“The fact is, they just don’t speak the same language.”
In the introduction to his book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams, a beloved New Left academic, recounts an encounter he had with a fellow soldier in Cambridge, in 1945. Newly returned from a wartime stint in Germany and Japan, smarting with anxiety about their re-assimilation into civilian life, Williams and his Army buddy shared the same perception of a vernacular shift that had apparently taken place during their tour of duty: words had changed, in meaning and in use. Williams had arrived in Cambridge from Wales a scant six years earlier; there his working-class background and the accent it conferred first left him feeling a piece apart; this new, postwar experience was likely situated in lingering class anxieties (us versus them) as much as in geographic or institutional displacement. Thirty-odd years later, in 1976, the now infamous Keywords would be published as Williams’s great and long-researched inquiry into the various slippages and convergences in time, space, and place that come to inform the linguistic meaning: what it is, and how it is made. 1
For Williams, words were both the “elements of the problems”—social, political, intellectual—and the means by which problems could be thought through and addressed, if not fully solved. Definition was a relational exercise, concerned less with etymology or citations from the Oxford English Dictionary than with socio-historical connotation and subtle shifts in context. Digital technology evolved considerably over the decades of Williams’s career, even if home computers weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they are today, and communication technologies such as at-home Internet access and smartphones were decades away from release to the public market. 2 Though his writing on the subject, published in the mid-1970s, focused specifically on television as a cultural form, Williams considered technology in the same relative, humanistic terms as he did language. 3
Many years later, as screen-based technologies have changed the way we encounter language, as the social contexts that define meaning continue to morph in the “real time” of a virtual-social space, before our screen-addled eyes, what happens to the meaning of a word as it is variously claimed by a given industry, field of academic study, or social habitus over the course of time, gaining separate, subtle intonations and associations along the way? What happens when contexts collide, overlap, tangle—or simply drift past one another as those who actively define a term by virtue of engagement with its subject remain blissfully unaware that others are writing new definitions elsewhere, to divergent effects?
If Williams noticed an acute separation between his own linguistic sense of self and that of the world around him—a common experience for any hearing person who ventures beyond their hometown, big or small—our app-driven, smartphone-enabled present has effectively expanded that sense of space beyond the geographic while it widens the sensorial range with which we experience it. “We” don’t “speak” the same language, in 2015, because there are too many definitions of “we” to count, situated in too many places all at once; words are typed, spoken, and swiped as much as they are written. They are slippery in meaning and to the touch; they circulate faster than ever before through networks whose vastness eludes comprehension. Industries consider and comport themselves with trade-specific language used to define purpose and product alike. Anxiety abounds in moments in which definitions are threatened—more so, perhaps, in subject-specific fields whose internal logics are understood best—or only—within the ranks. Once (still!) situated in a physical space, the academy, the museum, or the company, writ terra firma, has expanded into territory that begs new meanings for institutional considerations: Audience, Program, Public, Success, or even Williams’s most acute point of interest, Culture. Subject specificity meets the loss of meaning altogether as words are circulated.
What is at stake—socially, politically, culturally—when the words we use to connote shifting, yet nevertheless highly specialized, professional roles gain new meaning within the digital context? In the art world or industry, we might consider the recent social tension that has emerged from the shifting meaning of a few particular terms, defined within one field and since appropriated by others: curator and content. Both are part of the lexicon that defines the institutionalized art world: language that describes not only art making or art objects, but also the surrounding socio-institutional networks that render artistic production both possible and necessary.
On the (Techno) Curatorial
Curator is the most obvious and openly contested example of a museological term that has been impacted upon by a shifting digital landscape, both within and beyond the institution. Regardless of the ever-changing nature of the role itself, to curate is to engage in a flurry of academic and para-professional activities that coalesce to form a gesture whose productive outcome may assume any number of forms. Looking, researching, writing, thinking, documenting, lecturing, meeting, traveling, socializing, conferring, corresponding, fund-raising, spending countless hours on the gallery floor: these are but a few of the myriad tasks that the curator performs in 2015.
