For my final quarter at school, I worked on an independent study project with Professor James Joseph Hodge, who I credit as the person who introduced me to love new media art and digital art. Throughout the course of 10 weeks, we read literature that challenged me, nourished me, and gave me footing to pursue my own arguments. The result was a 20 page research paper, titled “Cultures of Completion at the Interface: “Form Art” and the Anxiety to do Something Over Nothing”. The following is the introduction, artworks I’ve discussed and my bibliography.

Form Art

Introduction

If the workplace of the information age has a soundtrack, the album would consist of clicking, tapping, typing, swiping, and scrolling. All actions are mediated by the interface — whenever we click, tap, type, swipe and scroll, the computer listens and responds. In 1997, net artist Alexei Shulgin was also clicking and tapping away during an artist residency at c3 in Budapest. The result was Form Art, a NetScape Browser artwork using HTML, web forms and hyperlinks that was published onto the World Wide Web.

Described as a “misuse of technology,” by the artist himself, the work turns away from the way we have learned to interact with our devices, and instead focuses our attention towards the interface’s effect on our bodies, our actions and the way we are forced to work and even think. Meditating on the anxiousness often felt in the context of knowledge work and information culture, the work asks us to constantly monitor ourselves, our progress, and what needs to get done next. Quiet, soft and composed, Form Art gently intervenes, its own interface interrupting the often smooth flow of communication between user and computer, turning our critical attention back to the routinized and habitual gestures made when performing labor, and making us look and think again.

This paper explores how modernism’s influence on the graphical user interface (GUI) gives rise to a culture of completion in the context of work and information technology in the late 20th century. While previous scholarship on Form Art has focused on the work’s formalist and networked qualities, I am interested in the ways the work’s significance triangulates worlds of contemporary art, mass culture and design. Bringing together “aesthetic of administration” of conceptual artists of the 1960s that emphasized information and bureaucracy, the culture of knowledge workers and information technology in the 1990s, and the aesthetic responses to the hyper-commodified, mass-mediated, performance-driven world of late capitalism, Form Art responds to a cultural phenomenon of work in the information age by eliciting an anxiety to do something over nothing — our need to feel productive when in fact rarely are we producing, but simply performing the gestures in order to manage ourselves and our progress.

“Completion” can best understood as the cultural imperative for white collar knowledge workers to orient themselves towards productivity. It is not only about the accomplishment of the work itself, but the small upticks of satisfaction upon accomplishment, and the looming anxiety of what is to come next — altogether fueling a way of living and being in the contemporary, digital world. Gently and quietly, Form Art’s user traces the process of working towards the completion of something, whether as mundane as checking boxes, selecting bubbles, or typing text. Our reflexes might fluctuate between conscious and mindless clicking, while our responses oscillate between anxiety and comfort; frustration and satisfaction; feeling unproductive and productive.

This paper begins with an analysis on the repetitive gestures, cyclical feelings and forms of labor that arise and are associated with the completion of work in the industrial and information age. This sets a foundation to posit how interface design iterates on modernist design principles and concurrently, how the ungrabbable nature of the digital environment intensifies our anxieties. Finally, focusing on the glitch as a threat to the user of information technology, I compare how in contrast to other artworks that deploy the glitch as an aesthetic form, Form Art takes a step back, with soft glitches that are more administrable for the user. By placing the affective and aesthetic responses of artworks in the foreground, against the history of the GUI in the background, one can start to piece together a set of attitudes and forms that describe a culture of work facilitated by information technologies — an anxiety to complete that runs pervasive and has crystallized into a habitual activity of our everyday lives.

Works discussed

  1. Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, 1997
  2. Richard Serra, Hand Catching Lead, 1968.
  3. JODI, Wrong Browser, 2001
  4. Jon Satrom, Prepared Desktop: Plugin BeachBall Success, 2012

Bibliography

Bolt, Richard. “‘Put-That-There’ Voice and Gestures at the Graphics Interface” in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin,and Nick Montfort, 433-439. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

Bosma, Josephine. “A Net Artist Named Google,” Rhizome, January 12, 2017. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/jan/12/a-net-artist-named-google-1/.

Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions.” October 55 (1990): 105-43. doi:10.2307/778941.

Engelbart, Douglas. “The Mother of All Demos,” filmed December 1968 at the Association for Computing Machinery / Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (ACM/IEEE)—Computer Society’s Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJDv-zdhzMY.

Flusser, Vilém, Anthony. Mathews, ProQuest, and ProQuest CSA. The Shape of Things : A Philosophy of Design. 1st English ed. London: Reaktion, 1999.

Galloway, Alexander R. “Internet Art.” In Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, 208–238. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Galloway, Alexander. The Interface Effect. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander. “Jodi’s Infrastructure,” e-flux, June 2016, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/74/59810/jodi-s-infrastructure/.

Greene, Rachel. Internet Art. Thames & Hudson, 2004.

Heidegger, Martin, John Macquarrie, and Edward Robinson. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008, 228-235.

Hoy, Meredith. From Point to Pixel: A Genealogy of Digital Aesthetics. Dartmouth, 2017.

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Nielsen, Jakob. “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,” January 1, 1995. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/.

Nielsen, Jakob and Donald Norman. “Usability is Not a Luxury,” 2000, https://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/usability_is_not_a_l.html

Norman, Donald. “Why Interfaces Don’t Work.” 1990

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Norman, Donald. “Why Interfaces Don’t Work”

Pasternack, Alex. “Something Wrong is Nothing Wrong: Jodi.org,” Motherboard, December 30, 2009, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/gvvndq/jodi-something-wrong-is-nothing-wrong.

Paulsen, Kris. “Ill Communication: Anxiety and Identity in 1990s Net Art,” Come as You Are: Art of the 1990s, ed. Alexandra Schwartz (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2014), 67.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “SAIC Alumni Profile: Jon Satrom.” Accessed June 1, 2018. https://vimeo.com/49114211.