by Dan Cohen
The Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design has digitized their collection of books created by artists. It is an exhibit of the infinite malleability of the creative technology we call the book:
(Jeannie Meejin Yoon, Hybrid Cartographies: Seoul's Consuming Spaces, 1998)
(Julie Chen, Radio Silence, 1995.)
(David Stairs, Boundless, 2013)
Many of those art books are unique. Cryptoart, on the other hand, is unique-ish.
Everyone is talking about the non-fungible token, or NFT, which registers digital works on the now ubiquitous blockchain, thus ostensibly converting easily reproduced bits into an authentic objet d'art. The talk centers around the complex technology, the creators' agency, the money to be minted and made, and the environmental impact of all that processing power.
Let us step back and ask a more fundamental question: Why are we so obsessed with authenticity and uniqueness in the first place?
The obvious historical explanation, of course, is that we live in an age of mass production (the modern era, generally) and perfect digital reproduction (more recent decades, specifically), which naturally raises the perceived value of objects that can plausibly claim to be unique. We are awash in a sea of copies, and so we naturally swim toward fixed islands — even if they may be a mirage.
But authenticity and uniqueness are often elusive and overrated. Decades of modern and contemporary art have toyed with, and criticized, the very concepts. That was the point behind my cheeky blog post five years ago that "reviewed" a single-copy album by the Wu-Tang Clan, and related it to similar efforts at establishing cultural scarcity and rarity, like the science fiction writer William Gibson putting one of his stories on a limited number of floppy disks, which would self-destruct upon reading.
Gibson's text was, unsurprisingly, quickly exfiltrated — from its limited format to the unlimited copying of the internet. That was to our benefit, and also, ultimately, to his. He got the cash, the cachet, and the broadest possible audience — a nice trifecta.
Far too often, however, the quest for authenticity becomes an unappealing, narcissistic conceit, one that actually undermines the value of, or distracts from, the artifact itself, regardless of the number of copies. Uniqueness and authenticity, whatever we mean by those ideals, cannot be directly forged or bluntly declared, like an entry in a cryptographic ledger. They are auras that manifest themselves slowly over time, as a piece of music or writing or art circulates in a network of human appraisal, and as attention and neglect winnow the universe of extant works.
Even then, the lucky survivors are ethereal and impermanent. Remember the wise words of the abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly:
I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living. This is an illusion, of course.
A follow-up to HI34: Paolo Ciuccarelli alerted me to a site he co-curates with Sara Lenzi, Yuan Hua, and Houjiang Liu. The Data Sonification Archive has a number of good examples of the type I explored in the last issue of the newsletter.
For instance, you can walk through parks in five large cities before and during Covid, and listen and see the difference.
For a recent episode of the What's New podcast, I interviewed my colleagues Julia Flanders and Sarah Connell about the Women Writers Project. Predating the invention of the Web, the WWP has been surfacing and disseminating texts written by women in the early modern period. The project has been an important corrective, since most college surveys of fiction and nonfiction somehow only arrive at women writers around 1800 (Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen). WWP conclusively shows how widespread, diverse, and popular women writers were before 1800, in drama, poetry, religious literature, science, and other genres.
If the WWP had stopped there, that would have been of immense import, but the project also went on to pioneer the encoding of these primary texts using TEI — a markup language that highlights distinct elements of each work, like stage directions and citations. This, in turn, has enabled students and researchers to not only search the full texts of the books, but to analyze them in completely new ways.
Tune in to hear more about the WWP, which is approaching its 35th anniversary.
The long history of podcasts and streaming media perhaps begins here, with early, now forgotten uses of the telephone network:
The Telephon Hirmondó (literally, Telephone Herald) provided daily scheduled transmissions of stock prices, news, sports, and cultural programming to the Budapest elite. The system had over 1,000 subscribers by the end of 1893 and over 6,000 by the end of 1896…
The American trade press followed the Telephone Hirmondó with great interest, and a brief attempt to replicate the Hirmondó’s success surfaced in 1911 as the New Jersey Telephone Herald Company. The Telephone Herald failed, not because of lack of interest, but because of too much interest from subscribers. Investors were scared off because of legal problems that the company had been having, and the company was unable to install new equipment to keep up with customer demand—although it managed to get over twenty-five hundred contracts, it had only a a thousand operating installations. When the Telephone Herald could no longer pay its musicians and (a month later) its office staff, they quit, essentially terminating the service.
Remarkable that even a century ago the tech companies were stiffing the musicians first.
(Quotation from Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press, 2003. A recommended book. Photos from Technical World Magazine, v.16, 1911-12.)