NETWORK MISTAKES AND IN-BETWEEN SPACES
by Rafael Powell
A long time from now in a kingdom far away, a̶n̶ ̶e̶m̶p̶e̶r̶o̶r̶ meme-lord is tricked by two conmen into using comic sans in a high-quality gif. They sell it to the meme-lord as irony-text, a typeface whose purpose is expressing no purpose at all – perfect for shitposts. Dubious at first - it did look an awful lot like comic sans - the meme-lord eventually relented at the offhanded, ‘Only normies don’t get it’ from conman number 2.
The denizens of the internet did what they do and spread the meme, comic sans and all, each person assuming they are the only one to see the gif for what it is –cybertrash. But for a time it was good for the meme-lord. Good, until a rogue comment from an anonymous lurker asks, in seeming earnestness, ‘is that comic sans?’. And with a stroke of the key, the illusion is ruined. Ridicule of the lord cascades across the digital kingdom. Their appearance of good taste is gone and with it, their power, for power is only held if it is believed to be held. The meme-lord is rendered naked and exposed.
"I have made many mistakes, but I have never been wrong" (2020) is the third exhibition by the curatorial platform Please Queue Here. Taking its name from a shitpost comment on Twitter, the exhibition explores the sticky networks that entrap us all. A shitpost is a usually funny, typically deliberately obtuse comment or post on a digital medium. It operates across digital networks and serves no function in the system in which it operates.
Unbound by function, "shitposts" pull users and attention from multiple streams of these networks, forming contact points between users that would otherwise not have interacted, however slight these contact points may be. In this way, they reveal the geography of sticky networks in which they preside, revealing unmapped regions and nexuses. The sticky network could be a system, or series of systems in which an agent finds themselves entrenched, possibly against their better judgement or will. These networks can be digital or physical, imaginary or real. The agents stuck in these systems are often both critical of and complicit in them. They become conceptual pushmi-pullyus: the Twitter users perennially vowing to reduce their usage; Love Island viewers acknowledging its ‘low-brow’ status; or the art-world-workers permanently on the brink ‘of finding a real job’. Of course, many of these systems are specifically designed to trap and devour you.
I like to think of networks as overlapping conceptual nets, like threads interweaving in a garment, perhaps that of a powerful meme-lord emperor. They have nodes which connect various threads together, forming the net that is the structure. Unlike a web, networks do not have a centre and neither do they have a boundary, so imagine a garment that continuously loops in amongst itself, like a mobius-strip snood. Connections in a net constantly grow or wither: threads break and retie as the garment is worn again and again. As (relatively) free agents we rely on, and create, a myriad of networks on any given day. Any system of interacting people, actions, objects or concepts can create a network, just depends on its complexity. The important criteria are the communication, growth and pruning between the connections of the system. A network is living thing, changing with the seasons and a healthy network should be organic, willing to change. In the case of larger institutionalised examples, however, systems calcify based on entrenchment of once-useful-now-redundant channels. Shared belief in the identity of the network from its users force its stagnation. Enter: the sticky network, unable or unwilling to adjust to the needs of its agents.
In our daily operations, any one of us seamlessly slides from system to system, only making contact with the greater network for moments at a time: hopping from twitter to a work meeting to messaging a friend, back to twitter and sharing a GIF of a cat dancing to Christmas carols and back to work ad infinitum. Carried forward by implicit rules that are observed despite seldom being consciously confirmed, these networks weave themselves into the tapestries of our daily lives. And so we weave ourselves back into them, defining ourselves by our most relevant social network index at any given time: banker, artist, writer, driver, mother, daughter…The things we do define us and what we do is defined by the network in which it takes place. It is also interesting to note that often these network indexes are functions, verbs. We like to think of ourselves by what we do, not are, i.e., kind, intelligent, cruel, weak, brave…
The rules just mentioned are the language of a system and where there is language, there is poetry. It is in these unsanctioned connections where many networks do their actual work. To return to the thread analogy, there as the spaces between the twine and thread, the spaces holding microscopic but significant detritus. They are where the gunk gets held. And as more hair and dust and skin and other broken thread is collected in this liminal zone, so a new space is created. And so twitter develops "shitposts", Instagram grows influencers; and children become their own unique people. These liminal spaces, what Hakim Bey calls Temporary Autonomous Zones, cannot be manufactured with intent and can rarely be controlled.
And now we return to art, the art-world and the sticky space of trying to find the cracks of an industry so wide and sticky it made Institutional Critique an element of the institution it tried to critique. In a sticky world of corporate-housed artworks, mega-galleries and tax-free-art, how do you create a space free of the ‘stick’ of art-world ick? How do you make peace with the part-time-benevolence of the art industry Emperor which gifts their hoard to some and executes others? Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps the only option is to acknowledge that you need the Emperor and that their power is tentative. Artworld monoliths and hulking galleries were never going to be able to serve all of us, with our endlessly complex layers of intersecting networks, functions and desires. To deal with these, we must be nimble, ready to adapt to shifting ground beneath our feet. To tackle the in-between problems, we need in-between groups, collectives and artists, grout between the tiles holding it all together.
Which takes us back to the beginning, the shitpost. Perhaps in the humble shitpost lies answer. It is in the creation of art so inherently devoid of meaning it becomes impossible to institutionalize that perhaps you can find a meta-meaning something worthwhile because it is, not because of what it does. If art can take a bit from the shitpost, be what it is, and not what it does or how it is indexed, perhaps it can outgrow its current sticky weave and create a new one, a weave where you can make mistakes and never be wrong.
Bey, Hakim, ‘The Temporary Autonomous Zone: Ontological Anarchy’, Poetic Terrorism (New York: Autonomedia), 1991, pp.106