Summer Reading


Books came today! A chunk of my summer reading for Comparative Media Studies in the fall arrived: Alone Together by Sherry Turkle, the only required book, along with The Information and The Wealth of Networks, both of which are recommended. The other recommended books are James Carey’s Communication as Culture, John Fiske’s Understanding Popular Culture, Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New, Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media, and Internationalizing Media Studies, edited by Daya Kishan Thussu.  I don’t plan on finishing everything by September 1, but I’ll get through as much as I can.  I’ll be posting thoughts here as I go to keep all the words straight in my brain, so check back if you’re interested in discussing any of the above works.


And while I’m at it, here’s my non-academic/non-work reading for the summer.  I’m looking forward to the fiction keeping me sane.


Happy reading, everyone!

Art of Science

Over the past week or so, I’ve been diving into the Ptak Science Books blog entries on anatomical illustrations, a completely amazing, complex, almost frighteningly well researched series.  (Benefits of blogging for a bookstore, I suppose.)  Today I came across BodyMaps, a 3D, 360 degree, annotated, searchable anatomical model of the human body.  Looking at it in the context of Ptak’s curated illustrations, it’s a fascinating next step in the production of laymen-accessible anatomic modeling.

When I was in Pittsburgh, I volunteered at the Carnegie Natural History Museum, as an illustrator.  I worked in the Mollusk Section, drawing insect specimens and shells for the scientists and researchers.  (You can find some of my illustrations over at my Flickr page.)  It was one of my favorite things to do, sitting in the lab after hours with my scope, pens, and specimen tubes label in minute, precise handwriting with the location and date of collection.  Scientific illustration is about precision and accuracy (some species of beetle can only be differentiated by the hair pattens on their legs or the microscopic structure of their genitalia), but there’s a good deal of interpretation that falls to the artist as well.  Audobon’s birds are clear and accurate enough to be matched to individuals in the wild, but they are each also endowed with a lively personality.  In the lab, I spent hours fixated on a dead brown spider pinned to my mat, though I am terrified of the living, skittery things, trying to coax some illusion of life into my drawing.

The drawings highlighted by Ptak are filled with humor, intentional and unintentional, and exquisite detail, the kind that makes my drawing hand hurt.  The artists I worked with at the Carnegie were eager to embrace digital visualization tools like the kind used in BodyMaps, and I’m excited to see how the field of scientific illustration adapts to new technological capabilities and scientific demands.

Quick Thoughts: “Right Wing Radio Duck”

A quick reaction to rebelliouspixels’ “Right Wing Radio Duck,” which premiered at Open Video earlier this month and has been tearing up the intarwebs (even prompting a response from Beck himself).

The video is a great example of the technical mastery and depth of cultural knowledge we’ve seen in Jonathan McIntosh’s other work (see “So You Think You Can Be President?” and “Buffy vs Edward”). McIntosh has the form of classic Disney cartoons down pat (including the ubiquitous paranoiac pseudo-psychedelic dream sequence), and weaves Beck’s rhetoric seamlessly through the piece.

I’m left with questions at the end, though. Donald Duck, driven by constant paranoid and isolationist harangues coming from his radio, buys access to Beck’s “Insider Extreme” package (“It will explain everything that is going on…”). When it arrives, the vaguely sinister-looking contraption berates Donald Duck to face reality, stop wasting time and money on things he doesn’t need, and advises him to “GET A JOB!” Donald destroys the Insider Extreme Machine with a shotgun, wipes the dust from his hands in satisfaction (“Good riddance!”) and the piece closes to triumphant music.

If we follow the thread of ideologies through the piece, we start the anger of the Tea Party class: the world is unfair, you are (somehow) getting screwed/left behind, be angry! This anger turns into paranoia and fear, which are manipulated by Beck’s disembodied voice to a near psychotic fervor, culminated in the ill-advised purchase of access to the snake-oil Insider Extreme Club. At that point, the illusion is broken and the *new* voice in the machine turns out to only mock and abuse his only listener. However, that listener rejects what the new machine is offering and destroys it. So, my question is, what ideology fills the vacuum? Donald Duck has violently rejected the abusive voice in that machine (that he paid for with the last coins in his piggy back), but there is no indication that he has renounced the ideologies that drove him into its arms in the first place. I am left not knowing what victory has occurred here.

