The Limitations of 140 Characters & Our Communication Culture | In Other Words exhibition @ Intersection for the Arts

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I asked a dear friend about her attention span. She was candid in sharing that if 200 characters don’t entice her, you’ve lost her. She is an intelligent woman and I completely trust her opinion. Now, that’s not a lot characters to lure someone in. Yet, it speaks to the culture we live in. Granted, this post (originally posted to zero1‘s blog) is pretty lengthy but the show resonated with me because words are important to me (duh!). Being a writer is difficult and challenging work. I constantly wonder who might care but as one of my great mentors shared with me…this is why you write…because you give someone something to care about. Okay, enough, enjoy the piece AND if you make it through the entire piece, I will send you something in the mail (promise). 😉

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Technology often conjures up images of mobile devices, machines, and programming. Yet, technology, according to Wikipedia, “…is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function”. With all the taxonomies and ever evolving nature of art, new technologies present themselves everyday. Yet, the barrage of images in the media are not the only thing that inundate us. Language is ubiquitous. What limitations do we experience when we’re forced to use only 140 characters? What does this impact the way we communicate? Or how do we make sense of the words that make it into our vernacular in such a fast paced environment? In Other Words, showing at the Intersection for the Arts, showcases the work of contemporary artists interpreting our collective relationship and understanding of language. Kevin Chen, Intersection for the Arts program director, gathered artists looking at the written word to extrapolate human behavior and creativity, re-configurations and semantics of language, the tactile nature of typography and script, and the physical placement of text.

Imagine the networks and visual spaces we visit. What would those lines, images, and words look like meshed together? Emanuela Harris-Sintamarian answers this question through her visual metaphors of social media. Her work forces the viewer to realize that it doesn’t really matter where you look because it is all within the same space. The habit-forming behavior of constantly checking our e-mail, looking for new tweets, and compulsively looking at peoples’ photo albums online is the basis for this work. She shows how we open ourselves up to a world hoping to find something new but it is all the same material. The same people in different places. Harris-Sintamarian’s work is a testament to how our minds might synthesize and re-appropriate the world.

Christine Wong Yap’s work looks at Optimism and Pessimism in human behavior. Inspired by the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Yap’s drawings are interpretations of his notable sayings and statistical analyses. The replication of scientific text through drawing and handwriting solidifies good habits in the viewer as well. Yet they serve as meditations for the artist. Her well curated info-graphics and carefully written text are worth the attention. In this digital age, people will find Yap’s work refreshing because it serves to remind us of our capacity to create.

Katie Gilmartin Queer Words re-contextualizes the relationship between words and images. Although seemingly mundane and innocuous, words such as ‘bear’ may conjure a wild animal, yet take on a completely different meaning within the queer lexicon. The vernacular and pictures Gilmartin employs are humorous and overt. She plays into both our collective consciousness and gender constructs.

Speech and language take on a physical form in Alex Potts work while Cassie Thornton re-interprets the television as a form of purely textual communication. Past the main entrance, visitors see a spiral staircase with multiple white waxed cornucopias inviting the viewer to engage and experience space, form, and sound. Potts work with audio and feedback based on the participants’ engagement with the work is integral to comprehension of what language may sound like from one person to another. He creates the forms but relies on the active listener and participant to bring the piece to life. In Education Delivers People (2011), Cassie Thornton re-interprets Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s work, Television Delivers People (1973). Thornton’s piece seems to translate, to a certain degree, a similar message but tailored to a contemporary audience. Simultaneously, the work reflects history and how it relates to the current state of the economy. Through stand alone text, without all the images and superfluous media, the viewer becomes enlightened.

Textile work, “She wrote love letters in 1971”, by Julia Goodman, the viewer is left to imagine love letters. Goodman layered and folded memories together to create a simulacra of memories in a piece with very little text. The piece serves as a testament to how the imagination creates the stories, words, phrases, and tales perhaps much richer in the mind devoid of spell check. “Wear your biggest smile. (2012), by Annie Vought, is based on a collection of dreams culled from the Internet. She visualizes a particular order by precisely cutting away to reveal a translation of virtual to physical.

Lastly, physical engagement with text in space is seen in the work of Meryl Pataky. Your Company (2012) and Say It Out Loud (2012) made with steel, brass, and computer parts displays our digital waste and re-configures the refuse into physical three-dimensional language. The shapes and bends of the material simulate how we may perceive the world in which we work and find ourselves confined to. Pataky creates a bit of mysticism in his deconstruction. We see the words but don’t necessarily have to understand the etymology. We see them in space and that is all that matters. In contrast, Susan O’Malley sprinkles plaques throughout the venue coupled with larger sandwich boards adorning the center of the gallery space. O’Malley wants to lead the viewer to an experience of art through a playful hide and seek of text which serves as a metaphor to the hidden meanings of language we encounter on a daily basis. Overall, our relationship to language is multi-faceted and constantly evolving as seen in these works. Chen’s selection of artists not only illuminate the complexity of language but evoke our senses and reactions to them.

