The Rarest Book

The history of rare digital art doesn’t make sense without Rare Pepes.

Pepe the frog is a cartoon character, originally created by Matt Furie, that turned out to be catnip for Internet meme creators. Some of these memes were formatted as trading cards in order to create humorous simulacral cultural fakes called “Rare Pepes” which were shared on imageboards and then sold on eBay and other marketplaces. In reality, digital images are difficult to make “rare”. They circulate as infinitely copyable files on the Internet. There is a “The Simpsons” meme for this, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.

The Rare Pepe Blockchain Project took the problem of making rare pepes actually rare seriously and ran with it. It catalogues rare pepe images registered as blockchain-stored metadata in small editions of Bitcoin-based Counterparty XCP tokens. Social media clique exclusivity thereby becomes blockchain artificial scarcity. I talked about the economic and social dynamics of this in “Tokenization And Its Discontents“, but it is worth emphasizing (as Jason Bailey and others have) that one of the outcomes of this was the whole “rare digital art” market. While they do represent a valuable alternative to the economic and social dynamics of the existing artworld, the current rare art tokenization platforms amount to a gentrification of the Rare Pepe Blockchain Project, obscuring that more liminal aspects of their origins and discarding some of their possibilities in the process.

“The Rarest Book” is a physical volume created by Eleanora Brizi and Louis Parker collecting 36 series of Rare Pepes, 1774 in total, along with essays that cover the history of the project and put it in context. It’s a fat paperback edition with a striking green cover, as playful and comprehensive as the work it covers. The Rare Pepe Blockchain Project shows the strength of social and memetic content for building community and value in crypto projects. It would be difficult to produce such a book about most other tokenized art platforms, which tend to lack a unifying theme, iconography, or curatorial approach. If you don’t want to view cartoon frog trading cards as conceptually rich contemporary art (although there is always the MODERNPEPE token on the back of the book in that case), step back and look at the project as a whole. This book is an excellent way of doing that and makes a strong case for the interest, value, and alterity of the project.

So order a copy before it becomes even rarer. There were only 300 to start with. Find out more here:

https://twitter.com/ELEONORABRIZI/status/1187549332519686144

Critical Coins

dogeart
(Illustration from: http://ofdoge.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/art-doge/, copyright the artist.)

To make the process of art reviews and criticism more transparent and quantifiable, we can use cryptographic asset tokens to represent critical opinion and valences.

See here for how:

http://robmyers.wpengine.com/critical-coins/

Work In Progress: Some Art

poops

“Some Art”, html5 canvas and JavaScript animation, 2014. Work in progress.

The People’s Platform

The People’s Platform” (TPP) is a frustrating read. An anti-techno-utopian critique of the economics and politics of culture on the Internet, it contains much interesting research and some useful ideas but is hamstrung by a year zero activism approach to the history and current state of the struggle for liberty and sustainability in technology and media.

Year zero activism has two planks. Firstly, the situation has never been worse and only now are activists starting to tackle it. Secondly, anyone who may appear to have previously done so is actually part of the problem. Previous activism is at best ineffective and at worst exacerbatory, previous activists were tone deaf to or in reality made worse the very issues they sought to address.

In TPP this leads at times to an almost ‘pataphysical identity of opposites. Google and Wikipedia are both “open”. Chris Anderson and Richard Stallman both use the word “free”. The nadir of this approach comes later in the book when TPP is explaining the economic and thereby cultural harm of free culture and free software:

Cohen is highlighting a value that has long been central to any progressive movement: respect for labor. From this angle it’s clear that “copyleft”, as the free culture position on copyright is sometimes called, is not “left” in the traditional sense. As Richard Stallman told me, he designed copyleft to ensure the freedom of users to redistribute and modify copies of users to redistribute and modify copies of software. Freedom to tinker is the paramount value it promotes, but a left worthy of the name has to balance that concern with the demand for equality, for parity of wealth and power.

There’s no part of this that’s right.

Stallman’s creation of copyleft was a product of the political development of Free Software in reaction to the alienation of the products of hacker labour. It’s an answer to the property question, which is a question of the left “in the traditional sense”. It entails respect for labour, and ensures that workers can charge for and be paid for their labour.

Users who modify and “tinker” with software do so via programming, that is by working as programmers, by performing the labour of software development. Software developers are first of all software users. If you are not free to use software you are certainly not free to develop it. The same is true of cultural production, a point that TPP seems slightly more open to.

“Copyleft” is not a blanket term for free culture approaches to copyright, it is the name of a particular licensing approach that seeks to address the restrictions of copyright. There is no single free culture approach to copyright. There are copyright abolitionists, copyright libertarians, copyright socialists and those, like Stallman, for whom copyright’s ironisation by copyleft is a means to a political end.

Seeking to reduce free software and free culture to a progressive left wing movement rather than retain the nonpartisan approach that has seen their successes (or, as TPP would have it, has led to identity with their proprietary others) would undermine them. It’s classic entryism, finding a successful specific social cause to shame into attempting more general radical politics. It’s an approach that is doomed to failure.

