Posts Tagged ‘avatar’

Friday, August 27th, 2010


In Feedback: Television Against Democracy, the art historian David Joselit explores the idea that all commodities, including works of art, are figured as commodities against the ground of networks, including media networks such as television and the Internet.  In relation to works of art, that would be to say that the ground against which works of art are to be evaluated as units in a broader economy is no longer just the physical space of the art institution; e.g., the white cube art museum; but, instead the networks of interrelated flow through which both actual commodities and the capital surrounding those commodities now exist and disperse.  For Joselit, art can no longer be thought of as a static object which one gazes upon, but instead as a “transjective” object, continuously networking between multiple fields of objects and subjects, which one follows.  He brings up the fact that Wall Street quants have conceived of incomprehensibly complicated models for dematerializing and dispersing bundles of capital and, as such, it is incumbent upon anyone interested in the relationship between a work of art and the broader economy to appreciate the fact that works of art—as commodities–are also dematerialized and dispersed.

When viewed against this networked ground, Joselit discusses artworks which create viral paths, leaving trails of “feedback” between themselves and this networked ground.  This feedback functions as noise, disrupting its own flow as a commodity and illuminating the ground upon which it circulates.

In what follows, I’ll discuss the television series Mad Men, suggesting that, on the one hand, the actual episodes of the series create a disruptive feedback loop between themselves and the television network; but, on the other hand, that the series’ branded image avatar, which is perhaps more widely culturally dispersed than the actual episodes of the show, lacks this disruptive feedback loop between itself and the Internet network.


Mad Men’s protagonist Don Draper is known to be ruthlessly effective at selling things to people.  Time after time, the campaigns he engineers for a host of invariably silly products are able to exploit an emotion or a desire lurking beyond the product’s practical usage.  And while these products may themselves be silly, the desires Draper creates around their advertising are often complex and psychologically astute.  For example, an automated slide photo projector developed by Kodak is not the “Wheel”—Kodak’s name for the device— but rather—in Draper’s pitch—the “Carousel”; that is, it’s not an efficient way to display a loop of slide photographs, but a way to go around and around “and back home again” to something fondly remembered from the past.

However, Draper knows that these desires which people seek to satisfy through products like the Carousel are not ever going to be satisfied; desire is endlessly deferred—always trying to re-capture something which one thinks used to be there, but never really was and certainly never will be again.  This principal is, through one lens, how capitalism operates: it depends on the endless impossibility of satisfying desire to keep selling ways to satisfy desire. In the finale to the series’ third season and in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (“the day America lost its innocence”), Draper explains this to his protégé, Peggy Olson.  Here’s the exchange of dialogue between the two:

Don – Do you know why I don’t want to go to McCann?

Peggy – Because you can’t work for anyone else.

Don – No. Because there are people out there—people who buy things—people like you and me—and something happened; something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.

Peggy – Is it?

What he’s getting at is that there was a picture of what it meant to be a consumer in America, but the assassination of the President made even the pretense towards living that image even more absurd than it ever was.  That absurdity, though, will not stop people from endlessly trying to be this image and this is what good advertising creatives understand.   Olson’s “Is it?” at the end of this exchange, though, reveals the tension at the heart of these characters: their insight into the emptiness of consumer desire is “very valuable,” but it’s also their own tragedy.  What Draper sees in Olson is the same emptiness he sees in himself.  Indeed, “Don Draper” is not even the character’s real name.  Through an accident in the Korean War, the actual Don Draper was killed and a fellow soldier named Dick Whitman took Draper’s dog tags and commenced pretending to be him.  “Don Draper” is, thus, nothing—an outer sheen through which someone who used to be “Dick Whitman” haunts the world.  This awareness of his own nothingness makes Draper/Whitman a great “Ad Man,” but makes it difficult for him to participate in the very rituals of capitalism he sells, including monogamous suburban love and the nuclear family.  The same could be said for Peggy Olson.  Her throughline is premised on the fact that she’s a lapsed Catholic who underwent an abortion in-between the first and second seasons of the series.  This abortion (in extremely crude terms, an “emptying out”) traumatized Olson and, since then, she hasn’t been able to participate in the flow of sexuality and day-to-day, mindless chit-chat demanded by corporate-sanctioned urban existence.  And, so, instead of living it, Draper and Olson sell it.

