Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sodahead: A Digital Marketing Analysis

Sodahead News

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I am interested in possibly starting a company that capitalizes on the interest in trends by both consumers and by corporations. I decided the best way to assess trends might be through a polling site. When I researched the most competitive examples of such sites, Sodahead emerged as the furthest along in this desired direction from my point of view so I have chosen to analyze their business model. This paper will focus on the digital marketing done by Sodahead.


Sodahead’s mission is to provide a place for users to share opinions within a social networking site. It also leverages its technology thorough a poll widget. I recommend that they improve their reach by taking greater ownership of the Internet polling landscape via greater visibility. They should improve search engine presence by using paid search for keywords widget, poll, opinion and improve SEO for slogans, trademarks and word associations related to their brand and its polls; improve their Sodahead News (see above) feature and export it to Twitter, Youtube and the media; partner with advertisers and create hundreds of questions regarding their products to openly show the results of an unapologetic advertiser-content partnership policy. Finally, Sodahead should expand from their 18 and under demographic to a more educated, sophisticated user base through increased news and political polling that mimics and seeks to usurp traditional news sites.


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       Sodahead, founded in March 2007, is an Encino (Los Angeles), California-based company, with 25 employees, whose self-described mission is to provide a place for users to engage in discussions and meet other “sodaheads.” It also leverages its technology thorough (and evolved as a company from being the maker of) a proprietary poll widget. Sodahead creates community via their opinion based site, sodahead.com with the tagline “Opinions. Everybody’s got one.” That was changed in April 2010 from their prior catch-phrase, more related to their name, “What’s bubbling in your head?” after some test marketing in a poll on their site that generated only 63 votes and 145 opinions. Sodahead.com averages about 138K users in US daily and 250K internationally with 21% of their audience under age 18.
       Sodahead received 2 major bursts of venture capital. They received $8.4 million in June ‘08 and $4.25 million in January ‘07. One of the founders of the company is Jason Feffer who was on the executive committee of MySpace and their fourth employee. He helped them launch and grow to 100 million members.
       The principal competitors to Sodahead are Toluna, FunAdvice, Quora, Formspring, Yahoo! Answers, Zoomerang, and PollDaddy. Zoomerang and PollDaddy both provide polling widgets for blogs, websites, and social networks. In October ‘08 Word Press acquired PollDaddy, an Irish company. That is only signigficant because Sodahead also has a presence on WordPress as a plugin. Zoomerang is significant because they are a competitor if Sodahead were to move into the paid online search area as I will recommend. 
       Yahoo Answers is often called the company’s main competitor. But Sodahead, targeting larger social networks like Facebook, does not see it that way because Yahoo Answers is not conversation-focused, while they are. “It's trivia-, not opinion-based,” Feffer said about Yahoo Answers.

       SODAHEAD.COM: 90% of the company’s traffic goes through their well-designed and easily navigatable site. Their web presence is strong and unique. In addition to changing their slogan, a major redesign in June 2010 made graphics and branding a strong point here.

(They did a significant redesign in June 2010 in which they told their users “change the way you read and interact with the news you care about.” They now have an attractive Ask it bar; a Dashboard with Mail and Help links; users can customize their profile and are encouranged to use photos called avatars. The site is divided into three categories- Purple questions, red news stories and teal blog links.The bottoms of their pages include the ability to link to Facebook, Twitter and Google plus.)

User- and internally- created polls provide the content with easily accessible business information for potential advertisers and partners also available.

       SEARCH ENGINE: There is no paid search engine presence for Sodahead.  Organic optimization is good for widget-related searches but, understandably, frequently used terms like poll and opinion fared less well unless combined with Sodahead poll topics.

       TWITTER presence for @Sodahead is relatively strong but it could grow significantly with increased participation.  Their Twitter page listed 7600 tweets and 22.9 thousand followers. They do about 6 tweets a day with short URL links to their polls.

       FACEBOOK presence is strong. One page which contains their app has 22,795 monthly active users. Users can comment on their site or “go to” the widget. A second Sodahead.com page has 50,440 “like”s. Any Facebook user can post on the page whether or not they are “members” or “like” it.

       On MySpace, despite being started by a former key employee, or perhaps because of it, Sodahead’s presence is weak.  A page said “no recent updates in this category” and they have 1277 friends.

       A search on Google+ for “Sodahead” yielded over 200 responses before I stopped scrolling. Uses of the word in member postings ranged from casual comments to speculation about whether the company brass had Google+ accounts, but the company, like other corporations, does not yet have a user account on the site.

       YOUTUBE user Supricky 06 has several videos averaging about 10,000 views each.
There is a Sodahead overview only has 216 views but it outlines their program in a nutshell and has provided me with demographic information for this paper and indicates where they want to be heading. Another video, found from a search on wn.com, not on Youtube, featured red-carpet interviews with celebrities from the MTV video music awards in Las Vegas in front of a Sodahead backdrop. Despite being featured on ABCNews and Fox, no Youtube clips seem to exist of these broadcasts. Thus, opportunities for using the Youtube space abound in many forms.

       MOBILE technology reaches 25K daily visitors with 1 million monthly page views.  Options are many on pages showing a Coke ad at the bottom of a m.sodahead.com page.

       OUTSIDE ADVERTISING: While Moat.com revealed no ads found for Sodahead,
 the Sodahead widget is featured on television outlets and reportedly receives 40 million impressions per month from ABCNews, including their show Good Morning America as well as Fox News and  Business News, Spike TV,  and these venues: Mallvision Digital, Technorati, PumpTop TV, and the previously mentioned Wordpress.org, where the sodahead widget is offered in their Plugin category. “Add polls to your blog to create an engaging experience for your audience.” Their site “and major media distribution partners” touted 30 million hits per month for advertisers like Sony and Yoplait but results looked unsatisfactory.


Sodahead’s reach and effectiveness in the digital space could be greatly increased with some strategically applied effort in a few areas that would require some manpower and revenue but not prohibitively so. I would recommend improved search engine visibility via paid search for keywords widget, poll, opinion (and their plural forms) so that Sodahead could establish themselves as a player in the polling landscape currently dominated by traditional i.e. “scientific” polling and political subject matter in Google’s organic search results.  By creating buzz about their poll results, Sodahead could increase page views which in turn could be leveraged for greater credibility for their polling results. I would urge such a path to widen their user base. Sodahead promotes that they have a 18-24 year old audience but their largest demographic is under age 18 (See Demographics graphic at top of this article's Quantcast data.)

. I suggest improving SEO for the slogans and trademarks associated with Sodahead including their tagline and any “news” items, past present and future, that are potentially viral. Most importantly: Expand Sodahead News component to quadruple Twitter feeds, create daily Youtube clips, and create media buzz. Create more traditionally-styled news-related polls to improve demographic reach and increase credibility. I would advise that Sodahead mimic Gallup, Rasmussen, Zogby and major news organization activity with branded user-friendly but proudly “unscientific” versions of official polls. In short, there is a huge opportunity here to move into the mainstream opinion landscape using existing technology and parameters unapologetically. Similarly, I would recommend that Sodahead partner with advertisers to create hundreds of questions regarding their products, creating promotions, contests, comparisons, trend news and other marketing strategies that make use of the poll and opinion platform. Sodahead should not be afraid seek out and then trumpet advertiser-content partnerships and their effect on polls. They should unabashedly create attention and therefore a dynamic community by owning the Internet polling space in new and unexpected ways.


