Author Archive: contromal

Final Project – Word Processor Art

Monday, May 5th, 2014 by contromal

Hey guys! Here is my Artist Statement from my final project and the resultant products:

Theoretical Grounding and Artistic Purpose

​The standardization of “user-friendly” and its seemingly invisible presence teaches man through inculcation to respond to his machines’ prompts. Our culture accepts the incredibly specific role “creators,” the makers of machines and their programs, design for consumers of computers. Nietzsche writes that “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts” (qtd. in Kittler 200). Users engage particular programs for prescribed purposes and anticipate a predictable type of product. It is through disobedience to these learned behaviors and responses that I draw attention to media in my final project. I compose visual images (comprised of words) in a program not intended for that purpose (Microsoft Word). By breaking from the expected form, which would resemble something quite similar to what I am writing now, I ask the audience to scrutinize how machines, especially the graphical user interface (GUI) of computers, influences the consumer’s utilization of computers. In particular, my project questions how machines influence users’ thinking and how the “user-friendly” inhibits creativity. When the user manipulates a program in ways not intended by its creators, in many ways, he fights the limitations of the GUI. The process dissembles the notion of “user-friendly” as a transparent influence over a product and reveals how media shapes the author, his creative imagination, and his invention.

​When Steve Jobs introduced the Apple Macintosh in 1984, he designed his product with “user-friendly” in mind. The Macintosh was the first personal computer marketed specifically for the masses. This computer features a GUI, which allows the user to initiate computer processes by using a mouse to navigate the visual images on a virtual desktop, in lieu of textual commands. In a blog post excerpt from the second chapter of her book Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (University of Minnesota Press 2014), Lori Emerson outlines the effect of contemporary GUIs on the consumer. She points to the accepted and prevalent model, originating in the Macintosh, as a point of man’s exclusion from the functions of the machine, which the user accepts because of his illusion of
control. She writes that:

user-friendly’ now takes the shape of keeping users steadfastly unaware and uninformed about how their computers, their reading/writing interfaces, work let alone how they shape and determine their access to knowledge and their ability to produce knowledge. As Wendy Chun points out, the user-friendly system is one in which users are, on the one hand, given the ability to “map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act” but the result is a “seemingly sovereign individual” who is mostly a devoted consumer of ready-made software and ready-made information whose framing and underlying mechanisms we are not privy to. However, it’s not necessarily the GUI per se that is responsible for the creation of Chun’s “seemingly sovereign individual” but rather a particular philosophy of computing and design underlying a model of the GUI that has become the standard for nearly all interface design. (Wendy Chun qtd Emerson 2)

Modern personal computers rely on the popularized GUI model to cultivate the consumer’s superficial relationship with the product. Instead of the user imagining what a computer might do and programming it to do so, he surveys the list of available, ready-made programs and uses one for its intended function. A user, for example, might not understand how a search engine like Google shapes his experience of information. This user might equate a search on Google to searching the entire internet (or the entirety of human knowledge, for that matter). Because of this assumption, he remains unaware of websites Google excludes from its database and oblivious to how Google presents and privileges information. Furthermore, the user gains access to this database by responding to the keyword prompt Google’s search engine requires. The “user-friendly” design shapes how the user searches and filters his experience of information. In spite of the seemingly infinite expanse of information presented, the program limits the creativity of the user and the diversity of the resulatant information. Emerson explains that “Without a fully open, flexible, and extensible architecture, the home computer becomes less a tool for learning and creativity and more a tool for simply ‘handling information.’” “User-friendly” transforms into to a tool of unquestioning passivity. Its systems stifle originality. The system allows users to control, access, and move information, but it trains the user to react to prompts. The user composes on word proccessors, calculates in spreadsheets, and draws in Paint. And, since the use of these machines saturate our society (at this exact moment, I have a PC, a tablet, and a smart phone within three feet of me), it is natural that the habit of interacting with these machines increasingly influences users’ cognitive processes and patterns.

The term “user-friendly” is of course loaded and slippery. It derives from consumer desires and creator requirements. Consumers want to be masters of their machines without feeling dumb or discouraged. Moreover, many resist investing the time, energy, or attention it requires to become experts. Computer corporations devote themselves to creating “user-friendly” devices, which make the consumer believe that they control their product and that the device empowers the consumer. Creators construct the glossy illusion of “user-friendly” with intense labor. In a 1995 issue of Forbes, an article entitled “New Hope for Computer Illiterates” cites the general manager of IBM personal systems division Richard Thoman’s estimate that one in three personal computers taken home “fails.” This overwhelming failure rate motivated creators of personal computers to improve how the consumer both interacts with computers and anticipates interacting with computers. Kelly Stapleton, leader of one of Microsoft’s “usability” think-groups cited in “New Hope,” says that her research division works towards understanding what types of frustrations “novice” users encounter while computing. She relates that “We found surprising things, like people doing budgets in the word processor rather than a spreadsheet because the spreadsheet was too intimidating” (89). The article stresses that “It’s not enough to establish standards so that different parts of a computer system can talk the same language. You have to get inside the mind of the consumer and figure out how to make that language intelligible to him, too” (89). In order to achieve “user-friendly,” programmers watched consumers through one-way mirrors, product teams met for tens of hours with computer-using families, and companies fluxed telephone support lines. Creators devoted themselves to discovering how average consumers consume computers and designing computers which speak and are understood.