What is particularly powerful about the series’ explorations into advertising, though, is the fact that they are occurring on commercial television.  The entire ground upon which this content rests is mass media advertising.  When one watches the show and follows its explorations into the emptiness of desire, the mechanisms of advertising, and, in particular, the mechanics of television advertising, these thematic explorations collide with the actual television advertisements which allow for the show to exist in the first place.  Some viewers, then, may view Mad Men and—armed with concepts provided by the series–reflect critically upon the advertisements which surround a given episode.

The result is a variation on “culture jamming” or the sort of “feedback” which Joselit discusses.  As mentioned above, feedback, for Joselit, is an effect accrued through an artwork’s dispersion in which the artwork creates a disruption in the trajectory of itself as a commodity.  He writes, “If a commodity’s meaning results from its circulation, it is possible to develop a politics whose goal is not to abolish or “critique” commodification (objectives that are utopian and inefficacious by turn) but rather to reroute the trajectories of things.”  Joselit gives the example of African Americans feeding back images produced by their own community into television in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to develop a more accurate representative presence in the mediascape.  He also discusses a television commercial created by Andy Warhol for Schrafft’s restaurant chain, the content of which is, in the artist’ words, “all the mistakes they do in commercials.”  What one views in Warhol’s commercial is the image of a Sunday with a cherry on top which is drowning in video noise, thus selling the technological ground of the video image as opposed to the actual Sunday: it’s feedback, designed to reroute the trajectory of the commodity.  The same could be said for Mad Men: by picturing the ground of advertisement and capital which it circulates in and out of on television, the series tangles up the clean circulatory flow of the series as a commodity in the television network.

However, the network Mad Men circulates through is not just television.  In the 21st century, it lives and circulates on the Internet and myriad other forms of media, as well.  For example, I’ve never viewed an episode on television, but, as a follower of the show, I’ve viewed every single episode released so far through a combination of DVD’s, iTunes, Limewire, and “Freemium” sites like  Additionally, the way in which the show is largely dispersed through culture is not even through these episodes, but rather through images of the show’s sex icons on blogs, magazines, online versions of magazines, Facebook chatter, banner advertisements on blogs, bus ads, gossip mills, and, in general, the branding of a full-blown retro-chic style which celebrates dapper young metrosexuals with slicked-back hairdos.  That is to say that even though the episodes of the show create an interesting level of feedback distortion in relation to television, the way they circulate as a brand through the broader networks of interconnected digital ephemera is actually fairly harmless—it’s just another thing to sell.

As mentioned above, one of Joselit’s intuition’s is that commodities are not static, physical objects; rather, they are, in the wake of networked communication such as television, animated and in-motion media viruses, travelling through all avenues of life from the living room to the water cooler to the bedroom.  Effective counter-culture, then, does not stand outside out of these animated commodities, but rather reroutes their trajectories through feedback.

With this in mind, the trajectory of Mad Men doesn’t stop on Sunday nights at eleven o’clock EST on the AMC cable network.  In fact, that one hour a week is a small piece of the pie surrounding the show’s “social life” as a commodity circulating through the broader networks of digital communication.  The episodes of the series could be Shakespeare or Thomas Mann, but it wouldn’t matter when the meme of Mad Men—the way it travels virally—has very little to do with a critique of advertising and a lot to do with developing a brand.


A final note: On the one hand, Joselit’s book, which is about television and sticks largely to examples of 1960s and 1970s art history and visual culture, would seem oddly out of place for an audience interested in understanding the relationship between works of art and digital networks connected through computers.  However, the virus he’s trying to spread is relevant and challenging.  Artworks and the evaluation of artworks in the wake of media networks, be they television or Internet networks, require one to refocus the entire framework through which one usually thinks of an artwork. Mad Men is not about the themes of the show, but the trajectories in which the themes of the show circulate.

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

Jay-Z’s “Young Forever,” a re-working of the “80s” Alphaville song “Forever Young,” opens with the same moody synthesizers one finds in the original and, then, (almost) the same romantic, Sting-esque vocals (the difference here being that the contemporary pop star Mr. Hudson fills in for the Marian Gold vocals in the original track).

As, then, the track continues to open, one settles into a schmaltzy, but compelling reverie as the vocalist muses:

Let’s dance in style,
Let’s dance for a while,
Heaven can wait we’re only watching the skies
Hoping for the best but expecting the worst,
Are you gonna drop the bomb or not?
Let us die young or let us live forever,
We don’t have the power but we never say never,
Sitting in a sandpit,
Life is a short trip,
The music’s for the sad man


Now, the hook of romantic lyricism like this is that the tragedy of it all—the fact that the singer’s prayer for eternal youth will never be answered—is known by the singer as he sings.

