Crossing Over
new languages and land[scapes] of networked society

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What does the act of communication mean today?

However cliché this question may seem (especially at the beginning of an essay about art), it is a good one to keep asking ourselves in an age of unprecedented connectivity and rapid technological development. Thanks to an ever-expanding electronic and wireless network, we live progressively in the headspace of a virtual hive—an ephemeral yet collective space where communication is less and less associated with the private. More and more, communication occurs as a distributed action, exchanged between or available to hundreds, even thousands of people, and in multiple places at the same time. This phenomenon can be thought of metaphorically as a vast [land]scape. Entire mountain ranges of messages and expressions springing up from the earth only to disappear just as quickly—or to change their shape completely. The individual content of these messages are like bodies that inhabit and move through this space. In this sense, there is a whole virtual society of communication that operates parallel and intertwined with our embodied society; one made up of text-bodies, image-bodies, sound-bodies…They travel constantly across a variety of networks, mostly digital but analog ones as well. And, in the process, they transform one another through their overlapping—in our speakers, on our papers and on our various screens. They 'pop up' and interweave—in our web browsers, our bank machines, our smart-phones and our magazines. When these overlaps occur those messages influence one another, crossing over and distorting the intent, the reading and the meaning of one another.

In recent years, many producers of net art have begun to take advantage of this media and message convergence by using it as a material. The intertwining of virtual and social interaction on the Internet has become a perpetually growing 'bank' of images, texts, sound and video to be sampled, remixed and re-presented. Net artists are beginning to appropriate the Internet itself, and rightfully so. After all, appropriation in art (at least in the sense of a conscious conceptual method) is nothing new, and dates back to the 1920s with the advent of 'pure' collage works in the Dada movement. However, the means of appropriation and the scope of available material then and now differ by leaps and bounds. Nowhere is this perhaps clearer than on the Internet, where networked communication has given rise to what could be called a 'paradigm of networked appropriations'.

This shift is historically and culturally significant in two major aspects:

First, the amount of material available to net artists and the ways in which it's accessed have become far more immediate, prolific and unfiltered. Platforms like social media sites and blogging software have given a virtual voice literally to millions. As a result, contemporary net artists have gained a publicly available and perpetually growing supply of visual and textual material already on the Web. The sheer population of the blogosphere alone, which according to's annual State of the Blogosphere report, on average now generates over 900,000 posts per day, is evidence of this communication 'sprawl', and one that for the first time in history is dominated by narrowcast rather than broadcast media.

Secondly, the methods for appropriating public content have become more technologically sophisticated and open source in recent years. Many pieces of net art, such as Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo's Tricolor.2007 and Evan Roth's Banners & Skyscrapers (2011) use program scripts to automate the gathering of other users' content. Essentially, their art pieces also function as programs—aesthetic machines per say—that query other websites, download content and display it in a pre-designed arrangement. Jaramillo and Roth conceptualize the piece, and they design how it will look, but ultimately the program determines the actual content of the piece. Other artists, like Dina Kelberman, simulate the appearance of an automated gathering of other users' contents, but in fact carefully curate each element—a cybernetic aesthetic machine.

No matter the exact technique employed, the increased appearance of net artworks like these represents a building interest in visualizing the 'economy of appropriation' that the Internet has in so many ways given rise to. More often than not, this interest is also critical in nature with many artists examining the social and political duplicities and complexities of the vanishing line that once separated private from public spheres.

The artworks that result from this critical intent operate as a form of interference; not in the typical sense, but as a particular kind that disrupts the increasingly templative appearance and consumptive function of information on the Net and re-channels it into expository personal vocabularies. The artworks in CrossTalk are curations and remixes of public content in personal terms. In doing so, the appropriated content and the artist's visual framework overlap as they 'signal' to the viewer simultaneously. In the electronics field this kind of interference sometimes results in being able to hear both messages at the same time—a phenomenon called crosstalk. Traditionally, crosstalk has been used as a euphemism for a poor audio or electrical connection. However, crosstalk as a concept of relations has histories in other fields such as biology and political science that suggest it can be a productive force. The potential ways a message can be interpreted often lie insensible to us until we experience some kind of interference or crosstalk. Until we sense a message being mixed up or taken out of context we generally have trouble re-imagining it let alone our relationship to it. For the most part, our communication-saturated society now receives messages cynically and mechanically—a process whose dangers have been written about at length by such esteemed 20th century thinkers as Adorno, Althusser and McLuhan. Growing each day, however, are artists like Jaramillo, Kelberman and Roth, who are producing clashes, discrepancies and juxtapositions in their work. They are drawing our attention to the multitude of ways in which the teeming and streaming content of the Internet could be alternately read and—through appropriation—used as a medium.