Sodahead is part of pop culture for those who care to notice but it is not always readily apparent via Google search. They have been parodied on cracked.com and quoted by forbes.com.  (Justin Bieber poll).  In fact, two articles in particular seem to have brought them notoriety in the press: “Public Opinion Agrees Rosie Is Worst Talk Show Host” and “Public Opinion Says Bieber Fever Won't Last Ten Years.”

 The following is some information about Sodahead’s organic presence which seems to be strong in the “widget” areas and in “soda” and with some of their top subjects (Rosie and Bieber) but with needed work to do to move them up on opinion, poll and their tagline:

Searches on google search (term in italics followed by position)
Sodahead 1st position
Everybody’s got one, They rank 37th
Opinions everybody’s got one  they rank 2nd and 4th
poll widgets 5th (Zoomerang was ad 1)
election poll widget 9th
myspace poll widget 10th
poll widget blogger 9th (Zoomerang was ad 1)
gallup poll widget not top10 (Zoomerang only ad)
presidential poll widget 9TH (Zoomerang only ad)
election poll widget Not listed (Zoomerang only ad)
2008 election widget Not listed zoomerang No ad
electoral map widget Not listed (Zoomerang only ad)
Searches related to election vote widget Not listed (Zoomerang 1st ad)
Widget Not in top 100 (Zoomerang was ad 1)
Nothing for 200 entries of poll
Nothing for 500 entries of opinion
Nothing for 500 entries of opinions
opinion bieber 3rd
bieber (only) no listing top 100
soda opinion 1st
soda poll 1st 2nd 3rd
Bieber soda 7th
Rosie soda 12th
Rosie poll 90th

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Sodahead claimed their site “and major media distribution partners” were responsible for 30 million per month advertisers like Sony and Yoplait but when I clicked around on Yoplait, the member “Yoplait” had created no questions and there were only a few questions by other users such as “Do you enjoy Yoplait?” with 13 opinions and in another, 2 votes for users’ favorite flavor. A question “Yogurt: Dannon, Yoplait, or store brand?” had 29 votes. Similarly, a couple of questions about Sony had 3 or 4 votes with one about game consoles in general, in which Sony was included, generating 167 votes.
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Timeline of Measuring the Public and Public Opinion

Did you ever wonder how we got here? To the age of public opinion polls knowing what everyone thinks about stuff before it even happens? I did. So I looked it up and found out it was not always this way. As a matter of fact, in the grand scheme of things, the very idea of "public opinion" is pretty new and all these polls are even newer. See my website and this page for a history of public opinion polls and related matters.
The URL is http://www.panmodern.com/timelinepublicopinion.htm

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Precursors of Panmodernism

In March, 2009, at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business, I gave a talk about Everett Rogers' work in Diffusion of Innovation, and what it means to Panmodernism. The sound file of the lecture is posted here and the slides follow if you click on the right arrow. There is also an accompanying file that illuminate many of these ideas. ---Mark Bloch

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Information Network Systems Q&A

Linda L. Lambertson: Q & A with Communications Artist Mark Bloch

Linda L. Lambertson, the Education Coordinator and an Associate Curator at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art has created a show “SEND: Conversations in Evolving Media” lasting June 11 to August 10 which had an Opening Reception on June 20th from 5-8 pm. The show features Artists Meggan Gould, Alex Kahn, Jason Lewis, Young-Hae Chang, Heavy Industries and my late friend Carlo Pittore, whose art about his mentor Bern Porter was featured. Lambertson posed these questions to me and they helped me clarify my opinions on Communications Art prior to an event she has coordinated tonight in conjunction with the show.

Linda L. Lambertson: How do you approach/use correspondence and information network systems as part of your practice?

Mark Bloch: I see myself as a node, or temporary endpoint in a network web. I receive and send information. For the info I send on from elsewhere, I am a conduit. This is a very important part of mail art. I used to be afraid to send the information on but i didn't realize that in an information system, unlike a normal commodity system, if I have information and I give you information you have more and I don't have less. We mustn't fear sharing information. It will make us all rich. Malthus said there wasn't enough to go around when it came to goods in the world. I am not sure if he was right but it caused a panic, for countries to hoard what they had, it led to a lot of the fear and suspicion and greed that we see today in economic systems. Surely this is NOT true of information.

I created the term Storàge to encompass what gets stuck at my node. Artists love storage. We store our art as if it was something noble but there is nothing noble about it. We must let our art flow out into the world. We must send it out like our children to take a fantastic journey.

One of the new models for the Internet is giving stuff away for free and then becoming famous as a result and eventually charging for something else or for advertising etc. To trust that by creating something good and sending it out, it will come back to us. Mail artists have been doing that for years.

I want to hear what others are doing. I use the networks to take the information I have and send it out into the world and let people know what I am doing and hear about them.

LL: Evolution of the form, from basic print media, to Dada, Fluxus, to mail art, to internet: Has it really changed?

MB: The Italian Fututusts, like Fluxus, used the mail to stay in touch… to complete mundane tasks by communicating by mail. The Dadaists did less utilitarian mail art that, like all their art, didn't necessarily make sense. That used to shock but now art that doesn't make sense is not shocking. Our society has embraced Dada. Television and rock and roll music are full of non-sequitors. The Internet is a combination of both. Some internet art is practical, some is just wacky. Dada invented the wacky art to confront a wacky society. Now our society is so used to being wacky that it accepts even the wacky art as normal, the same way it accepts its own wacky behavior, it accepts wacky artist contributions as un-remarkable. It could be tolerance but it is probably something more akin to numbness.

Also important to form is money. Money was involved with mail via stamps. Each piece was taxed. With the Internet we pay to join the network and then get unlimited use. This relatively inexpensive aspect of the Internet has yet to be explored fully.

LL: The nature of correspondence art: action vs. object… Are these documents of a moment that was art? And anonymity and personalization- how do these key factors alter a conversation’s potential?

MB: Action versus object and personalization? Speaking of the relatively inexpensive aspect of the Internet being yet to be explored, in the early 1990s I tried to get people to use the Internet to download art, change it and re-post it. Then others could do the same with THAT art. People did not have the resources to do so then. Or the know-how. Today they do. I should try that again. I wanted to focus on the process, using gif and jpg files as objects to be downloaded then sent into the 0's and 1's of the Internet. Dissolving them as objects, if they ever existed it all, and transforming them into pure process. But people didn’t know how to scan their art objects or create digital art from scratch. I have had Photoshop and other art making computer programs since the mid 80s. I guess other people have that ability now. Somehow they are able to create images and upload them with greater ease. I hope this keeps spreading.