One falls for the fact that despite the certainty that his protests against death will go unheeded, he protests nonetheless.

It’s mad (it oscillates between the depths of depression and the heights of romantic ecstasy), but it’s pretty.

And one can almost imagine it to be true.

He sings:

Forever young,
I wanna be forever young
Do you really want to live forever?
Forever and ever
Forever young I wanna be
Forever young
Do you really want to live forever?
Forever, forever


In Jay-Z’s version of the track, though, a shift in emphasis occurs as the words here are not hauntingly ironic, but seemingly literal:

The singer’s prayers will be answered.

Indeed, there they are—on contemporary pop radio more than twenty-five years after their conception and just as young.

Forever young.

In Jay-Z’s rap, he addresses the way in which media archiving allows the paradoxical situation of endless youngness to emerge.

The opening line (following an ad lib toast to the act of living in the moment), finds the artist declaring the following words:

So we livin’ life like a video


Now, this opening declaration could have two possible readings:

1. On the one hand, it could mean that he and his crew are living a life of expensive cars, beautiful young women, freely flowing champagne, etc.

That is to say, the sort of life depicted in cliché rap videos.

2. On the other hand, though, it could be read to mean that the way they’re living is like a video in the sense of its being indelibly captured in archival media.

That is to say, one’s body may age, but one’s bodily presence in the media archive is forever young.

The lines of the verse succeeding this opening nudge one, first, in the direction of (1.), and, then, in the direction of (2.).

Here it is in its entirety:

So we livin’ life like a video
Where the sun is always out and you never get old
and the champagne’s always cold
and the music’s always good
and the pretty girls just happen to stop by in the hood
and they hop they pretty ass up on the hood of that pretty ass car
without a wrinkle in today
cause there is no tomorrow
just a picture perfect day
that last a whole lifetime
and it never ends cause all we have to do is hit re-wind
so let’s just stay in the moment, smoke some weed, drink some wine
reminisce, talk some shit, “Forever Young” is in your mind
leave a mark that can erase neither space nor time
so when the director yells cut
I’ll be fine
I’m forever young


They’re living like a video here, then, in the sense that, if life is going too fast, then “all we have to do is hit re-wind” as life itself has been archived in video.

This makes a certain amount of sense to consider in the case of a star such as Jay-Z whose own life is lived in video to a non-negligible degree; no matter what happens to his body, “when the director yells cut,” he’ll “be fine” as the now exists indelibly printed in media storage—forever young, “neither space nor time.”

But, is it really him?

If not, than what is it exactly?

Before dismissing this question out of hand, though, consider the importance of the avatar—the media representation of one’s own self—which one increasingly manages as much as one manages one’s own physical body.

That’s just to say that even though one’s personhood may not intuitively mix with anything but a biological body, pragmatically speaking (and no matter how repulsive it may seem), one’s person is uncannily out (t)here in the infosphere.

(If it’s not you, who is it?)

That said, though, (and no matter its truth) there’s an anxiety:

Things—both biological things as well as media things—die.

There’s nothing guaranteeing that Jay-Z’s video representation (being it actually him or not) will itself actually be forever young.

Indeed, by glancing at the pop charts, one sees that Jay-Z’s version of the track has already peaked–at number ten.

So, whether immortalized in media or not (and whether this has any bearing on anything or not), the track will age.

Before one gets caught up here, though, let’s return to the rap to see how it addresses this very issue, developing its own philosophy towards it.

Jay-Z raps:

Fear not where, fear not why, fear not much while we’re alive
life is for livin’ not livin’ uptight
until you’re somewhere up in the sky, fear not die
I’ll be alive for a million years, bye bye
so not for legends, I’m forever young, my name shall survive.


What one  might take from these lines is that, according to Jay-Z, if one is to be forever young in archival video media, then one must, it seems, live in the moment.

And one must continuously create one’s self every moment by existing fully in every moment, living life as if it will end not someday but in the very next moment.

The star–here–lives forever young by living life as if the opposite were true, as if nothing matters but the inhabitation of this moment.

And, for Jay-Z his star lives forever not just through video media, but through legend—oral history passed down through generations.

