241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Hito Steyerl, a German artist and theorist, wrote an article in 2009 called ‘In defence of the poor image’. Poor images are the heavily compressed images that are available for everybody online. They are either the poor copy of a better, more professional original, or an image that was made by an amateur and was poor to begin with.

In the six years since then, the image quality of the average video on Youtube has gone up dramatically and so have the average consumer cameras, but there is still a difference between professionally produced commercial films seen in cinemas and the ones available online. How long this will remain the case is the question. But for now I think Seyerl’s argument remains interesting. I quote:

“Poor images [are] popular images—images that can be made and seen by the many. They express all the contradictions of the contemporary crowd: its opportunism, narcissism, desire for autonomy and creation, its inability to focus or make up its mind, its constant readiness for transgression and simultaneous submission. Altogether, poor images present a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd, its neurosis, paranoia, and fear, as well as its craving for intensity, fun, and distraction.”

Film still 'The Voices of Iraq'

You see these contradictions of the contemporary crowd continuing in today’s visual aesthetics. And in these aesthetics there is of course space for critique and experiment. Where again I would like to stress that experiment isn’t necessarily critical.

In 2004 a film was made called ‘the voices of Iraq’ in which US filmmakers gave 100 camera’s to Iraqi people, just after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Although the idea is given that many different viewpoints are voiced in this film, I would argue that this film is pure US propaganda. The democratisation of the camera is here symbolising the democracy that the US brought to Iraq, finally allowing people to speak freely.

Film still 'The Voices of Iraq'

Steyerl speaks of this tendency of the resistance becoming part of the value system of capitalism. She uses the example of conceptual art, first resisting the fetish value of the object, which had become so valuable in the art world. But then, as value was dematerializing within capitalism on a larger scale, conceptual art fitted in perfectly and fetish value could be assigned to dematerial concepts just as well as to material objects. The same goes for the poor image:

“On the one hand, [the poor image] operates against the fetish value of high resolution. On the other hand, this is precisely why it also ends up being perfectly integrated into an information capitalism thriving on compressed attention spans, on impression rather than immersion, on intensity rather than contemplation, on previews rather than screenings.”

Transformers, The Premake

In the film ‘Transformers, The Premake’ we don’t only see the multiplication of the body and the multiplication of the camera, but also the multiplication of the screen. We see how the plurality of images produced by amateurs during the shoot of the film the Transformers, can be used as a source for promotion, or as a way to emotionally bind your audience. Crowd filming, just like crowd funding and crowd sourcing. The production potential of all these individuals together is enormous and is therefore exploited by commercial and political parties. (Transformers, The Premake)

Transformers, The Premake

Wark McKenzie speaks of Hito Steyerls writings in a very recent article. He says “The labour of spectating in today’s museums is always incomplete. No one viewer ever sees all the moving images. Only a multiplicity of spectators could ever have seen the hours and hours of programming, and they never see the same parts of it.”

Of course the same goes for all moving image online. Maybe here not even the multiplicity of spectators have ever seen the whole. This abundance of images also causes a kind of invisibility. There’s a good chance to get lost in this overload of images, or to just become a piece of data in the data pool.

Still from ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’.

The last fragment I will show is an excerpt of Steyerl’s video ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’. It’s a tutorial on how not to be seen in a world where we are always being looked at. We are constantly filmed by drones, surveillance cameras, our own smartphones and those of others. We never know if someone might have hacked the camera or microphone on our laptop. Our location can always be tracked though our smart devices. We can’t escape being seen if we want to take part in society. At the same time we have become tiny particles in the large pool of images. Our physical bodies don’t matter so much anymore; it’s the data that we generate that counts. So in a way we have become invisible. Paradoxically Steyerl’s video on how not to be seen, is at the same time a tutorial to escape invisibility. (How not to be seen)

Still from ‘How not to be seen, a fucking didactic education mov file’.