As for anonymity, if I was a dog, a dictator, an unpopular president, a rock star, how would my words be different if they were anonymous? If Paul Mc Cartney is on Facebook and nobody knows, how does it affect his communications? I watched a movie the other day: "Elvis Meets Nixon." In it, Elvis walked around the Haight Ashbury and nobody cared. He looked like everybody else-- dressed weird in a cape and people just said, "Hi, man." They didn't know he was Elvis. On the other hand, George Harrison was the only Beatle to do the same—-walk around the Haight in the 60s. He was mobbed by the crowd. It got bigger and bigger as he walked. He was getting scared. He went without a team, just him and another guy. Eventually he had to beat it out of there. So there is anonymity and there is anonymity. Anonymity allows freedom. For people who are not as public as they would like to be, anonymity is a bad thing. Something to be overcome. Anonymity equals invisibility. I invented Storàge to mock my own tendencies in this direction.

LL: Public and private simultaneity: how do you see the relationship of “cultural consciousness” and individual perception, as it relates to network and correspondence art? Public art “movements” have occurred cyclically throughout the last century. How does this relate to cultural climates?

MB: Public vs. private communications. When a person says “Hi Mom” on TV they are breaking the law. Broadcast TV is made to reach everyone. It casts out a blanket of communication that everyone is supposed to be able to receive equally. Technically, “Hi Mom” is point to point communications on Broadcast TV and is therefore illegal.

I’ve written about “Proud Mary” which is the societal machine that chews up art movements and eats them. It shits out the results and the public consumes that. It used to be more automatic. Today there is a more varied array of fecal matter being produced by the Proud Mary machine. In fact. some of it is not getting eaten at all, it is just moving from producer to the consumer without Mary sucking out the nutrients. This is a much more healthy process. There is a more splintered approach to mass media these days and it is getting more extreme. It is possible for fringe movements to dominate consciousness and completely avoid what is going on in the big networks, by the major publishers, the big record labels etc. In fact those giants have become irrelevant. That kind of behemoth-dominated culture no longer flies.

The current cultural climate has no major dominant molder of attitudes. What molds it is the increasingly-splintered media and the multi-faceted approach to culture; it doesn't matter what people consume, just that everyone consumes OR DON'T CONSUME what they want and it needn't match everyone else or even anyone else. People can mix and match according to their individual needs and likes.

I’ve thought about the cyclical movements of the 20th century a lot and how they build on each other, resulting in either a real or imagined “arc” of “progress” moving in a direction. I have my opinions about where it is leading, if anywhere. Lately I tend to think it is leading toward the splintering of culture and toward cultural Balkanization. But this flies right in the face of an opposite international “racially” motivated trend toward actual Balkanization-- At a time where the history of the world can be seen as constantly moving away from that, away from race, away from the differences between people. The current political trend toward nationalism and Balkanization seems to me like a last ditch effort to preserve some really old human stuff that I have never really understood and that I think we will eventually outgrow but not without some serious growing pains. I am more inclined to encourage cross-cultural blending. If we all started out as separate tribes, we are naturally all growing together into one big tribe-- and we always have been. So if we can overcome this caveman mentality, the future will embody both trends at once--a world with people being organized by their interests and likes rather than by their race or ethnicity.

LL: Navigation of systems: How can this be used or seen as a radical act? How do the system and the navigation process determine formal structure? Systems contextualize...

MB: Remember what I said before. It is radical simply BECAUSE it moves people from the behemoth-based media to something more personal and individually designed. Also, when the big electronics companies offered us hardware to help us violate copyright laws, VCR's, computers, tape machines, they gave us a license to steal and SURPRISE--we did it. It is radical to mash up and make acid jazz and recombine other people's copyrighted materials but only in a society that holds "all rights reserved" as an outmoded symbol of ownership.

And the media determine the way we navigate so with a TV we navigate with the remote. With the internet we navigate with the mouse. The click. In the future all the media will grow together. I have a hard time believing the Kindle that Amazon is developing will be the way we read books in the future if it is not in the same box as an i-phone or a mini-lap-top.

Did you know that when the people at Xerox PARC developed the mouse they got the idea by watching very young babies choose what they wanted? They point and reach for what they want. That realization lead to the mouse. Eventually everything will be within reach and we won’t even require a mouse as a tool to navigate. We will be our own interface.

LL: How are the works in SEND an examination of context? How do you consider the factor of shifting context in your own practice?

MB: It is interesting that correspondence art is lumped in with this other art in SEND. I haven't seen SEND so I don't know. But I do know that mailart used a network system to create a network mentality that existed for 40 years before the Internet made it possible. Zine culture and cassette culture got on board in the 80s because it was a system that worked and had its own paths and practices already carved out. When the Internet came along, it ended up using some of the same grooves whether they evolved naturally and independently or as a result of overlap and influence. Communications systems tend to resemble each other. In fact I would say they grow to resemble each other as they evolve.

LL: Information saturation: Sound bytes, icons, texting, Google-- Is less more? With so much information available, there is an inherent conflict between immediate gratification and surface information vs. depth and qualitative research. What do you see as potential widespread problems in communication networks? What do you see as the idealistic potential?

MB: There is clearly too much information in the world. The Fluxus artist Robert Filliou addressed this with his concept of "The Eternal Network." Mail artists love to confuse their mail art network with his Eternal Network and they do go together well, but I believe that they are two separate things. Filliou was onto something larger. He knew there was way too much info for any one person to know or use so he proposed the Eternal Network as a way for us to combine forces to digest this giant growing glut of information, facts, figures, images. It is even more true today with us drowning in our sea of endless files than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s when he was talking about it. But to limit information creation is unnatural and counter-productive. Any given piece of information must be seen as available but not essential. The old school behemoth culture is more about gobbling up whatever you can and that mentality lingers in today’s society and it is not necessary. If you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet every once in a while, you are free to boogie 'til you puke. But if you LIVE in an all-you-can-eat buffet, you can eat sensibly, nibbling as needed. I have a Greek-American friend who constantly puts out little bowls of food as we sit around talking. She tells me this is a Greek tradition dating back to when people picked figs and olives off of trees as they talked: No need to engage in a big gorge-fest when nibbling is more pleasant and does the trick.

LL: Language as art object: Politics and rhetoric- Audiovisual properties for emphasis/audience manipulation are used in very sophisticated ways for commercial, political, and artistic purposes becoming? How is this changing the ways artists create visual messages?

MB: The TV commercial is the most sophisticated art form ever invented. It uses all the art forms that movies use, plus a big extra: mind control. Steven Spielberg has worked this into his movies when he controls our emotions. His movies are programmed to make us cry here and laugh there. I suppose they all do, but some are better than this than others. TV commercials do that as their number one behavior. They are designed to control our minds. They take ideas and symbols and transform them into actions by us. TV Networks sell US as the commodity in the forms of eyeballs to the advertisers because together they assume that a certain percentage of us will go out and do the behaviors they want us to do. 27 per cent will buy beer. 19 percent will use this soap when they need soap. They use numbers to back up their findings. It used to be vague now it is more sophisticated that ever. With the internet, advertising is even bigger because they can measure our behavior via clicks minute by minute. They know what we do because they know what we click on it. The old Nielsen ratings were a joke compared to the precision of the Internet analytics. This has all made marketing king.

