The joys of UBUWEB when you’re up a mountain can’t be over-estimated. Last night, unable to sleep, I watched a video by Alex Bag, Untitled Fall ’95 (1995), a sly, funny take on the stereotypes surrounding artists and consumer culture where she “plays” herself going through art school. The video includes surreal interludes involving Hello Kitty and Ronald McDonald puppets and other consumer culture detritus which (as UBU puts it) “teeter on the divide between parody and complicity” and points to the difficulty of critique in a totally co-opted landscape.

This surreal aspect made me think about the ‘dry’ nature of some of my projects, deriving from a kind of canonical conceptualism, the bland literalness of what Benjamin Buchloh called an “aesthetic of indifference” of “random sampling and aleatory choice from an infinity of possible objects”. While being drawn to the task-like, boring and deadpan, I’m occasionally repelled by the lack of visual pleasure or surprise that results from this aesthetic. It would be interesting to see whether these can overlap as strategies- task-like literalness crossed with surreal associations.

Talking of associations, I’m still thinking about keywords as a route to new image-text relations; to find ways of using language that interrogates it, without simply reproducing, quoting, or collaging it. Sam Thorne, at a talk at this year’s Frieze Art Fair identified a kind of “intensified collage” (thoroughly explored 30 years ago by artists like Dara Birnbaum), as the dominant methodology, used by advertisers and teenagers on YouTube alike. Besides the cooption of once-radical strategies, his talk made me wonder what other methodologies artists can use to make sense of a socially constructed and mediated self. While the idea of trying to say something ‘new’ is as obsolete as the idea of an avant-garde, I still ask myself: could this have been made 10 years ago? Not from a technical point of view, but from the perspective of how technological and social shifts affect subjectivity and the functioning of language.

Cherry Smyth touched upon this desire for new approaches in her article about “Dead Fingers Talk” at IMT Gallery, an exhibition that had artists responding to Burroughs’s unpublished tape experiments. She observed that despite the embrace of intertexuality evident, the techniques used have been around since the early 70s, and its true that videos such as Jorg Priniger’s Sorted Speech, 2010, which recuts then reorders Obama speeches, utilise a very-well established method. Indeed patterns of collection and ordering of archives are a staple feature of found footage videos, from Matthias Müller’s Home Stories (1990), in which women from disparate Hollywood melodramas go through the same series of actions, to Volker Shreiner’s Counter, which counts down clips from Hollywood films showing numbers. Not to mention The Clock, Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation, which orders found footage showing clock times and synchronises it with the viewer’s lived time. Impressive effort aside, the logic is the same- and, as numerical and alphabetical ordering are hardly new, it could have been made 20 years ago.

The review closes with a reminder of Burroughs instruction: “Smash the control images. Smash the control machine”. But how? I’m interested in ways of working that organise things in ways that allow you to glimpse a different order, or else opens up new ways of communicating.

Which is where my interest in text-image relations in the space of the internet comes in. Using the titles, subtitles and tags that others have inserted means harnessing the power of crowd-sourcing: the ‘associations of amateurs’, as Jeff Howe in Wired magazine put it, who create the internet . Sarah Browne, in her article ‘Crowd Theory Lite’ observes that corporations like Amazon and EBay have embraced crowd-sourcing for content creation, feedback, and even R & D. These volunteer labourers each contribute to the overall functioning of the site; likewise the multitude of images that appear for any search reflect the effort of thousands of users, uploading, naming and tagging their images. Using this layer of language is attempting to tap into that pool of man-hours, to discover the modes of naming and speech native to the internet, and to work with the text-image relation inherent to the web’s logic of keywords.


Last night I was up late attempting to redesign my website, one of those bottomless pit activities that gobbles up the hours without feeling you’ve really done anything. What makes it interesting and worth doing though, is trying to imagine how (and if!) casual visitors to your site will make sense of your work in the way you’ve organised it- its easy to forget they mostly have no clue who you are and where your work has come from or is going. A coherent framework and easy navigation hopefully clears up some of that murkiness.

Anyway I’ve been reading more into the topic I posted on last time, and have re-visited some of the ideas I’ve had milling around, namely, language, communication and power. I continued researching into keywords, and their use in writing ‘sticky’ web content- that which is easily find-able by search engines and therefore delivers the web surfer-customer to your site. I discovered that content is written with specific keywords frequencies in mind, plus that there is an art of writing to accommodate ‘awkward key phrases’ while reducing ‘white noise words’ (the, and, as etc) and ‘filler phrases’ which distract the crawler bot. Language is optimised for maximum findability; again this connection between language, visibility and networked economy.

