Queen Lear

We are running across an example here and there of online “content” (le «contenu» en ligne) crossing the species barrier and entering the world of meatspace – rather like a some transmissible spongiform encelopathy or a universally-fatal megatoxin carried out of a crumbling Siberian lab in a secretary’s purse.

We do not refer to the inverse practice of creating some kind of Web site for a book or film or stageplay or leatherperson contest. We refer to creations that spread their tiny wings in this line we call on.

We hope to offer a rather unexpected example later, assuming we are not barred from entry for arriving a claimed 40 seconds late as on our first laborious attempt. In lieu, we ask: If you drag crap offa Web site and plunk it in a museum, is it actually Art, and is it still Online?

We recall, in our dim prehistory, the œuvre of Dennis Potter, author of a staggering range of intertextual televisual musicals in which nuggets of popular music are used as plot devices, the actual lyrics acting as dialogue and metacommentary. All the big intellectuals seem to remember The Singing Detective, a title that must be pronounced as in the series, with eyebrow raised; a prosody akin to “You see what I mean?”; and a strong syllabic emphasis (“the singing detective”). The big intellectuals seem to have overlooked Pennies from Heaven and Lipstick on Your Collar, the latter featuring a young Ewan McGregor, who would later engage in his own intertextual metacommentary by enacting a structurally equivalent role in Moulin Rouge.

Evidently some hot-to-trot New York museum set up a series of “screenings” of The Singing Detective. You were thus invited to schlep downtown, pay an admission fee, and sit in an uncomfortable room full of strangers watching TV. (Not akin to digital film, shurely?!)

We find this unnatural. Television is meant to be experienced televisually – at home with cat fur on the carpet, an encroaching awareness that you need to go brush your teeth, and solid walls to deaden the gnashing of teeth at captioning atrocities. Similar war against Nature took place in “screening” the British Queer as Folk at homosexualist film festivals.

History samples itself in a kind of Frere-Jones Meta-Refresh Remix® when online art presents itself at the museum.

Jon Haddock’s “Screenshots,” a series of gamelike re-creations of famous journalistic photographs, made it into the recent “BitStreams” show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. [...] Last year was a banner year for the video game maker Maxis, a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, because of the success of the Sims, in which players can control the lives, homes and relationships of virtual people. Mr. Haddock, the Phoenix artist, had never played the game but was intrigued by its promotional material. He created his Screenshots series by using Photoshop to give a Sims-style isometric view of well-known and sometimes violent images or events like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Mr. Haddock’s work has been shown in Seattle galleries and at Arizona State University as well as in the Whitney’s “BitStreams” exhibition last spring.

Mr. Wright described the images inspired by his video game “cool in a creepy way”; the Whitney show’s curator, Lawrence Rinder, said that they provoked reflection on the roles of violence, entertainment and memory in society.

Actually, no. They merely prove the point that new media give us new ways of seeing (pace Berger). The coarse-resolution video-game motif proves itself adaptable to real-world phenomena, just as video games do the opposite, reaching for higher and higher levels of verisimilitude, like OS X icons.

This phenomenon has sputtered forward in fits and starts over the years. A deplorable music video by Paul McCartney (“Où est le soleil?” 1989) pretended to be a video game, years before the deplorable music video by a band whose initials coincide with those of the Redhead Cluster Phenomenon (“Californication,” 2000) did the same. Emigre bitmap typefaces grew increasingly outmoded, but are still sold, skiamorphs of the démodé low-resolution grid.

(By the way, isn’t it cute that Mr. Haddock never played the Sims before cloning its style? Similarly, everyone knows the look of Tron, a resolutely unwatched film.)

Although such works by Mr. Haddock, 40, have drawn a lot of attention, their public nature in some ways limits the potential payoff. Anyone can print out the images from his Web site and frame them without compensating him. He works as a property manager and handyman to help support his wife and two young children.

(It could be worse. Mr. Haddock could be forced to work as office lady.)

We return to the theme of inappropriateness of locale:

Mr. Galloway, who is now working on animations that will run on hand-held Game Boys, said that museums were often poorly equipped to handle such exhibitions. “It’s really difficult to exhibit artwork meant for the Web,” he said. “Many museums default to this cybercafé style, where they put a bunch of computers in a museum space. Sometimes it works with comfy couches and really good connectivity. But there are so many examples of museums who didn’t have the right people on staff, and half the time the computers aren’t even up and running.”

Wasn’t Dennis Potter perfectly happy to write for television? (Sure, he wrote films. With any luck, few of you will recall Brimstone and Treacle. But the Potter milieu was TV, full stop.) It seems like museums need to project a sort of matronly prestige upgrade on someone like Potter: Your work is too good for TV. Let’s give you a hand up by running it in our classy museum.

Are Mr. Haddock’s “Screenshots” genuinely improved, are they really a better experience, when blown up to “22.5″ × 30″ digital C-prints” in an uptight museum, where you are expected to walk by the pictures, take a look for only a seemly period of time, then click your heels against the blond hardwood toward the next “Screenshot”?

(We recall a great many photography exhibits at a great many museums. Cindy Sherman was the worst.)

It is all too fake and obvious to pull the Web into museums, also unconvincing, like the Fool of King Lear as transvestite. Dragging the Web upmarket is as pleasant and natural as the Fool’s immortal line “Take my dildo.”

We postulate that Web art does not require a quality upgrade. This is not Midnight Cowboy, not Pygmalion. Web art does not need a sugar daddy, nor does it need to grow up and learn which forks and spoons to use when dining at le Cirque.

Some other day, we may interview designers of museum Web sites to explore why they are all, without exception, user-hostile, overly Flashy, and excessively high-tech.

In the interim, we note this delightful quote from the delightful Lev Manovich (NUblog passim):

“I see things in modern art that I’d like to see in video games,” said Lev Manovich, a writer, artist and associate professor of visual arts at the University of California at San Diego. “Different points of view, subjectivity of characters besides the first person, the sophisticated design of modern architecture. Why do games have level designers but they ignore modern architecture?”

Just what we need. First-person shooters blasting the shit out of postmodern office towers with tetrahedrons on the roof.

Posted on 2001-08-09