The next step in my discussion of digital narratives and communication in a vast online environment is to consider my metaphor of the vector. This particular idea is far more about mode of communication than structure, and therefore much more relational than our discussion of narrative structure. In the Translator’s Foreword to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, Massumi explains Deleuze’s use of the vector as a “point of application of a force moving through a space at a given velocity in a given direction” [Deleuze & Guattari, 1987]. The point of application is the content, and the movement is translation into the online social milieu. The question is, where does the information go? Who does it go to, if anyone? Does it go to a community for discussion, or is it posted on a site for possible discovery and possible aggregation into someone’s daily “news”? How does it propagate? These are much more social concerns than narrative ones, although the two are not separate, as here McLuhan’s pronouncement of “The Medium is the Message” is very true. This is because each communications method has different effects; as follows. A listserv is more communal, a forum has categories and “topics”, and a blog is a more singular transmission, like a micro-broadcast. For our comparison, I would like to discuss artists who have used the listserv as a medium, Manik [aka Marija Vauda & Nikola Pilipovic]), blogs (Liza Sabater), and a blog that tracks flows of ideas, trends, or memes (Olson, et al.) as we then transition into the section on Flow. I also want to stress that even though this writer is fully aware that there are far more models of online intercommunication than just blogs and listservs, these two offer a contrast of flows of information that are useful for our general discussion.
In analyzing the vectors of content (narrative, art, etc.) in networked environments through the work of Manik, Liza Sabater and NastyNets (Olson, et al.), I want to compare my ideas about the trajectory of information in the listserv and the blog. The listserv, implemented in 1986 by Eric Thomas [livinginternet.com, 1996-2009] is a collective email reflector that has a list of subscribers to whom a message is forwarded every time one of them posts to the server. The listserv is used by many new media art groups, including Furtherfield.org, Institute for Distributed Creativity, empyre, and nettime. The function of the listserv then is analogous to a huge discussion circle where everyone is able to hear everyone else’s statements. The message-vector travels into the server, where it propagates out to all the recipients on the list. Therefore, the diagram for the listserv could be seen as a central node with double ended arrows, all signifying the bidirectional communication of this sort of electronic agora. However, when it is used by any one user, the only bidirectional vector is that of the originator, as his content is reflected to the originator. All other vectors go out to the other participants.
Blogs have a very different schematic relationship in the way they communicate. Consider a large circle representing the blogosphere, or collective community of bloggers. Next, place points of application (blogs) with vectors of force (feeds) going out in all directions inside that circle. The diagram might resemble a high school illustration of gas inside a balloon, with the atoms transmitting packets of information throughout that circle.
The possibility that someone will read the blog may emerge through a search engine or word of mouth, but the definition of audience as in the listserv is indeterminate or open. This openness is another form of indeterminacy, theorized in hypertext and the Wiki, but now relating to the audience. Blog content is usually static, but episodically added to, so to talk about indeterminacy in blogs is not to talk about the narrative or author, but about “target”. Also, as blogs establish themselves, readerships and affinities with affine bloggers occur, with the emergence of “rings” and link-chains (aka cross-linking). Therefore, although in the beginning, the blogosphere is an ideally indeterminate milieu in terms of audience, “molecules” of association form by these associations. One could almost think of these clumps and chains as hydrocarbon rings and chains that link and form larger molecules. Using this metaphor playfully, perhaps it is not surprising that the blogosphere is sometimes explosive.
