Language Arts

If platforms are the way we communicate now, will they always remain a second language?

On Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, you can have a monotonous task completed by offering a price — often pennies per piece — to one of the more than 500,000 Turkers stationed across the globe. You could ask workers to transcribe an interview captured on video, create and assign tags to a Flickr album, or even draw a sheep. If you wanted that sheep drawn, say, 10,000 times, you wouldn’t have trouble finding artists, even at the low rate of two cents per sheep. For $200, in just 40 days, you could amass a gallery full of sheep drawings, each unique in conception and execution, varying in appearance from cotton balls with stick figure legs to MS Paint masterpieces with careful crosshatching. You could then put the gallery online. You could call it art.

This is what Aaron Koblin did for his 2006 project The Sheep Market. By using Mechanical Turk the way other artists might use Photoshop, he made a work of internet art that emphasized the way human labor can be conducted over networks. If Mechanical Turk (which takes its name from a 19th-century hoax that presented a human hidden in a cabinet as a chess-playing robot) seems to ask human workers to masquerade as machines, Koblin’s project exposes how human uniqueness manifests even in mechanical tasks. The website for the project, which displays each sheep as a short video capturing the process of its being drawn, memorializes the often hidden labor behind Mechanical Turk, humanizing each contributor almost as if Koblin had taken their portrait.

Much as with the dominant languages we speak, we have a very limited amount of control over the structures we make use of online

Koblin’s project is one of many works that subvert the frameworks of online platforms to question the motives of the developers and the tech industry more generally (as well as the motives of artists themselves). It’s part of a subset of works that adapt the artistic practices of institutional critique and situational aesthetics to the internet. Those approaches, typified by Andrea Fraser and Michael Asher respectively, made site-specificity into a kind of medium unto itself, intrinsic to the meaning of the work, with the goal of illuminating the way curators, investors, collectors, artists, and viewers are complicit with the consumer culture they often ostensibly critique. “Every time we speak of the ‘institution’ as other than ‘us,’ we disavow our role in the creation and perpetuation of its condition,” Fraser writes in “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique.” “We avoid responsibility for, or action against, the everyday complicities, compromises, and censorship — above all, self-censorship — which are driven by our own interests in the field and the benefits we derive from it.”

In taking these tactics online, artists distance themselves from a formalistic approach to internet art — glitch images, abstract visual simulations, meme-like macros, and so on — to experiment within the parameters of platforms that organize so much social behavior now, bringing attention to these unseen aspects of technology that influence our decisions and actions.

In Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari define “minor literature” as work composed from an alienated position within a culture in that culture’s native language. They point to how Franz Kafka, as a Czech Jew who composed his works in German, wrote from the perspective of a minority operating within the majority language of his society, establishing a voice which communicated his experience more on his own terms.

Artworks that take a subversive approach to platforms — perhaps the major “language” for expression today — accomplish something similar. One could avoid using digital communication, but forgoing all the ways we can communicate through the internet — email, texting, social media, video chat, message forums — would feel like cutting out one’s tongue. Just as a society cannot function without language, soon our societies will not operate without networked systems. But much as with the dominant languages we speak, we have a very limited amount of control over the structures we make use of online. Our agency and range of expression is inevitably curtailed by platforms as well as enabled. Artworks that function as “minor literature” of the internet can expose these limitations, as well as exemplify how we might still develop our own voice within them and despite them.

Deleuze and Guattari point to three main functions that a minor literature can perform: “the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation.” That is, this kind of literature counters canonical ways of using language — which is inherently conservative in its ordinary usage, preserving conventional understandings and meanings — and proposes the means by which language can be politicized. The term minor literature, they argue, “no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature.” It reinvests a language that is infused with the cadences and denotations of status quo institutional power with a new means to express difference and to subvert its built in assumptions and exclusions. With a minor literature, “language stops being representative in order to now move toward its extremities or its limits.”

The communicative tools of the internet are designed by a select group of Silicon Valley engineers and programmers who effectively dictate the way in which we communicate, absorb information, and engage with our environment. Adapting to these dominant platforms to speak through them has come at the cost of surveillance by outside parties and subjugation to algorithmic assessment, among other compromises. Whether intentionally or not, developers have developed a digital landscape that ramps up neoliberal policy and institutionalizes certain behavior (for example, the documenting of life experience for social and cultural capital; or the rationalization of precarious and underregulated self-employment in service-industry jobs as crypto-entrepreneurship) and aesthetics (like what Kyle Chayka calls “Air Space,” the white, minimalist, eerily familiar coffee shop you can find in cities across the globe). How we choose to be and what we imagine is possible is now influenced by what has been established as sharable on social media, and the carefully curated accounts encountered there provide models for living that often mask the effort and resources they would require to sustain, assuming they are not entirely contrived in the first place.

The strategies of “minor literature” could also be used to look for cracks in the structures of the platforms that increasingly rule over us. We could use them to seek ways to take ownership of our existence on social media, expand agency beyond the bounds encoded within them or enforced by their administrators. When users, for instance, repurpose internet slang, memes, and aesthetics to critique the platforms where such iconography is born; or place political identity and ideology at the forefront of their internet personas; or build niche online communities, these help establish the foundation for resistance to received modes of communication.