Do we really need to talk about political advertising? One promising thing is that this year we will get to see if Barak Obama, by pretending not to play the game, can emasculate the Republican attack machine. Sometimes it seems to be working-- like by just deflecting every attack as NOT being about CHANGE, Obama has de-programmed the electorate. This has interesting possilitites. We need to do this sort of re-programming as much as possible. The fresher people can come to any sort of communication whether it be about art or commerce, the better off we will be. We can enjoy or at least experience things more if our responses are less predictable and more "real." What is real authenticity? Some years ago I proposed the theory of the Internal Network as a supplement to Filliou’s Eternal Network. Each person must consult their inner network of voices, archetypes and parts of the whole person and come up with their own integrated sense of authenticity.

LL: How sophisticated are audiences? Mark of the hand/mark of the machine- both are human, but not always perceived as such. What are your views and feelings about both?

MB: The machine is part of us. If people do mail art just for the sense of smell and the tactile nature of a postcard or other art object, they are really fetishizing something of the past. The machine is everywhere. Itr mediates our experiences and has since the age of mechanical reproduction that Benjamin spoke about. Smell and the tactile are important potential elements in a communication just as the speed of delivery is. We prefer Fed Ex over the mail because of speed and we prefer the Internet over Fed Ex because it is faster still. But the Internet cannot deliver a box. Yet. They can compress information. How long until we get those units on “Star Trek” that create food that magically pops out of a wall? In the past it probably would have been difficult to conceive of money coming out of a slot in the wall like the ATM machine. Yet we all do it today. I remember at one point--quite a long time ago, actually-- I knew who was old and who was young because the young people had never set foot in a bank and I had. Now no one needs to set foot in a bank yet there is one on every corner. But that is because they are symbols of the dying money culture. The banks have created the branch office as a giant billboard for the fact that they still control your cash and have no intention of relinquishing. What event will have to take place before them taking a cut of every transaction is recognized for what it is? Or is it necessary because they are the ones that build and maintain the ATMs?

And by the way, if they can track every penny of every transaction via PIN numbers and ATM cards, how come we still don’t have a voting machine that everyone can use? Believe me, if counting votes was as important as counting money, they wouldn't miss a single ballot.

Some day people will have sex with robots. Will human interaction be necessary? It is more cumbersome to deal with actual people. They talk back. They don't just agree and obey. But it is more rewarding. The intimacy possible with people is not possible with machines and hopefully intimacy will not disappear although already it is out of fashion.

LL: Bern Porter said, “The bomb splintered language, turned the tower of Babel into a shadow.”

Are you sure he said it? Maybe he just found it imprinted on a discarded car muffler.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Web Log Backlog

I have decided, after letting this Blog lay dormant for a couple years, to begin to post things here I have been thinking about. At first it will be old stuff I cut out of newspapers or elsewjhere on the web or stuff masquerading as intelligent thought that I came up with myself.

I was waiting to perfect my ideas before posting them here, but now I realize that is exactly what a blog is NOT supposed to be about.

So I will join the club and shoot from the hip like the other kids.

So below is a thing I wrote in October 2006 inspired by a book I received in the mail from Vittore Baroni in Italy. It was about the mail artist and my long time correspondent David "Oz" Zack. I started rambling about Zack and then about networks and nodes and communication theory. My limited view of it.

But these are things I am interested in. So in the interest of moving forward, and in the interest of COMMUNICATING, I will begin using this Web Log format to post little entires and try to clear out my "backlog" of philosophical tidbits.

In other words, after years of resistance, I finally will admit that a "blog" is not the same thing as a web site. They are not the same. A web site is what I wanted to create- a well-honed, polished presentation of information. Instead, I will use the blog idea- a work-in-progess diary-like posting of thoughts -as-information that are not necessarily fully formed, but nonetheless worhty of entering the world wide Info-stream that the Internet has become. It is an akashic record of humanity and my thoughts and musings are just as valid as anyone elses, right?

My resistance came form the fact that everyting gets so hyped these days, I was suspicious of this media frenzy about the "Blogosphere." But I can see now that some of the hype is warranted. This may just be the beginning of something I predicted a long time ago: that in the future everyone will become thier own broadcasting station. And it has come to pass.

And ablog IS just a website, but it is a certain kind of website, and I see now that it can help me to use this format, so welcome back to the Panmodern Feedback Loop, a work still in progress.

Web Log-- October 25 2006

node n
1. the place on a plant stem where a leaf is attached or has been attached
2. a point where lines meet or intersect in a diagram or graph
3. either of the two points where an orbit, for example, that of a planet, crosses the ecliptic plane
4. a terminal or other point in a computer network where a message can be created, received, or repeated

Tal·mud n
the collection of ancient Jewish writings that makes up the basis of Jewish religious law, consisting of the early scriptural interpretations (Mishnah) and the later commentaries on them (Gemara)

By Mark Bloch

The Book Of Oz by David Zack. Zack was basically out of his mind. But he left a nice legend. I like the way his Correspondence Novels --these stream of consciousness tales that that were very haphazard --told a story. Kind of random, but communicative, just the same. This is how the net is, it’s very asynchronous and non-linear. In the past we’ve tended to think of things as synchronous and linear. It’s not so anymore. Not necessary anymore. So you got your network. I wanted to be included in Vittore Baroni’s Zack issue. But just like the Talmud, I can comment on the commentary, as the others have done. So that’s what I intend to do. I intend to comment on the commentary of those guys. Create an ongoing text, a living text that’s what hypertext is supposed to be and that’s what mail art was and still is. That is very much in line with the flavor of the Correspondence Novels.

Ray Johnson was the opposite of Duchamp. That was one of the things Marcel Duchamp did that was underrated. He made it possible for all his works to be collected under one roof in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ray Johnson did the opposite. He spread his work all over the world, to make it impossible for anyone to ever be able to write fully the full biography or the full complete CV of RJ. This type of idea--of an endless, infinite information field--leads us to Robert Filliou’s idea of the Eternal Network. Now while the term Eternal Network has indeed been abused by mail artists, it is a useful concept to think about in terms of an endless information field reaching out in all directions. This is where it relates to what I was talking about. Because that was Filliou’s idea: an endless, infinite sprawling network. Filliou’s idea was that since no one could ever know everything about art, it had to be a group activity. And so who better to do this than mail artists and since we can’t define mail artists… mail artists equals everyone.

Because just like I was at the center of my own network before I was a mail artist, in exactly the same way, I’m in the center of my own network as a mail artist. We all move through life meeting other people and this is our network and we can only assimilate as much information as is in our network and is in our short term memory at any one time. As Albert Einstein said, never remember anything that is already written down so you don’t have to commit it to your short-term memory. You can write it down and you can visit it from time to time. Filliou was into the un-doable-ness of the world, the undoableness that’s perfectly OK. We need to learn to live with that. After I lost all my computer data it was painful but it brings up issues of the art of Storáge, which are basically about the uncapturability of the entire world. And it isn’t just the uncapturability but also the reticence to divulge ones own node on the network. In other words, we all have these networks and we receive things from everyone we’ve ever met at the same time. We also are transmitting to everyone and storáge has to do with the things we do; with the things we receive; and also the things we generate and don’t send. Places that do a lot of receiving and sending tend to be the more active nodes.