Enter the digital space, where one way of “curating” is to perform a series of cognitive and physical interactions—touches, clicks, swipes—that effectively serve to articulate one’s preferences and desires. The dominant design iconography used to navigate the interfaces that define and prompt human-computer interaction—stars, hearts, thumbs-up symbols, badges—suggests its own lexicon, whose terms often assume the form of a verb: one “stars,” “loves,” “likes,” or “votes” one’s way through most major social media interactions. The role of the so-called digital curator variously relates to the field of interaction design as much as it does to the institutional need to preserve, archive, and organize digital detritus—yet another definition of this (very) nascent position. These are distinct, if not unrelated actions, and their definition lies as much within the American tech press as it does the institution. 4
If technology users—that’s many, if not most of us—accept a conferred curatorial identity as a means of framing their use of a particular digital platform or network, then it remains doubtful whether many curators consider their roles in relationship to the forms of online activity most often described as “curatorial” in nature. When asked to comment on digital crowdsourcing as a curatorial methodology, Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, disclosed the sense of “private dismay” that colors conversations about the subject among curators, behind closed institutional doors. 5 The acts described here and the roles they collectively define are vastly at odds, yet are nevertheless collapsing into a liminal space that warrants closer consideration—especially on the institutional side, whose insular opacity may be rendered transparent by the circulatory capacity and public-facing nature of the digital space.
A great irony is emerging from within this shift: inside the institution, “the digital” is often managed within an operational capacity, removed from curatorial affairs to varying degrees though still ensconced beneath the glossy guise of institutional collaboration. The tweeting, swiping, liking, starring, loving, and voting—one particular definition of digital curation—might be performed by an employee situated within the marketing department, or perhaps by an outside agency or firm also charged with monitoring the return on investment in stark metric terms. Data standards, publications, and other forms of institutional output that may relate to the digital space are likely managed elsewhere, in other departments; the institutional hierarchies that emerge within these contexts are as seemingly insurmountable as they are porous. The cohesive pan-institutional gesture is as elusive as it is rare.
Enter the smartphone: the uncased iPhone jammed into coat pockets, sticky with greasy fingerprints and otherwise physically anonymous save for the cheeky plastic cover or craquelure of shattered glass recognizable only to its owner. This extension of body and brain alike—of people’s bodies and people’s brains, tossed carelessly atop and consulted anxiously beneath tables during business meetings—is the (actual, not metaphorical) link that connects the curatorial project much more closely to newer definitions of the term than comfort might allow while it makes its inner machinations visible in new and novel ways. 6
To imply that the terminological relationship between the digital and the curatorial is entirely imagined by start-up companies, interaction designers, or the press corps embedded within the U.S. technology industry—to say that the industry has simply co-opted the term, to fully disavow that act of appropriation—is to conveniently overlook the elite force of curators who actively use platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to document their professional activities in the digital space. 7 It also ignores a particularly splashy corner of the U.S. art press (ARTINFO.com’s weekly “Instagrams of the Art World,” for example) that elevates personal social media use to broader publication. 8
An endless circulating stream of images lies as much at the core of this impetus as smartphones do: even a novice user of social media quickly learns the ropes of photo-based storytelling within Instagram’s simple interface design and the endless circulation loop it engenders. The app’s intentionally basic interactive capabilities—people can either comment briefly or “heart” an image by tapping it; they can also post it to the broader web if the account isn’t locked from public view—demand a form of digital performance whose documentary function belies more about the current state of exhibition making than one might expect.
Capturing and posting an image with an app isn’t precisely analogous to arranging an object in institutional space, but it is a form of documenting and organizing the visual research that begets exhibitions and programs. These are related points on a continuum of cultural production, even as they commingle uncomfortably between classed spaces. On Instagram, parties, studio visits, research trips, and the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life (in and beyond the art world) all hang equally within the virtual gallery, as it were—and at eye level, no less.
The best curators are social anthropologists as much as they are art historians: they watch everything; they seem to “be” everywhere, even if not in body. The strange allure of Instagram is its ability to turn smartphones into windows through which we view a range of experiences. We perform for one another, but we also look at one another—not read, as we do with Twitter or Facebook, but watch. Surveil. So, if one isn’t able to make it to Miami Beach or to Basel—or to an opening just a few neighborhoods away, for that matter—one can approximate that experience in some way, by looking.