All of our digital media leaves behind traces. But these are hidden traces that are present as invisible abstractions. These traces exist as digital binary structures of code that represent digital pictures, video, texts, three dimensional objects and more.

We leave behind cookies on our computers, we store most of our data in a cloud, but we also leave traces on each device that contains digital memory on its hard disk or flash memory. But these traces are invisible: we cannot perceive them as they are, we cannot perceive them directly.

The code’s structure does not readily yield the subject of what it represents. We can’t even perceive the structure unmediated, because we need a visualisation device. We might be able to directly perceive the physical presence of a small disc or a chip from our digital media device. But in the end the digital empire is only about what it represents: the functionalities, the images, the characters and combinations that form a coded language that, in turn, create the language we are able to understand.

Once I had the problem that I deleted the majority of my pictures, in a state of fatigue, from my hard drive. The first thing I did was google if I could somehow recover this data from my hard disk, despite having deleted it. I learned that a hard disk doesn’t actually physically delete your data, but reassigns the specific space that was used for the data, to be free to be overwritten.

This meant that the data was still there, but that the doors that lead to the used space on my hard disk where the images were housed had a little note on them saying that they were free to be taken up by new data. So, there’s a time between the reassignment of the digital space and the replacement with new data, which is a kind of no man’s land.

We are living in a less direct material world and a more digitalised one, where traces themselves seem to be a disappearing thing. Where we easily replace the old in order to maintain the clean and the new. The moment we throw something away, we also throw its trace away.

Maybe it’s time to become more materialised again. To be attuned to a greater sense of the things around us that we like to touch, feel and smell, in addition to the digital form of matter we indulge ourselves in. This must not be seen as a critique on our contemporary digital information- and imagery systems, but more as an essay to think about the value of the things we can see with our naked eyes, with our bare hands, our open nostrils, and our own ears.

Back in the day, it was exciting enough to surf the Internet and just watch some porn, to send each other funny Youtube videos or to just read up on the most absurd articles about aliens. Presently, all of this is overshadowed: cats rule the Internet. Who needs porn when there are some cute cats to look at?

Youtube is overloaded with funny cats videos; Facebook is oversaturated with posts and photos of cats, as are 9gag and 4chan. Cats, cats, cats are everywhere. If you’re not into cats, you can forget about being popular on the Internet. Cat porn, or Catomania, is the newest and biggest trend in Internet culture.

I’m not the first and surely not the last to cover this topic. How is it that this viral phenomenon (or maybe even a 'viral' virus?) can attract so much attention? Around 2005 a phenomenon called LOLcats appeared on the Internet. It was all about funny cat pictures with some comically misspelled captions.

We can say it was the very beginning of an obsession with cats spanning the entire Internet. The very first website which was dedicated to LOLcats images was icanhas.cheezburger.com. It started as a joke between two friends and became viral. The hype spread so fast and so thoroughly that in 2007 projects like the LOLcat Bible appeared, in which the entire Bible is translated into LOLcat language. Why would someone find this entertaining enough to spend their time on?

Perhaps it’s because we’re always looking for easy distractions. Being an adult is one of the most difficult tasks in life: being responsible, working hard, trying to build relationships: all of this requires a lot of energy and brain work, so why we shouldn’t please ourselves and procrastinate while watching something both cute and funny, like, for example, LOLcats?

In 2008 digital thinker and MIT Center for Civic Media director, Ethan Zuckerman, raised a new theory on how cats (that were already occupying the internet) could disseminate revolutionary political content. It’s well known that all governments censor political information on the Internet, whether great or small- especially a country like China. It’s easy for them to block URL addresses, but that is not the case with keywords. This led to the idea to use cute pictures of cats as a tool for spreading revolutionary political content.Now this is where it becomes serious. Cats on the Internet no longer only serve for fun and entertainment, they have now become a powerful tool for spreading and hiding ideas from the government. It’s pure genius.

