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Spectacular Grammar
Infrastructure as a Universal Language

Erin Gordon on Mindy Seu

In 2003, dial-up Internet’s machinic chugging-along was a song that I listened to anxiously as AOL came to life. My AIM buddy list was active for what felt like hours, as I waited for at least one “whats up? nm u?” from a friend while websites loaded. I frequented Xanga, a now-long-forgotten blogging site and contemporary of LiveJournal, and chronicled obscured angst, sadness, and joys, all buried under the provocative song lyrics of misogynistic emo bands. Xangas with a multitude of already-built layouts floated around the website if you knew where to look; they deviated from the normal boxy blandness of the site’s default options. Some users supported tweaks and modifications to their original layouts, and I scoured various profiles for a custom mouse pointer and centered header with just the right font. This was my (and I assume many of my peers’) first introduction to code through basic HTML and CSS, ultimately leading me to wonder how community and collective idea-generation have affected our current beliefs and perceptions about how we communicate. There is evidently a relationship between art practice and technology—there always has been—but the possibilities for indefinite collaboration between both exist under the broader idea of “communication” that varies from simply speaking a commonly-understood language, and the idea of how we present this to others, whether intending to or not, drives language.

Rather than focusing on specific coding languages and their mechanics, this notion of language, in relation to information technology infrastructure, surpasses the most basic conception of semiotics to make a case for a universal language that has been around all along. Jacques Rancière’s notion of the emancipated spectator serves as a grounding for how I view the conceptual framework of communication, or essentially what is already happening in places such as Beaker Browser, which operates on peer-to-peer networking. His proposed relationship between performer and audience is nonexistent; rather, by abolishing all participants’ spatial and conceptual relationships to the spectacle that is occurring, it is not necessarily about the passivity that is often associated with being a spectator, but the anti-passivity and actual normalcy of the situation itself. There is no separation between spectator and spectacle, and variedly, within the operation of social media as an active user, spectacle operates through “the existence of social activity and social wealth as a separate reality.” He applies his emancipated spectator to art practice and spectatorship, I would contend, as would Rancière, that this is our actual reality or new normal.

Within this reality, the shared language of code has continued to evolve through collective thought, imagination, and communication. Although code is not necessarily what interests and excites the masses, its embedded algorithms actively work to encourage spectacle; they refresh our news feeds, giving us the posts we see most frequently based on clicks, views, or tags. Major events on social media, such as shared grief and mournings, are slightly reworded among users and inundated with emoji to characterize the emotion that accompanies the death of a public figure. Reddit and 4Chan actively garner threads of comments from users in relation to a posted topic online, where under relative anonymity, someone can ask, “Am I the asshole for…?” for solicited advice from similarly-faceless users. Facetune, a free photo-editing application, encourages its users to design and share their most desirable attempts at self-portraiture, with its most avid users as the most-followed and well-known in the public sphere. The artist Amalia Ulman’s project Excellences & Perfections chronicled five months of her comings-and-goings on Instagram; her selfies were the confluence of her online and IRL personas, with Ulman undergoing a tenuous physical makeover documented in selfies and accompanied by captions that pandered to the larger Instagram community. These images were the spectacle, the message; she single-handedly confused the boundaries between real and fake, art and reality, and self and the persona. Inviting the public, or those of us who are able to successfully navigate Instagram, her journeys through post-workout selfies or breast augmentation were chronicled with light, almost-frivolous affirmations such as “Start each day with a grateful heart.” She did not innovate this use of social media, nor was it particularly remarkable within the scope of how Instagram is normally used; her mimicking of the shared vernacular on sites like Instagram appealed broadly to its main audience, and her attention to small details such as a washed out background or the use of a 70s-style filter solidified the importance of her project as this critique that has exponentially remained necessary today. The communication facilitated by maintaining connectedness with friends, family, and strangers asks for a willingness to learn the technology in order to communicate. A recent piece published by Dazed Digital labels the project as a “hoax” in its lede, or as an artist intending trickery or illusion online as a “Catfish” would; the implied fakery of Ulman’s endeavor is not as much a dupe as it is a reflection on how we view our reality--Instagram is not necessarily a real-time live documentation of how we look in the moment, but it operates as a reality with more control, thus furthering the spectacle-spectator as it is.

In the 1990s, Algerian-born artist Martine Neddam created mouchette.org, a webpage documenting intimate thoughts and musings from its proposed thirteen year-old creator, named for the Bresson film; Mouchette, “the little girl made of language and made of text,” displayed idiosyncrasies that vacillated between the delicate and the grotesque through this particular persona while Neddam remained anonymous. She invited the larger public to participate on her website through responses and comments, which were found through forums housed behind hyperlinks. It is truly the proto-microblog to the self-confessional nature of Tumblr; Mouchette’s quips begged to be clicked through to the next one as a contribution to this larger labyrinth of language. In one instance, the audience is confronted with a fly—a motif found throughout the website—that manifests itself in the form of a clickable button that “flies” around the screen. After finally positioning the mouse in the exact right spot to catch it, she asks why we, her captive audience, have chosen to kill her. She continues to exclaim dramatically, “BUT HOW CAN I WRITE THIS SINCE I’M DEAD??? TELL ME!!!” at which participants are invited to respond through an online form. So can one of her many possible deaths mean in the scope of the website? Sherry Turkle’s rumination on the Internet at the time can be taken literally in this form of the imagined text-based Mouchette: ““In my computer-mediated worlds, the self is multiple, fluid, and constituted in interaction with machine connections; it is made and transformed by language; sexual congress is an exchange of signifiers; and understanding follows from navigation and tinkering rather than analysis.” Mouchette.org has undergone efforts to conserve the breadth of Mouchette’s multiple online selves as well as its specific aesthetic; however, many of the nuances related to experiencing the project in the moment are now lost. Her fervent dedication to communicating her oft-absurd feelings is what makes her more compelling than dated. Scholar and curator Annet Dekker speaks to these fragments of mouchette.org that ultimately made her more and more real through the ever-shifting nature of the Internet, writing, “mouchette.org is a (still growing) ecology of different projects circling around the brand Mouchette” that are based upon a community of individuals who organize online and IRL events among themselves for the sake of the website (and Mouchette herself). Facilitating the project to extend outside of its website relies upon interaction by its audience and the way they relate to each other.

Amalia Ulman and Martine Neddam utilized the ability of the Internet to connect individuals from behind their respective computers and phones to give their projects a kind of longevity outside of the artists’ active involvement. Rancière asserts that artists essentially weave together a sensory fabric in this way, creating shared experience through language (both visual and written). If humans are tied together by this sensory fabric, they can be together while apart; communicating through avenues like comments on posts or lines of code are performed with intention by those who execute them, all the more strengthened by collaborative projects. In this way, art practice continues to move and shift with the Internet’s ability to utilize shared language through the way we choose to navigate it, whether it be challenging an algorithm on social media or messing with code from a webpage’s source. With each of these clicks, I wonder if someone like me realizes, as if emerging from a dreamlike state, that we could have arduously communicated through layouts on Xanga, too.