Dispersion as Social Experience: A Project on Facebook

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1 Dispersion as Social Experience: A Project on Facebook by Navjotika Kumar Published on the occasion of Robert Ladislas Derr s Face Book: A Social Experience Raygun Contemporary Art Projects Toowoomba, Australia November 1 to December 4, 2013

2 For part one of his project, Face Book: A Social Experience (2013), Robert Ladislas Derr travelled over nine thousand miles to Toowoomba, Australia, to enact an experiment in socialization. By physically congregating in an actual gallery space with seven scholars from the University of Southern Queensland, he sought to investigate the implications of virtual modes of socializing via social media sites like Facebook, and digital and hand- held devices, now routine for so many across the globe. This paradoxical investigation that relied on physical contact amongst living, breathing bodies in a literal space- time to probe the significance of virtual interconnectivity, underscored more than the contrast between traditional and new ways of interacting. By having each of the scholars read a sentence in turn from his or her favorite book, Derr succeeded in uncannily generating 2

3 many of the consequences for reading, interacting, remembering, and interpreting, precipitated by digital modes of communication. Like the scholars turn- by- turn reading, the works very title, concocted by splicing together the last words of their books titles, served to conjure an entirely new literary work. This make- believe work, titled Falling Gretel Dung Miss Garland Hell Spaces, is as fictitious for Derr as the identity, for instance, of the Notre Dame football player Manti Te o s fake Facebook girlfriend who he never met, but in whose name he was raising money for leukemia. Inspired by this online fiction, Derr s literal orchestration of a fictitious literary work queries the identity of, and our relationship to, printed books whose existence is becoming increasingly tenuous in the wake of digitization. Since their mass production and 3

4 circulation with Gutenberg s printing press, and even prior to this revolutionary invention, books were tools for garnering and sustaining attention. If distractedness, as Nicholas Carr has noted, is the natural state of the human brain, and once served to guard against predators and scout for resources, then reading a book entailed practicing a mental discipline that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. 1 While not the sole means for focusing attention, the reading of books necessitated combining deep concentration with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. 2 By disengaging attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with the inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions, books enabled people to foster their own associations their own inferences and analogies their own ideas. 3 The space of private, meditative, immersion ushered by books where people thought deeply as they read deeply, is 4

5 arguably imperiled by digitization. 4 The ongoing and controversial digitization of the world s books by Google Book Search so as to make them discoverable and searchable online, raises concerns about the free flow of knowledge when it is commercialized and controlled by a single entity. 5 It also portends radical shifts in how we read and the dispersion of the printed book. If to make a book discoverable and searchable online is also to dismember it, is because digitized, when and rendered accessible via Kindle and ipad, its pages are often embedded with a welter of links, tools, tabs, and ads, each eagerly angling for a share of the reader s fragmented attention. 6 Furthermore, when connected to the web and injected with hyperlinks, the book is turned into something very like a web site, that propels the reader hither and yon. 7 Along with the dispersal of its linearity that once served to hone a calm attentiveness, 8 the very status of a book as a 5

6 self- contained literary work is dissolved when it is made available, as Google hopes, to slice and dice, or for linking, sharing, and aggregating, no less clipping and publishing on one s blog or website with cut- and- paste tools. 9 This dispersal of the book, and its ethic of solitary, single- minded concentration, is literalized by the scholars collective reading from their favorite books in Derr s project. 10 By reading a sentence in turn, each reader extracts a snippet from his or her book that then links with those from other readers books to create a new type of book entirely removed from the content and meaning of any of their particular books. This mode of reading by jumping from snippet to snippet to forge a new content that is neither comprehensible nor memorable, evokes how digitization renders books another pile of data to be mined, or substitutes a strip- mining of relevant content for the slow excavation of meaning. 11 Characterized by interruption, it also realizes the very dispersion of the reader, of a sustainable thought process as everyone is repeatedly summoned to pause and resume even while compelled to continually keep 6

7 moving amongst polymorphous snippets. While this dispersed reader is akin to what Geert Lovink calls the hovering subject the online subject whose attention is perpetually solicited only to be scattered, or who is constantly browsing, checking, updating without sense, purpose, or commitment 12 - the social interaction itself that is generated in Derr s project recalls the environment of the Net that is also by design an interruption system, a machine for dividing attention. 13 In the second and third parts of his project that are comprised, respectively, of a video called Face Book, and of a solicitation to exhibition visitors to fill out a wearable wall 7