It might be the case that the cat hype spread over the Internet as fast as it did thanks to the many introverted people who spend large parts of their lives online. In 2013, research at Missouri University of Science and Technology proved that most of the people who spend the majority of their time online are introverted. This does make some sense. It can be easier to communicate online, which can make you feel more confident. And perhaps cats, too, appeal mostly to the introverted: there is no need to walk them and to enter the outside world.

So it might make sense that introverted cats owners who spend most of their time online have greatly helped to spread this cat culture over the web. Cats are our new pop stars. They have their own fan pages, twitter and Instagram accounts. Even mascots and t-shirts. It’s a new cat era. A cat with a sad facial expression named “grumpy cat” now has almost 7 million likes on Facebook. That means that 7 million people are united by going crazy over one cat that accidentally has a strange facial expression. A little shop in the center of The Hague even has a section with toys and souvenirs dedicated to this cat.

Imagine, you live in the 14th century, and somebody tells you the printing press will be a catalyst in a scientific revolution. You would probably think this person is exaggerating. You do understand the principle of reproduction and distribution of thought, that's not the problem. However, you can't imagine that such a simple thing as a change in medium can have such a profound impact.

The inability to understand the transition to a newer medium can have severe consequences. From the moment the printing press made its first appearance a new group of disadvantaged became apparent, the illiterate. This group was unable to read, spell and write and could therefore not interpret the new medium. For them the world became more and more a place they could not understand.

In the 21st century not only the illiterate are the ones that are unable to understand the new current medium. A new group is created, those who cannot understand an ever changing medium. With the arrival of the internet it becomes relevant to ask if a human being and the graphic designer can really cope with an ever such changing medium.

The modern illiterate

There is a new group of disadvantaged because of the nature of a developing or established medium. This, in essence, is what happens with every new medium, as it asks of its user to undergo a process of unlearning and learning. Besides vocal language, people had to learn how to interpret written language, they had to unlearn to write the same as they spoke, not to mention any refinements that were expected along the way .
What happens if a new medium is introduced that is not only different from its predecessor but also constantly changing? The process of learning and unlearning becomes a constant state. Alvin Toffler wrote the following about this:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

If we take a look at which medium might be the biggest change for the printed word, the internet is likely to be picked. Our environment is more and more designed for quick communication in which we are hardly limited to geographical location; our social relations are maintained by platforms and applications, and the amount of people that use smartphones, tablets and laptops is growing exponentially. All developments largely dependent on the internet.

With our daily and sometimes even uninterrupted use we’d like to think that we also understand. We use a smartphone so we "are" on the internet, we use google so we use the internet. But do we truly understand what internet is? Is using applications that are on the internet the same as understanding? Maybe we are fooling ourselves, and maybe we are the new generation that does not understand its environment. And perhaps worse: we aren't even noticing it.

From solid to liquid

An important cause of if we do or do not understand the internet is most likely the wrong interpretation of its nature. Up until we had internet all our media was invariable, as soon as they were produced. A book, newspaper, flyer or poster: as soon as they are produced they are solid. The internet on the other hand is not solid at all. For example news-websites can add and change content at any moment of the day. If you look at a news website you merely see a snapshot of an ever changing image. But if internet knows no solid state which state does it have then? Maybe liquid?

In core the difference between solid and liquid is easily described, however it is very clearly defined by Zygmunt Bauman “[...] in simple language [...] liquids, unlike solids, cannot easily hold their shape. Fluids, so to speak, neither fix space nor bind time. While solids have clear spatial dimensions but neutralize the impact, and thus downgrade the significance, of time (effectively resist its flow or render it irrelevant), fluids do not keep to any shape for long and are constantly ready (and prone) to change it; and so for them it is the flow of time that counts, more than the space they happen to occupy: that space, after all, they fill but ‘for a moment’.”