Creators trumpeted the “user-friendliness” and transparency of their machines, which came increasingly under criticism as “novice” consumers bought their way into personal computing. “New Hope” laments the “unfriendliness” of computers still experienced in 1995:
Mail merge lets Microsoft Word, the company’s popular word processor, add names and addresses ‘instantly’ to a form letter. But there’s nothing instant about mastering the feature: Walking a perplexed user through mail merge typically takes 30 minutes. Computer pros might have laughed off such problems a few years ago, when most computers sat in offices that had in-house help. But now that the personal computer business is moving to the home market, murky, quirky software and hardware can lose a customer forever. Some marvel that consumers keep on buying, despite their disappointments. (88) The economic impetus of “user-friendly” certainly gained momentum in the 1970s and 1980s, but the battle against “murky, quirky software and hardware” waged on through the 1990s. It continues today. The threat of losing consumers, through a not-so-transparent GUI model, drives the development and determines the marketability of a machine.

In order to create a system, which more efficiently runs (one that is “user-friendly”), the system of variables must be closed. Creators needed to standardize the production of computers and their componenents and relegate man to his place as just another interchangeable part in the system. This concept, although cultivated in computing in the 1980s and 90s, has been an element of how man experiences media for as long as media has existed. Systems of writing, paper, and writing utensils standardize written language. Man, as consumer, becomes increasingly passive in his mediatic participation, espeically as systems become more complex. In Jonathan Crary’s essay “Techniques of the Observer,” he discusses Sir David Brewster’s kaleidoscope, which was invented in 1815. According to Crary, Brewster views “productivity and efficiency” as essential to this visual machine (22). More importantly, he considers it a “mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm” (22). Evolving visual and industrial technologies require man to play a specific part in the functioning of the machine. No longer the maker, man becomes an element of the machine. Crary justifies this move by applying Marxist theory to elucidate human-machine relationships, “In the factory, Marx contended, the machine makes use of man by subjecting him to a relation of contiguity, of part to other parts, and of exchangeability… the apparently passive observers of the stereoscope and Phenakistiscope were in fact made into producers, by virtue of specific physical capacities, of forms of verisimilitude” (33). By becoming necessary not to the functioning, but to the purpose of the machine, man becomes part of the machine itself. He continually embraces illusions, which deceive him into thinking he maintains control: “An apparatus openly based on a principle of disparity… inevitably would give way to a form that preserved the referential illusion more fully than anything before it” (Crary 35). Man depends on the illusion of natural, human privilege to structure his consumer existence. For our current society, the ways in which consumers want and expect the quick, accessible, and “user-friendly” still denote man as a component of the machine. We become increasingly dependent on technologies as self-explanatory extensions of ourselves and lose sight of what exists external to these tools.

The theoretical grounding for my project centers on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. In a chapter entitled “The Medium is the Message,” he writes that “…the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph” and “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium” (10, 11). My project attempts to unearth McLuhan’s “character of the medium,” by disrupting the seamless, ubiquitious nature of personalized computing, which reinforces the normalized mode of the GUI. The ever-present PC, in many ways, parallels the presence of the typewriter in the 1960s and 1970s, which led artists to experiment with the gridlike form of mechanical type to create typewriter art, which called into question the form and influence of the medium itself. Emerson writes that the pervasiveness of the typwriter had made it “invisible to its users. It is precisely at the point at which a technology saturates a culture that writers and artists, whose craft is utterly informed by a sensitivity to their tools, begin to break apart that same technology to once again draw attention to the way in which it offers certain limits and possibilities to both thought and expression.” My project imitates the hacker-typewriter artists Emerson discusses.

In my compositions, I draw attention to the limitations and requirements of the computer as media and the word processor as a program. I ask the reader to consider how the visual images I construct, along with the words that assemble them, strengthen or undermine comfortable and familiar interfaces. Niebisch requires that the ‘abuse of media’ requires one to “(ab)use media technologies… in the system in a way not intended by hegemonic powers” (9). To this end, my conceptual poetry reassembles advertisements, articles, and instruction manuals in the two dimensional shape of the lauded product on the pages of a word processor. Visual and rhetorical devices, meant to seduce the user into placidly dismissing the limitations of technology or the influences of media, interact with the user in this new construction, which takes shape in a program not intended for prose-like compositions. These difficult-to-read compositions emphasize the presence of a GUI in the “user-friendly.” They are a product of the program in which (and artifacts from which) they were composed. If the observer interacts only superficially, casually observing the image with no interrogation of the words, the item remains “user-friendly.” However, as he transitions to an active reader of the project, he must work to discover what occurs underneath the most accessible interface.

Like the typewriter art of the 1960s and 1970s, the intent of my art is to draw attention to the the media of the composition. My work disobeys the prompts of the GUI to emphasize the idea that pre-packaged programs elicit conditioned responses and stifle genuinely creative uses of computing devices. I do not suggest that personal computing would be better off without a GUI. However, I hope that my work points to the creative space negelcted by blindly accepting a supposedly invisible interface and encourages consumers to acknowledge how media influences their thoughts and creations.