The image narratives encountered there, unspoken as they are, often illustrate, supplant, or even contradict what turns up in the art press. If we suspect that a list of contacts (or a guest list, as it might be) divides the office from the underbelly, where the art is really made, then Instagram surely proves it. The cozy, seemingly familial social space of Instagram is a pure mirage, of course: the app was acquired by serial privacy violator Facebook for $1 billion in April 2012. The fact that we sometimes encounter art there—or on the wider web—for the first (and even only) time adds another dimension of complexity to consider. The social web might not be “curatorial work,” but contending with it, whether as participant, spectator, or mere bystander, is part of the work of being a curator in 2015.
How we define the curatorial role in relationship to the digital in 2015 may be less critical than what we define it with (or through). What are we shifting around in the galleries, in our offices, on our desktops and phones, via Instagram and Twitter and Facebook? Content. The word feels dull on the tongue—vulgar, even. It grovels in the throat a bit at first blush, leaping to its inflection point on the roof of the mouth before rolling to a sudden halt as the tongue meets the teeth. Flat and workmanlike in tone, its definition in the digital context—a nondefinition, really—comprises one of the more flagrant examples of the way in which a term’s once sharp edges have been worn round by time’s rhetorical shift. To speak of content is to indicate everything, all at once: an ur-glut of digital detritus to be pushed around, pixel by pixel and file by file, by the nameless and unpaid masses (or, in certain corners of California’s Silicon Valley or New York City’s Silicon Alley, the famous and entirely overpaid).
This particular definition has wormed its way into the professional sphere as editors, whose roles were once more closely aligned with the curatorial, might also be called digital content managers or content strategists. Production—pushing around the stuff—has become as much a part of the editorial role as having taste, a discerning eye, and a general command of language, grammar, and syntax still is. Any curator who has been conscripted (willingly, unwillingly) to work on an institutional digital initiative may (or may not!) feel similarly slighted, while a new generation of born-digital curators isn’t bothered in the least by these distinctions. We’re all pushing around the stuff these days, and questions of digital labor—what it is, how to measure it, what it’s worth—abound. The sheer magnitude of banality that the word content now implies lies at the very heart of artistic production as seen in emerging genres such as the recently lauded, yet still emerging post-internet.
If content is now the flotsam and jetsam of the digital, it was once defined more closely in relationship to the aesthetic project—and the object. As patronizing as his tone may be, one might consider (even admire, if on principle) the painstaking attention with which Erwin Panofsky, eminent German art historian, regarded the differences between meaning—content—and form in the work of art in his timeworn 1939 staple, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance.
Published in a delightfully illustrated compendium by Vintage in 1960, The Shape of Content is fondly remembered as a series of lectures delivered at Harvard by painter Ben Shahn. Shahn, as earnest as Panofsky though humble in his role as an artist (and perhaps more effective, as a result) considers both the definition and the position of content in the then-current discourse, which had begun to favor form: “Even the ectoplasm of Sir Oliver Lodge and the homeliest household ghost have a content of some kind—the soul, the departed spirit. If the content of a work of art is only the paint itself, so be it; it has that much content.” 9 Even a shapeless, viscous medium—paint—was a specific thing. Recalling the historical role of iconography or the modernist moment isn’t to advocate for their return, of course—nor is it to gloss over postmodernism and all that came after it—but rather to hold each up as one in any number of possible contrasts to the present, where the seeming formlessness of the digital space complicates the search for specificity of meaning in language and image alike. (Things seemed so much simpler back then, didn’t they?)
