on April 28, 2009
I bought this book on a whim at the Armand Hammer museum's gift shop; the bright colors on the cover and the refreshing lingo and hip visuals--which almost give it the aura of a VGA monitor--throughout the book had enticed my curiosity, and I figured that in the worst case, USER:INFOTECHNODEMO would at least make for a decent coffee table book. As it turns out, USER was a fun read, and Mieke Gerritzen's creatively designed and ever-changing fonts and graphics forced me to slow down my reading pace and to soak up Lunenfeld's speculative-but-illuminating theories.
USER is composed of fifteen essays which were originally written for the international magazine artext. In the introduction, Lunenfeld declares that he has "an obsession with doing theory and criticism in real time," and that these essays are to be approached as "utilities, not manifestoes," which synthesize digital technology, pop culture and visual design. As for the diversity of his essay topics, Lunenfeld says that readers will "have to determine for themselves if this range is symptomatic of pluralism or promiscuity." While the essays are, at times, tangential and cover a range of topics from video games, pop culture, visual design to life extension diets, at no time, however, did USER seem self indulgent.
In For Ever, Lunenfeld criticizes our desire to indefinitely extend our lives, as he mocks health zealots and other member of the "anti-death league" who believe that they can significantly increase their life spans through nutritional supplements and other such alternative options. As he points out, the only strategy that has stood up to scientific scrutiny, is extremely reduced caloric intake--an option which Lunenfeld finds unrealistic in our super-size-me society. In a cynically dark tone--emphasized by the black and grey color scheme on the essay's last page--Lunenfeld advocates for French fries and milkshakes while we wait for nanotechnology that will eventually be able to repair our DNA.
Extrusion Vertigo's color scheme is limited to a simple black and white, which in Eisensteinian-like opposition, allows the reader to easily read the chaotically dizzying topics addressed. The essay begins with the native L.A. malady that Lunenfeld suffers from whenever he sees stars such as Stallone whose normally flat-screen-existence dizzies his three-dimensional perceptual apparatus. Unlike his neighbors, Lunenfeld would prefer not to meet any stars in real life, and is ill-tempered towards our culture's obsessions with stars. He wonders why the industry grips, PAs, 2nd unit ADs and effects producers don't grow tired of celebrities, and comes to the conclusion that below-the-line toilers are fans first and foremost, which is why they're in showbiz. Also, Lunenfeld points out that the profit-driven "Entertaindom's global reach" and tesseracted media commodities--from URLs on lunch boxes to personal fragrance products mentioned on Xmas albums--have increased the pressure to develop, sustain and recycle celebrity, whose images constantly inundate us.
Under Solitude Enhancement Machines, Lunenfeld points out that the lewd content of the web capitalized "nicely on the desires of the one-handed typist," and that in the future, sociologists will have a field day investigating the effects of heterosexual males pretending to be each other's female love slaves; Lunenfeld proceeds to contemplate the Glasstron, a universal masturbation machine, which is connected to a wireless PC and is a gateway into the tele-world's pornoverse.
In Permanent Present, the World Fairs of the early 20th century are given as examples of old visions of the future; Lunenfeld claims that up until the 60's, our futures were mapped out, printed, animated and manifested in theme parks and films. Since the 70's, however, our ability to envision a unique future has all but disappeared--leaving us in a permanent present. Lunenfeld, perhaps, overconfidently asserts that no film has been able to surpass Blade Runner's representation of the future, whose architectural and Retro-Deco design have been--at best--rehashed in cinema. Even The Matrix takes place primarily in a future which, conveniently, looks much like our present day. However, Lunenfeld seems to go too far in claiming that the window-based graphical user interface that we have all grown accustomed to--which was conjured in the 60's and perfected in the 70's--is so well developed that it is "an impediment to thinking beyond the present," and that the "very notion of transcending the Windows interface invokes horror in users." After all, to envision a future beyond the Graphical User Interface, one need not look any farther than Lunenfeld's Solitude Enhancement Machines, where the universal-masturbation Glasstron is noted, and in which digital information is transmitted trough the sensation of touch. Furthermore, one could claim that the GUI has increased our awareness of the current separation between the physical world and the virtual world, and caused us to envision a future in which that boundary is blurred.
Visual Intellectuals is a colorful essay--literally and figuratively--which begins with the claim that whenever intellectuals express themselves they generate a discussion that can never truly be about anything other than them; according to Lunenfeld, this explains why the discourse in art history, design criticism and new media studies, ultimately resides around the discourse itself. Apparently, visual commentary should be more visual and use words less. The meta-criticism of the web in web pages such as suck.com (which contains links to web pages that suck) is used to illustrate that art and discourse are constitutively indistinguishable. However, one can't help but wonder if Visual Intellectuals would be more poignant if it had also critiqued itself.