How we choose to be is now influenced by what has been established as sharable. “Minor literature” could be used to look for cracks in the structures that increasingly rule over us

When art about the internet is brought up, one might think of the aesthetically oriented experiments of “net art” or physical, studio-based artworks that reference the internet’s impact on modern culture — so-called post-internet art. But one might also think of a body of works that adopt the “minor literature” approach Deleuze and Guattari associated with Kafka and Beckett and Joyce — something one might call the “minor internet.” Often drawing from methods of meddling with platforms that are part of a programmer’s vernacular, “minor internet” works home in on individual components of platforms — the API, the code, or the security features — to show how these slivers of complex infrastructures can affect our life experience. Artists like James Bridle may notice the unwelcoming tone a developer uses to deter people from manipulating code and undo it with welcoming scripts of their own (welcome.js). The electronic duo Yacht integrated Uber’s surge pricing into its work by making its video LA Plays Itself available only when pricing was above 1.0x. Some works engineer viral content (as Jacob Bakkila did by pretending to be the bot account @horse_ebooks) or design their own cryptocurrency (artist Marc Horowitz’s hCoin), or make fake websites (like the Yes Men did for Dow Chemical back in 2004), or craft fictional narratives (Jayson Musson hosted a YouTube series about art criticism, Art Thoughtz, as his alter ego Hennessy Youngman), or program their own apps or plug-ins (such as Miranda July’s texting-surrogate experiment, Somebody), all as an effort to subvert developers, the platforms they’ve built, and the society they have shaped.

Other works, such as the lonelygirl15 hoax (in which to promote a web series in development, 19-year-old actress Jessica Rose pretended to be 16-year-old high school vlogger named Bree) and Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections (in which she played herself in an invented drama that unfolded on Instagram) aim at being conspicuously on-the-nose of what audiences expect, to test the limits of obviousness in identity performance. They use platforms as performance stages to illustrate the complex ways privacy, confession, and surveillance commingle online.

Artists and programmers like Darius Kazemi, Nora Reed, and Rob Dubbin have used bots to disrupt the Twitter ecosystem, whether through pointing out the absurdity of internet discourse (Reed’s @thinkpiecebot and Kazemi’s @TwoHeadlines,) or mimicking the syntax of our internet identities themselves (Dubbin’s @oliviataters.) Not only do bots deterritorialize the language of Twitter by reconstructing the user base’s normative dialogue into provocative metahumor, they highlight how algorithms themselves have agency and become social actors in a public forum. @thinkpiecebot, for example, has over 29,200 followers, giving it a voice that reaches almost the same number of Twitter users as public figures like Devin Nunes (30,800 followers,) chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Such work fits with how Deluze and Guattari describe minor literature: They experiment with restrictions within platforms to deterritorialize them and open them to counterhegemonic use; they politicize the way platforms construe such integral concepts as authenticity, privacy, and agency; and they allow for a demonstration of a collective voice by embracing virality, cultivating circulation (and the like, reblogs, and shares, and so on that drive it) as an inseparable aspect of the content itself. Using platforms against their prescribed limitations is not merely a matter of making art. This method of subversion represents a growing movement toward what Deleuze and Guattari would label a rhizomatic rather than hierarchic structure of power, allowing social actors to interact with one another with an assumption of equal standing in society, rather than being placed at odds with one another because of class, race, gender, sexuality, or ability.

Over time, however, these oppositional strategies lose effectiveness. Just as “Kafkaesque” moods have become no more radical than Dilbert cartoons, the once-biting approaches behind many platform-subverting approaches become familiar, officially embraced by the platforms, and incorporated into conventional, prescribed internet use. Platforms end up counter-appropriating artists’ moves, as when Craigslist added a “Best Of” section to collect their most viral posts, or adopting user activism, as when Facebook capitalizes upon politically conscious profile-picture updates to produce an institutionalized collection of on-trend filters and Reactions. Often platforms tolerate seemingly subversive use because it does nothing to disrupt the platform’s overall goal of maximizing engagement. This makes platform-subversive art in a sense complicit with platforms: Rebelling against Facebook still means giving them access to your personal data, working with Turkers still requires one to pay into Amazon’s service, and Twitter allows experimental or artistic bots to thrive even when they appear to violate the platform’s spam policy.

As we learn how to speak within and through platforms, we also learn how they limit us and how we might subvert these limits. If users were able to build their own platforms from the ground up, they could directly confront issues currently controlled by monopolist developers and address concerns about privacy, identity, and accountability at the level of code. But short of that, the strategies of “minor literature” are survival skills for the interim. Developers have crafted platforms without the needs of users in mind. Yet their efforts at controlling the way we speak within all tend to remind us that they’re not fully in control, prompting new user innovations and subversions. Every time developers turn a method of opposition into a platform feature, users find another way to push the tools at their disposal. It’s a fight that has shaped the “minor internet,” and will continue to shape our new ways of speaking into a dialect of refusal.

Renée Reizman is an MFA candidate in critical and curatorial studies at the University of California, Irvine, and the curatorial assistant at And/Or Gallery in Pasadena.