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Partying at the Divine Ass End of the Web   ]

by Peter Schmideg

As the tech-sector of the economy collapses around us, one may assume that the vision of computer technology which fueled the tech-based stock market boom of the late 1990s must also vanish into the past. But was there anything even remotely visionary about that techno-vision? What did it ever have to do with the arts? It had well-nigh everything to do with the Nasdaq. Sadly, to this day for many Americans the face of computer technology remains the face of two businessmen, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, respectively the founders of Microsoft and Apple Computers. Indeed, Bill Gates became a mythological figure. Not only was he the richest man in the world, but during the brief period dubbed by media pundits as the "Information Age," Gates embodied the darkness surrounding the computer industry, with Microsoft looming like some ravenous cyberbeast, feasting on the entrails of other tech-companies through its proprietary software.

Think about it. By the turn of the 21st century software became an integral part of everyday life. Yet until the proliferation of personal computers in the early 1980s the word "software" had resonated as mere tech-jargon.

If Steve Jobs appeared a knight in shining armor it was only in comparison to Bill Gates; for while the Macintosh may be a sublimely elegant tool, it is mass-produced and can no more be pushed beyond the box than a Microsoft-driven PC.

Elegance scarcely translates into artistic freedom.

In the end, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs treated computer media as seamless extensions of traditional media, and this goes a long way toward explaining why the Web, that ultimate means of expression for digital artists, finds itself in a fuzzy period of transition, leaving behind a dotcom graveyard littered with virtual corpses and entering a randomly derezzing techno-forest where one can't see the technology for the tech.

In terms of describing our present situation I can only draw an analogy to that old adage about trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. At one end of the spectrum the Web masquerades as traditional media (radio, television, magazine/newspaper publishing, etc.) and at the other end art galleries masquerade as living spaces wherein someone plops down in front of a personal computer to experience "web art" not really on the Web. It's rare to see computer technology/software used for the purpose of harnessing the Web as an entirely unique means of combining/distributing imagery, text, and music.

SHARE parties, held Sundays at the Openair Bar in New York City's East Village, are a step in the right direction.

SHARE is run by Lloop, Geoff GDAM, and Newclueless.

Is "party" the right word to describe what goes on every Sunday at Openair? I asked Lloop.

Lloop: I always end up saying ";Yeah I host a party on Sunday evenings." People don't understand it when you just say "PowerBook Club."It sounds like a lot of card tables and fluorescent lighting.

At SHARE parties programmers sit with their laptops at low tables in a smallish back room or at Openair's bar located in an equally snug room. Not everyone comes with a laptop. Folks hang out, have beers, mill around, check out what's going on, ask questions of the programmers demoing their audio and video software. Original mixes play over the sound system. Video, fed from a laptop in the back room, plays on a large rear-projection screen in the bar. There are also monitors in the back room showing video feeds from sundry laptops. Plus, of course, audio and video stream out live over the Web from the SHARE site.

I ask Lloop if SHARE has a longer-term goal, either through becoming a commercial distribution entity or by evolving (de-evolving?) into a more traditional new media gallery space à la Location One in Soho? Or is SHARE content to be what it is?

Lloop: I don't know, there's a lot of trading and little bubbles of communities on the web. My reasons for wanting to start SHARE were pretty selfish: live audio performance, which isn't really happening on the web, because it's not live if you're not in the room anymore, and it's more fun to interact with people through more than a chat box. It's been an amazing experience for me, mainly because I am rewarded as SHARE itself grows. Everyone involved is kind of selfish. They bring their own interests, which they are seeking to promote and enhance. It's like a magnet for people with similar interests, and the more people come the more rewards for everyone. Long term goals would be for things to develop out of SHARE. I don't think we would "pack it all up and move it to the big city," you know...Trenton.

Which brings us back to the Nasdaq and hard times for technology stocks. The tech-induced late 1990s stock market boom resembled the California gold rush of 1849. In both instances greed redefined a landscape in an unexpected fashion. In 1849 prospectors flocked to California hoping to discover gold. Alas, there was precious little gold to be found, and so the majority of folks who made money off the gold rush were in the service industries: i.e., supplying the suckers seeking gold with their daily needs. Nevertheless, the prospectors and service industry workers triggered a population boom in California. Prospectors become farmers, service industries expanded, California attained statehood in 1850, and the greed which spawned the gold rush ghosted into an analogy to similar outbreaks of greed like the "irrational exuberance" of the late 1990s when, due to a near hallucinatory take on Web-based companies, people invested wildly in dotcoms until the bottom fell out from under the stock market. Yet by the same token that the gold rush led to California gaining statehood, investment in Nasdaq tech-stocks caused the Web to flower.

