Tag Archives: Roman Forum


txtI recently came across a form of Japanese poetry known as renga or renku. It has developed over the centuries into a number of specialized subforms and spinoffs (one of which is haiku), and some of these have begun catching on in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. But the main forms of renga all share a few key characteristics: they are made up of alternating 2- and 3-line stanzas with a specified number of syllables or beats per line; they are written collaboratively by a group of authors; and they are written to a predetermined length within a given time (usually a few hours). They may have a set theme, and the most traditional forms include a large number of conventions about the deployment of certain subject matter, such as words referring directly or obliquely to the seasons.

But their true distinctiveness, in my opinion, springs from a rule of thumb known as ‘link and shift’ that provides the guiding impulse of movement from one stanza to the next. As the phrase suggests, each stanza should link back semantically or syntactically to the preceding stanza, but at the same time should shift the subject, voice, setting, action, and/or mood as radically as possible. For example, here are a pair of stanzas from a 2005 renga entitled “On the Road to Basra“:

rumors of a heat wave
in the Sea of Serenity

someone explains
the difference between friendly
and unfriendly fire.

One link between the stanzas is the concept pair heat/fire; another is the antonymic pair serenity/war. The shifts include changes of subject, implied person, and tone.

What principally struck me about renga is how much they have in common, formally, with the online textual improvisations I generated with my performance group the Plaintext Players, starting back in 1994. Our texts were also created collaboratively—improvised on the spot—and they were grounded in a set topic. They also followed a link-and-shift structure, although this operated somewhat differently from renga. In the online environments where we worked, the linking sprang mostly from the collaborators’ shared aesthetic of responsiveness to each others’ thoughts, while the abrupt shifts were often accidental, resulting as much from the overlapping nature of online chat as from any desire to change the subject. In both cases, the text owes a great deal to the way a gamelike structure (rules, a challenge, a goal) will set loose the impulse to group play.

Here, for example, are a few lines from one of our online improvisations. Originally entitled “Babbalog” (from The Roman Forum Project 2003), it’s been slightly edited to accommodate the renga format:

“Columbia Lost!”
“Last Message from Shuttle:
Roger, and Then Silence.”

I wanted to be an astronaut.
There were bits on ebay within hours.

We think we can fight a war without casualties.
No one wants to talk about the economy
when they can talk about war instead.

We are all waiting.
Waiting to live through this.

One evident difference is that there is much more repetition in the online improvisations than I’ve seen in the handful of renga I’ve read. That undoubtedly has a good deal to do with the frenetic speed of our improvisations, as compared to the more deliberate pace at which renga are composed. Another difference is that whereas renga are created by authors writing poems, the Plaintext Players texts result from performers enacting roles. But it’s not these kinds of details that really interest me here—it’s the fact that in the same period of time (the last decade or so) an impulse to collaborative, ad hoc textual improvisation surfaced as two different practices in two different circles of American culture. What is the lack being answered in such varying ways, by one set of people sitting in a circle writing poems on paper, and another set of people sitting at far-flung terminals role-playing in cyberspace?

Note: For more about renga, check out the articles on this site (which has a particularly clear article on the history of renga) and this one.


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , , , |


rainy gateway webcam

random webcam image

I’ve been in love with webcams practically since they were invented. The protoypical webcam, at Cambridge University, was aimed a coffeepot, setting the basic theme for all subsequent webcams: the melancholy of the banal. Tethered to one spot (or at least to a computer), located according to dictates of convenience rather than, say, aesthetics or drama, their images archived and then ignored, they epitomize the most reflexive qualities of the present information deluge.

Their complement is the cameraphone: free-roaming, relentlessly chasing drama, chaos, and rebellion, and demanding from us at least a passing moment of attention. I am interested in cameraphone images too, but I find them easy to assimilate to an already well-developed history of personal snapshots, travelogues, street photography, and photojournalism.

pet rabbit webcam

random webcam image

Webcam images are much more perplexing: they sit uneasily in the landscape and still life genres, asking the same question in a thousand shades of meaning: why this picture? why would anyone bother to capture this particular image? They require us to try to construct an explanation, often of a very labored kind; whereas the typical cameraphone image is culturally self-explanatory (of course they snapped that picture when they had the chance).