Also, as I was working with transferring my compositions, some of them were “glitched” by the new interface! I would love to extend my project to explore these types of images. Here are three exciting ones:




Microsoft Word, Concrete Poetry, & Quotation

Monday, April 21st, 2014 by contromal

                In my final project, I am creating a collection of concrete poetry. In Microsoft Word, I construct two dimensional images from (mostly) pre-existing quotes or descriptions. For example, to construct a portrait of Steve Jobs, I use several of his most famous quotes. To illustrate Apple Lisa, I intend on using excerpts from its manual to construct the shape of the technology. Additionally, I will use language from advertisements and the start-up processes of the machines in the MAL. I intend on reconstructing different technologies in the Media Archaeology Lab, different brand logos, and different personas associated with past and present media technologies. In doing this, I hope to draw attention to the different ways that the consumer encounters the product, through words and sight, and suggest that the two are inextricably linked. By weaving language with image, I draw attention to language as the “building blocks” of a machine or person’s greater aura. Through this process, I hope to question how the product is presented, give a historically context to the object, and present an alternate way of interacting with words about machines. Furthermore, I strive to make language strange. I want it to be questioned in relation to these pieces. These poems are admittedly difficult to read. This is a function, in part, of the simple challenges of composition. Like John Riddell, I could simply have used no words to portray the message and construct images from letters, but I must emphasize that I designed it as a mirror of what most of us do when we encounter media. For a while, we struggle to decipher the code and concepts, but eventually we only interact with the graphical user interface that has been prescribed for us. This process of elective de-familiarization is, I think, essential to understanding how man has been taught to interact with machines. By questioning our current understanding of how we should interact with media, we redefine what it means to be a consumer of those products and what it means to unquestioningly accept user-friendly, seamless, magic media.


Draft of “Steve Jobs”



Listening to Ted Berrigan

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 by contromal

On Friday, I heard Eric Baus deliver a talk entitled “Listening to Digital Archives: Poetics & Recorded Sound” (this link is not the talk, but outlines much of the theoretical grounding for it). Baus outlined three modes of listening, which he cites from a French composer Michel Chion’s book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen: 1- causal listening (applied to determine a sound’s origin), 2 – semantic listening (used to decipher meaning), and 3 – reduced listening (what Pierre Schaeffer calls “the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning”).

I was really taken with this idea of listening to the recording itself. I believed that, if I could experience a poem through “reduced listening,” perhaps I could augment my experience of that poem. Baus recommended the use of “repetitive listening.” He references an essay by Michael Davidson entitled By ear he sd’: Audio-Tapes and Contemporary Criticism. Davidson writes,

“By listening over and over again to a reading, the listener begins to hear what the page can never render: the emphasis and character of the line, the pausing and halting of a voice among caesurae, the pattern of vowel music, the tone of delivery—and of course those points where the ear has failed and the line has gone flat. The ear hears the general trajectory of words, the large movements of syntactic play, the rhythms, which remain as much the meaning of the poem as does its semantic content.” (par. 26)

So with this project in mind, I scoured Ubu until I came across a recording entitled “Ted Berrigan: To Jack Kerouac.” I listened to it 20 or so times. It’s important to note now something I did not know until the end, because I didn’t want my listening to be disrupted by the visual at this point. Berrigan’s poemis much shorter than this recording:

to Jack Kerouac

Bye-bye, Jack.
See you soon.

At first, I wanted to fill in the narrative that went along with this short (49 second recording). Who exactly was Ted Berrigan? (late beat poet) How did he know Jack Kerouac? (friend and contemporary) When did each live and die? (Kerouac 1922-69, Berrigan 1934-83) Were they friends? (seems that way) This poem was written for Jack Kerouac, after his death. But this wasn’t really important for what I was TRYING to do.

I fought the urge to follow this narrative line of questioning and trained my musical ear on what I heard:
– The first half of the recitation primarily takes on a “leading” tone (almost an interrogative tone). However, whenever Berrigan refers to something that sounds finite the tone of his voice “goes down” (still working on the lingo). For example: “died,” “to go to him,” “to send to him,” “to Jack Kerouac,” “Thank you.”
– Berrigan’s voice cracks slightly in three places (added a truly emotional element to the reading): “writer,” “died,” “far away”
– Berrigan’s breath was short. These quick inhales punctuated the recitation in a way that made it seem somewhat frantic or hard to repeat.
– Berrigan sets a rhythm with the first lines of the recitation “Beautiful / American Writer” and disrupts this flow with “Died.” Perhaps how he viewed Kerouac’s death: unexpected, but following something beautiful.

Then, I thought about media archaeology. For me, the most obvious concern was the telegram. Why a telegram for a dead man? Telegrams signify urgency. Telegrams require a recipient. The natural form of a telegram shaped the staccato of those single-syllable lines. This telegram, in particular, carried a message that, out of context, might sound eager or excited. But spoken, Berrigan’s lines convey grief and the complexity of the emotions he experienced. Certainly an unanswered telephone or a lengthy letter would not have had the same, abruptly succinct effect on the reader/listener (or on Berrigan). Perhaps Berrigan could have written “Postcard,” instead. But urgency was key. I wonder if he really sent Kerouac a telegram or if it was only a prop for his poem.