Speaking of white noise words, and of the reduction of language to key phrases brought to mind an article (http://www.newstatesman.com/ideas/2009/06/orwell-language-newspeak) by Nina Power, in which she discusses the spread of “Nu-Language,” so-called due to its inverse relation to the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984. Well-known words like doublethink, thoughtcrime and unperson have a ‘flatness’ or lack of affect, which belie the punishments and consequences associated with their use. Newspeak is a language spliced and truncated for political ends; the less words there are in use, the less opportunity for thought, especially resistant thought. “Each reduction is a gain,” the appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four puts it, “since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.” Power continues: “It is, therefore, above all in the language of Nineteen Eighty-Four that Orwell’s deepest fears about the fate of human freedom are expressed”.

This linguistic reduction is eerily prophetic of today’s spliced, conjoined web words (defriend, YouTube) but also the ‘reduction as gain’ formula echoes the profit maximisation through language optimization method of content-creation.

She goes on to describe the contemporary equivalent, which expands rather than attenuates language, filling it with a kind of ‘white noise’ of jargon, a junk syntax used across bureaucracy, managerial literature, academia, pubic services and the art world, where verbs, nouns and adjectives are interchangeable. It operates like a ‘linguistic fog’, obfuscating meaning with an ‘oppressive vagueness’, making resistance difficult since the listener has no clear sense of what is being promoted or advocated- which is precisely its aim.

Different means of acheiving the same ends: the slippage between what is being said and what is being done. Mark Fisher’s latest post talks about exactly this in relation to the current narrative being propagated by the UK government. As he puts it, the current linguistic doublethink is ‘we’re all in this together’, conveniently taking off from where ‘there is no alternative’ left off. He explains it far more coherently so I’d advise reading the post if you’re interested. (http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org)

As for my work, this led me to experimenting with methods of attenuating language or reducing existing texts to create new ones. Textalsyer, for example allows you to analyse the frequency of words and phrases in your text (especially handy for working out if you’ve hit the target percentage of key phrase frequency when writing web copy). I tried it out on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind: ‘consciousness’ was the most common word and it scored fairly low on the readability index- no surprise there then. I’m interested in working with digested, digested reads- the pics I’ve attached are of 3 works of philosophy, auto-summarised into one sentence and rendered in sticky letters: pop philosophy at its ‘stickiest’.


Week 2 at Can Serrat, and I’m sitting alone in the studio, huddled close to the radiator, although the view outside is of partly cloudy, partly sunny skies. The sound of the trees rustling and the heaters making occasions clicks is the only noise. I’m mainly sat at my table, reading things and attempting to write things, but keep finding myself starting one text and then abandoning it halfway through and picking up where I left off on another. Either that or wandering off into the woods.

One thing I wanted to mull over a little is a topic I’ve been thinking about alot- the rise of a new breed of images, which are necessarily encoded within language: the images and videos of the internet. These images, in order to be searchable, and therefore to be findable, within the digital drift of the internet, have to have textual elements embedded within them- the first layer being titles and subtitles, the second being metadata, i.e., tags and keywords, allowing them to be read as relative to other images of similar content. I first became aware of this when collecting the titles off stock videos sites; they have whole sections on the art of titling and key-wording which point out that if a customer can’t find your video after inserting their keywords, its game over- the video is worthless and might as well not exist.

In the wider arena of the internet, a similar process occurs, since without this textual information, the visual material is lost in space, adrift with nothing to anchor it to the warmth of human interaction, without a specific address to connect it to. The unfathomable depths of the Internet are probably littered with these images, along with those that were once uploaded somewhere and then lost after your Flickr/ Facebook/ whatever account closed; images of relatively little use or value.

Hito Stereyl, in her essay ‘Poor Images’ talks about the hierarchy of resolution, which casts lo-res images “a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution”. She goes on to discuss the disappearance of “resistant or non-conformist visual matter” from the surface of culture and into an underground of personal archives, in which barter and exchange in and off-line allows the circulation of works otherwise prohibitively expensive for cinema screening and unsuited to TV broadcast. These works have now resurfaced as poor images- copied, compressed, ripped- due as she puts it, to the neo-liberal re-structuring of media production and digital technology, a process which designated certain material ‘low-value’. This is especially relevant now as the UK turns ever more towards a neo-liberal model whereby the arts and humanities are devalued relative to ‘important’ (read money-making) activities such as science, technology and business- what else is going to disappear into the ether?