This is good. To be an active node is a good thing. If you are an active node it means you generate activity. You generate a lot of information for the net. The net- is there a goal of this network? I think not. I think it’s a world without a goal. It is its own reward. Its information is not the reason for the net, the info is a bi-product as info moves between the nodes. Info can move between the nodes. Or it can reside at the nodes and can even get stuck at nodes and it often does, especially in my case. But I guess the spiritual takes over when the info is moving rapidly between the nodes at such a speed that it’s indistinguishable from life-- if that makes any sense. It’s like a spiritual energy is generated by the movement of information. And the connection between people is what it is all about. It’s all about the connections between people.

There’s always gonna be a place for stuff for which we have no concept, no idea what it is; stuff that is uncategorizable but we can look at it later. I have really good stuff- tons and tons of stuff. It’s all good. Organization of info is completely arbitrary in every way. It depends on each individual person and how they want to organize the info that they send and receive. This idea, just like the concept of history, implies there is some objectivity to it but we know there is not. There is no history. There is no absolute take on anything. There’s just people trying to make individual sense of their individual node and the information that’s flowing into it and out of it.

Its amazing the shit I have been able to save and not to do anything about. I am a stockpile for irrelevant information and desire. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I am. The sad case of my particular node is… first of all let us acknowledge that it doesn’t have to stay this way, it’s going to get better. However at the moment it’s a little screwy. Part of what this is about is straightening out my little node and turning it into something wonderful again. Not that it ever was wonderful. Its always been convoluted. I’m sick of it and I don’t deserve it.

Every time I think I’ve lost something I find versions of it. This is good. Not everything but some of the stuff and this is a beautiful thing. But at least some of it exists in hard copy. I have amazing people in my life that say amazing things. As one of them said when everything got deleted, “when you write the stuff the second time don’t bother entering it all in this time.” It’s like she was reading my mind. Just enter parts that are finished. That advice unnerved me because that is not my style. It unnerved me but it was good advice.

That box in storage the other day is so unbelievable. I can’t even say it was painful because it was so far beyond pain. It’s just the irony of me never doing anything. Not even the irony but the obviousness of that fact. So I don’t do anything and I end up stuck with all this backlog of shit. So there a lot of it was, in a box. Proof of my activity in collecting it and proof of my inactivity by not acting on it.

So I have to look at it all and I have to beat myself up for never having done anything with it. It’s just so far beyond what I deserve. I really do deserve the very best. We all do. Instead I've sentenced myself to a box of uncompleted tasks which I then look back on and I wonder about and I lament over and I marvel at, but mostly I just let it sit there and I don't do anything with it. If you were to look at my life in terms of networking and network nodes my net node is a dead letter office, baby, this is not an exaggeration. This is the god’s honest truth. My net node. But on the other hand I keep finding things that are amazing. Things I thought I’d never find and quit looking for--then here they are. I gave up. Yet here they all are.

I look in the box. I say “Here’s something important. It could have changed my life.”

I guess that’s the end of this text until further notice. I should take all of the network books and texts and put it all in one big book about long distance networking art. Then send it out long distance and be done with it.

Friday, June 17, 2005

After Mail Art Comes the Internet

by Mark Bloch. Reprinted from NEW OBSERVATIONS magazine.

Is it a coincidence that both international mail art and the Internet reached a critical mass in the late 1960s?

Mail art was expanding exponentially as a new generation of artists all over the world practiced ideas developed a decade earlier about artists linking via the postal system, both within and beyond their geographical limitations.

In March ‘68, artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht emerged from a “sort of workshop” and “international center of permanent creation” in the south of France called La Cedille qui Sourit and announced they “had developed the concept of the Fête Permanente or Eternal Network, as we chose to translate it into English, which we think should allow us to spread this spirit more efficiently than before… we announced our intentions and sent it to our numerous correspondents… The artist must realize also that his is part of a wider network… going on all around him all the time in all parts of the world.”

“My mail box lit up,” said Anna Banana of her entrée the early 70s, “the network just suddenly went ‘pow’… From these… mostly artists who knew each other… all hell broke loose. File started publishing... Everyone who saw it was like, ‘This is neat! Let’s do it.’”

Meanwhile, a contract for the development of what would become the Internet was awarded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in fall 1968. A year later, the first pieces of the ARPANET were in place. Researchers in several universities, military bases and government labs used it to exchange files and electronic mail and to provide remote login to each other’s sites.

Was this activity the parallel development of two diverse communications media whose time had come or was the mail art network an earlier form of what we now call “cyberspace”? Fluxus artist Geoff Hendricks, who was (and is) also a link to a community emerging at Rutgers University in the late 1950s suggests that:

“People today are using the Internet and web sites and so forth very extensively for the communication of art ideas… it’s more like correspondence art and what was happening with Fluxus ... a perceiving of… the end of easel painting and modernism and that whole aspect of art... realizing that there’s a another form of communication between artists and another way to express art ideas… it’s almost like all of this is in anticipation of the Internet. It’s using that slightly older form of the post to exchange ideas but realizing that this is the communication that we need to have today: to talk to each other, to reach each other.

Was the increasing irrelevancy of the tangible art object in favor of a collective reaching out to other artists by artists in a non-hierarchical social structure, at that moment in time, the beginning of the changes we now see being experienced by the culture at large?

In 1945, the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development under FDR, Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), published a groundbreaking article, "As We May Think" in Atlantic Monthly magazine. Bush introduced his conception of the “Memex” machine- an “easily accessible, individually configurable storehouse of knowledge.” Imagining an analog computer, Bush was unknowingly laying the groundwork for hypertext, a system for “multiple authorship, a blurring of the author and reader functions, multiple reading paths, and extended works with diffuse boundaries.” Ironically, he abandoned his research when the digital computer was invented but his ideas were adapted by Ted Nelson (b. 1937) who coined the phrase “hypertext” in the mid-60’s.

In 1943, Ray Johnson began an illustrated correspondence with a hometown Detroit artist. Shortly thereafter, Johnson headed for the experimental Black Mountain College where he added a new circle of friends to accompany him on his five-decade journey exploring long distance art communication, eventually called the New York Correspondence School. When Johnson and others, including Black Mountain teacher John Cage, moved to New York, actually living across the hall from each other in 1948, the small intersecting spheres of post-war artists began to coalesce. Cage’s 1958 classes at the New School led to Fluxus and Happenings while Johnson continued to build his own overlapping network.

Two years before the first Fluxus Festival in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1962, Johnson (who by 1955 claimed a mailing list of 200 people) held a “nothing,” his response to the “happenings” of Alan Kaprow (himself part of the Rutgers group) at George Maciunas’ Manhattan AG Gallery. Maciunas, in turn, had been influenced by a similar program of gigs at Yoko Ono’s downtown loft. Thus, by the time Johnson’s “school” and Maciunas’ Fluxus were named in ‘62, all the pieces were in place for a cross-fertilization of iconoclastic ideas already enveloping American artists by word of mouth and mail.

