“When we post our own material online,” Rob Horning writes in DIS Magazine, “we are always in danger of turning ourselves into content.”1 The online self is a “content farm” producing a material that Horning calls “pure form” for its inherent emptiness, which the internet public refines like crude oil into a multiplicity of interpretations about the self. In this formulation, our content is a cipher for our own mutability.
It must be nice to feel that one’s nocturnal emissions offer so much raw substance for a waiting audience to process and spit back out in one’s own image. There is a nihilistic romance in handing over the self just to see what comes back. But formlessness is a fantasy for rule makers, and recent events remind us that the makings of “pure form” occur at another’s expense.
By now it’s a commonplace that the socially networked self “is subject to complex algorithms generated from vast online databanks that echo back a carefully curated version of the world.”2 If there is a self, it is no generic subject; it must be subject to the internet, which reflects the desire for an authentic self. The internet looks familiar because it is compelling content: the material that makes us knowable to the machine.
As Lee Mackinnon writes about the internet architectures of HTML, HTTP, and TCP/IP that transmit and visualize data, “the unseen layer of protocol is integral to contemporary existence, interaction, and our material condition. Such a system of control is not restricted to digital objects, but affects every level of the social system, coding and articulating bodies in their passage through social spaces.”3
Content is contingent on these prior mechanisms: every meaningless scrap of text must be visibly rendered as such, “arranged in a kind of containment hierarchy.”4 The hierarchy disappears as the content is parsed and appears to float on the screen.
Web content blocks visibly parcel out and further abstract online acts of cultural and self production. A piece of content marks a unit of work. Continuous work thus appears in pieces, the free flow of information cut into discrete posts made in submission.
This article was prefigured in early 2017 by stylistic decisions set in the Imbalance 2 template for the WordPress blogging platform that supports Art Journal Open. The Imbalance series advertises a “user-friendly layout [that] can attract new visitors” with a focal point being “less noise.”5 Once published, the article is functionally continuous with the template that provides the ground for its visibility.
My content is pushed tastefully off-center, which causes the left eye to disproportionately register white space while the right eye processes the bulk of the text. The content is held in the HTML container for the body, <div class=”entry-content”>, which causes text and images to comply with a uniform width. The visible containment of the article affirms the utility of the container.
The white space that surrounds the body is understood as neutral, although it is an onscreen projection of a highly ordered system in which the HTML hex code #FFFFFF spells the color white. White space is not however read as white but as the default backdrop.
Taken for itself, the whiteness of the backdrop would be too blinding to swallow, so it becomes an invitation to fill the space with a post. White space signals that those of us on the outside are more than free to add to the conversation, whatever that is; we are actually obliged to, since without our input the article body would amount to nothing. As the recent film Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017) has shown, this understanding should be reversed. Whiteness, the assumption of image-making autonomy, is projected into a body that is utilized as its support. To clear space for that idea, content is necessarily alienated from itself.
For instance, calls for artistic proposals commonly appear with no prior notice on the internet, to which an artist is typically welcome to respond with a work statement and portfolio in hopes of earning a grant or entering a residency. I resort to having files organized in the cloud, ready to drag-and-drop into online submission forms. These together compose an input/output system:
I call this a system on the basis of its networked underpinnings, but the system otherwise has no consistent behavior. One submission meticulously underwent several status changes before arriving at rejection, while another was quietly made “completed” more than a year after I submitted it, to no discernible effect.
Still less apparent is what was transacted between artist and audience: I know that the entity on the other side of the screen knows that I know that they know what I submitted, but I do not know that I know what I submitted. This confusion has settled into the protocols that render data packets visible, such as the Submittable algorithms that collate my digital scrap into a PDF dossier; and exhaustion has become a precursor to outright acquiescence. We all know that something strange is working behind the curtain, but we take whatever we can get.
