Our image is our own
In thinking about curating new media, we want talk about the potential of contaminating spaces. As artists, we will speak about how we have operated in different registers and what that has meant to the shaping and reception of our work.
We'll start this presentation with an older work, one done almost ten years ago, and it is not even digital. For us, it highlights potential insights in thinking about exhibitions, digital and analog alike.
To speak frankly, the work isn't epic or spectacular, in fact it's a simple intervention. Nonetheless, it offered a way for us operate across social contexts and audiences.
We made the work for Midnight Walkers and City Sleepers, an exhibition in the Redlight district of Amsterdam. Most of the time the area is defined by the sex industry, which is of course the most visible. While we didn’t want to reiterate certain clichés, we also didn’t want to evade the omnipresence of that industry either.
For this reason, we decided to work with a group embedded in the area and initiated a collaboration with The Red Thread (De Rode Draad), the prostitutes union occupying a significant position both physically and socially in the district. As three women, we were especially intrigued by their operation as a prostitutes’ rights organization and the way they dealt with female representation.
After our first discussion, a very practical need emerged. On the windows of the rooms in which the prostitutes stand, there is usually a sticker reading “No Pictures”. The Red Thread, who is the distributor of the stickers, had run out of supply. Aside from this practical need, we discussed the possibility of a kind of message of solidarity amongst women from The Red Thread and De Geuzen.
Our solution was to make a sticker with the no pictures icon and on the back we silk-screened in fluorescent pink the text: OUR IMAGE IS OUR OWN.
In order to use the sticker, the slogan must be split and pealed off. Something which is normally the focus in politically oriented work, in this case is a moment in use, a way of incorporating a degree of fragility into a political situation.
The sticker and its story started to circulate in different contexts.
feature in Blacklight Magazine
Interestingly, the circulation was not one way; we became tourists in the Red Thread's world. They were interested in us as artists and as three women working together so they interviewed us in their trade magazine, Blacklight. And they were tourists in ours, when the project was printed in the catalog and in ARCHIS, a periodical on architecture and urbanism. Next to these publications, the sticker was distributed at the prostitute information center.
In each context the meaning shifted. For the prostitutes, the sticker was a moment of solidarity (it was an expression of their right to the ownership of their image, something they have in common with every woman), for the brothel proprietors a practical need was fulfilled (customers were not scared off by being photographed) and for the exhibition goers and the readers of ARCHIS, issues of representation were raised.
Although only a small gesture, the action made us realize the potency of multiple-viewing contexts and circulation. In such circumstances, there are positively contaminating forces that can come into play that lend new meaning to the work.
The second project we want to discuss brings together both analog and digital spaces.
As an idea it started locally, as intimate as our own bodies. Frivolity and Folly, the second of our De Geuzen Uniforms, was designed for our different body types. One tall and almost matriarchal, the other ample and sturdy, and the third small and not-so curvaceous.
Across the surface of cloth, there is a text: Adam's rib, bitch in heat, bearded oyster, crumpet, cunt, feminist, dyke, dumb blond, girl next door, hussy, whore...the list goes on to encompass around 300 words. All, in one way or another pointing to stereotypes, words frequently used to trap or fix women in a derogatory identity. In this case however, adorned on flesh-like material, decorating folds of fabric, the phrases are flipped into a badge of honor. This kind of turn of a negative word into a source of pride is known in Dutch as a Geuzennaam (Judith Butler understood this flip to be the very catalyst of queer theory).
The uniforms, here in the space of an old Carmelite convent, take on an almost posed grandeur. Certain art spaces have that kind of impact on a work, a theatricality that can at the worst of times be rarefied and at the best of times give one space for a pause. This sense of staging was further heightened because the work was nestled in between a set of suspended army helmets by Yoko Ono and Peter Greenway's archive of miscellaneous objects housed in classical museum vitrines. Rather than contaminating each other, the works operated in separate zones of concentration.
One of the affordances of the exhibition was that it was about a physical encounter, a viewer could literally compare his or her own body size to ours, or our surrogates that is. And to read through the list of words meant to poke, prod and move around the figures.