Not only the visual qualities but also time plays an indispensable role. A picture of a liquid form needs a time indication, because when the picture is taken, the liquid form has already changed. A solid shape however is hardly affected by time. As easy as liquid shapes change they manoeuvre around solid shapes and hardly feel impact. They can 'flow', 'spill', 'run out', 'splash', 'pour over', 'leak', 'flood', 'spray', 'drip', 'seep' and 'ooze'. Even better, just as it takes energy to hold a liquid form stationary, it takes energy to make a solid form move.

The comparison between solid and liquid is highly relevant when we are talking about internet. The internet doesn't know the solidness as we have known in media up to now. The internet does not feel any friction when being moved: it flows from one side of the world towards the other in a fraction of a second. Images can be duplicated with a friction that is almost negligible. News-reports don't have a specific moment in time: they are only snapshots of a liquid form.

Liquid Design

The underestimation of changes and their impact, and the wrong interpretation of the nature of the internet, can have profound effects, as Toffler indicated: the rise of a new generation that can't interpret the media around itself. Especially because of these factors it is very important to address a group that is extremely dependent on the medium of this time and its interpretation: the graphic designer.

The printing press was on its own nothing more than a technique; it was the human who by a (specific) implementation gave value to it. He duplicated documents, made books, made posters, flyers and derivatives. From this development the graphic designer evolved, a person who has the task to visualise a message in the media of its time.
Here arises a paradox: the graphic designer is rooted in history of solid forms, but it's his task to use the medium of nowadays which is mainly liquid. Because the medium is so different, omnipresent and growing, it is the graphic designer who should critically review himself. The graphic designer must go from solid (static) design towards liquid design. We shouldn't learn to write and read differently in order not to become subordinated; we need to learn a skill to handle the constantly changing state of our new media. This is not a simple task for a graphic designer, because he is inclined to think in terms of solidity, rules and grids. It is almost an inhumane transition. It is in our nature to think in heuristics in order to make our daily life manageable: who are and are not our friends, what I do and do not like, etc.

Maybe the transition to liquid design is still ungraspable and we should take a step back and realise that we underestimated the internet, it's nature and impact. Even language limits us.
Comprehending, grasping, materialising are conceivable descriptions of a change in thinking in which statements are still made in terms of solidity.

Factors like these make it an excellent task for a graphic designer to rove the internet in a visual way. By not only understanding it and holding it down but also by letting it 'flow', 'drip' and 'ooze'.

Liquid Design resulted out of his graduation project The New Public Space where he researches the interesting interaction between the rapidly changing media and graphic design which depends so heavily on it. The text is researched by Gilles and written together with Ruben Verkuylen.

Alvin Toffler, Rethinking the Future, London, 2008

Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, 2000

Hundreds of cheap labourers are making money through websites like Amazon and Google Image Labeller. These Internet workers are also known as Mechanical Turks. Visual artists also make use of their services.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a Mechanical Turk.”

It sounds absurd, but it actually makes completely sense. Worldwide there are millions of so-called MTurks active in dozens of countries: people with a computer and an Internet connection that, all the while clicking and tapping, make money. New international digital workers are added daily, even in Africa by mobile phone. Meanwhile, visual artists have discovered the benefits of this cheap labour: the first art projects using Mechanical Turks are starting to make their appearance on the Internet.

Het artikel zoals verschenen in NRC Handelsblad

Organising labour over the Internet is an interesting affair. National borders are crossed with ease, and a social security number is unnecessary—all you need is a bank account. We’re already familiar with images of Asian youths gaming for hours on end for people in the rich West, but there are many other forms of online remote work.

The Mechanical Turk made its appearance in 2005 at Amazon and is based on the idea that we are all part of a great machine. Tasks can be found on the Internet for the reward of a few cents to several dollars. These are so-called HITs (Human intelligence Tasks) that vary in their degree of difficulty. You could, for example, insert tag words to photos and videos, arrange images by colour, write vacation reviews for websites or collect links about UFOs—that last example earns 15 dollar cent per link. Because the amounts are so trifling, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site is also mockingly referred to as the “virtual sweatshop”. Still, many use the site to earn their whole month’s wages, while others earn themselves a bit of pocket money.