The ambitious Maciunas next created Fluxus newsletters to unite like-minded artists around the goals of his collective: to “fuse the cadres of cultural, social and political revolutionaries into united front and action.” The newsletters played a vital role in bridging two continents as the Fluxfest took form in Wiesbaden.

There, and also at the 1962 Misfits exhibition in London, the already complex collection of American nodes led by Maciunas intersected with Daniel Spoerri, founder of the experimental magazine Material, and part of the French New Realism group, and his friends Dieter Rot, Emmett Williams, Ben Vautier and Filliou.

That same year, Johnson corresponded with Christo in France and when Ray’s friend Henry Martin moved to Italy in ‘65, the Correspondence School meandered permanently into Europe. Meanwhile, Maciunas contacted Joseph Beuys in ’63 as Nam June Paik learned of Fluxus from Mieko Shiomi in Japan and established contact.

Brecht and Robert Watts, meeting informally at a restaurant near Rutgers, masterminded their inter-disciplinary 1963 Yam Festival, including mail events. By ’65, Spoerri had moved Stateside while Brecht sold his belongings, eventually heading with Filliou to the south of France. Books published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, including one of Johnson’s correspondence and one of Spoerri’s games with chance, also grew the circle.

Whether it was called art or not, whether it began with Mallarme, the Beats, McLuhan or some unidentified form of spontaneous combustion, the importance of “community” was in the air by 1968. As the student movement stirred uneasily around the world, the stage was now set for new tactics to take hold.

Once created, the ARPANET quietly transformed over the next two decades. In 1975 the worldwide communication system was transferred from ARPA to the Department of Defense, which partitioned it in 1983 into two connected networks that agreed to pass traffic to each other. The National Science Foundation NSFNET for experimental research eventually became the dominant backbone of the Internet.

Using the post and not wires, in the late ‘60s a young Flux-driven Ken Friedman joined forces with a pair of Canadian nodes, Vancouver’s Image Bank and Toronto’s General Idea, publisher of File Megazine, to bring the “artist address list” center stage. Borrowing the concept and some addresses from Friedman and Johnson, what began as a postcard show became a request list for and finally a conduit from North America into South America via visual poetry circles and via Beuys and grassroots political networks into East Germany, Hungary, and beyond. (Today, Flash Art ’s annual Art Diary is a direct outgrowth of this activity.)

Soon after, articles on the interweaving networks in Art in America and Rolling Stone brought “mail art” to a generation of art students as still more publications did later to sci-fi and punk music enthusiasts. Thus did this gift-driven, do-it-yourself sensibility explode in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yet, as a cultural strategy, it was just beginning.

Realizing that data communication was crucial to scientific research, in 1987, the National Science Foundation insured that network communications would be available for US scientists and engineers. By mid-summer 1988 a larger NSFNET backbone was in place; the original shut down and disconnected. Then, in 1991, with the Internet growing beyond science and academia, a policy of commercialization and privatization by the US government began, including, for the first time, charging institutions for connections.

In 1982, I had put a computer-generated sticker on my magazine Panmag’s Issue #1: “Computers are the next logical step in mail art.” After exposure to both Mac’s and DOS based operating systems in my job as a multimedia producer, in 1985 I embarked on combining correspondence with computer generated art. I bought my first Macintosh in 1986. I exchanged computer works with Charles Françoise in Belgium and an American artist appropriately named Gene Laughter. I also recall a magazine called DooDa Florida that used a Mac. I’m sure there were others infiltrating the network.

On November 11, 1989, during a visit to Françoise’s home in Liege, I physically saw and participated in his newly created RATOS (Research in Art and Telecommunication) BBS. Two days later, Françoise, Rod Summers and I met in Maastricht, Netherlands for the First Computer Mailart Congress. Summers, a Dutch veteran of audiocassette exchanges, used a Sinclair, Acorn and finally an Amiga 4000 computer to create artistbook catalogues in the ‘80s.

When I returned to the US I logged on to Factsheet Five’s and then the WELL, where I checked out John Cage’s First Meeting of the Satie Society and connected with Fred Truck and Carl Loeffler, mail artists I had met in San Francisco in 1984. In 1990, I established a teleconferencing system of my own called Panscan. Part of the Echo BBS in New York, it was visited by mail artists including Françoise, Guy Bleus, Xexoxial Endarchy, Mark Pawson, and Robert Delford Brown, a correspondent of Johnson’s since the early 1960s.

In April 1990, Chuck Welch and I connected our modems together and Chuck sent his first electronic file, something I had done with RATOS and others the previous December. By 1995, Welch had one-upped me, establishing EMMA: the Electronic Museum of Mail Art, the first mail art web site. Anxious to catch up, I posted my hypertext tribute to Ray Johnson about a week later. Johnson drowned earlier that year and I had been slowly building an HTML-based bio of Ray that I planned to be the first mail art web site on the burgeoning web.

Since then, of course, a thousand mail art-related sites have bloomed. The number of mail artists with email has increased a handful in 1995 to thousands today. Entire discussion groups now debate the pros and cons of mail art, what constitutes a Fluxus artist and how many can dance on the head of a pin.

Finding yesterday’s (and tomorrow’s) long-distance art superstars is only a click away on today’s net. I used email to arrange a face to face meeting with AA Bronson, one third of the influential General Idea team that created File Megazine in 1972. I had never met or corresponded with either him or his two late partners but the Internet and a mutual friend now brought Bronson and I together. In a talk we had in February 2000, Bronson said:

“It’s a whole book to discuss about all the various threads of what was going on. I think it-- let’s call it the “electronic revolution”-- is already in progress without there being an electronic technology in place. So, the whole idea of networking on very horizontal rather than vertical structures. For example, the ideas of co-ops and communes... is roughly equivalent to the concept of the Internet. It’s about a very horizontal, free-flow sort of structure. It’s not based on a hierarchy and it’s not based on equality per se and it’s not based on… a sort of Marxist notion. It’s much more about free-form networking that operates in a very organic sort of way. So the Correspondence Art was very much like an illustration of that. It’s like the Internet… it’s exactly like the Internet in its structure and in the way it happened and the way it changed and shifted all the time.

“And it’s quite interesting the way these little banks of images pulled out of the popular culture were collected and then recycled-- very much the way imagery passes through the Internet, through everybody’s emails-- especially in the pornographic aspect of the network. The way people scan images out of magazines and trade them with each other and set up home web sites that have big banks of a particular kind of imagery and that sort of thing. So it’s very similar. I think it was, and is, the feeling of the time. It was appearing with a small group of people who were, in a way, more conceptually advanced. It was just part of the their nature. And it’s really now that it’s appearing in the culture at large. Buckminster Fuller always talked about a 25 year lag between something being invented and something appearing in the culture at large and that’s sort of how correspondence was. It was something for just a few people and now in the form of the Internet, it’s just sort of everyday activity for everybody.”

Bronson and several others changed direction in 1974 when the mainstream magazine articles appeared and artists stopped using the image request lists and just sending anything to anybody-- or everybody. Was that a precursor to today’s email “spam”? Are web sites the electronic equivalent of “zines”? Did Ray Johnson’s first “add to and send to” in 1962 lead to the Linux “open source” operating system: given away freely, not subject to copyright, with programmers encouraged to add to and improve?