I am reminded of this line from Gary Zukav’s Dancing Wu Li Masters:

“The importance of nonsense hardly can be overstated. The more clearly we experience something as ‘nonsense’, the more clearly we are experiencing the boundaries of our own self-imposed cognitive structures.”

When I look at the images that issue from webcams, what I see is the boundary where our self-imposed mandate to Take Meaningful Pictures runs up against infinity.

Empire State Building webcam interface

Empire State Building webcam interface, looking south towards the 9/11 cleanup site in 2001

My first project using webcams was The Roman Forum Project 2003 at the Beall Center for Art + Technology in Irvine. I was in California on 9/11, having just moved there two years before from New York. So in the aftermath of that terrible day I felt like an exile, needing not just to follow the events there as all Americans did but to reconnect in some more direct sense to what I still thought of as my city. One day I went searching for webcam views of New York and stumbled on the fact that there are two user-controllable webcams at the top of the Empire State Building, one pointed south and one north. The south-facing camera could be aimed at the 9/11 clean-up site, and for many weeks I logged on regularly to check out what was happening and to collect screenshots. (The Empire State Building site archives its webcams, but even though my first visit was only a couple of weeks after 9/11, the archives from that day had either auto-expired or been removed. I wonder if those images are now stashed in some federal archive.)

"Repubocracy", 2003

still from "Repubocracy", 2003

I used these stills as a green-screen style backdrop to a video monologue segment of The Roman Forum Project entitled “Repubocracy” [play video] that is an intense spew covering the history of Euro-American use and abuse of the terms ‘republic’ and ‘democracy’. It begins:

“Junk now this Earth this noisy globe this spinning where no eyes are minute lump of congealed dust where I see from this vacuum I see Athens city of Athena city-state giver of democracy pure democracy by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person one man one vote women are not men slaves are not men the poor are not men not yet… [more]”

"Chronvacuum", 2009

still from "Chronovacuum", 2009

Following this, I did three projects involving webcams, all of which I’ve posted about elsewhere on this site:

Noxiterra in 2008, which I’ve posted about here;

Chronovacuum in 2009, which I’ve posted about here; and

World of World in 2009,  which I’ve posted about here.

For both Noxiterra and World of World I used webcams to generate new imagery rather than working with found images. I suspect I’m not done with webcams yet.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , , |

follow the money

eBay auction of presidency

eBay auction of the presidency

Every once in a while I am reminded of my one and only spoof auction on eBay. This was back in 2000, before spoof eBay auctions became something of a popular pastime. I was working on a project called The Roman Forum, which featured a fictitious and absurd election campaign mirroring the one that was going on in reality between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In the summer of 2000, there was a good deal of talk about how Bush was poised to ‘buy’ the election by vastly outspending his rival. So one Wednesday morning in August over a cup of coffee I decided that the logical thing to do would be to formally auction the presidency. The press release I sent out began this way:

“DATELINE LOS ANGELES, Aug. 9, 2000: This morning, The Roman Forum put the U.S. presidency up for auction on eBay for a minimum bid of $1. No longer will the presidency be restricted to a small number of wealthy individuals and their cronies. “The presidency belongs to all of us, so all of us should have a fair shot at it,” said Cicero, a member of The Roman Forum. “It is being auctioned off now because its current owner is moving and an auction is the fairest way to bring it to the attention of the largest number of possible buyers.”

The item was listed on eBay under the category “Collectibles: Political (US): Presidency”, and the item description read in part:

“This unique object is 210 years old and in good condition— a real collector’s item. Extra historical interest is added by the fact that verified past owners included George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. It is widely believed to confer great power on its owner and consequently has been much coveted during its existence. At the same time, it is unusual in having changed ownership frequently (generally every 4-8 years), and some say it is cursed as a few owners have died while in possession.”