If you are submitting a video, you take comfort in the fact that most submission forms will accept a web link. This is to acknowledge that the work is already elsewhere, disassembled onto a proprietary streaming site such as Vimeo or YouTube that feeds the work back to you in an optimized format, which means the internet has digitally tucked and fitted your video file for broadcast. The link is acceptable because it is convenient to both artist and audience, neither of whom will think of a better idea, and the convenience is disappointing for this reason.
Emphasis has meanwhile shifted from the portfolio (the object being given) to the submission (the act of giving over). As platforms from Submittable to Snapchat streamline personal publishing into drag-and-drop gestures, the work being submitted becomes not the work, but a signpost redirecting us to a semblance of the work, subject to Terms and Conditions. Further processing, akin to the movement of a cow’s stomach, occurs via marketing services like MailChimp, on which users invent digests of their own activity. In this case, an absence is staring us in the face. Where is the work?
The screen is a pair of open brackets set around [work], a placeholder for content and a prompt to work. Content is by design rendered as a tangible substance: not words on a virtual page but a body held in a space. That our work is so elusive yet so easily contained places a great onus on us to describe the situation while defending the space it presently occupies.
Mark Fisher held the 1974 film The Parallax View (dir. Alan J. Pakula) as a visual indicator of the deep power structures he described in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. At the film’s climax, the invisible political machinations that have suffused the cinema screen with a sense of assured dread finally materialize as a figure outlined against “migraine-white space.” 6 The migraine is the condition in which the mind blanks at the impossibility of looking the machine in the eye.
“This anonymous figure with a rifle in a doorway is the closest we get to seeing the conspiracy (as) itself,” Fisher writes. “The conspiracy in The Parallax View never gives any account of itself. It is never focalised through a single malign individual.”7
The black blob is no individual, but a stand-in for bad hombres at large. The true nature of the controlling party remains unidentifiable, with the viewer’s attention deflected onto an easy target. The conspiracy of The Parallax View is in this frame: an actor is served up as eye bait while the film reveals the antagonist to be nothing but its own shadow. The act of representation is the final cover-up.
We can say that this white light is also an actor. In the present context, graphic designers utilize white space—the unmarked interstices between text and margins, images and captions, and even individual letters—as an active element to “design and manipulate the space outside, inside, and around your content.”8 White space ensures that one’s attention is comfortably and correctly directed toward the content given the highest importance, generating the desire to read and desire for a brand.
Reading between the lines, white space results from and reproduces the worldview that dissociates content into containers to make it traversable. As in the white cube of the contemporary gallery, white space radically isolates figure from ground, permeates the resulting gaps, and in so doing conceals a politics of stratification. The whiteness of white space is not expressed in the specification #FFFFFF but in the act of drawing a blank when one tries to picture an alternative. Nor is white space bound to the color white. Its logic persists in night modes that swap white and black to enhance readability, and in color-shifting displays that prolong screen time by easing the transition from device to sleep: calming mechanisms that maintain the dream.
The inhumanity of whiteness is coterminous with its presentation, whose sole output is blindness. In her Artforum review of the 9th Berlin Biennale (June 6–September 18, 2016), Hannah Black described the contemporary situation as “a world dominated visually, ethically, and ontologically by capital, in which long-standing forms of struggle—the protest, the union, the political party, even critique—seem like nostalgic curiosities or reenactments, ultimately doomed to fail.”
“If race, which has long been a structural condition of capitalism, appears so prominently now in the discourse of Europe and its settler colonies rather than just in their acts, it is perhaps because capitalism is so depressed. One key symptom of this malaise is that the only thing the capitalist class has to offer workers is a shared dream of whiteness. Yet this whiteness, because so deeply linked to capitalism, is itself in crisis.”9
Whiteness appears ever more insubstantial the more it materializes, the contradiction embedded in its position of indifference as the arbiter of difference being laid bare. The same maddening contradiction is operative in capitalism and on the internet. In their account of starting an online publication, the editors of Triple Canopy cite the theorist Alexander R. Galloway on the “strategy of universalization” of internet protocol: “It must be anti-diversity. It must promote standardization in order to enable openness.”10 Furthermore, as the novelist Minae Mizumura has shown in The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a universal language also creates a hierarchy at the moment it is established. Universalization is a gesture that inserts a distinction between those who become universal and those who remain without access to that quality.