Manik (Marija Vauda & Nikola Pilipovic) are a collective in Belgrade, Serbia whose works range from conceptual paintings to ASCII art — i.e., art created with nothing more than computer text. Their work mixes intellect — they are frequent textual contributors to new media lists — with a fierce intransigence that questions the nature of the art world and its politics of status. While Vauda and Pilipovic are multi-media conceptual artists, their Art for Beginners series on the Rhizome listserv [Manik, 2002], is a direct polemic for new media’s emergence on the international art scene in the early 2000′s. It consists of small (about 320 x 240 pixels) images that comment upon or satirize artists’ or art’s effectiveness as a genre. These images are lobbed like grenades into the list, like Art II for Beginners with its simple black “Art Macht Frei” (the phrase placed above German labor camps during the Holocaust), and Tender Touch for beginners with an understated “Hiroshima” on an olive background. I would like to speculate that Art for Beginners contains a Serbian perspective that reminds the West (as Serbia has had a liminal status as a semi-sanctioned country since Milosevic) of the “banality of evil”, a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt to describe Eichmann’s denial of responsibility for his actions in the Holocaust during his Nuremburg testimony [Arendt, 1963]. In this way, I feel that in part, Manik, with a small gif image, subtly reminds the (largely) Western net.art audience of its own banality in the face of the ongoing effort of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia to cope with the fallout of the Balkan and Kosovo conflicts.
When one considers my definition for the propagation of information through a listserv, these are exactly what Manik’s posts are, mind-bombs, with the blast radiating through the perimeter of the recipient list. This is also a DADA-like jamming of the list with aesthetic antagonism rather than overt hostility which would present the work as trolling, or a senseless tactical provocation. The use of the word jamming comes from the fact that there were a minimum of thirty such works during the month of December, thus forcing awareness of the work through sheer volume. Still, Art for Beginners artfully used the medium of the listserv as a method through which to channel a polemic and nearly guarantee discussion by targeting the Rhizome community.
Another artist who has gained community through her use of blog as art is NYC-based Liza Sabater. Her Culture Kitchen blog [Sabater, 2009] has earned recognition in such national media as (US) National Public Radio, where she has been a commentator. Her blog is also a polemical space, with a mission to “explore socially libertarian and politically progressive solutions to the issues of everyday life in the United States by focusing on arts, culture, entertainment, life, media, politics, sex, and technology”. Originally conceived as a new media project, it originated from the Rhizome community. However, rather than a formal project, Sabater’s blog is a social experiment, exploring the social space of the blogosphere to connect its vector to like ones, to place itself in “progressive molecules”. The political thrust of Culture Kitchen and the use of the blog to inject comment into the national discourse are reminiscent of the Revolutionary War-era pamphleteer, or Tactical Media. Both act(ed) as methods in which individuals or small groups could leverage technology to surgically place their political message in the public conversation and incite discussion. Because of the success of Culture Kitchen, Sabater has effectively used the modes of communication specific to the blog as a tool for public discourse.
Artists are also utilizing the blog medium as a form of curation, its users becoming what Anne-Marie Schleiner would call “filter-feeders” or people who filter content in service of feeding culture [Schleiner, 2002]. This has given rise to the web surfer as artist, which has itself become a collective cultural practice. Marisa Olson, in Lost Not Found: The Circulation of Images in Digital Visual Culture, describes the “Internet surfing club” in which:
…internet artists, offline artists, and web enthusiasts who were invited by the group’s co-founders (of which I was one) to join them in posting to their website materials they had found online, many of which were then remixed or arranged into larger compositions or “lists” of images bearing commonality. [Olson, 2009]
Olson and NastyNets, her collective of “prosurfers”, a play on prosumer, a term for an advanced (usually amateur) computer enthusiast, surf between the boundaries of vector and flow, blogging (microcasting) about their “lists of commonality” (discernment of cultural flows). Their results are posted to the blog, and exhibited in the gallery on disks full of their collective explorations, as “art in variable forms, and … an art in sharing … other found “footage.” [Olson, et al. 2008] NastyNets is a pattern recognizer of net memes — the term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins as a mind-virus, that spreads through “infection” and “mutation” — and a trend definer through their position as recognized cultural curators. Therefore, the creation of the “surfing club”, of which NastyNets is only one, shows an awareness of the torrential nature of net.culture by recognizing that the curators of the present are so inundated with information that they now have to surf content, or navigate flows.