And copyleft is precisely intended to equalise wealth and power in the use of software. You can share that wealth, and you cannot exert power over anyone else to prevent them from doing so as well. What you cannot do without breaking the effectiveness of copyleft, and what each new critic of copyleft is drawn to like a moth to a flame, is to yoke copyleft’s reflexive ironisation of copyright on software or cultural work to extraneous political objectives.

TPP continues:

Copyleft, with its narrow emphasis on software freedom, even when broadened to underscore the freedom of speech implications of such a position, offers a limited political response to entrenched systems of economic privilege, and it does not advance limits on profitability or promote fair compensation. Free culture, with its emphasis on access, does not necessarily lead to a more just social order.

Ignoring the slip from free software to free culture, the slip from social to economic justice, and the inaccurate characterization of free culture as emphasizing access, this is a political erasure. Free software and free culture may not have provided grossly coercive tools to the political left but they have, by TPP’s own explanation of their redistributive and deprivileging effects, led to a more just social order. And it requires precisely the ‘pataphysics of “free” and “open” that TPP develops to argue that they limit compensation but not profit.

Later, TPP calls for the development of more socialised alternatives to Web 2.0’s ad-driven surveillance model, and for the development of more equitable alternatives to unpaid cultural workers trying to live on whuffie while making Silicon Valley CEOS rich. I agree that this is vitally important. I’ve worked on several myself. I’ve seen creators paid, clients satisfied, citizens communicating, audiences enjoying media, with millions of dollars put into the cultural economy and tens of thousands of people engaged each month by projects I’ve been involved in. There is absolutely more work to do, but ignoring existing efforts or worse conflating them with the problems they exist to address will only ensure that this is always the case.

There is another key conclusion of TPP that I agree with wholeheartedly. We need a sustainable ecosystem for culture. That is, we need technological and economic systems that sustainably align consumption and production incentives with each other and with political and creative liberty. And state and corporate mechanisms for spreading risk absolutely have a part to play in this. But as blank media levies and the deep packet inspection consequences of the proposals of “Promises To Keep” show, this is a task that needs approaching with an insight and subtlety that both pro- and anti- free culture activists often lack.

In this sense at least TPP is not year zero, it is business as usual.

Cybersalon January 2013

Cybersalon

Legendary London net culture meet up Cybersalon has returned with a new home at The Arts Catalyst. The first event in the new series was appropriately retrospective, being devoted to the history of the digital design scene that has centred on Shoreditch from the 1990s to today, from self-proclaimed “Ditcherati” to government funding for “Silicon Roundabout”.

Richard Barbrook’s introduction explained the history of Cybersalon. Begun in mid-1997 by Armin Medosch it ran until the mid 2000s, getting kicked out of the ICA for getting too popular along the way. Barbrook also made the case for remembering the specific contributions that London made to cyberculture during this period. Beside the stage, old pre-iMac all-in-one Power Macintoshes displayed Antirom interactive multimedia CD-ROMs alongside brick-like mobile phones and floppy disc-based digital cameras from 1997. The scene was set for an evening of media archaeology, design criticism, and cybercultural history.

Jim Boulton’s presentation gave a history of the optimistic and fertile interaction of art, design and commerce that was London’s interactive multimedia and web design scene from the mid 90s to the mid-2000s along with its historical re-evaluation with INTERNET WEEK in 2010. Laura Jordan, despite having just lost her archive to a hard disk crash, told her history of being inspired to edit a feminist cyberculture zine in Australia after encountering a VNS Matrix poster then starting the world’s first cybercafe in London before finding success in design business and academia. Next Craig Blagg critiqued the tools and content of the design of web sites from the 90s to the state of the art. Finally Jordan chaired a discussion between Boulton and Blagg, with additional questions from the floor and from the net.

Seeing old and often long-forgotten work was nostalgic, and there was a sense of loss voiced by some of the audience. The dial-up Internet’s alterity has been squandered to build the walled gardens of social media. But the audience also reminded us that the wildness and openness of the early web is still with us in the form of Anonymous, Wikileaks, and the legacy of Aaron Swartz.

Even before this, what moved the event far beyond nostalgia was the way the history of digital design was presented critically, both in the sense of warts-and-all introspection and long overdue rediscovery and re-evaluation. Both provide an inspiring contrast to the contemporary Internet. The knowledge and awareness that Cybersalon gives us of the potential of the Internet to be different than it is can help us to start reclaiming a fun, abstract and fantastical Internet.

The World’s First Bitcoin Artist

I am now accepting commissions for drawings of bitcoins, paid for with bitcoins.
Email me at rob at robmyers dot org to arrange payment and delivery.
(Value of materials guaranteed to be less than value of Bitcoin. Media will vary, size will vary up to letter/A4 size. Should the value of a Bitcoin drop below the cost of materials and international postage commissions will not be accepted. E&OE.)