I wondered, too, about the role of the microphone. Berrigan’s t’s and s’s pierce the recording, making the listening experience that much more jarring. But the background is completely silent, as if the recording occurs in a studio. This silence, paired with Berrigan’s “thank you” at the end of his recitation, completely confused me. Whom was Berrigan thanking? Kerouac? A live audience? The sound recorder?

Repetitive, reduced listening complicated my response to “Telegram.” What strikes me most is how bonded I feel to the Berrigan and this poem. It’s like living in 2D, experiencing 3D, and wondering how I can go back.

Man in the Machine

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014 by contromal

In Jonathan Crary’s essay “Techniques of the Observer,” he discusses Sir David Brewster’s kaleidoscope, which was invented in 1815. Crary states that Brewster viewed the “productivity and efficiency” as essential to this visual machine and, most importantly, he considered it as “mechanical means for the reformation of art according to an industrial paradigm” (22). Evolving visual and industrial technologies require man to play a specific part in the functioning of the machine. No longer the maker, man becomes an element of the machine. Crary purports a fundamental difference man’s use of the kaleidoscope and the Phenakistiscope. He writes that “With all the luminous possibilities suggested by Baudelaire, and later by Proust, the kaleidoscope seems radically unlike the rigid and disciplinary structure of the Phenakistiscope” (22). I (and I think Crary) question this view. After all, is there such a difference in man’s observational role? Isn’t it only the illusion of control over these visual objects he effects? Whether his own hand turns the kaleidoscope to view its finite image sequence or man merely watches a Phenakistiscope’s sixteen sequentially regulated images, does it matter? That is, does one scope really privilege man’s control over the other? I think not. And I think Marx would agree with me. I’ll again quote Crary:

In the factory, Marx contended, the machine makes use of man by subjecting him to a relation of contiguity, of part to other parts, and of exchangeability… the apparently passive observers of the stereoscope and Phenakistiscope were in fact made into producers, by virtue of specific physical capacities, of forms of verisimilitude. (33)

By becoming necessary not to the functioning, but to the purpose of the machine, man becomes part of the machine itself. He continually embraces the illusions, which deceive him into thinking he maintains control: “An apparatus openly based on a principle of disparity… inevitably would give way to a form that preserved the referential illusion more fully than anything before it” (Crary 35). Man depends on the illusion of natural, human privilege to structure his consumer existence. For our current society, the ways in which consumers want and expect the quick, accessible, and “user-friendly” still denote man as a component of the machine. We become increasingly dependent on technologies as extensions of ourselves and assume that whatever allows us to more effectively capture the real (Microsoft phone commercial “I wanted a smartphone that shoots great video”) or control a situation (Samsung Galaxy commercial “Mine Can’t Do That”) allows man dominion over machine. But isn’t it just the opposite?


Futurism and Sound Noise

Sunday, March 16th, 2014 by contromal

Futurism. Well, I really want to insult those who vested their creative lives in futurism. It was hard enough for me to get past their blatant genderism and pointed misogyny, let alone brilliant statements in manifestos like:

“9. We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.” (Marinetti 198)

I think what bothered me most were the obvious ironies and contradictions that were woven into tenets of a futurist’s philosophy, seemingly unnoticed and certainly unacknowledged. For example, in Marinetti’s The Variety Theater Manifesto, he compelled his reading audience to “2. Prevent a set of traditions from establishing itself in the Variety Theater” (208). I am certain that this is obvious, but this statement establishes a tradition of not establishing traditions. Not to mention that such a type of theater seems to be taking place in an physical theater, which one could argue would be destroyed under tenet number ten, mentioned above. It seemed to me that the type of art, “stress on invented languages, simultaneous performances, & audience-bashing & provocation (glue on seats, vegetables to throw back at performers),” celebrated in the futurist manifestos have themselves earned scorn (215). Perhaps I am not understanding the purpose of art, if one assumes there is a purpose to it, but this seems more like an exalted clown college or fraternity playbook, than art that might make an individual think… about anything… or question… something.

In spite of these shortcomings, I found the futurist agenda interesting with regards to Russolo’s take on noise and music.