The auction closed on August 19th with a winning bid of $10 million, which was then the highest amount that could be set as a reserve on eBay—otherwise, of course, I would have valued the presidency of my own country far higher than a mere ten mill. However, that was not the end of the affair. The next day, eBay retroactively cancelled the auction, sending me the following notification:

“eBay appreciates the fact that you chose to list your auction:
405138104 Presidency of the United States
with us. Unfortunately your auction was in violation of one or more of our listing policies. Specifically, eBay does not allow listings that are intended as jokes or items that are not for sale. Although the auction had already ended, it has been removed from the site and all fees associated with this auction have been credited to your account.”

Two things about that. First, before I set up the auction, I spent over an hour exhaustively combing the eBay website to see what their policies were regarding spoof auctions. I found a long list of things that were forbidden, but nowhere was there any statement to the effect that joke listings were against policy. My conclusion was that eBay deliberately chose to leave this prohibition unstated so that it could have it both ways: that is, reap the publicity benefits that accrued from such pranks while being able to terminate the auctions at will.

I want to note here that I have no beef with eBay canceling the auction. In fact, I expected them to do so—after all, I had no more right to auction the U.S. presidency than you do. My only objection is to the method they used. Surely the fact that I am not the legal owner of the thing I tried to auction provided the necessary and sufficient grounds for canceling my auction. But canceling it because of a supposed violation of a not publicly stated policy—that’s just contemptible.

Secondly, although according to eBay’s own policies, the cancellation automatically voided all auction fees, eBay then attempted to ding my credit card for the auction fees—twice. Since this was a multimillion-dollar auction, that amounted to over $100,000 in fees. Fortunately, my credit limit was far too low to accommodate either charge. I hate to think how much hassle I’d have had to go through to get it taken back off my card if it had gone through.

My abortive attempt to formally monetize the U.S. presidency was one of the first of its kind on eBay (who knows when the first spoof eBay auction actually happened?), but it took place at a moment when a number of other artists all saw a similar potential for using eBay as a forum for conceptual art or oblique social critique. Most of the other such sales that I know about involved actual objects, however. Here is a partial list of some of the other early eBay auctions set up by artists [1]:

  • 1999: some CalArts students used eBay to auction off the CalArts gallery space
  • 2000: members of  RTMark auctioned off their passes to the Whitney Biennial reception
  • 2000-2001: John Freyer sells his belongings, follows up by visiting those who bought his items, and documents it in a book
  • 2001: artist Michael Mandiberg begins selling his possessions on eBay
  • 2001: artist Trong Nguyen decides to sell 1001 of his possessions on eBay as part of his TGN 2001 project

What reminded me of this moment in net history was coming across Caleb Larson’s memorable self-auctioning artwork A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter on his website. It fits neatly into a modernist lineage that explicitly critiques the equation of art with value and value with money, beginning with Marcel Duchamp and leading through such figures as Marcel Broodthaers (who created gold ingots incised with the eagles that symbolized his fictitious Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, with the intention of selling them), Yves Klein (who sold gold powder that had to be immediately thrown into the air by the buyer), J.G.S. Boggs (who creates money as his art), and many others.

It also sits, less comfortably, within a postmodern lineage of artists whose projects are designed in such a way as to profit from the system while purportedly critiquing it, in a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too fashion. The apotheosis of this lineage may be Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, which more clearly than most things of this kind signals its substitution of subservience for subversiveness.

Perhaps more interestingly, because the object is designed to be kept in near-perpetual motion, and because Larson keeps a percentage of his work’s re-auctions in perpetuity, the work effectively functions as a complex financial instrument (as do some of his other projects)—that is, a tool that operates primarily to move money around in a highly formalized fashion. This withering of the art object into a kind of vermiform appendage of wealth movement has been commented on elsewhere (notably by Donald Kuspit in “Art Values or Money Values?”), and consequently I’ve been thinking for a while that artists should take on finance as a new field of investigation and reinvention, removing it from the bungling hands of Wall Street bankers. When one considers the sheer inventiveness and creative audacity artists have brought to their considerations of sexism and racism, corporate culture, environmental collapse, and other hot-button issues, one can only wonder that it has taken artists so long to—so to speak—follow the money.

1. I found some of this information in a New York Times article from February 5, 2001 by Matthew Mirapaul, entitled “The New Canvas: Artists Use Online Auctions for Art Projects.”


Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , , , , , , , , |