Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Blank Space

Today we're going to talk about who you are.

And as you're reading this on a blog, this is more about you than you might think.

Human identity, for the net-using generation, is a creative and selective process like and unlike other forms of 'art-making' people have historically dabbled in. By art making here, I'm going to be referring to a ton of different human endeavors, which can be encompassed by the idea of PUBLICATION.

We'll start with travel and authoring, and with bicycles. Imagine you're virtually kicking around NYC, checking out BikeSnobNYC's latest post incriminating and deriding fixed-gear culture. Said post picks on fixie rider, architect, and general fashonista John Prolly. Prolly's just started representing his new fixie crew, which means he published a series of photos more or less typified by this one:

Now, there's a whole ton going on here, all of it amazing, most of it covered by Bikesnob in his original post

But my main interest here is that this photo, which is being seen at this very moment by thousands of rabid bicyclists either in or out of a slim subculture, is a great example of identity by authorship. By the power of his image, prolly becomes seen by thousands as the consummate geeky/ironic fixed gear jokester that is either portrayed or satired in this picture. I say either because after a certain level of removal (say logging on from SLC, having never even been to Brooklyn) the icon and the individual become the same. Thus net prolly and real John (Prolly) Watson become one. His publication, through the internet, becomes a version of reality.

Fairly good question. Prolly, and by extension the larger world of fixed-gear hipsterism, and by larger extension hipsterism in general, which is to say those privileged and savvy and caring enough to use the internet daily in any form (whew!), are actually a very good example of image and culture in general. Because, considering the pictures, Prolly actually rides a real bike in the real world. it just translates so tastily into the aesthetic/authored experience that is the internet. Thus people (you and I) are able to create a reality virtually that enhances and idealizes our real selves.

Much in the same way that the art world is grounded in reality yet unrealistic vis-a-vis the real world. Check it out:

The Guggenheim in Bilbao, an international bastion to western art and culture, has only the most cursory of connections to Spain, let alone the Basque region within which it resides. Better, think of Dubai, UAE, where billions of international dollars are being spent on a cultural and touristic network that not only attempts to erase any sense of local culture, but actually creates its own physical space out of the water:

This is the same country that had little or no urban infrastructure 65 years ago. The money makers of Dubai are using their desert environment as a tabula rasa, much in the same way that Russian Constructivists reduced their visual expression back to the black square, or Futurists wanted to burn down museums and start over. But in the case of Dubai or the Bilbao museum the use of art isn't nearly so progressive or radical. More accurately, art has moved to the international space because it provides a clean white institutional ground from which excitement can be generated and money can be made. This has been the nature of museums since the European Enlightenment.

In our modern context, the blank slate of space, whether digital (Prolly), international (Dubai and Bilbao), or simply f*cking empty (Dubai) has become a ground upon which new capitals of money or just plain excitement can be cultivated. It seems to generate naturally into a pattern of consumption: New artists from Pakistan or Iran travel all around the world, from biennale to biennale, becoming the next hot item, the next $100 million Damien Hirst , while Prolly and his friends inadvertently move a bicycling subculture towards a 'look' that one can buy. None of these artists are at fault, it's simply how we do here in the late capitalistic model.

But here's the thing: just because the blank space gets subsumed into advertising and money doesn't mean it isn't a beautiful and glorious thing for us to play with. Our internet identities are crafted compilations of our interests; in the same way we can connect specifically with ideas and people we like, Bikesnob and Prolly being a great example of this functionality. The attention they can generate specifically towards their subculture can transcend branding and advertising, it can create a common ground for ideas and relationships. Need an example more... important than bicycling? Try Stuff White People Like an anonymous and hilarious blog that pokes fun at yuppie/hipster people in general and racializes the views, creating some great conversation in the comments section. People run up and down eachother's cyber-pages, trying to decypher who's coming from where, and sometimes even make a friend or two. Primarily, it gets people thinking.

So my idea is: extend yourself into that space, learn a lot about the world around you, and make it a little more colorful as you go.