Originally posted to the zero1 blog

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos is a writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research areas and interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, networked culture, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She is currently the managing editor for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and Public Art Dialogue. She has lectured and spoken at the De Young museum, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” has been published to The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture in 2016. She serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism, board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center, and teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the Digital Art and New Media department.

6 thoughts on “The Limitations of 140 Characters & Our Communication Culture | In Other Words exhibition @ Intersection for the Arts”

  1. – I just lost my comment to chance and some sort of symbolic Safari malfunction. I had something else written but here is what I find running back to pick up the pieces before that wind dusted away proof of my thoughts.

    When you speak of Emanuela Harris-Sintamarian and her project, I think of this:

    I like to hear that pace and communication are under pressure to explain themselves with something other than text. I like that this very text is not given the carpool lane but made to wait like the rest of us, jammed.

    Cauterization of the evolving symbiotic relationships of thought and expression churned through a machine, human-made or not, leaves behind a residue, like it or not. Upon that residue is an aged form of a previously treasured original thought. This thought may then be taking upon itself some form or another of the piping it came through. Sometimes that piping is language and sometimes that language can be written or read and other times heard.

    Wait, it can’t be. Or can it. Maybe it is the thinking and the seeing that creates. Maybe all expression is an echo. Maybe the alphabet is up for grabs, give and take. I’m just wondering, wondering with pleasure, what this all means, this brief ride on the Ether-Theory Ferry, taking me from place to place, under pressure to explain what I mean with more than a nod and less than an in-person visit. Virtual, but imagined, and therefore valid. Keep writing Dorothy. Your passion is inspiring. So necessary, so very necessary.

    1. Your response alone is evidence of your talent. Seriously, Liz. You’re so meant to be a poet but an art writer yourself. I love the way you described Harris-Sintamarian’s work. I think the way we all communicate certainly leaves a “residue”. That’s such a great way to put it. Sometimes, I’m incredibly frazzled by text, language, words! I’m also disappointed because when my friend said that if you don’t have her in 200 characters, she’s not reading the rest. That is honest. Yet, what does that mean for the writer? I guess this is why I keep writing. Whether someone reads or not, I have to strengthen whatever skills I possess. Taking the complex and making it simple is not easy. Thanks again, Liz. I really appreciate all of your kind words, your encouragement, and guidance. It is very much appreciated.

  2. You guys are dreamers, but so was Einstein.

    Seriously, that’s why we have art- to find out what it all means.

    I was intrigued by the way Dorothy’s friend Liz offered up “residue” as a residual of (any?) communication. I think that’s a bold statement and I appreciate it.

    C’mon, we all know it…writers are the movers and shakers of this world!

    We tend to treat the written word as if it were one-dimensional.

    Sure, we have artists, physicists, psychologists, etc. But on whom (correct my grammar) do we burden the daunting task of tackling the entirety of human imagination, and then deliver it to us in a way we can understand, appreciate, and make sense of it (especially in this day and age where knowledge has increased exponentially and all the tools that go with it)? They have yesterday, today, and all of history on their shoulders!

    How can we expect to create anything good and useful without it?

    I know this is not a matter of contention, so pardon me for being out of place. I’ll just pull out and look up “simulacra” and “cauterization”.

    As for you, Dorothy, you needn’t worry of any binding rules, because EVERY FIRST SENTENCE of yours is a noble feat!

    Warm regards…!

  3. I wouldn’t dispute or even lament the claim about the first 200 characters, but it’s when people stop there that I think it’s a problem, when the first 200 characters become the *only* characters. I don’t want to say that technology is causing writing (and, by implication, thought) to devolve, because I don’t really believe that’s true, and because writing itself is a technology that must have profoundly changed the way humans think when oral cultures acquired writing (Plato warned of the deleterious effect this would have on memory).

    However, there is something to be said about the value of sustained thought (as expressed through writing) and being able to follow the development of an argument over the course of a length piece of writing. Facebook and Twitter do bother me quite a bit for this reason. I’ve had a blog for eight years, and I’ve seen so many people leave my blogging community over that time in favor of an exclusive relationship with Facebook, where people tend to express themselves in fairly meaningless soundbites or simply direct their friends to interesting articles written by other people instead of engaging in substantive dialogue about the ideas therein. This disturbs me a great deal.

    (PS I loved the tactile/sculptural quality of the “Love Letters” pieces! I don’t quite know what to say about them, but those works stick with me.)

    1. Absolutely agree with you, Molly! I’m happy you brought up memory. Technology also requires that memory not play a part in the recalling of information (i.e., people usually look data or information on their phones instantly versus having to search the memory).

      Please send me your blog. I had no idea you had a blog and, quite honestly, I would love to follow it and comment. Trust me, I would love to interact with you within your space. Looking forward to the dialogue/discourse. Thanks again, Molly.

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