[Jump-cut to a very different kind of curatorial space:]
Geuzennaam: a Dutch term for a derogatory name appropriated and reclaimed as a positive label of empowerment.
While still working on the dresses, we were experimenting with another, less rarefied and more mediated, space. The list of names evolved into an online archive of Geuzennamen, a collection of words in English, Dutch and French. And then it grew into something more because we were able to indulge in something we are great fans of, the vernacular of the net.
Click image to launch the Dutch Geuzennaam site.
The main-page, in Dutch, took on different functions, and as a result it can traverse communities that no analog exhibition space can.
We started a web shop where you can by your favorite Geuzennaam T-shirt:
Geuzennaam T-shirts for sale, click here to go directly to shop
Along with the shop, there is a push-button system where you can vote on your favorite Geuzennaam. For those really low in cash, there is also a DIY guide to making your own T-shirt.
Finally, to keep the project living as an archive, there is a form to add new words in English, Dutch and French.
Having this online survey, has given us access another generation's slang and kept the archive current.
Where art audiences often come with a specific sort of intention; in other words, they expect to find art, online spaces attract viewers which are sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional. For example some may find our site via the Rhizome artbase... in which case, they "know" what they are looking for. It is a frame by which to view the work as netart (however dubious that term may be).
But others, are accidental tourists in our world. For example imagine this tourist, a surfer who has typed the word 'fuckable' into Google and rendered the following:
He, or for that matter she, has obviously come looking for a different outcome than De Geuzen or art ; but instead they encounter the third image from the right which is ours.
And since we also worked on the Geuzennaam project in French with students of the textile department at La Cambre Academy in Brussels, we get similar accidental tourists from French speaking countries.
This is a snapshot of our netstats showing the most popular search words for September 2005:
Apart from 'situationist quotes', almost all are words referring to women in these various languages. It is interesting to think about those tourists who were looking for porn, and what it means to view an artwork through the filter of misrecognition. When you follow the link, you will not just encounter one word, but the breadth of the collection, a sociological portrait of women through derogatory terms. So while 'fuckable' means one thing when you are at pussy.com and another when you are at geuzen.org. Nonetheless, we are unified under the umbrella of a search engine. It's indiscriminate eye, or code, allows for accidental surfers and occasionally gives us contributors to our archive.
These accidental tourists also looked at other works on our site and spread the word to their friends. As a result, our work started to circulate in teenage chat rooms. Here is a sample from a group of chatters in the Netherlands:
De 'paperdolls' van de Geuzen zijn ook erg grappig.. (the paper dolls of De Geuzen are also funny)
Kat - 03 Maart '05 - 11:19
* * *
die geuzennamen-shirts vind ik een top project, ik ga dit lekker ook linken. (há) (I think the geuzennamen-shirts are a top project, I am also going to link to it)
ron (link) - 04 Maart '05 - 15:31
* * *
Vet.. Zullen de Geuzen leuk vinden.. (Do you think De Geuzen would like that..)
Zee - 04 Maart '05 - 15:49
and yes --- we are very excited about being linked to these sites as this is one of the idiosyncrasies of the web; it creates unexpected associations.
Aside from the Dutch chat rooms, we also found this entry on an English weblog:
"This website is really interesting. It's some mix of art, social theory, and craftiness. I can't quite follow all of it, but they have a link to DIY paper dress patterns."
Ironically, this is one of the best descriptions of our practice: "art, social theory and craftiness." Not even art critics have summarized our work that accurately.
Just as the analog exhibition space gave a layer to the Geuzennaam project, one which was visceral and theatrical, the online version brought new audiences and layers of meaning we never could have fathomed.
And with other projects the reverse has happened. One such example is Fripperies and Trimmings.
This made us wonder about how such polemics could be cracked apart and possibly subverted to create more flexible alliances. We were looking for a system which could not only be used during the prelude to the war but also in other situations of protest.
We started playing with a minimal collection of pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and punctuation, which could be configured to form alliances and for that matter divides.
NOT, FOR, US, THEM, YOU, ALL, ME, WITH, BUT, OR, !, ?, .
