we being written by machines?’ and ‘how have we become media?’ still yet to be answered, I encourage anyone interested in posthumanism and digital aesthetics to make their way through the full discussion.