The distressing thing about Beck and other related cultish ideologies is that there is never a moment, within the fold, of actual revelation. There is constant enticement to deeper levels of the “inner circle,” usually for a price, but there is never a dose-of-reality “Gotcha!” moment of the kind depicted here. They are in it for the long con.

At the end of the video, there is no redemption. Donald Duck has not realized that he was being manipulated. He only heard a voice he did not like (not even did not agree with, just viscerally did not like) and silenced it. It is not even clear that his anger at the Insider Extreme Machine extends to the original voice of manipulation (he does not destroy his radio, for example). The video leaves Donald where it found him: angry, alone, and ready to pledge allegiance to the next appealing voice out of the radio.


If your ears need some quality entertainment this Thursday, you should wander over to Radio Berkman, and check out the podcast I co-produce (with Dan, who is awesome) on anti-trust and technology markets! It features interviews with Ken Auletta, Gary Reback, Brain Chen, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Phil Malone and Greg Hughes, as well as a great conversation between Jonathan Zittrain, Larry Lessig and some eager interns on where anti-trust is going in the future!

Disorganized Remix Primer 2: Remix as Communities

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

So, you know those videos on YouTube of folks, alone with a webcam, showing off their mad guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela skillz? Or those “learn how to play a guitar/drum/harmonica/vuvuzela videos? Israeli musician Kutiman took countless YouTube videos of just those sort, as well as other uploaded videos of musicians, singers and dancers, and mixed the video and audio into a seven track piece titled Thru-you. (All his sources are linked on the project’s website.) What I find particularly astonishing about this piece is the way in which Kutiman created a communities of artistry through his sampling. In the first track, “The Mother of All Funk Chords,” different videos are played against each other in such a way as to create a literal conversation between the videos. It is as though the viewer has stumbled across a trans-geographic and trans-temporal jam session.

One of the primary virtues of the remix genre is how it enables the creation of communities: both communities of remix artists and communities of artists whose work is being remixed. The chance that the original creators of Kutiman’s source material would have encountered each other is vanishingly small. For the most part, each source video is, in and of itself, a creative endpoint: a non-interactive, non-generative artifact. Thru-you spurns on that generatively and interactive potential by forcing the work into an active and creative conversation with its fellows. It informs the works and the creators that they are members of a community. Moreover, by painstakingly citing and linking to its source material, Thru-you enables its viewer to join the same creative community by revealing what were formerly final performances (the original source videos) as creative tools.

The next trio of videos inspired similar thoughts about the nature of community in remix culture, but of a slightly different nature. Honestly, the “Lisztomania” Bratpack phenomenon could fuel more analysis than I has space for here, but here goes. Here is what happened:

In May of 2009 the French alternative band Phoenix releases the album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It’s pretty fabulous. “Lisztomania” it its first track.
Sometime after that (the timeline is muddled because the original video has been taken down) YouTube user avoidantconsumer (account currently suspended for TOU violations) posted this tribute video:

31 May 2009: YouTube user thepinkbismuth posts this “tribute to the tribute”:

18 November 2009: YouTube user chinorockwell posts this (at this point) tribute to a tribute to a tribute:

Since then, videos have been posted from Amsterdam, Paris, Winnipeg, and elsewhere.

These videos are all part of the same community, joined together by virtue of the content they are producing, the conversation they are having (there are also several videos commenting on that conversation in and of itself). While the community typified by Thru-you is one of sources created/curated by an artist, the community here is one created by the remix artists themselves. By choosing to reinterpret the same content, they are declaring themselves part of the same community. The cost of entry to this community is a video camera and a YouTube account. Permission does not need to be asked to join the conversation (though, as we can see in the case of avoidantconsumer, active participation can be revoked by a specific third party).