Observing the fluidity of random interactions as “people passed information… standing at tables by the serving hatch, where coffee and croissants were served” helped Tim Berners-Lee mastermind the organizing principals of his Worldwide Web. What better testimonial is there to the ultimate expediency of Dada’s adherence to the laws of chance? The Internet required a detour into the realm of science to be created, but it remains an art form.

As it reaches a level of total saturation around the world, can electronic communication avoid pitfalls and capitalize on its strengths? Whether premonition, precursor, or just a goofy first cousin, mail art’s rich history represents a valuable inspiration and under-explored resource for the Internet.

Copyright Mark Bloch. Reprinted from NEW OBSERVATIONS magazine.

Note: Mark Bloch wishes to acknowledge the following sources: Emmett Williams and Ann Noel, editors, Mr. Fluxus: A Collective Portrait of George Maciunas 1931-1978, 1997, Thames and Hudson, London; Catherine Guidis and John Farmer, editors, Ray Johnson: Correspondences, Flammarion and Wexner Ctr. for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio,1999; Joan Marter, editor, Off Limits: Rutgers University and the Avant-Garde, 1957-1963 The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ, 1999; Douglas E. Comer, Internetworking with TCP/IP, Volume 1,Third Edition, Prentice Hall Inc. , 1995; Sharla Sava, Clive Robertson, editors, Robert Filliou: From Political to Poetical Economy, Belkin Art Gallery, Vancouver, B.C., 1995 as well as conversations with Anna Banana, AA Bronson, Ken Friedman, Geoff Hendricks, Michael Morris, and Daniel Spoerri, and email correspondences with Tim Berners-Lee, Judith Hoffberg, Henry Martin and others.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Networking Theory: Old Ways New Ways

I wrote this in the mid-1980's when I was doing some researching on Networks. It was before I got into computer teleconferencing. I think it applies both to the teleconferencing and BBS's of the early 90s as well as the Eternal Mail Art Network which I thought I was writing about at the time.

Alot of this was rewritten and paraphrased "research" I got from another magazine. Yes I changed it but when I find it I will give them credit where due. I have the original somewhere. I seem to recall this also appeared in a Vittore Baroni mail art publication of some kind in Italy.


There is a choice that we each must make. It is a choice between an Old Way, which is very familiar to us; and a New Way, which is not as familiar, but of which we are also aware. The Old Way is set up according to a hierarchy, with a president, or some other leader, sitting at the top of a heap, with those below him subservient. The individual lies at the bottom of this heap, buried by the system and everybody in it. In fact, in this Old Way of working, the system itself is thg most important thing. "We The People" the system was created to serve are secondary not only to those near the top of the heap, but to the system itself.

A New Way, called Networking, puts every individual at the center of their own system, which is created to serve that individual alone, freeing them to give or take according to their own needs. The Networking Way is really not new at all. There have always been networks. A person's individual friends and contacts are, in effect, their Network. What is new, however, is that many people all over the world are recognizing networking as an alternative way of doing things that gets results. Many of these people are in touch with each other, thus networks grow together, becoming stronger.

Networks are more effective than the bureucratic, hierarchical systems that have dominated the world since "democracy" was taken up as a battlecry to thwart the rule of kings and monarchs. Democracy soon turned into another kind of tyrranny with the individual subservient to the bureaucracy itself. So networking has sprung up as a useful replacement for any kind of officialdom at all. In other words, networking is for individuals and individuals only- there is no need for an authority in a networking system, hence- true "democracy."

Though networks are non-bureacratic, they still offer an effective and useful organizational structure. Each person is at the center of his or her own network. Because networks are polycentric and not monocentric, it is like a hydra with many heads. Meanwhile, bureaucracies die, leaving new ones struggling to take their place.

To those who need to defend bureaucracy, networks are perceived as a conspiracy, if they exist at all. Those of us who use networks recognize them as a functional necessity for our new global society. We live in an information environment now. Those who process information most efficiently will survive. Until recently, corporations and governments had a monopoly on information. What we are witnessing for the first time in history, is that individuals working together in a networking system are gaining control of information. We are weaving patterns in an attempt to decentralize, de-bureaucratize and therefore, rehumanize the planet.

One interesting paradox of all this is that networking seems to work according to the same ideals that free enterprise is based on, but have long since been forgotten. Indeed, capitalism itself has been usurped by the suffocating effects of bureaucracy. Self-interest transformed into personally satisfying mutuality is an idea whose time has come- again!

Malthus convinced us some time ago that the resources of the world are limited. Whether you accept this or not, the fact remains that you have what other people want and other people have what you want. Each person is a creative individual, possessing unlimited resourses and capable of making their own decisions. While the hierarchy desperately tries to hang on, the rest of us are waking up to the fact that we may have something better to offer the world than our potential as simple laborers. We have the ability to transform the world and re-see our society as a supra-national unity that cuts across socio-economic boundaries, regardless of gender, age and ethnicity.

The world has a potential to provide fruit for everyone, but it requires great care and responsibility to keep the garden growing. We must learn that when we weave our patterns through the network, we must do so responsibly. The Global Network is a tool that we must use carefully in order to be effective. It is not a status symbol or something to flaunt. It is a necessity that we must jointly nurture.

How Do Networks Work?

The Old Way consisted of towers of bureaucracy, ready to fall at any moment. The keys to networking are not in these vertically- constructed hierarchies, but rather in a vast web that spreads itself across the planet. It is a thin veil of organization that gets its strength from its horizontal linkages, the inner-connectivity of its members. At the center of your network is you, and concentric rings reach out to the ends of the planet, linking you to all the other individual networks. You may not know Person C, but you are connected with Person B and B is connected to C. Thus, we find that it is, indeed, a small world. Ancestry or social status are not the criteria for playing this game. There are a multitude of criteria, in fact, which make the relationships of a networking system more complex than that of the hierarchy. The leader of one group is a member of another. Members of a group are permitted to be from different backgrounds, and differences of opinion are encouraged, not suppressed.

In fact, it is this complex nature of connections in networking that make it interesting (and functional). The bonds that bring people together might not necessarily be in only one area. There may be a number of connective tissues. Unlike the Old Way, Networking views the individual as the complex person that he or she is, not a faceless, numbered servant of the system. As mentioned above, participants of a network needn't agree. It is possible to shift alliances within the network at will. While allegiance to the system is critical in a hierarchy, getting things done is the key to a network. Relationships tend to be sociable rather than official in nature. The atmosphere is flexible, less regimented. Thus the boundaries and responsibilities of members is more fluid. There is a more unconstrained character to the activities of a network, as opposed to the dogmatic rules of the Old Way.

Participants relate to each other as equals, rather than in terms of status. This seems to promote the flow of information. Status symbols obstruct the flow of ideas, so the absence of concepts like "subordinate" and "boss" keep the focus on pertinent information and away from the superfluous. People can come and go as they please, there are no rules, no superstars, just courtesy among equals. The most important quality of the network as opposed to the Old Way is is that somehow diversity is preserved, not destroyed. Each member of a network is above all, the leader of his own private network, insuring individuality. The whole concept of leadership is different in a network system. There is no single, paramount leader. New leaders pop out of nowhere as needs arise individually and collectively. Leaders can influence decisions, but do not make them alone for an entire group. In this way, decisions can be made, even by people who do not agree on other issues. Differences of opinion are not frowned upon, they are simply recognized as one element of a truly "democratic" situation. Those that do not share certain assumptions are not prohibited from interacting. Pertinent information, not individuals, rule the network system.