In and of themselves, the words are fairly neutral but depending on the context and configuration, they gain resonance.
For example, if you catch yourself in front of this logo:
Or lets say, you are at a labor rally, you might want to say: All for us!
Online, we created a simple slot machine where people could test different combinations. In a way, it is an exercise in the grammar of protest and solidarity.
click here to launch site or play directly below
Wanting a more hands-on version, we also printed these words on different kinds of cloth, and used the material in a series of workshops with teenagers at the Impakt Festival in Utrecht.
Installation view, Impakt Festival, Utrecht, The Netherlands
While our minds were on more heady issues like the demonstrations that were going on and the larger political questions surrounding the invasion of Iraq, we soon saw by the way the students responded to the work, their minds were on other forms of allegiance and exclusion.
What we witnessed was a much more fundamental form of belonging and not belonging. It was an adolescent play, one we have all experienced, a staging of 'who is in' and 'who is out'. So those who felt a sense of belonging tended to configure the words in this way:
All for you!
Not for you,
Through the work, we were confronted with an issue in adolescence which is not necessarily political but nonetheless poignant. In this case, a museum space in combination with a specific audience, created another layer to the work. One more primary, about being human.
// A seance with Guy Debord by De Geuzen, www.geuzen.org
// note - Eliza is a Classic Model of chat Bots.. but this implementation is ours :)
// may be used/modified if credit line is retained (c) 1997 George Dunlop (o) 2004 De Geuzen
maxKey = 66;
keyNotFound = maxKey-1;
keyword = new Array(maxKey);
this.key = key;
But it's not just a new layer which is added to the work when it is inserted into different contexts. Bringing a piece into a new viewing scenario, might result in a radically re-reading of the project, or in the case of 'new media' works, a radical re-scripting.
To illustrate what we mean, let's look at recent project, A Séance with Guy. To give you a little history, the work is a simple chatbot:
// Chat Bot by George Dunlop, www.peccavi.com
loaded = false;
// load flag for interlocking the pages
// OBJECT TYPE DEFINITIONS
(view full source code here)
We originally initiated the séance, because we wanted to talk to Guy Debord (a.k.a. the Guru of the Spectacle), about the current state of affairs in the world. The work, now sits on our site waiting for audiences to surf its way.
But lets imagine the work in a series of fictional exhibitions. How might that generate different types of conversations, different sorts of encounters?
Fictional exhibition #1: Situationism Then and Now
Imagine if the séance, was performed in the context of this exhibition, a show bringing together artists from the past and the present. On a large screen the chat is beamed and people can type in their questions: Having looked at the work of Constant in the previous room, a viewer, after first greeting Guy of course, might type in: What do you think about the work of Constant, will there ever be a Situationist city? To which Guy answers below: It's difficult to say under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle....
In this exhibition the viewer walks up and asks Guy the following: Do you consider yourself to be a feminist? To which he responds: Would you prefer if I were not a feminist?
screenshot, A Seance with Guy
In this case, the context, by that we mean the conceptual/curatorial framing, literally dictates the way the viewer converses with the work, and conversely how the work converses with the viewer. This is not just a layer added but an entire change in how the piece operates.
Different exhibitions elicit specific yet different keywords and the bot responds accordingly. And unlike conventional artworks, the work is not fixed; it can be changed depending on the circumstances.
While at the moment Abu Ghraib is a keyword, five or ten years from now, people may never come up with that text as other issues dominate the mediascape. Perhaps other keywords will have to be added, creating an archeology of words. Like early fluxus performances which can be re-invented in the present, the chat-bot can be re-scripted in different contexts too.
So, in order to keep works alive and vibrant, the question is how can new media works be inserted into a variety of environments that not only promote multiple readings but might also shape, influence and enrich them. It certainly is not a matter of just beaming a web-based work on a wall in a museum, or providing online computers for people to surf on. Nor, is it a matter of slipping these kinds of works neatly into the institution.
What we are suggesting is something much more complex; where the strict boundaries between the viewer and maker, curator and artist, and for that matter, the physical and the virtual, can be tested, challenged and teased. For us, this is not the dilemma of curating new media, but its potential.