FLEFF 2014 | Viral Dissonance
By Dale Hudson, curator
Everyday terms redefine themselves in relation to digital technologies and distributed networks. Juxtapositions of terms can open to counterpositions of ideas. Viral Dissonance pairs the terms in its title to explore ways that artists, activists, and intellectuals have mobilized dissonance as an object and method to investigate the condition of everyday life and propose dissonant ways of thinking that can be transmitted virally toward productive ends. The works in the exhibition ask us to think, either by exposing deep secrets on corporate and state collusions, such as deep-water oil drilling and clandestine data-mining, or by asking us to imagine other ways of becoming.
In everyday usage, “going viral” is largely equated with viral videos. It is associated with internet memes: ideas replicate themselves and spread, jumping between social networks. Viruses themselves often frighten for their unpredictable movements. Epidemics viruses like SARS, H1N1, and MERS emerge at the intersections between human and nonhuman, casting chickens, pigs, camels, and bats as “natural” transmitters. They also emerge at the intersections of science and superstition. Computer viruses spread through self-replicating malware programs, disabling proper functionality—or even shutting it down through “worms” like Code Red, Nimda, and ILOVEYOU or stealing data via “bugs” like the recent Heartbleed one. Viruses travel quickly against dominant flows and often defy attempts at isolation and containment, making them ideal carriers for dissonant ideas.
During the past few years, grassroots forms of dissonance have erupted from Egypt and Syria to Spain, Greece, the United States, and Brazil. People have gathered in the streets and in squares to demand to be heard and to be seen. They refuse to be silenced or erased. News media have occasionally offered them time and space to make their voices heard and faces visible. People have also mobilized digital technologies like SMS and social networking, working around and within the control of states and corporations.
The Zapatistas built websites as activism against the dispossession of indigenous nations by neoliberal corporations with state collusion during the early days of the World Wide Web. Following their lead, movements like Occupy and Los Indignados have garnered middle-class momentum by using social media alongside word of mouth. Even the BDS movement has gained unprecedented support in the United States, partly driven by blogs, posts, and tweets. Groups like Anonymous mobilize hacktivism across divisions imposed upon us by states, such as nationality papers and passports, and corporations, such as software licenses and even DVD regional codes. Social media can help dissonant ideas become viral, but it also makes dissonance easier to police. People have spoken against data mining of citizens, police corruption, and against the financialization and militarization of everyday life for millions, and they have also spoken against corporate cooption of dissonance as Twitter or Facebook revolutions.
Dissonance emerges as clash, tension, disharmony, and disequilibrium to make visible and audible an ever-expanding multiplicity of clashes, tensions, disharmonies, and disequilibriums have become so integral to everyday life that they can easily pass unmarked and seem unremarkable. Dissonance thrives on contradictions, moving restlessly towards irresolution. It intervenes through imbalance. Neither noise, nor cacophony, dissonance pairs together the incompatible with results that surprise, offend, invite, disturb, and excite, spurring action and creativity. Dissonance sparks and ignites.
The work in Viral Dissonance uses online platforms to engage us as more than viewers of videos or GIFs, users of websites, or players of video games by asking us to share with others through social networks and word of mouth. They ask to move virally and perhaps reclaim interactivity as unpredictable and potentially transformative, even as corporations hijack the term “interactivity” to signify a limited freedom of choice within a predetermined set of possible reactions initiated through human-machine interface. As viewers, users, and players, we have grown accustom to thinking in terms of a narrow set of possibilities. Sounds and images appear according to our keystrokes, clicks of the mouse, movements across a track pad, gestures with a controller, or blinks of the eye, but we cannot affect change, particularly change that will affect the experience of others. This kind of reaction-as-interaction remains largely one way, not really altering a somewhat passive experience. Viral Dissonance invites us to imagine and contemplate other ways of interacting—ways of becoming politicized and self-activated.