Prolly said...

Great post man. Very cleverly interpreted and presented. Keep it up.

Joe K T said...

I've thought a lot about this in terms of (having somewhat experienced this myself) people developing a sense of self and self-confidence through internet community, where one is more easily able to express themselves without anxieties that exist in person-to-person interactions. There are no awkward silences in forum posting or instant messaging; you have as long as you want to think about what you are going to say. I know people who will only argue through emails because they don't have to worry about more physical, visceral reactions to arguments. It's easier to be more assertive and the worst thing anyone can do is reply to you in all caps.

lemmiwinks said...

That was a great and informative post, thanks! Probably the sad thing is that it took me 3 blogs (Bike Snob NYC, prolly is not probably and yours) to figure out that the photos on prolly is not probably weren't a mock up.

Frankly I'm surprised that people would dress like this and believe it to be "cool". Similarly I'm surprised that anyone could look at this photo and take it seriously.

Perhaps it's because I spurn both popular culture and the excessive consumerism it encourages, but I prefer cheap and functional to expensive and branded. I believe form follows function, which is not to say that you can't have both :-)

Davey D said...

Thanks guys,
Lemmiwinks, I agree about consumerism and pop culture, that's what sort of inspired my original post in Prolly's comments. But in his response he put it a really good way: If you can detach the money and look from it, the clothes and the brand can act as a cool community builder, a way of supporting the things you like.

but here's the great thing about prolly's crew. They're not a mock up, but they're not trying to be cool either, at least not directly. They're both self-referentially mocking the whole over the top 'burg look, while being really good and enjoying what they do. I like the two-sidedness of it, I imagine they're laughing and loving it at once.

Some things, in art and culture, are excessive. It's kind of fun to revel in the absurdity of the excess. But it's also fun to ride Ducati 916's vs. my broked-ass bike because it actually does things scary scary well :).

psychenaut said...

Found your blog from Prolly's D.A.R.T. post. Good to see thoughtful people from SLC engaging the greater international cycling scene.

I have to say that while I find the aesthetic of Prolly's crew not to my taste, I'm glad that they dare put it out there. One can be a hater and even do it to such a creative extent, like BSNYC, to make something from it. But, I think it takes more courage to just positively put it out there like Prolly.

Bike culture is for sale. That's not a bad thing. It depends on who's doing the selling and why! We peeps in the grassroots that ride every day need to make an effort to sell it so that someone, like a corporation, can't come along and hijack the original message. That's one of the reasons behind all my efforts in the past year.

I'll be reading...

The Gorbott said...

yeah very cool post. i came across this because i participated in 337 and checked out the video. anyway, i love biking but am not into the culture of it. it seems to me that it is the culture that surrounds ideas/trends that tend to disenfranchise outsiders i.e. art scenes, fixed gear culture, graffiti, so-called street art, and even religion. what fundamentally and ideologically may be positive and good becomes wrapped up in culture it seems to lose momentum and purity and beauty. do and be involved in things because you love them, not because it is getting a lot of attention. anyway, i enjoyed your ideas.

Davey D said...

yeah gorbott,

that makes a great deal of sense to me as well. I think the trick it to stay true to your passions and float between the social groups that develop around them, because here and there you'll find genuine people and genuine friends. That's certainly been my experience in some of the 'subcultures' you mentioned.

M. Foto said...

I was just reading comments on Stuff White People Like and it's nice to see some mental clarity on the internet. I linked here from your comment on Prolly's page, and though at first I thought applying Foucauldian logic to this Death Adders rigamarole was going to crash harder than Marcus Burghardt, (see ), I'm happy to admit you pulled it off. In fact applying 'nerdy art-history stuff' to the Dart boys calmed me down enough to sleep easy tonight, knowing the world wide web isn't completely dominated by "UR A DOOSHBAG" and "OMFG HIPSTERS R DUM."

btw, words of wisdom from a Stuff White People Like comment: "every time you type in all caps, your penis shrinks a little."

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