In a more recent example, David Joselit, Yale art history professor, grapples awkwardly with technical language in his 2013 essay, After Art. Joselit analyzes the network’s impact on the replication, circulation, and dissemination of images in a work that has enjoyed some acclaim among art historians and others struggling to situate a larger physical structure (some forget that the internet is powered by a broadband network of copper and fiber-based cables, buried deep within the ground beneath our feet and controlled by corporate and national interests alike) and the digital experience that it supports within an insular field of academic study that affords historical privilege to materials and objects. “People now see art as an international currency,” Joselit claims, demanding the rejection of the art-historical stalwart, medium, in favor of the link as the great connector of the various global networks—art fairs and institutions, architectural forms, nation states, political systems, financial markets—through which art circulates as property, information, documentation, or content. 10
Joselit works hard to define his terms in After Art, a project that forces him to engage with the realm of technology in a way that is clearly beyond his immediate academic bailiwick. He is trying. Yet, his clear discomfort around technical language in particular (not to mention the history of digitally based, network-supported art, which remains completely and rather stunningly unacknowledged) effectively undermines an essay that works hard to push art history beyond its own interests. Specific terms and industry neologisms—byte, computer file, buzz, information era, searchability, hits, cookies—are cherry picked from other sources and dropped into an argument that attempts to trace a path that is functionally defined, in part, by the systems these words signify. Technology is more than a metaphor—or it should be.
For Joselit, content seems to straddle the high realm of the spiritual–art historical and that of “junkspace,” a term coined by architect Rem Koolhaas to describe “an architecture of pure optimization of time, space, and money.” 11 product of the encounter between escalator and air conditioning, conceived in an incubator of Sheetrock.”] After Art closes with an homage to the circulatory prowess of Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei, whose blog Joselit sees as an example of the network’s capacity for empowerment. The irony here is real: blogging—an act that sits at the nexus of independent digital publishing and citizen journalism—has struggled and still does for legitimacy within and beyond the academy. As for Ai Weiwei, some of the challenges he faces lie, in part, with mainland China’s legal policies, which blatantly restrict its networks. Publishing is an act of courage, yes, but a closer reading of the problem—a more specific, if ancillary investigation of global network politics and their vast implications—would have heightened the praise.
If the internet or academia don’t provide compelling enough grounds for argument as to why we might carefully consider how “content” is popularly defined, then perhaps we might turn, finally, to the law of the land, in this case the United States. In a scene from Citizen Four, Laura Poitras’s 2014 documentary film on the now infamous travails of U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden in the days before he leaked a trove of files that effectively revealed the inner workings of the National Security Administration, Glenn Greenwald, then a Guardian journalist, testifies before the National Congress of Brazil about the implications of Snowden’s revelations. In plain language, whose impact is heightened by its subtitled transcription from Portuguese to his native English, Greenwald describes the XKeyscore (or XKS), a computer system used by NSA to analyze data collected through its various international surveillance programs. Enabled by the 2001 Patriot Act, NSA claims that its system collects only the metadata intercepted from users’ web searches and phone conversations—the time, say, of a phone call, or the caller’s geolocation—while Greenwald insists that the actual content of those interactions may also be captured and analyzed by the U.S. government, virtually at will.
One can see the impact of Greenwald’s revelations on the audience of Brazilian congressional representatives as faces begin to register surprise while minds synthesize the implications of his claims: when paired with a content profile for a given individual, a seemingly impersonal metadata set becomes the trail of bread crumbs that may help a government construct a presumed narrative about a person without their knowledge or consent.
Here, the definition of content includes the very words—the keywords—that we type into search engines every day in order to navigate our way not simply through the web, but through our lives. We reveal aspects of our existential selves—our desires, our needs, and our fears—in the way we interact online, through our search activity and otherwise. Digital curation, as it were, takes on a heightened sense of meaning or urgency when considered in relationship to the institutional machinations revealed by the work of Snowden, Greenwald, and Poitras: we sketch fragile self-portraits every day through our digital posturing; should we choose to engage as such, the destiny of a data profile tied to each and every password is beyond our control. Greenwald testifies to a present (and future) in which political opposition and public demonstration are actively suppressed by governments whose actions are sanctioned by nuanced legal language. Whether personally invested in the digital space or not, we must continue to actively consider the possible impact of this specific form of oppression on the relative potential for artistic production in the United States and beyond—and by proxy, the possible scope of the curatorial project, writ large.
As a critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. While her interests are manifold, much of her published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.
First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood
— A collection of short stories
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self," an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program