8 and make an instant book of their own human experience, Derr continues to probe aspects of the dispersed subject and printed book. 14 Thus, in the video he slowly paints his face blue and eventually impresses it in a book or literally conjoins face and book to render each insubstantial - as titles of a hundred books read by a computer (sometimes incorrectly) move across the screen accompanied by the faint sound of turning pages. Informed by the must read books for men on the website artofmanliness.com, this performance alludes to the relentless demand by social media and other sites to continually self- fashion or reinvent ourselves and manage our intricate identities. 15 Deemed by Lovink as a massive self- branding exercise, 16 or a form of 8

9 self- promotion powered by the drive to consume more and more stuff from friends and lovers, to brand products, [and] services, identity management is central now to our socialization and to how we socialize. 17 It has overtaken, as Jonathan Crary notes, the responsibility for other people that proximity entails 18 and transformed many long- standing and multivalent forms of social exchange into habitual sequences of solicitation and response. 19 Premised on externalizing and conforming all aspects of our life into pre- made digital formats, it has not only reduced perception to habit and engineered response, 20 but also ensured the atrophy or irrelevance of real- life activities that do not have an online correlate. 21 9

10 The homogenization of human experience and interaction when we choose to do what we are told to do allow the management of our bodies, our ideas, our entertainment, and all our imaginary needs to be externally imposed, is encapsulated in Derr s invitation to his exhibition viewers to create instant books of their human experience for purposes of archiving in the Face Book Library. 22 At once wryly humorous and somewhat sad, these instant books - mere husks of a previously robust technology - can be filled with any type of content or mark making by the viewer and are easily physicalized based on instructions provided by the artist using a sheet of paper. In an alternate wearable wall version, they appear on the gallery wall reduced to a placard called My Wall that is divided into categories like Books, Artists/ Art Movements, Movies/ TV, Music, Activities/ Interests, and Other, and hung alongside others. By inducing gallery viewers to reimagine and refigure their lives through these formulaic categories, they attest to the reduction of experience when there is no vestige of what used to be everyday life beyond the reach of corporate 10

11 intrusion, 23 and privacy is impossible as one becomes a permanent site of data harvesting and surveillance. 24 Indeed, through their own paradoxical instantaneity, the viewers instant books testify to the medium s incapacitation, and to that of daydream or of any mode of absent- minded introspection that would occur in intervals of slow or vacant time. 25 A concern with the virtual evisceration of delays or breaks of empty time, time unmoored from the demands of the immediate present, no less from the imperatives of efficiency, functionality, and speed, seems at play in Derr s project. 26 His mapping of its impact in all three parts is driven by how it appears to be morphing, as he notes, our psyche 11

12 and intelligence. 27 As we adjust our ways of being to the rhythms and habits imposed on us by instant technologies technologies that deter openings for the drift of consciousness, 28 or insistently seize and disperse our attention Derr s investigation of contemporary modes of socializing becomes a way of asking if we can get together, socialize, to dream of counter- projects. 29 Navjotika Kumar received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and is an Assistant Professor of Modern & Contemporary art at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Her current areas of research are in contemporary land use photography and language use in contemporary women s art. She has contributed to the book Pictures of Paintings with the photographer Richard Misrach and art historian Weston Naef, and published on the work of the Rephotographic Survey project, Jenny Holzer, and others. 12

13 Notes 1 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011), Ibid. 3 Ibid., Ibid. 5 Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid. 9 Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Geert Lovink, Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media (Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity, 2011), Carr, Robert Ladislas Derr, state.edu/derr34//facebook.html 15 Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London & New York: Verso, 2013), Lovink, Ibid., Crary, Ibid.,

14 20 Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid. 27 Derr, state.edu/derr34//facebook.html 28 Crary, Ibid., 75. Works cited Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to Our Brain. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London & New York: Verso, Lovink, Geert. Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media. Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity,

15 Image credits All images by Robert Ladislas Derr Image list by appearance in text 1. Prof. Bernadette Meenach reading Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke 2. Dr. Robert Mason reading The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez 3. Dr. Jessica Gildersleeve reading Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield 4. Dr. Beata Batorowicz reading Tales Within Historical Spaces by Dr. Beata Batorowicz 5. Dr. Kyle Jenkins reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs 6. Dr. Janice K. Jones reading The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, "Clever Gretel" edited by Angela Carter 7. Dr. Geoff Parkes reading Post Cards from America: X- Rays from Hell by David Wojnarowicz 8. Still from Falling Gretel Dung Miss Garland Hell Spaces, 2013

16 9. Still from Face Book, Still from Face Book, Still from Face Book, Still from Face Book, 2013 Special thank you to the University of Southern Queensland scholars Prof. Bernadette Meenach Dr. Robert Mason Dr. Jessica Gildersleeve Dr. Beata Batorowicz Dr. Kyle Jenkins Dr. Janice K. Jones Dr. Geoff Parkes 16

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