The decision to adopt the universal language of the internet is thus asymmetric and rests on submitting to its logic. At that point it becomes a matter of locating the frame. Does it contain the article or the container of the article? Does it include the act of submitting the article? Does it also address its use of English, what Mizumura terms the “metalanguage”11 of the internet?
We might take refuge in content, which is compressed and converted precisely because it takes up space. Content opens an unaccountable void in white space: the material difference between raw and optimized data marks a failure of the internet to accept the given terms of the content. The machine that works to project a universal image can only frame this material incorrectly.
To submit means to uphold a fiction that is believable as long as it is incoherent. Like a body, content evinces corporeality at the moment it is processed. The lie, afterward, is in plain view.
Ryan Kuo is an artist and writer based in Cambridge, MA. He received a Master of Science in Art, Culture and Technology from MIT in 2014. His work in digital media utilizes techniques gleaned from video games, web design, motion graphics, scriptwriting, and sample-based rave music. Among his current projects, Ryan is maintaining File, a hypertext process work collected by Left Gallery (Berlin) and inspired by agile process management; and building an artist’s book about aspirational workflows, File: A User’s Manual, modeled after software guides for power users. His works and writing have recently shown at Spike Art Quarterly (Berlin), Goldsmiths (London), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA), Boston Cyberarts (Boston), MIT Media Lab (Cambridge, MA), Front/Space (Kansas City), and Minibar (Stockholm). He will be an NEA Art Works resident artist at Residency Unlimited (New York) in summer 2017.
- Rob Horning, “Fear of Content,” DIS Magazine, at http://dismagazine.com/disillusioned/78747/fear-of-content-rob-horning-2/, as of April 27, 2017. In “About DIS,” DIS is described as “a New York-based collective composed of Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro. Its cultural interventions are manifest across a range of media and platforms, from site-specific museum and gallery exhibitions to ongoing online projects. Most notably these include, DIS Magazine, co-founded with Nick Scholl, Patrik Sandberg and S. Adrian Massey III in 2010 as a virtual platform that examines art, fashion, music and culture, constructing and supporting new creative practices.” See “About DIS” at http://dismagazine.com/about/, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Pierre Shaw, “Architecture conversations: Pierre Shaw responds to Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, ‘Engineering Self’; Eternally New,” e-flux Conversations, at http://conversations.e-flux.com/t/architecture-conversations-pierre-shaw-responds-to-franco-bifo-berardi-engineering-self/6000, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Lee Mackinnon, “Love Machines and the Tinder Bot Bildungsroman,” e-flux Journal, no. 74, June 2016, at http://www.e-flux.com/journal/74/59802/love-machines-and-the-tinder-bot-bildungsroman/, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- “Style Master CSS Tutorial: A Short Introduction to Style Sheets,” at http://www.westciv.com/style_master/hands_on_tutorial_sm/02.css_intro.html, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Imbalance Theme description, at http://wpshower.com/themes/imbalance/, as of April 27, 2017 ↩
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2010), 67. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Mark Boulton, “Whitespace,” A List Apart, at http://alistapart.com/article/whitespace, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Hannah Black, “The 9th Berlin Biennale,” Artforum, September 2016, at http://www.artforum.com/inprint/issue=201607&id=63010, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 142, as quoted in Triple Canopy, “The Binder and the Server,” Art Journal, Winter 2011, vol. 70, no. 4, at http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=2644, as of April 27, 2017. ↩
- Minae Mizumura, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, trans. Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015) ↩