“First of all, musical art looked for the soft and limpid purity of sound. Then it amalgamated different sounds, intent upon caressing the ear with suave harmonies. Nowadays musical art aims at the shrillest, strangest and most dissonant amalgams of sound. Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor.” (5)
The Art of Noise (futurist manifesto, 1913) by Luigi Russolo

Now, I may be a woman, but I know a LOT about music. I listened to Luigi Russolo’s “Risveglio Di Una Citta, 1913” and I really think I get it. Essentially, Russolo criticizes orchestras for not being interesting anymore, because man’s taste has evolved alongside the development of the machine, his ally in accomplishing labor. He wants to replace the noises instruments make (which are also machines – Russolo ignores this) with the noises machines, cities, and crowds make. Russolo states that “musical sound is too restricted in the variety and the quality of its tones,” that “The most complicated orchestra can be reduced to four or five categories of instruments with different sound tones,” and that “We must break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds” (6). Now, I am not opposed to the idea that composers need to “shake it up” to push the limits of sound, noise, and music. I have played The Planets by Gustav Holst and used my violin bow as percussion, I have hummed a kazoo (with virtuostic passion) to a performance of some Star Wars piece, and I have played an orchestral arrangement of Jurassic Park, in which a guy screeched the part of a raptor. Russolo warns that “Some will object that noise is necessarily unpleasant to the ear” and I am not one of these people (7). I believe that noise can decidedly enhance the quality of a musical performance for the composer, performers, and audience (take for example the gun shots, weapon being cocked, and cash register cha-ching in M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” However, I think Russolo takes his argument too far.

First of all, his assertion that “all contemporary composers of genius tend to stress the most complex dissonances” is obviously biased to support his agenda (11). Although composers like Brahms and Stravinsky incorporated and depended upon dissonance, they did not forsake the entirety of harmonic form. Their pieces, in some way, find resolution. So, while their pieces may work with dissonance, they use this technique of to progress the music. Something I felt lacking in Russo’s work was a complete lack of affect and direction. As the audience shouldn’t I be moved in some way? Whether it’s revulsion or joy or confusion or even apathy? I would say that I wasn’t even motivated enough by Russo’s work to feel apathetic. And if the point is that his music was pointless, then at least that came across.

My second issue with Russo is this idea that the old or traditional lacks so entirely that Russo’s idea of music must completely exclude their presence from new, machinic, music-making. He says “we must replace the limited variety of timbres of orchestra instruments by the infinite variety of timbers of noises obtained through special mechanisms” (emphasis added 11). Replace? Really? I think that music made on instruments designed specifically for the purpose of making music appeal to a human audience in a way that the music stolen from machines cannot. When the human mind bridges the gap between representation (I’m thinking Peter and the Wolf – the human must decide what instrument is Peter, which the Wolf) and creation, it somehow bonds in a way that is different that recognition (I’m thinking of Russo’s recordings of automobiles). Sure. Broaden what qualifies as music. But remove traditional noise makers, because their noise is too purely musical? I do not agree that this allows for the unpredictability the futurists preach against. Rather it limits the infinite quality of noise. Occasionally, could an oboe be incorporated with a beautiful melody, because that is what oboes produce when a human manipulates it as a machine?

My recommendation calls for the orchestration of noise (although I’m not certain it can be considered noise, if it is repurposed in music… but that’s another discussion), musical instruments, and musical instruments manipulated in new ways.

Because I don’t care who you are… that’s not boring.


Apple III and McLuhan

Sunday, March 9th, 2014 by contromal

This week I spent time in the lab working on Apple III and Lisa. I began by familiarizing myself with two of Apple III’s programs: business software and an excel-type, cell-based program. I consider myself a bit of an excel guru, so I was naturally drawn to the latter. However, failing access to an instruction manual, I soon exhausted what I imagined the actual purposes of this program might be (I could add two cells together!) and started to mimic the art of Riddell on a screen, rather than on a type-written page. The mechanically produced cells and spacing naturally reminded me of the geometric “sound poem” that we discussed last week in class. Since Apple III does not have a delete button (only an arrow over function, which would not delete the content of cell, only replace it), I found myself treating this new machine with near caution. I realized that one must exercise care similar to the care used when composing on a typewriter, when utilizing Apple III. To type in the wrong cell would mean that the my project was essentially flawed and that I would need to turn off the Apple III, restart the program, and start from scratch. Although I acknowledge that a linearity should not (according to several theorists’ instructions) be drawn, I found the progress of “delete” fascinating. Apple III was the last PC in the lab I saw without a delete or backspace key. I wondered if a culture of perceived permanence, but actual impermanence could find its origins in this moment. It was on the same machine that, without an additional disk inserted into an external drive, my composition would not save. No traces of it would exist (except on my camera’s memory), after I turned off the machine. So, during the process of composition I felt the pressure of permanence, in the end, I realized the possibility of impermanence in this early personal computer.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, writes that “An abstract painting represents a direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs”(10). I used the above program (designed for mathematical purposes) for art, before I read McLuhan, but I think that my inclination to use the program for artistically creative purposes emphasizes his point. It is not so much what is produced as it is how the user utilizes the tool (at least, I think this is what McLuhan is saying). Perhaps an accountant would have sat down at the same computer and produced a sheet, which showed him how much money he spends each week on gas. Is a product, which manifests the content of an individual’s creative conceptions in a form particular to the media he uses McLuhan’s point? After all, he writes that man was not shaped by what was produced but the “restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology” (9). This fragmentation is just another form of representation of the medium of the mind.




Pope Leo: El Elope (the first and second)

Saturday, March 1st, 2014 by contromal

In preparation for my presentation this coming Tuesday, I came across (in particular, which publishes “Pope Leo: El Elope” in its entirety. The one included on this website, however, is the first version published in grOnk in 1969 (compared with the version in Writing Surfaces (p 16), which is published in 1970.