Although this is a different order of disappearance than the one I started talking about, it also touches on the way images move through the internet and the conditions that affect their smooth movement. The economics of this movement then comes to the fore, and this is something I’ve been thinking about recently- inspired by a passage in Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism.

He quotes Deleuze saying that capitalism is profoundly illiterate, in a passage on the ‘depressive hedonia’ of teenagers in education; “they process capital’s image-dense data very effectively without any need to read- slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane.”

Smooth traversal of this informational plane is, however, dependant on the textual elements that structure, name and organise this image-dense data. Its integral to the linking of one video/ image to the next which constitutes the movement known as surfing.

One of the most interesting aspects about uploading videos into YouTube is seeing what are deemed to be ‘related videos’; related of course by user-defined tags and definitions of content proclaimed through the video. The weary internet traveler is all too familiar with the state of digital drift into the maze of similar images and related videos which this textuality facilitates: the ‘how did I get here?” feeling after an hour of aimless clicking. You never really get where you were trying to go.


I’ve decided to start my blog again, mainly as I’m now doing another residency, but also because I’d been meaning to carry on with it regardless. I’ve got a bit more time on my hands as work has been slowing down already- and the cuts have only just begun…

Just to get the details of the residency out of the way, I’m near Barcelona, in the foothills of Monserrat mountain which takes its name from the ‘serrated’ look of the mountain top. The residency itself in is a rambling farmhouse called Can Serrat. The whole thing reminds me of Greece- the pine forest, the dirt tracks, the air, the powdery light.

Yesterday I went up to the monastery, which had fantastic views across the plains to the Pyrenees and up the bizarre rock formations lining the mountain top. There was the usual ornate décor associated with Catholic churches, plus about hundred variations on Christ on the cross and the virgin Mary- this place is famous for the black Madonna (emphatically NOT an African Madonna, according to the locals). Highlight of the day was the bells going off during Mass.

All these expressions of unwavering faith made me think of the book I have been reading- Ground Control, by Anna Minton. Amongst many other interesting topics she covers- including the erosion of local democracy through the encroachment of ‘private estates’ into public spaces and the manipulations of the property market in favour of developers, often to the detriment of existing communities- she talks about an area I’m really interested in: the intersection of political economy and emotional states. She suggests that the lack of an emotional sense of stability, security and ease in the world leads to an urge to find ways to protect oneself from the ‘dangerous’ outside world, hence private gated communities and endless CCTVs; but also the paradoxical finding that as security increases, so does the fear of danger, and therefore, in this scenario, the ‘strangers’ who make up the public.

This obviously is exacerbated by the media, which feeds the paranoia compelling most people (something like 80% of the UK population) to be convinced that crime is rising, compared to the official statistics, which (though not infallible) point to the opposite. This is an example of Zizek’s big Other in action- things aren’t actually as ‘bad’ as they are perceived to be but we act ‘as if’ crime really were rising; the official discourse is not believed, precisely because it doesn’t match up with the perception of the situation- i.e. “Well the government SAYS crime is going down, but EVERYONE KNOWS its not, really”.

The government has contested this attitude pretty weakly; is there something to be gained economically from a vague fear towards strangers, public space and society?

It makes sense that as society fulfills more and more of its needs, it becomes harder to sell stuff, so new deficiencies need to be played upon, new desires need to be aroused. What better than something nebulous, like a ‘sense of security’? This opens up a whole new economy, not just for private estates and gated communities (much more ‘secure’) but also for the technological infrastructure of surveillance and monitoring. This digression is just to make the connection between the emotional need for security, in Buddhism the seeking of ‘ground’ and one of the main roots of suffering, and its conversion into a desire for security at a practical level.

Which is why I was thinking about this at the monastery. Once, we put our faith in God, to give a sense of ground, to feel that we are not (only) insignificant fragments destined to rot sooner or later. Now, what can we put our faith in, to give a sense of safety? This is the emotional need that is being played on- and being inflated rather than sated. This could sound like I’m advocating a return to religion to solve our problems, which I’m not. I’m just interested in the way that mental health and ill-health are reconstituted as economic opportunities- directly fuelling certain markets (pharmaceuticals etc) and also more subtly expanding others- those of private property development and surveillance.