Avoidantconsumer’s original work can be easily slide into the sub-genre of mashup: a derivative work meant to force a comparison or conflict between a small number of sources. In this case, we have the iconic imagery of John Hughes bratpack films from the 1980s against Phoenix’s hit song. So what, then, are all the subsequent videos? They are no longer only commenting on the source material, in fact, by their video performance they are obliterating half of it. Instead, the commentary is now on the commentary or as thepinkbismuth puts it, a “tribute to the tribute.” The source material has been transcended, the community and the conversation itself has become the focus and the primary virtue and joy for those involved.

Disorganized Remix Primer 1: Speech-Based Remix

This primer makes no claim to expertise or authoritative knowledge. Rather, it is a compilation of interesting cultural objects that partake in different, yet related, forms of “derivative” or “appropriative” creativity that could generally be defined as “remix.” Have a favorite video, audio recording, or other artifact not included in this primer? Leave a link in the comments!

The Symphony of Science is an ongoing project headed by John Boswell, an electronic musician based in Washington. Boswell combines original compositions, still images, video, and the speech of famous scientists (both unaltered, and processed using the “auto-tune” technique, which more-or-less exaggerates the tonal cadences of normal speech using a computer program) to produce music videos celebrating science and scientific exploration. So far, six music videos have been produced, and the samples used have come from sources such as Cosmos, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, The Eyes of Nye,, and The Elegant Universe

By making scientific speech musical, Boswell taps into a wealth of whimsy and playfulness that is often at the heart of the best of scientific research (“these are some of the things that molecules do…”). The musical speech anchors the scientific and philosophical speech in the mind in a way that would be impossible were it simply spoken.

Boswell is not the only remix artist using auto-tune techniques to play with the power of human speech. The best work of Auto-Tune the News has illustrated, much better than any public speaking textbook, the close connections between skilled rhetoric and musical performance.

On the other side of the “found speech” coin is Revolucian‘s club mix of Christian Bale’s infamous on-set freak out, mirrored with a similar incident involving Barbara Streisand. Unlike the work of Boswell or Auto-Tune the News, Revolucian leaves the tonal content of the found tracks intact, choosing instead to play the rhythmic cadences of Bale’s and Streisand’s speech off themselves. The piece exploits generated and perceived conflict between the two “singers,” satirizing both the personalities and the initial incidents (both of which were publicized via leaked videos at the time).

channel surfing through humanity

I spent an unreal amount of time last night flipping through ChatRoulette. I was bored and avoiding a paper, and everyone had been talking about this thing which was going to corrupt the youths or something. So I fired it up and off I went.

And wow.

ChatRoulette embodies a great deal of what I love about the internet.

Here are some things that happened to me in the few hours I spent on ChatRoulette last night:

-I made two friends (a chef in Milwaukee and an engineer in Brussels)
-Someone sang me a song
-Someone drew me a picture
-A longstanding debate was settled (whether or not eating hair was cannibalism) with the help of a cute girl and her mustachioed posse in Minneapolis
-An engineer introduced to me all his desk toys, and I introduced him to mine
-A group of education grad students in the Netherlands and I compared book collections
-I met a paralyzed boy in New York who typed, rather speedily, with a long stick affixed to a head brace

And there were lots more little random encounters, tiny conversations that didn’t go far. I love the randomness of it. I love the tiny glimpses of people flickering through my screen, and that I’m traveling through theirs too, skipping around the world like a stone on the surface a river. The whole thing just seems so damn magical. I’m here and I’m also there, and then I’m yet another there again. It’s a potent, raw example of the internet’s ability to simply connect people. Click Play, and suddenly you are staring at someone on the other side of the planet. What are you going to talk about?

danah boyd has an excellent blog about ChatRoulette and the “moral panic” it’s engendering. Highly recommended reading on this topic. She points out that as it exists now, ChatRoulette is too transgressive to be around for very long. I wonder what it will turn into, and I hope the raw connective power it embodies will not be dissipated in the name of some hyper-protective moral code.