Selected for the jury prize, Brannon Dorsey’s Zetamaze moves away from digitally mediated reactions and closer towards digitally mediated interactions by allowing players to alter the structure of a maze and to express themselves by adding graffiti to the walls of the maze or dropping files into folders within the maze’s corridors. The work’s dissonance comes from its power to imagine forms of anonymous communication. “Zetamaze is the glimpse of a stray ray of sunlight from an impending sunrise, where creation, subjectivation and consumption are open fields of exploration and intervention for all,” explain Eduardo Cachucho and Babak Fakhamzadeh; “With the ‘free’ space of the internet, the emergence of 3D printing and an ever increasing look into creating more representative forms of government, it is clear that the possibility of viral dissonance is in the insertion of different modes of thinking into mainstream channels. Zetamaze offers such an avenue, though not without its own obstacles to scale. How free is the space of exploration? How can a minority use the open form of the site to dominate its content? These kinds of questions are also alive and active in contemporary politics, and as such we find Zetamaze as an intriguing sandbox for the near future.” Participants can paint political slogans — “We Are All Khaled Said” — on the maze’s walls in the manner of the graffiti in Tahrir and Taksim squares. Unlike commercial maze games, meandering aimlessly often becomes more meaningful than strategic play to “solve” the maze. Not thinking and acting in relation to preset goals becomes a form of dissonance.
Dissonance also emerges in auto-generative work, such as Robert Spahr’s Crufts, which harvests images and texts from the internet and recombines them to unexpected ends. Spahr’s work draws information from governmental websites and databases to initiate acts of rejecting predetermined meaning and exposing the invisible structures of digital media, such as the significance of metadata, and digitally mediated everyday life, such as the countless images of ourselves captured by closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance cameras. The jury selected Spahr’s work for special mention: “Spahr’s work centers around what he calls ‘crufts’. Using automated content scrapers and combining different but related sources into creating, what is essentially, ‘glitch art’. His more interesting creations, like Data Loss Cruft (Corruption), corrupt regular media with data which highlights the darker underbelly of the institutions they represent, questioning the sincerity of the original image, making the underlying corruption available for all to see.” Data corruption is visualized in jpegs to suggest the fragility of our own digital selves and identities.
Like Spahr’s Crufts, Ben Grosser’s ScareMail takes on the ubiquity of surveillance, particularly in the post-9/11 United States where citizen rights to privacy have come under threat exponentially by state concerns over security. The browser extension to Google’s Gmail adds an automatically generated narrative replete with possible National Security Agency (NSA) search terms to the end of each email, so that innocuous messages seem potentially suspicious. Mez Breeze and Andy Campbell’s #PRISOM also examines online realities since Edward Snowden’s exposure of classified documents as evidence of the participation of companies like AOL, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Paltalk, Skype, Yahoo!, and YouTube, as well as wearable technologies, in the NSA’s PRISM data-mining program. Both ScareMail and #PRISOM ask us to question the normalization of domestic surveillance as a part of everyday life in the context of a country whose international clout has been historically anchored to its democratic principles.
Offshore by Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Design Labs is an interactive documentary that dives into murky questions that often go unasked about offshore oil drilling. Rather than presenting a simplified linear narrative, the documentary reveals complexities to open questions. Users become more like participants by working their way through the documentary’s architecture to access its content, prompting reflection upon our investment in actually knowing more than corporate talking points and legal settlements. How far will you go? Comparably, Markus Keim and Beate Hecher’s videos In Absentia and All Inclusive explore use performance and documentation as a means to consider ways that revolutions and civil wars affect everyday life, whether tourism to Egypt or collaboration between European and Syrian artists. Their power comes from locations of dislocation and presence of absences. In a moment of Vine and GIFs, the videos ask us to look and listen for longer than six seconds.
Hye Young Kim and Tohm Judson’s Bomberman 2014 reworks a popular computer game from the 1980s by updating the implications of its game play for the 2010s. In a moment when suicide bombing occur not only in places like London, Madrid, Paris, and Tel Aviv, where bombs are sometimes commonplace, but also in places like Boston and New York, where they still seem exceptional, Bomberman 2014 asks players to consider whether “winning” wars of terror are necessarily victories. Finally, Miyö Van Stenis’s Totally Not A Virus, Trust Me... I’m A Dolphin (or I’m A Dolphin) is a whimsical look at moments of paranoia over computer viruses in an era of ever-tempting clickbait. The work asks us to think about nonhuman life in the wake of recognition of the right to rights of life and liberty for cetaceans, such as bottlenose dolphins, orcas, et al., in places like India.
Viral Dissonance was curated by Dale Hudson of New York University Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates/United States) with Claudia Costa Pederson of Ithaca College and Wichita State University (United States) and was juried by Eduardo Cachucho (Belgium/South Africa) and Babak Fakhamzadeh (Uganda/Netherlands).