At first glance, not much really changes between the two versions. But Riddell makes one tremendously important choice: he replaces typed text with hand-written text. Why would he do this?

Almost the entirety of Riddell’s work presented in Writing Surfaces manipulates type-written text, but here he opts to exclude this machine from the artistic process. Perhaps Riddell simply makes this decision for aesthetic purposes. Maybe pairing cartoon/hand-drawn with mechanical/typed-speech proved unpalatable. But I think it is more than this. In the second frame on the embedded (1969) photo, the typed words physically take up over a quarter of the frame. For the supposed regularity of the typewritten word, the presentation comes off as a little awkward and unplanned. The perfectly spaced, unalterably-sized typeface literally obscures the character Pope Leo. In the second version, this is not the case. There are two ways I interpret this artistic decision.

First, I wonder if Riddell, in some way, felt that as an artist, his creative process was being hindered (instead of helped) by technology. Rather than enhancing the capabilities of the artist, did the technology just get in the way? I have quoted Zielinski before and I believe he is again applicable here: “The history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus. The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (Deep Time of the Media 7). Perhaps Riddell’s choice not to use the typewriter suggests that technology in its “best” state is its appropriate state for the art being produced (or for its appropriate utilization). If media archaeology is non-linear, would it follow that the production of art, too, is non-linear?

Second, is it possible that where the human and machine directly intersect (through representation on the page – here I am taking Kittler’s approach that lumps handwriting and the page on one side of technology and opposes it with typewriter-esque machines and their relatives), Riddell privileges the human? Returning to the second frame, Riddell’s choices indicate that he is acutely aware of the visual decisions he makes and their purpose. Instead of privileging language (or the machine, as discussed before), Riddell privileges image. More importantly, he privileges an image which signifies “human.” The words in Pope Leo’s speech bubble remain constant, but the vehicle which delivers them changes from machine to human hand. Pope Leo becomes the focus of the frame. Riddell gives Pope Leo’s entire face and upper body a make-over. He no longer smiles, but looks head-on, mouth agape. Four letters organize and reorganize in a bubble, which Riddell relegates to a small corner of the frame. In fact, this particular bubble is pushed almost out of this frame altogether, as the majority of its area overlaps the gutter and the previous frame. Pope Leo’s presence dominates the frame. Furthermore, Riddell complicates the frame’s background, adding windows and a corner. This hand-drawn, visual business combines with the speech bubble and its text to surround, but not impinge upon the image of Pope Leo. The restructured lines of the page lead to a focus on this once obscured character.

Our class discussion have talked about whether or not we can ever have an assessment of the machine that is void of the human, but Riddell’s choice to replace the typewritten words with human hand-writing leads me to question the inverse. If we remove the “machine” are we left with a product which is “more human”?

PS – Does this “imperfection” of type covering an image (if we assume this was a mistake and really is, in the artist’s eye, an imperfection) remind the audience of the artist’s humanity? Is this the opposite of what Kittler thought would happen? That is, can the presence of the machine actually emphasize humanness?

– Renée

A Letter on Technological Maintenance from the Army

Monday, February 24th, 2014 by contromal

In What is Media Archaeology, a quote from Kittler outlines how the military has set trends for “contemporary media technological culture” in motion:

“Phase 1, beginning with the American Civil War, developed storage technologies for acoustics, optics, and script: film, gramophone, and the man-machine system, typewriter. Phase 2, beginning with the First World War, developed for each storage content appropriate electric transmission technologies: radio, television, and their more secret counterparts. Phase 3, since the Seccond World War, has transferred the schematic of a typewriter of predictability per se; Turing’s mathematical definition of computability in 1936 gave future computers their name.'” (Kittler qtd. Parikka loc 1805)

This week, I (and a thousand others with my technical job in the Army) received an unclassified email from a General in the Logistics Corps (which is attached to the end of this blog post). The author of this letter discourages soldiers from attempting to maintain or repair two pieces of their equipment, for which the maintenance is being outsourced through civilian contracts. This letter signals, to me, the necessity of adding a Phase 4 to Kittler’s observations about the relationship between the media and our culture’s resultant technological culture. Phase 4 would focus on the inability of the individual to understand, maintain, or tinker with developing technologies. It separates man from the understanding the machine and cultivates his role as consumer alone.

Although I am incredibly familiar with how the maintenance system in the Army works, I did not question why the maintenance system works like it does, until I received this email. When the Army purchases new technology, it primarily awards contracts to the “lowest bidder.” The Army’s “Bottom Line Up Front” answer is that they choose the the most affordably priced product from the vendor, which can meet the needs of the Army. But what I question is the cost of extended warranties and the effect of relegating the soldier to the role of consumer.

The Army will argue that it is better served by building its maintenance on this model of disconnect. The Army does not have the proper parts, particular training, or sufficient time. It will say that military manpower is better utilized by evacuating specialty items to be worked on at a centralized location, developed for the precise purpose of specialty repairs. It will cite the importance of a warranty repair and the availability of civilian personnel to complete this maintenance. It will laud the hired technical experts it employs. It will assure the public that the soldier can be a more competent, focused, and efficient war-fighter, because he or she is not distracted by menial maintenance tasks.

But warranties only last for awhile and much of the military’s equipment sticks around for decades. Someone must continue to ensure that technology does not fail, so someone must be paid to complete essentially eternal repair contracts. More importantly, the creativity of a soldier, who has been scolded for trying to solve his/her own technological malfunctions, plunges. Instead of being an active problem-solver with the ability to control his equipment, he/she becomes subjugated to the never-understood complexities of mandatory technological advancement. Freud’s hypothesis about dreaming parallels the fourth phases’s control of technological creativity. Freud “famously designated dreaming as a cordoned-off arena of primitive irrationality: ‘What once dominated waking life while the mind was still young and incompetent seems now to have been banished into the night… Dreaming is a piece of infantile mental life that has been superseded.'” (qtd. in Crary 107). So, too, has creative repair been discouraged. The soldier has been denied access to the physicality of his machine. The soldier’s skills have been deemed “crude,” “unsophisticated,” and “futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

This crushing of creativity can be seen in various artifacts outside of the military, especially since the personalization of the computer. It is obvious in the ways that Apple has shut off access to their products. It is apparent in cars, which have moved increasingly towards governance by onboard computer units. Phase four replaces the tinkerers and thinkers by stealing away their reasonable ability to mess with the machine. The sellers have taken away the tools.

I wonder, then, which came first? Did Phase 4 surface in the civilian sector or the military first? Are these moments of influence, continuing to trend in the direction Kittler assumes?

“On 5 February members of PM SMS traveled to the OEM’s facility for the
AN/PSQ-20 and AN/PSQ-20A (5855-01-534-6449 & 5855-01-603-0489 respectively)

Enhanced night Vision Goggles (ENVG). During our visit the PM was invited
into the repair and maintenance shop of that facility. The OEM teamed showed
the PM several goggles that had obviously been opened in an attempt to
repair them. The attempt to repair or maintain the goggles was obvious as
some of the work was quite crude. Unauthorized and unsophisticated
soldiering techniques were used that were quite visible and resulted in
additional damage to the goggles.

As you know these two particular ENVGs are largely supported by
CLS, which is accomplished through the OEM. Any repair or maintenance task
that requires the housing to be breached shall be done by the OEM and if
performed by the Soldier will void the warranty. Additionally there are no
internal parts or components that are stocked in the Standard Army Supply
System and no TMDE or Test Sets are available to the Soldier so any
maintenance at that level will be futile no matter what the talent level of
the maintainer.”

Are Smartphone Upgrades Worth the Hype?

Monday, February 17th, 2014 by contromal

I am currently in the throes of deciding whether or not to replace my iPhone. It is a 4S, which means two versions have already replaced it. It is two years old, which means my phone plan allows me to “upgrade” (and will charge me monthly, as if I already have upgraded even if I choose not to). And, almost too perfectly, my phone started glitching the moment it turned two. This situation enticed me to reflect on why my phone has suddenly become garbage.

In the introduction to Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinski writes that “Sterling’s project confronted burgeoning fantasies about the immortality of machines with the simple facticity of a continuously growing list of things that have become defunct. Machines can die” (2). According to phone company X’s plan-renewal timeline and my machine’s incessant glitching, my phone is dying. Now I know it is not exactly the same, but I have shoes that I have happily worn for ten years that cost a fraction of the price of new technology (in my case the iPhone) and, for once, I am questioning whether “innovative,” technological developments are worth the price companies are asking me to pay. If time is indeed money and money is time, how many hours of my life am I willing to sacrifice to “upgrade” to something that seems like marginal “improvement”? Compared with the most recent phone models, my phone is not bulky, it takes fantastic pictures, and it allows me comparable access to internet/phone/etc.

Zielinski writes that “The history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus. The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (7). This quote contains two points relevant to my line of inquiry: first, technology does not necessarily move from simple to complex and, second, current does not necessarily mean best. Using Zielinski’s logic, could we not theorize that we have already encountered a “best” technological state? Maybe the pinnacle was a telephone in every house, the telegraph across continents, or cell phones before they were smart. An argument could easily be structured, which posits that “best” (for humanity, ecologically, economically, politically, socially, etc.) has already been accomplished and what we have now (or will have in the future) is actually a devolution from that “best” state, because I sincerely doubt that “best” could ever be universally defined and accepted.

So, as a consumer, why must I replace my phone at the accelerated pace set by corporations? I think there must be some elements of fear (of being left behind new technology, of being left out of communication, of not getting our money’s worth) and some addiction to the shiny and new. Zielinski states that “Nothing endures in the culture of technology; however, we do have the ability to influence how long ideas and concepts retain their radiance and luminescence” (2). I think the shiny things companies offer as innovative have lost their luster and are simply “normal” now (to groups with access). Jonathan Crary in 24/7 writes that “when such devices are introduced (and no doubt labeled as revolutionary), they will simply be facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point. And they too will occupy only a brief interval of currency before their inevitable replacement and transit to the global waste piles of techno-trash” (40). It seems only appropriate that capitalism has sped up this process of technological turn-over, while citing its historical significance at every available moment.

This post is growing far too long… but has anyone else noticed that marketing by Apple/Microsoft/Samsung/etc. seems very focused on that individual’s contribution and connection to personal historical significance? That is, the marketing seems focused less on the the individual and culture or community and more on the “me.”

How the Olympia Typewriter Changed my Blog Post

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 by contromal

I typed my blog post this week and have decided to upload pictures of both the machine and the masterpiece (okay…it probably wan’t a masterpiece). If you click the “Leave a Comment” link, the resolution is good enough that you can read it. I would retype it… but I’m not sure I could do that on my iPad… bold statement, I know.





More Media-Based Confusion

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 by contromal

After last week’s presentation about Glitch Art, I decided that I would try my hand at converting .jpg files to .txt files, intentionally corrupting them, and again converting them to picture files. I, again, experienced a confusing victory (hopefully, this will not become the theme of my blog posts this semester). After reading several other blogs and discussions (check out, I thought I had figured out the process, but no picture viewer or editor on my computer would allow me to open my manipulated files. I came upon , which allows you to upload a JPEG onto their public forum and corrupts the file for you. This website did, in fact, upload my first two pictures, but did not (at first) corrupt it (third time was the charm).

I wrestled with the idea of downloading one of the free file corruption programs offered online, but (to my shame) could not quite get past the intentional glitching. I understand that these controlled glitches are art. I understand that they are releases of a “freer” version of the self and that they can be reactions against “a hyper-realism in media.” I even understand that I am supposed to view these works as a moment of rest, instead of the foreshadowing of unavoidable and all-consuming doom. But I found that my body viscerally reacts to these images much the same way that it reacts to some contemporary, dissonant orchestral/chamber performances (I am thinking here of the Kronos Quartet’s performance of George Crumb’s Black Angels “Departure” ). In spite of the appreciation I have for the art form, I start to feel nauseous and anxious throughout my exposure to the piece. Clicking the “Download Software” button, encircled with glitching images, just felt wrong. I wanted to participate in this controlled corruption, but I just felt that, if I did… my computer might be the victim of corruption.

For me, this uncomfortable and bodily repulsion makes me question whether or not my relationship with media functions as a reflection of a carefully constructed societal relationship with technology. There is certainly an element of fear in things we do not understand or trust. The “hacker” hype has villainized individuals meddling with technology outside the norms of the status-quo, “user-friendly” programs, standard on our personal computing devices. I think it is strange that I feel a little rebellious, when I change the text on a picture file – like I am dabbling in the dark arts. Why is it so taboo to step outside the constructs of cookie-cutter programming?

Original picture uploaded to

Original picture uploaded to


After corruption

After corruption


Renée (Human) vs. The Machine (Altair 8800b)

Friday, January 24th, 2014 by contromal

I spent a good chunk of Thursday evening trying to program the Altair 8800b to execute a simple addition equation: 1+2=3. Before or during every set of long and obfuscated operational information and instructions, the manual would inform me that “the procedure is both simple and fast” (12) and “that the CPU is only as intelligent as the programmer” – rude (21). After reading for about forty-five minutes, I bolstered my courage and turned on the machine. Now, it took me only about five minutes to input the addition program from the manual (about twenty lines of binary) and, although three red lights lit at the conclusion, the whole process left me feeling unsatisfied and confused.

First of all, why invest so much time to have a machine reveal something I already know? I remember learning addition back in first grade. 1+2 is obviously 3. Throughout the experiment, I felt a bit like a mad scientist. Like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, I hoped to animate the inanimate. Perhaps, man’s obsession with technology spawns from a desire to create and control. In Truth and Juridical Forms, Foucault illustrates contemporary culture’s reliance on the institution of the prison to justify social constructs: “This is what society is. You can’t criticize me since I only do what you do every day at the factory and the school… I’m only the expression of a social consensus” and “The best proof that you’re not in prison is that I exist as a special institution, separated from the others…” (85). Man needs prison, because it 1) parallels his own actions in society and 2) proves that he is not in a prison. I wonder if man’s reliance on technology resembles this relationship. Is man’s dependence on exploitation (maybe that word is a little strong) of technology a reflection of his own social exploitation? Does technology exist to remind man that he may exert (relatively) unmediated control over an object, thereby proving that man is, in fact, not the object of subjugation?

Second, what is “user friendly”? The manual explains again and again that the processes it explains are “simple.” Shouldn’t that be self-evident? This repetition actually distracted me from the content, as it attempted to convince me of its transparency. Most frustrating to me was trying to interpret the results. Although three lights glowed at the end, I possessed no way of deciphering whether this meant “3.” I failed to locate instructions for pairing the array of lights with some sort of meaning. I cleared the system and started over. 2+2= random assortment of lights. Maybe that was too big. 1+1 = random assortment of lights. So, in spite of my seemingly successful first trial, I left not knowing whether I had ever manipulated the machine. Furthermore, I would not know how to subtract, multiply, or even add large numbers. I certainly could not conceive of how to program something else or even read the results. Although I am not certain how to define user-friendly, I would certainly not list this as one of Altair 8800b’s attributes.

Conclusion: I fought the machine and the machine won.