The People’s Biennial

A few days ago, we went to see a talk by Harrell Fletcher at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.  Harrell was presenting his upcoming exhibit at Haverford called the People’s Biennial, a travelling art show hosted by Independent Curators International in which Harrell and Jens (his co-curator) go to different cities and select pieces submitted by the general public.  The show democratizes art breaking down traditional barriers preventing people from transitioning into the art world.  Instead, Harrell takes matters into his own hands, deciding what art is (and what will be shown in a gallery).

In the Q+A session following his introduction, our own Jacob Horn asked how he thought new digital media affected his work or if he had any experience in re-placing art within Web 2.0.”

His answer:

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Apologies for the poor quality sound recording–you might want to use headphones.


This past Friday I took off work to do things around my apartment– clean (didn’t get done), buy groceries (didn’t get done), and interact with the fantastic humans I call my friends (done in abundance).  In my downtime, though, I spent a significant amount of time just waltzing around the Internet; I trekked through YouTube, a few blogs, and a number of trending topics on Twitter, just to get the lay of the digital land. I’ve talked about web applications like YouTube and Twitter in abstract before, but I suppose this time I wanted to have proprietary, tangible thoughts and ideas versus the usual “You’ll get used to it.”

I found a series of videos entitled “Is It A Good Idea to Microwave This?” I’m actually watching them for source material as I write this. I stumbled upon these as I looked at videos of disasters (Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, etc.). Essentially, this enterprising teenager Jory Caron constructed a “safety is our number one priority” blast room in his garage and microwaves things in it; the “ventilation” consists of two ineffective-looking fans and a thorough wallpapering of this blast room with tinfoil. Each video sees a different consumer good meet its radioactive fate: a lighter, a glowstick, an xBox 360, etc.

My initial thought was how this dude hadn’t been crushed under the weight of the existential underpinnings of this series: of course it’s a bad idea to microwave all these things. Microwaving hot dogs can give you indigestion, so microwaving electronics and devices designed to set fires is entirely unnecessary. There is no essence to define here; this is digitally televised pyromania. Caron’s narration of things burning is totally superfluous and the host sports a slightly disheveled appearance; he is a mad scientist of the first degree, even to the point of admitting his methods are not rigidly scientific.

Upon further review, though, Caron may be serving a greater community than just himself and his friends. Warning labels and folklore-bred admonitions are everywhere in modern society. Caron is simply documenting the reasoning behind these labels and tales: he is digitizing the dangerous elements of an appliance-riddled human experience. Since the underlying  idea of the Internet is information exchange, he is merely contributing to the general fund of knowledge by posting videos of things being incinerated by Sharp microwaves. In doing so, he makes himself a tongue-in-cheek digital warning label– there is no “don’t try this at home” because the time-honored saying is implied in his ridiculous behavior.

The question that haunts my internal discussion is a tired one I imagine local news anchors everywhere must ask frequently of the growing tide of stupid human tricks : will viewers emulate Caron’s behavior and generate a record number of appliance-related deaths or see the glints of sarcasm in Caron’s performance and realize microwaves aren’t to be trifled with? The question distilled becomes something I want people to think about and respond to:

After viewing/digesting a digital documentation of a real life event, is your curiosity about the event sated, or do you instinctively wish to replicate the event? Can a digital experience be the same as or better than a real experience?

Alternatively, what qualifies as a worthwhile contribution to the stores of information saturating the Internet?


Twitter can’t handle World Cup fever.

Today, Landon Donovan shot the game-winning, tournament-advancing, heart-stopping goal in the 91st minute of USA’s final game of phase one of the World Cup against Algeria. Within seconds, twitter’s 20 million+ users were met with the increasingly common “fail whale,” the site’s safeguarding response to the onslaught of “GOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL” and “YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOAAAAAARD” and “#USA #USA #USA #USA” outbursts. On June 14, when Japan scored against Cameroon to break a seemingly endless stalemate, twitter reached its all-time highest “tweets-per-second” rate (which they shorten to TPS) at 2,940. How many tweets-per-second do you think Donovan’s goal notched?

As I sat and stared at the whale, I wondered what the purpose of “livetweeting” really is. Why would anyone want constant status updates on a specific event that can be followed with such ease and efficiency on,, or any one of the millions (billions?) of sports sites out there? Why would someone constantly refresh the same page, over and over again, just to read someone’s second-hand account of a specific incident, when they could just watch the game on ESPN3?

I quickly realized how naive I was being. Of course—these mad twitterers were already watching the game online. They not only wanted to witness the twitter-shattering goal, but they wanted to experience it secondhand, through its various retellings and re-formations told by thousands of twitterers-per-second.

In his pivotal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

Do you think that “livetweeting” lacks “presence in time in space”? Or does it create the digital space in which it exists, spinning pages upon pages filled with reproductions of a specific event? Do these various reproductions enhance the event which they evolve from, or do they undermine it (watch this)?

A Student Seminar

Seminar Leaders: Andrew Smith ’11 (Math), Patrick Phelan ’11 (English)
Faculty Advisor: Gus Stadler (English)
Seminar Participants: Daniel Connochie (Psychology), Jacob Horn ’13 (Classics), LinKai Jiang ’11 (Philosophy), Katie Monroe ’13 (Anthropology with a Gender & Sexuality Concentration), Robin Riskin ’12 (English with an Africana Concentration)

This seminar seeks to explore what it means to be a celebrity and the cultural half-life of fame in the age of condensing Warhol’s “fifteen minutes” into a single viral moment. We will examine constructions of “digital fame” through theoretical, historical, and practical lenses. We will begin by developing a framework of modern fame, or fame and its existence since the beginning of television. From there, we plan to examine digital renown from three distinct approaches. A broader spectrum of content, a monolithic audience, and an instantaneously aggregating communal opinion have effectively multiplied and widened the avenues to fame.

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