The Web's flowering had everything and nothing to do with money; for while AOL, Amazon, and E-Bay made billions of dollars, these companies were fully dependent on mirroring their markets on the Web. In order to make money they had to bend with the market. Truly, it can be argued that the only reason AOL, Amazon, and E-Bay survived the tech collapse is that to various extents they understood that the real impact of having oodles of money invested in dotcoms was that it made it possible/affordable for millions of people to go online, browse the Web, and - albeit unbeknownst to themselves - in the process of browsing delineate the Web's parameters.

My first contact with the Web was as an import. The Pseudo Online Network imported me from radio to produce and host an online radio show. However, before going further I must confess that my attitude toward communications media has always been one of amused detachment. I'm fascinated by the manner in which new mediums feed on older ones. Thus when Pseudo beckoned I was intrigued. Pseudo fit the mold.

Back when cinema was young it fed on theater, importing stage directors, playwrights, stage designers, and stage actors to make films. Eventually cinema found its own aesthetic, and in later years "stagy" became a pejorative designation. In its infancy radio too fed on stagecraft, striping drama and comedy of visuals in favor of a "theater of the mind;" but for me, listening today to tapes of old radio broadcasts, I clearly hear an aesthetic transition - specifically a transition in tone - from actors seemingly speaking lines before an audience on stage to DJs spouting DJspeak straight into microphones and newscasters reciting lines in newscasterspeak. Television combined, then shed, aspects of radio and cinema. The first television shows were stagy adaptations of old radio shows, to an extent incorporating cinematic technique, but, because early television was presented live, only the most primitive kind. Ultimately, television found its aesthetic through an almost surreal rendering of unreality which peaked with so-called "reality shows." The reality of television lay in its realization of unreality.

It made perfect sense that Pseudo would initially imitate radio and that later, as bandwidth allowed, it would imitate television. And it was inevitable that Pseudo, along with other dotcoms of its ilk, should fail. Which brings us back to SHARE.

SHARE exists in a magical vacuum at the divine ass end of the Web. The divine ass end of the Web reduces itself to nuance. That SHARE streams audio and video jams during its Sunday parties is somewhat incidental to what SHARE is about. SHARE is about being there, observing...detecting nuances. It has nothing to do with killer applications, although some of the programmers strutting their stuff may think it does. SHARE transcends programmers - no, rather, it transcends any of their programs, but not because the programs aren't any good. Some of the programs I saw demoed were exceedingly cool. It's just that the human element is where magic resides. SHARE serves as an alchemical laboratory wherein software demos inspire a flow of ideas.

SHARE made me think about why computer software and the Web had become such vital parts of my life. In so doing it forced me to question the complexity of my tools, and here is the humble insight I gleaned:

Sitting at the Openair bar drinking a beer, mindlessly ogling imagery pumping on the low-rez rear-projection screen, I vaguely felt like the Jeff Bridges character in the science fiction film "TRON," the first film in which a character was visually represented in cyberspace. In "TRON" cyberspace proved totally cartoonish. Once enveloped within it, Jeff Bridges' character became cartoonish himself. No, I didn't feel like a cartoon character, but I did become deeply aware of a certain low-rez cartoon ambience emanating from the computer-generated visuals glistening in the darkened three-dimensional space I sat in. What I was looking at wasn't being streamed over the Web yet in its low-rez essence it proved an exquisite mock-up of a Web presentation veering just at the edge of science fiction without quite stepping over the line into fantasy. It had both nothing and everything to do with cyberspace, which, in my mind's eye, came into focus, only to evaporate. The notion of cyberspace died - obviously the notion, not the reality, since cyberspace was never real. Science fiction writer William Gibson came up with the term. How real is digitized graphical information seen a step removed from the way it's ordinarily viewed on a computer monitor? Real enough to spark an epiphany. Graphics took on a formative quality, tremulously separating the environment I found myself in from the video technology delivering imagery to me. It dawned on me that graphics functions like a virtual honing mechanism, inexorably determining our our eyes' path scanning a computer monitor. So the reason that via links I peppered this article with images from the QuickHoney site is that there are no images on the Web which better illustrate my point. I believe that Nana Rausch and Peter Stemmler, the two artists behind QuickHoney, are kindred spirits to the sort of artists who attend SHARE parties. Yes, I should mention that SHARE is every bit as much about art as it is about software and programming.

Which, finally, brings us right back to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, neither of whom would fit in particularly well at SHARE parties. However, Steve Wozniak would fit in. Wozniak co-founded Apple Computers with Steve Jobs. Woz was the techie, Jobs the businessman. Because Woz was a practical techie who appreciated imagination, he'd get off on watching young programmers struggling to push their Mac PowerBooks beyond the box.

© 2002 Peter Schmideg