New Music

Zola Jesus – Stridulum 2

Cathedralic, filmic, operatic synth-backed (not in the cliched 80s revival sense, but in a more interesting unusual noise sense) modern goth. Already transcending the genre, and in doing so moving it on. There are no such thing as goth bands, only goth fans.

Pretentious, Moi? – Pretentious, Moi?

Pastiche eclipses parody in this enjoyably over-ripe meditation on 90s goth. A guilty pleasure, not to be listened to unironically.

Underworld – Barking

Underworld cash in dance music’s debt to them, helped by a variety of guest producers, with their best new album in ages. Just ignore the godawful last track.

Factory Floor – A Wooden Box/Lying

Like Zola Jesus Factory Floor have both a strong music-historical literacy and a desire to break out of that cage through experimentation. There’s no point in repeating cultural experiments, even when that experiment is “Floorshow”, but again there’s great promise and immediate rewards here.

Ulterior – Kempers Heads

Drum-machine backed rock that’s aware it’s 30 years since the first Dr. Rhythm and that you really need to sound like you’re on a stage rather than in a bedroom. Psychedelic in its hypnotic, driving beats and rhythms. Goes great back to back with Factory Floor (and vice versa).

Interpol – Interpol

Do you remember Interpol? Interpol do, and they sound just like them here. It’s the sound of the end of something, but no less enjoyable for it.

The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing – Now That’s What I Call Steampunk Volume 1

Steam? Check. Punk? Check. A comic but nonetheless critical take on applying class consciousness to victorian science fiction. They lose one punk point for being able to play their instruments and gain one steam point for the first wax cylinder release of popular music in a century.

The Sisters Of Mercy – Forum, 9/4/09

Half a lifetime ago I saw the Sisters of Mercy at the NEC in Birmingham. It was the biggest and loudest gig I’ve ever been to, a spectacle that left me unable to hear properly until I got back off the coach on the return journey. Every time the Sisters headed offshore after that I promised myself I’d go to see them again.

Last Thursday (9th April 2009) I finally caught up with them at the Forum in Kentish Town. I wasn’t expecting too much. London audiences have a bad reputation, the band had cancelled some gigs the week before due to illness, and reviews of the tour although very positive had complained about how quiet the mix was. But the pubs on the way to the venue from the tube were packed with fans (some wearing The Mission t-shirts, presumably to troll 😉 ) and there was a carnival atmosphere that carried over into the actual venue.

I positioned myself next to the amp stack, evaluated the moshpit and the bright young things who were waiting to push to the front, and waited for the smoke machines to start. Which they did, just for a test, before starting up again as Nurse fired up the Doktor (trans: the sound man turned the drum machine on) and the packed out crowd enthusiastically welcomed the band on stage. From the sweating half-naked moshers and shoulder surfers at the front to the loligoths at the back and the fans in tour t-shirts old & new acting as a buffer zone inbetween, everyone sang along with the old songs and applauded the new.

The Sisters are a tight, capable live act. The new songs are the equal of the old, and in some cases better. The new arrangements of old songs (post-industrial rather than post-punk) work well and have been polished over the course of two extensive recent tours. This was great live music. It feels strange calling a drum-machine based band “live”, but that has always been part of the point.

A singer, two guitarists and a drum machine all hidden in dry ice and silhouetted by a lightshow is a simple recipe but it works well. To complain that the band cannot be seen or that they aren’t chatting with the crowd or that they are relying on technology too much is to miss the psychodynamics of the event for the trees. The Sisters are at core an ironization of popular music. They started by combining disco drums with indie guitars at a time when to do so would have been like mixing oil and water then stuck lyrics that aren’t just boy-meets-girl over the top of them. Over the last three decades the culture industry has adopted the Sisters’ technological dialectic of musical forms as its own, but entirely without the irony or lyrical ambition. The Sisters still sound good though. The book hasn’t been destroyed by the cartoon version.

A disagreement with their old record label means the Sisters haven’t released a new album in almost twenty years, but new songs still turn up in the live shows and although those songs represent a very different musical and geopolitical world to the old ones they still have a rare power and depth. And they are good to bounce up and down to, wave your arms at, and sing along with. Which I am not going to leave as long next time until I do so again next time.

Turning Software Inside Out

A review of FLOSS+Art (the new book I have an essay in):

As our familiarity with software deepens, the question of its cultural understanding looms. Here Tony Sampson reviews FLOSS+Art and Software Studies: A Lexicon, two recent books which attempt to open up the black box to a wider audience

see Mute magazine – Culture and politics after the net.

Non-Relational Aesthetics

Sometimes, in a free society, we may read things that we not only don’t agree with but that we find personally offensive. For me, Charlie Gere’s “Non-Relational Aesthetics” is that book. It is the most godawful piece of shit ostensiby about art that it has ever been my misfortune to read. But rather then firebombing the publisher, as Gere defended other aggrieved critics doing recently, I’ll commend Artwords Press for seeking out new voices and encouraging readers to engage with ideas that they might not otherwise encounter.

If anyone wants a copy let me know in the comments and I’ll send you mine, post free.