I’m waving my little flag in support of the randomness of humanity.

addendum: There’s a new exhibit near the Mollusk Section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I spend most of my Thursdays. It’s on population explosions, human and otherwise. The numbers are literally incomprehensible. It’s all you can do to stare at the world population counter on the wall, ticking up a few individuals every second, and not be terrified or reduced to gibbery jelly on the floor. The internet was supposed to allow us to reach out from where we are and touch the sheer masses of people and cultures and information that are out there. As it stands now, though, huge swathes of the internet are instead narcissistic echo chambers of white, Western tech/thought. While I’m not going to argue that ChatRoulette is the solution to the domination of Western culture on the net, it is refreshing in that it just doesn’t care. It rudely kicks you out of your comfort zone and intrudes you into someone else’s life and it doesn’t matter who or where that person is. If they’re on the site, they’re fair game. It’s a hint of those roiling, unpredictable masses of everything outside the front door.

I say often that the internet is fundamentally a conversation, and you’re either interested in the content of the conversation (ie: IP law) or who is involved (ie: security). The content potential has, for me, just gotten a lot more interesting.

Helene Hegemann

A week ago, the New York Times ran an article about the curious case of Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old author whose first book, Axolotl Roadkill, landed at number five on Der Spiegal’s best-seller list and was a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, which comes with a $20,000 prize purse.

It’s now been revealed that sections of Axolotl Roadkill were copied from other published sources, most notable a novel, Strobo,” by Airen. But (dramatic twist!), it appears that the judges panel for the Leipzig Book Fair had been informed of the plagiarism charges before Hegemann’s book was selected as a finalist and decided they didn’t matter.

When these accusations surfaced in the press, Hegemann did not duck, but acknowledged that copying had taken place. However, she claimed she didn’t see the problem, after all, she was “mixing” the work of others, not copying it, “putting it in a different context,” and “[t]here’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Hegemann’s defense leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On the one hand, she claims the shield of remix and appropriative culture, while with the other she waives away the responsibility of the remixer to acknowledge original sources by claiming ignorance of citation practices. For me, this case is troubling but clear cut. Sources must be cited OR MUST BE OTHERWISE OBVIOUS (as in the case of an image of Mickey Mouse or a corporate logo). Especially if you are pulling verbatim text from an identifiable author, you must cite. To not cite is not to remix, but to attempt to pass off another’s work as your own, which *is* intellectual theft. (and for the purposes of this blog, I am talking only about verbatim copying, which is alleged, and substantiated in this case. We can talk about stuff like hyper-referentiality later.)

One of the defenses she offers is that of recontextualization. How could she have been copying when she was placing the material in a new context? However, due to the lack of proper citations, there is no recontextualization actually happening in this case! If the audience cannot recognize what has been borrowed, then they cannot recognize when it has been recontextualized. This argument relies on the recognizability of what is being borrowed, which was not apparent in this case.

And then there is that last quote, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…”

Hegemann obviously completely misunderstands the arguments made against the cult of complete originality and the canonization of the Inspired Artist. Regardless of the relative quality of her book, she does herself, and the remixing generation she claims to represent, a disservice by denigrating the authors’ she borrowed from, because to not acknowledge them is to cut them out of the creative equation. You have destroyed the social and cultural value of remix if you refuse to involve those creators you have pulled from.

There was a video released a few weeks ago by normative, which examined the art of remix from just this social perspective. The social phenomenon of remix is just as important as the artistic creations it allows to be created. To remove a work of remix from its social web of influences and referents is to deny that it is an act of remix, and instead condemn it to being merely intellectual theft.

The New York Times: Author Says it’s ‘Mixing’
The Independent: Publish and Be Damned

Dennis Loy Johnson: Dern Copyright

Kseniya Simonova

In thee same vein as my Visual Storytelling entry last week, check out this video of this year’s winner of “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” Kseniya Simonova, whose real time sand painting/animation technique is completely fascinating. My lack of Ukrainian language skills or any real understanding of Ukrainian history only hampered my understanding of her work a little. The story is conveyed very clearly in a purely visual medium. (Though the fact that she leaves her hair down completely terrifies me. I keep thinking it’s going to sweep down off her shoulders and ruin everything.