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Words, Like Art

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Tuesday, Nov 6, 2007
Language melts-down and contracts on new publishing platforms and mobile reading devices.
Photograph by Dayna Bateman who posts at Flickr as Suttonhoo

Photograph by Dayna Bateman who posts at Flickr as Suttonhoo


I read Fred Wilson’s blog on his life and venture capital investments because he seems like the guy who has the keys to the toolbox I want to have as a writer. I’m often thinking that I want to make everything more fluid and have services blend into one another. I want to be able to admire the photographs I’ve tagged as “favourites” in Flickr, drag highlight quote clouds out of the tag cloud that relates to the articles I’ve saved links to in de.licio.us, and paste pieces of audio and sound that I’ve saved in last.fm. This is the kind of thinking out loud that Fred Wilson does on his blog, illuminating the investments his Union Square Ventures makes. On the company’s website Andrew Parker explains what intrested the company in Tumblr, the site that aims to integrate these tasks into what he describes as a “clean lifestream.”


Aggregating these pieces of myself from across the web into one location in a simple, clean lifestream should be easy.


Furthermore, using many different web services to express myself online is not common usage; this is fringe behavior at best. Culling choice images, quotes, ideas, pages, video, and such from both one’s own life and from the internet should not involve registering for as many web services as the number of media formats one consumes. There is something broken about the way I express myself online when every time I want to post something I have to ask myself: “What tools should I use to best express myself? Does this image belong on Flickr on my blog (or both)? Should I Twitter this thought or does it require a full-fledged blog post to articulate well?” It would be far more ideal to just post a piece of media to express myself without worrying about the overhead of how I should post it, what title I should use, where does it fit the context of the data around it, etc…


Andrew Parker. Union Square Ventures.


He makes two important points about Tumblr’s appeal: that it’s simple, using Tumblr (which I’m experimenting with as a scrapbook to keep track of thoughts for future posts) is effortless, it has all the possibilities suggested by a blank page.  And it’s beautiful.


Personal expression online should be simple, and, more importantly, it should be beautiful. We hear from Etsy sellers all the time that they use Etsy instead of a competitors because Etsy is beautiful, and they want to display their artwork on a site that has respect for aesthetics. The same is true of personal expression on Tumblr, Tumblr is beautiful, so it’s easy to make your random thoughts look good.


To clarify what I mean by “beautiful,” it’s not beautiful in a way that is distracting (like many beautiful, yet complicated, flash interfaces). Often times interfaces on web services are considered beautiful because they’re interesting and fun to play with (information visualization novelties like “tag clouds”), but these interface are not well-designed for simplicity. By contrast, the beauty in Tumblr is in its simplicity. Tumblr is well-designed because you don’t feel like there is an interface you’re working with at all… the interface melts away, and you simply get things done quickly, without error, and with gorgeous results.


Andrew Parker. Union Square Ventures



EX 20 by Zatorski + Zatorski, who have translated the King James Edition of the bible into text message language.

EX 20 by Zatorski + Zatorski, who have translated the King James Edition of the bible into text message language.


Is the Language Beautiful?


The beauty of the language of the King James Edition of the Bible was unintentional. It was written in the common language of the day. This edition of the Bible was meant to be read out loud as well as silently, visually. We found it rich and literary with hindsight. Will this happen with the current text message language, will the messages of the spirit, beautiful in themselves, be a language we swoon over in time if the Bible is adapted to this language? asked the English artists Zatorski + Zatorski.


The words that make up the messages of our day are compressed for speed of writing and for their published economy, to condense how much space the words will take up on the small screen of a mobile device. A whole language that has a goofy edge has formed around the services and the verbs that describe their use: Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter (and tweeting), playing your music through last.fm is described as “scrobbling.”


Sony electronic book reader, Libri-E

Sony electronic book reader, Libri-E


But, still we write.


“One of the things that I’ve found through whatever loosey goosey reading of human history I’ve managed through my life, is that very little is really new. You know, the Internet, for the first 25 years of its existence, has been almost exclusively text based. And so [people] are writing with frequency unseen since the Victorian heyday of the British Empire, when there were three mail deliveries a day, and people wrote and communicated constantly. We went back to it. It wasn’t new. Very few things in the last 45 years have caused me to go ‘Whoa! That’s new!”


William Gibson. Tyee Books


Jenny Holzer projects quotes from Samuel Beckett's writing onto buildings in London.

Jenny Holzer projects quotes from Samuel Beckett’s writing onto buildings in London.


Words, Like Art


A couple of weeks before the APEC conference started in Sydney mobile LCD screens started appearing on street corners. Outside the Town Hall one carried the test message “evacute to Darling Harbour”. I misread it as an artwork, a Jenny Holzer installation, until the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out that it was a typo for an evacuation warning.


Printed Matter, the New York bookstore specialising in artists books, has announced the arrival of “Words to be Looked At” by Liz Kotz, a survey of word based art.


“Language has been a primary element in visual art since the 1960s—whether in the form of printed texts, painted signs, words on the wall, or recorded speech. In Words to Be Looked At, Liz Kotz traces this practice to its beginnings, examining works of visual art, poetry, and experimental music created in and around New York City from 1958 to 1968. In many of these works, language has been reduced to an object nearly emptied of meaning. Robert Smithson described a 1967 exhibition at the Dwan Gallery as consisting of ‘Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read.’ Kotz considers the paradox of artists living in a time of social upheaval who used words but chose not to make statements with them.


“Kotz traces the proliferation of text in 1960s art to the use of words in musical notation and short performance scores. She makes two works the ‘bookends’ of her study: the ‘text score’ for John Cage’s legendary 1952 work 4’33”—written instructions directing a performer to remain silent during three arbitrarily determined time brackets—and Andy Warhol’s notorious a: a novel—twenty-four hours of endless talk, taped and transcribed—published by Grove Press in 1968. Examining works by artists and poets including Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, George Brecht, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low, and Lawrence Weiner, Kotz argues that the turn to language in 1960s art was a reaction to the development of new recording and transmission media: words took on a new materiality and urgency in the face of magnetic sound, videotape, and other emerging electronic technologies. Words to Be Looked At is generously illustrated, with images of many important and influential but little-known works.”
—from the publisher


Nicole Bengiveno for the New York Times

Nicole Bengiveno for the New York Times


Moveable Type Installation in the lobby at The New York Times


An algorithm programmed by Ben Rubin and Rick Hansen pulls quotes and phrases from the archive of the New York Times, the print edition of the paper, and from the comments and blogs on the Times website, and displays them on screens in the foyer of the new building on 41st street.


Since The Times moved in June from its longtime home on West 43rd Street in Manhattan to its new, almost completed tower designed by Renzo Piano on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, two men — an artist, Ben Rubin, and a statistician, Mark Hansen — have all but taken up residence in the building’s cavernous lobby, huddled most days around laptops and coffee cups on a folding table. Flanking them on two high walls are 560 small screens, 280 a wall, suspended in a grid pattern that looks at first glance like some kind of minimalist sculpture.


But then the screens, simple vacuum fluorescent displays of the kind used in alarm clocks and cash registers, come to life, spewing out along the walls streams of orphaned sentences and phrases that have appeared in The Times or, in many cases, that are appearing on the paper’s Web site at that instant.


They are fished from The Times databases by computerized algorithms that Mr. Rubin and Mr. Hansen have designed that parse the paper in strange ways, selecting, for example, only sentences from quotations that start with “you” or “I.” Or sentences ending in question marks. Or just the first, tightly choreographed sentences of obituaries.


Randy Kennedy. News Flows, Consciousness Streams. The New York Times. October 25, 2007




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