This is perhaps the most overt and disconcerting in Roth's Banners and Skyscrapers, where the figurative detritus of Internet commerce—banner advertisements—are animated and woven together. The whole browser window in Roth's piece is overwhelmed with an undulating lattice of pure consumer imagery—each one hailing in succession. "LOSE WEIGHT NOW" is serendipitously positioned next to a dating website ad with a cliché photograph of a canoodling couple and the words, "Troubled Over Your Ex?" Only seconds later, a vertical (skyscraper) advertisement for an audio/video technology company flows downward into the cropped head and face of a model for a South Korean clothing brand. The illustration of a sound and video advertisement penetrating a partial face is not only grotesque; it's not terribly far from physical reality. The power of the glissading visuals that Banners and Skyscrapers creates is also enhanced by the fact that the exact positions of the advertisements in relation to one another is automated—a process executed by a script that Roth wrote. This makes the moments in Banners and Skycrapers when images do connect uncanny ones. This, in combination with the sheer number of conflicting typefaces and other graphics, saturated colours and stock photography paints an aesthetically nauseating portrait of the networked communication scape—Like watching fifteen television channels during the commercial breaks with the sound off.

In a more minimal but still powerful approach, Jaramillo's Tricolor v.2007 also imbricates pieces of targeted virtual media. But, instead of advertisements the content is streaming snippets of online news feeds. Specifically, Tricolor v.2007 rakes online news sources for content that is about Colombia. Jaramillo is originally from Colombia, and her work often addresses issues of how national and cultural identity are portrayed and shaped by the media. To visualize this most formative yet largely unconscious process, Tricolor v.2007 builds an image of the Colombian flag (which is tri-colored) through lines of text that are taken directly from those online news sources. Letter by letter, and finally in sequential blocks of yellow blue and red, a nation's most recognizable symbol is deconstructed to reveal its fragility and its flux as yet another 'object' of cultural exchange—one that reorganizes itself constantly and rapidly. Jaramillo reflects this nomadic behaviour through the gesture of programming the flag to regenerate every six minutes.

Continuing this trend of visual deconstruction, but in yet another aesthetic departure, is Dina Kelberman's I'm Google. Using a tumblr blog as her platform, Kelberman culls the vast and wide Internet through Google Image Search. One picture or video at a time, she creates batches of images based on a concept or theme. Then, in a clean and strict three-columnn grid, she lays them all out, taking care that each concept or theme transitions into the next through similarities in color, shape or composition. From buildings on fire, to forest fires, to billowing smoke, to geysers, to bursting fire hydrants, to fire hoses, to spools of thread. What results is a digital scroll of visual poetry that abruptly and beautifully deconstructs each image it contains. Pushed up against their analogous-looking neighbours, the images deterritorialize one another until their nuances dissolve and they begin to flow as one image and one stream of consciousness. This anthropomorphism, and of course, the work's title, create a tongue-in-cheek account of 'the days in the life of'. Through a mixture of formal analysis and humour, Kelberman ties disparate users and contexts together into a playful but poignant display of one of the many new vernaculars of interaction and production on the Net.

Just as for centuries, the pictorial and performative vocabularies of artists have been referred to as a visual language, so too has the integration of digital media and social interaction on the Internet evolved into its own lexicon of signs, syntaxes, speech acts and exchanges. The artists in this exhibition recognize this evolution, and are beginning to use this novel language. They are exploring its structures and limits through various experiments. Their creations of online crosstalk attest to just one of many budding virtual 'speech acts'—linguistic expressions on the Net that highlight both the freedom and harrowing uncertainty of language through shifting meanings and ambiguity. The inability to know the true meaning behind someone else's words, images or a gestures is, after all, both the greatest and gravest aspect of what it means to communicate. The continual struggle to understand perspectives outside our own experiences is both a vice and a virtue of human experience, as sometimes even day to day acts of communication can be easily misread and ultimately frustrating. However, that tension also drives the creation of new forms of language and expression in the quest to resolve it. And, in an agonistic fashion, the artists exhibited here are celebrating that tension and its productive potential. Each work testifies to the emergence of a highly unstable yet highly malleable form of language owed to the complete convergence of media and culture on the Internet. More than ever, to express oneself on the Net is, in some ways, to surrender; to accept that the borders between text and image, sender and receiver, self and other, public and private are only myths and our own construction. And, that as our society crosses over the figurative bridge from the scape of the information society to the full-on networked society, our concepts of language and communication are collapsing, not expanding. They are condensing, to become one and yet all these things: the public and the private, the local and the global, the you and the me—in a perpetual moment of crosstalk, at the hinterlands of linguistic possibility.

Zach Pearl, Curator
February 2012