When I spoke to artist Rhiannon Armstrong and programmer Rob Grundel about creating their online Archive Of Things Left Unsaid, I had it in mind that Rhiannon would talk about the artistic process and Rob about the technical process. Everything we talked about confirmed the fact that there is no clear division: their approach is highly collaborative, both voices feed artistically and technically into the outcome. Sure, Rob knows how to code in C++ and the project is a development of Rhiannon’s live relational art piece, but it seems as though the distinction ends there.
Rhiannon: He’s an artist as well as a programmer. Or an artist within his role as a programmer.
Rob: It was so great when I met Rhiannon, because at our first meeting she said ‘obviously you’re an artist’. I really appreciated it. It’s not like she’s the artist and I’m the developer.
It’s an easy quality to recognise in both of them, particularly in the way they discuss the development of the project. In fact, I felt bad about having the preconception that the artists are the artists and the coders are the coders, that the coders are just digital dramaturgs. Still, creating art online requires a particular skills set – the ability to code, to design websites – that most people, let alone artists, just don’t have.
The more interesting distinction that they drew was between devices. Rhiannon and Rob have pre-empted something that most content providers haven’t really come to terms with, and that most of us don’t really think about: the specificity of devices. I don’t really want to watch iPlayer or Netflix on my tiny phone, but I do on my big laptop screen. And I’ll happily read my Twitter feed on my phone, but I don’t like reading longer articles on it. Most content is multi-platform, it’s optimised for mobile devices, so that we can read and watch on our phones while sitting on trains but it’s still the same content just in a different size. This piece is a ‘long read’. Sit down with your laptop or tablet, take the time to digest.
Building the online performance from scratch has forced the two of them to think about these distinctions carefully and to focus on aspects of online interaction that are embedded somewhere in the subconscious.
Rhiannon: You can talk endlessly about minute details of design.
Rob: What we’re discovering is that humans pick up on cues. If something is too slow then we interpret that in a certain way. All that semiotic stuff has so much baggage, but it’s also incredibly fun to play with.
It’s easy to tell when a website is spammy, or scammy or just amateurish. There’s a set of intuitive standards that we can recognise. I’ve recently started using a Kindle app, and have noticed a number of habits I have when reading a hard copy book: I always flick ahead to find the end of the chapter, I always turn to the last page to see how many there are. I recognise the shape and the physical standards of the page without ever registering them consciously – off hand, I don’t know if books are generally left-aligned or justified, I don’t know how much margin is generally left around the words. But it is easy to recognise aberration from these standards.
Rhiannon: We look at a transition and we’re like ‘hmm, too fast”¦can we change it by a quarter of a second?’
Rob: And when it works it feels right, it’s when you start responding to it.
Rhiannon: It’s interesting but also a source of anxiety – discovering, and maybe not being fully clear on, the way we feel online. I’m experienced at understanding the way people feel in life, or in a room, but in this I’m trying to figure it out as we make the piece.
That transition, from physical world to digital, changes the audience’s relationship with the piece completely. The performer can no longer pick up on the subtle responses in the audience. Rhiannon can no longer adapt to the smallest facial reactions of the person she is performing to.
Rhiannon: The place where performance or the impact is happening in my mind is in the space between my face and the screen, the emotional space there, the fraught space. Maybe you can think of it like a venue, or a context, and the quality of this context (she gestures between her phone and her face) is really different from the quality of that context (between face and face). And we’re trying to effect a comparable experience.
With that phrase, ‘the fraught space’, Rhiannon shifts the focus of performance from ‘the empty space’ of the stage to that place between stage and audience, that highly charged gap. And, online, the fraught space is no longer the space between real alive audience member and real alive performer; now it is the few centimetres between face and screen.
Rhiannon: Except I don’t think of it as turning a one to one performance into an online piece. In 2006 when I made it I was just starting out as an artist and I didn’t really have the confidence to make a show, but I knew that I spoke to people as a person.
The relational element, that someone has chosen to come to Rhiannon’s live performance, to enter the room and experience it, is difficult to maintain online. Online experience is much more about quick, easily digestible consumption (being fed content from our various feeds) than it is about profound experience (apart from those videos on Upworthy and Wimp about dogs who lose their legs from dog cancer and then they get new artificial legs made and are reunited with their owner who’s just spent 18 months serving his country heroically in Fallujah but then the dog has to come out as being a bisexual dog but the heroic soldier who has heroically served his country loves him still anyway – those are profound bits of content, obviously).
Rob: The thing we don’t do with our smartphones is give ourselves time and space. My wife woke up this morning and before she spoke to me she looked at her Instagram feed. We fill up our time and our space with this garbage. And so we want you to take some time. We’ve been talking about setting an appointment for this performance. So maybe in half an hour make sure you are sitting somewhere quietly. Put a barrier there, make the participant think ‘this is something I really want to do’ rather than just ‘I want to consume the damn thing.’
By asking the participant to set an appointment, Rhiannon and Rob clearly mark out what they are doing as a performance – as something that is attempting not to be just another piece of content, but an artwork that can, hopefully, elicit a genuine, emotional reaction from the participant. Because, otherwise, the division between performance and, well, just living is so unclear. There are not only the many, many performances of fame-seekers and wannabes on YouTube, Vimeo, Soundcloud; the very utilisation of social media is an act of performance, and we play out private performances to the people who interact with us.
Rhiannon: A friend asked if I would put a silly profile picture of myself up on Facebook because she had one too, so I put this really silly picture of myself eating a pie. And then something about the profile picture and that conversation resonated with me, and how one picture has to embody everything you are, and there’s all this pressure. So from that moment all the pictures I have are of me eating. The food is in my mouth, it’s not pretty. And then 2011 was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day and it was the same day as Pancake Day. I was really annoyed that Pancake Day was taking over, so on that day my status was ‘Rhiannon Armstrong is a feminist’ because I felt it was important. And from then on all my statuses have started ‘Rhiannon Armstrong is a feminist”¦’ Those are my two Facebook performances.
Until recently my profile picture for a couple of years was my friend and me pulling the same face (I suppose the insecurity within me liked the ambiguity of people who don’t know me that well being fooled into thinking that he – smarter dressed, more attractive – was actually me). And I realised a few weeks ago that most of my recent tweets were about funny or unusual people I’d seen on trains. There is nothing profound about these ‘performances’ but I think they are performances nonetheless. This plays into the way that the instinctiveness of online interaction has slowly infiltrated the minds of those who spend much of their time on the internet. It is easy to flick through a Twitter feed, because I know to pause at the avatars that I think will offer me the most interesting content. In creating the online International Archive Of Things Left Unsaid, Rhiannon and Rob have, perhaps not consciously, exposed the subconscious mind at work. The performance has not yet been performed, but in the creation process they have already struck at something profound: that brash instinct guides – and has to guide – our overloaded minds when we filter through the huge deluges of data that comprise our interaction online.
Let’s Talk About Boundaries: Online Scratch 2