The term Mechanical Turk derives from a legendary chess computer from 1770, made by the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen at the request of empress Maria Theresia. Old etchings show a doll wearing a turban, the Turk, who is sat behind a box onto which a chessboard is fixed. Viewers believed that the space underneath the board was empty, and that the doll was controlling the chessboard.In actuality, inside the box, a chess player was hiding. Through an elaborate system, he was able to see the chess pieces and move them using the doll’s arms. The apparatus, at that time a mechanical wonder, travelled through the royal courts as an exotic attraction. In 1836, Edgar Allen Poe attempted to describe the workings of the Turk, in order to show that there must have been a player of flesh and blood within the device. His essay, Maelzel’s Chess Player, is still regarded as the first “whodunit”: who was deceiving the audience, and how?

A reversal has occurred in our time: while people were first creating machines mainly to facilitate life, now machines need people to properly perform tasks. Good examples of this reversal are captchas, a type of small puzzle that can only be completed by a human being. Everyone who uses the Internet comes across a captcha sooner or later: for example, in the form of distorted letters or numbers that need to be entered when you take an action on Facebook. The computer knows that a person must have entered the correct interpretation of this information, because a machine is incapable of interpreting the distortion. This principle is used to ensure that replies to e-mail or blogs are not generate by machines; all to avoid nonsense, advertising, and other sorts of spam.

Filling in captchas can also be implemented differently. At this moment, thousands of books are being scanned into sites like Google Book Search. Things often go wrong during the scanning process, and letters accidentally become distorted. A machine cannot see or correct this, but we can. Every time you fill in a captcha, you could be helping a little by making a scanned and distorted text legible.

Another form of intelligently utilizing joint labour is Google Image Labeller, an online game where people supply images with “tags” (key words.) A player sees an image, for example, a red car in the forest. Through a database, he’s paired with an anonymous opponent. If you and your opponent fill in the same tags, you can go on to the next image. Thanks to many people adding tags to images in this way, we’re able to easily find images online.

You’ll stumble across the strangest forms of labour on the Internet. For example, the Internet project Payday (only for Americans) where you can earn 1000 dollars by hitching people with a credit card. Because you won’t want to be bothering your friends with this, you’ll go on a forum and offer 50 dollars for anyone who applies for a new card. This will then cost you ten times 50 dollars – meaning you’ve earned 500 dollars for yourself. Payday receives 1650 dollars from the credit card company for eleven new credit card holders, advertising money that used to be reserved for the “old” media.

The American artist Aaron Koblin uses virtual labourers to make art. In 2006 he asked Mechanical Turks to make ten thousand hand drawn sheep. He offered 2 dollar cents per drawing, meaning the entire work cost him 200 dollars. He collected the sheep over a period of forty days; people completed the drawings on average in 105 seconds, which means that the wage comes down to about 0,69 dollar cents an hour. Koblin’s website shows a selection of these doodles that together form the work, The Sheep Market. Thousands of sheep stand against a white background, all of them facing to the left. Some sheep are accurately drawn, while others are drawn quite clumsily.

Koblin completed a similar artwork in collaboration with artist Takashi Kawashima, named Ten Thousand Cents. For this project, the artists divided a hundred dollar bill and asked the Mechanical Turks – who were unaware of what they were looking at – to draw a piece of the bill on a drawing application. The thousands of puzzle pieces can be seen online, pasted together into a new bill (on sale for $100). When you click on one of the pieces, you’ll see a film showing the example and how it’s been drawn. You can clearly see who’s done their best and who hasn’t: these pieces are inaccurate. Koblin’s most recent project with Mechanical Turks, Daisy Bell, has awarded him a prize for the media festival Transmediale in Berlin. The starting point for this artwork is the song Daisy Bell from 1892, which in the sixties was one of the first tracks to be recorded using synthetic voices. The song was also used in the final scene of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, in which HAL the computer sings.

