But the Internet, with its swift proliferation of memes, is producing more extreme forms of modernism than modernism ever dreamed of.
These are the ideas of the Canadian media scholar Darren Wershler, who has been making some unexpected connections between meme culture and contemporary poetry. “These artifacts,” Wershler claims, “aren’t conceived of as poems; they aren’t produced by people who identify as poets; they circulate promiscuously, sometimes under anonymous conditions; and they aren’t encountered by interpretive communities that identify them as literary.” Examples include a Nigerian e-mail scammer who writes out the entire “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in longhand, a data engineer who renders the entire text of Moby Dick into emojicons, and a library scientist who converts “Ulysses” into Q.R. bar codes.
Wershler calls these activities “conceptualism in the wild,” referring to the aspect of nineteen-sixties conceptual art that concerned reframing, and thereby redefining, the idea of artistic genius (think of Duchamp’s urinal). Conceptual projects of the period were generated by a kind of pre-Internet O.C.D., such as Sol LeWitt’s exhaustive photographic documentation of every object, nook, and cranny in his Manhattan loft, or Tehching Hsieh’s yearlong practice of taking a photo of himself every hour, on the hour. Today’s conceptualists in the wild make those guys look tame. It’s not uncommon to see blogs that recount someone’s every sneeze since 2007, or of a man who shoots exactly one second of video every day and strings the clips together in time-lapsed mashups. There is guy who secretly taped all of his conversations for three years and a woman who documents every morsel of food that she puts into her mouth. While some of these people aren’t consciously framing their activities as works of art, Wershler argues that what they’re doing is so close to the practices of sixties conceptualism that the connection between the two can’t be ignored.
More from the New Yorker here. The article notes that much of this new conceptual poetry is published on LuLu. In 2007, just after we came out with the name Hulu, we were sued by LuLu because, well, I guess our company names rhymed. That lawsuit certainly seemed like some form of modernist joke.
Certainly the internet and the rise of computing has lowered the bar to creating conceptual art of staggering size. The economics of many types of conceptual art has changed, and that has shifted its appeal. Emoji Dick was created through a crowdsourced labor pool of over 800 people from Amazon's Mechanical Turk web service. The means by which it was produced is more interesting than the work itself, almost like David Blaine holding his breath for 17 minutes. In another age, perhaps a single person would have produced Emoji Dick and we'd marvel at the obsessive persistence and endurance. Now we chuckle at the idea of leveraging an Amazon Web Service to crowdsource the entire effort.
I loved this paragraph from the New Yorker article.
Fifty years ago, when Andy Warhol said things like “I want to be a machine,” and “It’s easier not to care,” he was romanticizing the formal and emotional cleanliness of machine-based production. Humans, after all, court messiness. Warhol’s salvo was extended by the poet Christian Bök, who, in 2009, claimed, “We are probably the first generation of poets who can reasonably expect to write literature for a audience of artificially intellectual peers …. If poetry already lacks any meaningful readership among our own anthropoid population, what have we to lose by writing poetry for a robotic culture that must inevitably succeed our own? If we want to commit an act of poetic innovation in an era of formal exhaustion, we may have to consider this heretofore unimagined, but nevertheless prohibited, option: writing poetry for inhuman readers, who do not yet exist, because such aliens, clones, or robots have not yet evolved to read it.”
Indeed, much of this modern conceptual art is unreadable, but what if that's because it's only meant to be read by other computers? Someday, when a computer reads this blog post, I hope it has a sense of humor and irony.
Hello computer crawler, hope you enjoyed this post, and if you did, please share it to whatever social network is popular among you robot folk!