He raps:

Through the darkest blocks, over kitchen stoves, over Pyrex pots, my name shall be passed down to generations while debatin’ up in barber shops
young slung, hung here showed that a nigga from here with a little ambition just what we can become here
and as the father pass the story down to his son’s ear, younger get younger every year, yeah
so if you love me baby this is how you let me know, don’t ever let me go, that’s how you let me know, baby


Now before going on, at the end of this verse—it should be said–an interesting moment of hesitation occurs.

To reiterate, Jay-Z raps:

So if you love me baby this is how you let me know, don’t ever let me go, that’s how you let me know, baby


That is to say, Jay-Z—at that moment—indicates his own knowledge of the possibility that his legend will not persist unless those that love him refuse to let him go.

His destiny is–it seems–in the hands of others.

Why would Jay-Z  be basically begging for his fans to never let him go if he didn’t doubt his own existence as a “true” star?

But, once again, at that moment, Jay-Z turns the kaleidoscope.

As the timeline of the song is itself on its own last legs, he raps:

Less than four bars,
Guru bring the chorus in,
Did you get the picture yet?,
I’m painting you a portrait of young


“Did you get the picture yet?” he asks.

Did you see that all this talk about forever young and life in a video is not drawn out here for its own sake, but rather to create a broader picture?

And what is this picture?

A portrait of “young”—the last line of the song.

The endless same-ness of young-ness in which one does everything in their power and thinks through every possible angle to ensure their immortality, but only ends up in knots.

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Avatar in 3D by Artie Vierkant is a slowly-spinning animated 3D sphere.

On the surface of the sphere, the entire one hundred sixty-two-minute runtime of the film Avatar has been warped and stretched-out in order to cover the total surface area of the sphere.

By turning Avatar into an image object–a “thing”–the work illuminates how Avatar itself is not just a movie, but a gigantic meme, an entire world, extending well beyond the runtime of the film.

One of the most significant developments in film history is George Lucas’s recognition that Star Wars is not just a movie, but a franchise that fans can wander around in via all of the extra media and merchandise that surround it.

In a hyperreal world of endless media unreality, consumers have the desire and now the ability to amble through metaverses, consuming media franchises in ways that diverge from simply sitting in a theater and watching projected light for two hours.

The slow, painful death of movies is a testament to this as consumers now prefer the scope of entire television series or massively mulitplayer game universes like Halo or World of Warcraft.

In the event that someone wants to go to the movies, it’s to see a new installment of a franchise that expands the world of the characters; in the event that someone wants to read a book, it’s to read an installment of a series like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books.

Films are still on some level stretches of time told through cinematic language, but they are now also, perhaps primarily, things, objects expanding through the Internet and culture at large.

This is what Vierkant’s work shows me.

An avatar for Avatar.

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

In the film Avatar, the audience may be responding less to special effects or political messages and more to the dramatization of the following uncanny phenomenon:

1. The inhabitation of a different form-of-being accompanied by the immediate rejection of any preliminary advice or testing concerning the operation of this form; aching to run wild.

2. The accompanying understanding that when one inhabits an avatar, one is, then, burdened with responsibility because—as it turns out–one simultaneously inhabits a broader spiritual network of avatars—each of which exists through both their “avatar bodies” as well as this network.

One is not free, but rather cast from one political context to another.

A tension here is that, while the film makes this phenomenon into the stuff of science-fiction myth (like a wise old man’s warning about a world wherein this experience could occur, but, thankfully, hasn’t yet), the drama of Avatar is a very actually-occurring phenomenon requiring a thorough exploration of the ripples it sends through daily experience.

Avatar is the daily grind of logging-on-to the Web, negotiating the management of one’s virtual persona as well as this persona’s relation to the databased network.

The problem with the idea of dramatizing these phenomena as if they were an actual part of “real life,” though, is that the pictures one has in their minds of “realism” doesn’t include the Internet or virtual experiences.

“Real life” is the alcoholic mother, the lonely small-town basketball coach, not the Internet avatar.

In the history of literature, though, certain authors have developed a “third way” in-between what looks to the viewer like a work of “realism” and what looks to the viewer like a work of “science-fiction”.

Crash by J.G. Ballard, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, and VALIS by Philip K. Dick; they double as a form of literary stream-of-consciousness sci-fi and sharp-eyed, stick-to-the-facts reportage of the contemporary scene; and as the reader shuttles between these understandings of the work, the understandings themselves may blur as mutated pictures of what one means when they say “realism” or “science-fiction” emerge.