Koblin gave each individual Internet labourer the task to listen to a note, after which they had to emulate it (6 dollar cents per tone.) He then combined the tones to form a piece of music. When you view Daisy Bell online, you’ll see a graphical representation: a bar slides over the staff and you’ll hear 2088 voices that together, without knowing it, join in song and form an overwhelming cacophony. But however beautiful the result may be, Koblin says his wants his work is mainly an instrument to critique the use of the MTurks. They are usually required to perform simple and repetitive tasks. Their work is done on a contractual basis and the employers pay no taxes, and so laws concerning minimum wage and overtime are circumvented. In the case of Koblin’s sheep, the artwork is Koblin’s property and not the drawers, who renounced their copyright for 2 dollar cents a drawing.

Inspired by Koblin, blogger Andy Baio wanted to find out who is behind the MTurks. He asked people to reveal their faces for fives cents. This fee was apparently too low—only two people reported themselves within 24 hours. After a bit of experimentation, it turned out that fifty-dollar cents was the minimum. The assignment was to make a photo portrait of yourself in front of the web cam holding a handwritten sign including the reason why you “turk”. “I turk for...” The result can be seen in a collage on his blog: thirty portraits of women and twenty men between 20 and 30 years old of diverse ethnicities. 21 turk for the money, 9 out of boredom or for fun.

In The Netherlands there are also artists who experiment with the Mechanical Turk. Artist John Puckey (29) and graphic designer Luna Maurer were asked to design Museum de Lakenhal’s annual report. They decided to ask the MTurks to translate the report into English, in spoken language. Most could not speak Dutch and recorded what they thought the text could possibly be about. On the website you can view the annual report and read the MTurks’ English interpretation. The experiment is funny and peculiar. An example of a sentence from the annual report: “This shift in thinking is not made by the grace of God,” interpreted by a voice with a South-American dialect: “The others in death, gave nothing to him by the grace of God.” Pucky has also worked on a video clip for C-Mon & Kypksi, a band from Utrecht, that makes use of Mechanical Turks. For the song More is Less, video artist Roel Wouters made a video in which fans can play along. The public is asked to imitate a pose that one of the band members takes in the video. One frame is selected from the video that you have to imitate to the best of your ability; upon which you take a picture of yourself and place it on the site. The website is very user-friendly. Thousands of people have taken the time to upload their image. The photos are, after a selection by MTurks, placed into the right sequence on the computer. Through this, a video is formed that shows a different person in each frame.Slowly, a video is growing where the musicians see themselves mirrored by their fans. In total there are 14000 available frames. The photos rotate, the video refreshes itself, and so everyone has their own “frame of fame,” which is also the name of the project. The hired Mechanical Turks are the ones who evaluate whether people have taken the right pose and if the image quality is good enough.

The influence of virtual labour is still young, but the development has already had unforeseen consequences. Who had ever thought that Mechanical Turks would be used to track missing persons? In 2007, friends of the American millionaire Steve Fosset came up with the idea to, through Google Earth, employ MTurks to assess satellite photos of Nevada. They hoped that someone would spot wreckage pieces of his disappeared airplane. When computer scientist Jim Gray and his sailboat went missing, MTurks were also employed. The workers were given around 25 cents to study a series of satellite photos. Aaron Koblin makes use of the “power of numbers” with art works like The Sheep Market or the music piece Daisy Bell. With the music video One-frame-of-fame, the outcome is less predictable. When the project started, they were unsure what would happen. Last Monday, the 25th, 10217 participated. For the makers, the popularity and creative interpretation came as a surprise. The potential for art lies within this unpredictability, whether made by MTurks, fans, or gamers.