TEOTWAWKI is an acronym for the end of the world as we know it; in this essay, Lunenfeld laughs at the Y2K scare, which he claims was a pessimistic antithetical response to the optimism that the internet had recently created. Indeed, the real horrors of the 21st century should remind us that "acronyms are not the greatest terror we face."
The chaos of TEOTWAWKI is followed the orderly Master List, which analyzes our obsessions with lists, from phone numbers (which only have seven digits because that's the highest number of items we can hold in our minds) to the majority of lists that consist of winners and, ultimately, pay tribute to Number One. Within financial lists, Lunenfeld exemplifies the feedback-loop characteristic of lists in the fact that the most popular shares on E*Trade where, at times, shares it E*Trade itself. Lunenfeld is concerned that the world's lists are becoming extremely homogeneous and prophetically encourages us to keep in mind lists such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial which successfully balances the individual and universal.
Gameboy starts off with Chris Marker's claim that video games offer more insight into the unconscious that all of Jacques Lacan's work, and continues to analyze role playing, fantasy and the interplay between video games and art. After which, 25/8 examines our want of more than just 24/7. Today, actors become singers, singers strive to be painters, painters attempt to be film directors, scientists become entrepreneurs... As individual identities become ambitiously fluid, institutions such as museums are also losing their identities; exhibits such as King Tut have introduced the blockbuster, and the multimedia experiences that are transforming museums post a threat to what it is that defines a museum anymore.
Urine Nation--whose fonts and backgrounds are constrained to the colors black and yellow--explores the abundance of variations of Pissing Calvin bumper stickers and how urinating is not as transgressive as it was during Mapplethorpe's Jim and Tom, Sausalito and Serrano's Piss Christ (Lunenfeld claims that, at the time, these works almost killed the National Endowment for the Arts). Apparently, this "deluge (one just can't give up these fluid metaphors)" became accepted through the increasingly lewd content of the web's unregulated and competitive pornography. Having mentioned porn, Lunenfeld takes off on a tangent and, once again, claims that digital technology was driven by the male consumer's desire for porn:
"What are business travelers in anonymous hotel rooms watching on all those DVD-equipped laptops? Not to be sexist here, but in the first two years after the service was generally available, was anyone you knew who installed a high-speed Internet connection to their homes a single woman?"
And yet, one cannot help but wonder if Lunenfeld is confusing cause and effect; just because the porn industry is quick to adopt new technologies, does not necessarily mean that technological progress is caused by the consumption of porn.
Figure/Ground considers the unstable binary between a figure and its background which threatens to pop past the figure to which it is initially subordinated to. Lunenfeld credits Freud's Interpretation of Dreams for popping the unconscious into our foreground: "WITHIN A GENERATION WE WERE NO LONGER UNCONSCIOUS OF THE UNCONSCIOUS," whose presence in Rear Window and Rope is unavoidable. Lunenfeld skims over pops such as Vertov's "Kinoeye," M.C. Escher's drawings, Cubism, Sixties Pop (which flipped the figures of high art and the ground of low culture) and ultimately proclaims that "information is finally emerging as the key figure for this new century."
Wireless Cosmopolitan does not refer to a new alcoholic drink, but rather to the emerging demographic of people who view themselves as citizens of the world, and whose global community is united by wireless telecommunication. Lunenfeld criticizes the consumption of TV-garbage, which he blames for manufacturing a general consensus in which even anger is seen as just another demographic which corporate subversion targets. The cosmopolitan community, on the other hand, is credited with sophistication, cunning and a culture which does not inherit as much, but tries to create instead. By anti-Romantically trying to free themselves from their folk cultures, cosmopolitans often encounter hostile accusations of being unpatriotic. Lunenfeld rightfully critiques the artificial and xenophobic construction of a cosmopolitan/patriot binary. As he insightfully points out, "Rootless cosmopolitan" originated in the late 19th century as a term for unattached drifters who were seen as lacking allegiance and moved for profit. Frighteningly, websites of the Liberty Lobby, the National Alliance, and the Council of Conservative Citizens and other such "race-patriot sites" still use "rootless cosmopolitan" as a euphemism for Jew.
Lunenfeld often mixes opinions with theories, but, perhaps, this is a consequence of "doing theory and criticism in real time." Also, USER reads like a collection of hypertext; the essays' order is almost inconsequential--enabling the reader to leap from one enticing essay title to another--and yet each essay ends on an even numbered page (i.e. - on the left side) whose content and graphic design is successfully juxtaposed against the succeeding essay's first page. Thus, viewed as a whole, USER exceeds the sum of its parts precisely because of a montage-like synthesis between the essays--each of which shines an additional light on the dialectic between technology, art, contemporary culture, and discourse itself.