How do networks manifest themselves?

The most appealing quality of networking is that it is flexible, adaptible to change. We all know that change is fundamental to life, but few bureaucracies acknowledge this. Thus, the entire network ebbs and flows with each microcosmic bit of activity. Failure is minimized by this ability of the network to assimilate change. The cross links inherent in the network structure insure that what is failure to one part of the network is useful to another. Thus failure is "absorbed." While the addition of one new member can increase the inner-connectivity a thousand-fold, people can drop out of a network with little effect. The connections that their presence created will survive.

The process can be tailored to fit the character of the network and its goals. People can use the network how they want and when they want. This asynchronous nature of networking is one of the tangible ways in which the individual can exercize his or her own individuality when it comes to work methods. Participantsy, but geographically. The more diverse the networking community, the wider the resourcres and vice versa. As the networking concept grows, networks combine. In turn, those combine to form super-networks. It is conceivable that a network could exist someday (perhaps it already exists) that would include everyone in the world. At any rate, established networks can't help but combine with new ones with individuals remaining the key to bridging the gaps. As the networks grow, so do the options available to the participants.

Why networking?

Networks are useful to those who choose to use them and therefore require no explanation. The activity is its own justification. Nevertheless, some reasons people get involved in networking? To disiminate news and data; to connect those with a need for information with those that have the required resources; to exchange information; to bring together diverse people with similar concerns or interests; to bring together similar people with diverse interests; to define shared problems; to arrive at inter- organizational cooperation; to avoid dependence on big business and/ or institutions; to mobilize unused resourses; to generate innovation; to exchange ideas; to work together on projects; to receive feedback; to exchange opinions; to unite for a common goal; to learn or to teach; to search for compromise; to gain a concensus or majority; to find commitment; to improve decisions; or simply to relieve boredom.

Everyone wants to make rational decisions about what will facilitate their own needs and wants, and networking allows the freedom to do this. Suddenly we find ourselves in control of our own destiny, not manipulated by powerful hierarchies that are insenstive to human needs. Are there oppressive powers in a network system? Coalitions between sub-groups of the network prevent control by any one faction, thus the power-hungry are easily avoided. Self- sustaining segments in opposition prevent takeover of the nftwork by any one group.

When does networking work (best)?

The networking idea is adaptable to change. People are often here today gone tomorrow. A process-oriented system is needed that can absorb that kind of constant evolution. Networks work best when people don't take things as literally, leaving room for interpretation and negotiation; when people are sensitive to timing and intuition; when people think clearly and listen carefully; when people try to be useful, contributing as much as they take from the network; when people increase the connections in the network, bringing people together. There is potency in numbers. A "more the merrier" attitude is essential in a system where more possibilities means greater effectiveness. Each participant must bring their own complex web of connections with them to the network. Each member must build the strength of the network by making the fabric stronger, not by tearing it down through petty jealousies and fears. A multi-faceted, unselfish approach works better than tunnelvision. People who are knowledgeable about their communities and other resourses; people who want to learn or teach; people who accept the unpredictable influence of and consequences of chance; people who aren't afraid to take risks; people who are looking to fulfill personal goals first and career and academic goals second: all these people are welcome and needed in a network.

A networker chooses the road less traveled, the avenue that is not safe, not soothing, not comfortable. We must be willing to be more didactic, to have opinions and make our own moral observations. We must learn to trust our own opinions while not being a slave to them. We must be willing to be more than a reflection of the state, the corporation, the media. We must be willing to point to a higher reality- truth- and transcend the petty world of the Old Way- the hierarchy- that creates a dehumanizing gap between the truth and our daily lives for the sake of the hierarchy itself. We must rejuvenate our passion and our motivation and reject the manufactured needs of the corporate structure that attempts to sell us temporary happiness for the price of whatever they happen to be selling. In short we must regain control over our own lives. We must reclaim our lost wholeness. We can do this by meeting our own needs directly, through networking.

Everyone has skills and knowledge to share. Get in a position where others know what your skills and knowledge (as well as your needs) are. Chances are there is someone who wants to barter with you. The astounding thing is that in an an age when apathy is king and selfishness is the status quo, millions of people are more than willing to share. The trend toward networking is is a vote of confidence by individuals for a better way than the Old Way. An Old Way that increasingly ignores commitmment to human and social values and seems to foster alienation and escapism.

The world must be saved from suicide and the only way that this can happen is through the courage, audacity, regeneration and commitment of individuals, not faceless hierarchies. We must insist on the human need to do what we want, when we want, without hurting others and without dependence on consumerism or ethnicity. We must re-take the human sphere. Networking is the way to do it. The networking concept is not limited to any gender, age group, or nationality. It cuts across socio-economic boundaries. Networking is applicable everywhere, to anyone. You can be from a small village or a major metropolis. You can live in the East or the West or the Third World. All that is necessary is an understanding of your own needs, an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and an interest in a New Way.

Friday, December 17, 2004

"How to Start an Avant-Garde" by Robert Ray

How to Start an Avant-Garde is an essay by Professor Robert Ray who teaches English and Film Studies in Florida. He is the author of A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1980 (Princeton University Press); The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy (Harvard University Press); and How a Film Theory Got Lost, and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (Indiana University Press). He teaches courses in film studies, contemporary criticism, and intellectual history, with a particular interest in experimental critical practice. He holds a PhD from Indiana University, an MBA from Harvard, a JD from the University of Virginia, and an AB from Princeton.

How to Start an Avant-Garde

Although its demise is periodically announced—most recently at the hands of that all-purpose assassin-without-passport, “Theory”—the avant-garde survives as an attitude, a temptation, and even an aesthetic practice. Confronted with media culture's voracious powers of assimilation, which can, within a few years, popularize something such as Punk Rock by transforming it first into “New Wave” and later (and more profitably) into “Alternative,” the avant-garde seems left without its defining characteristic, its refusé status.

Indeed, late-twentieth-century Western culture, wired from birth to grave, requires that we reformulate two famous avant-garde maxims: Gertrude Stein's dismissal of Oakland (“There is no there there”) and Jean-Luc Godard's definition of film (“Photography is truth, and the cinema is truth twenty-four times a second”). In the land of fax machines, cellular phones, and cable TV, “There is no outside there,” and we live under the regime of “Ideology 180,000 times a second.” The avant-garde, of course, has not remained unaffected by this new environment, characterized most of all by speed. But to assume that increasingly rapid co-option will destroy the avant-garde ignores how much the avant-garde itself has, throughout its history, promoted its own acceptance.

From the start, its preferred analogy was to science, where the route from pure research to applied technology is not only a matter of course, but also a raison d'etre for the whole enterprise. From this perspective, the avant-gardist's typical complaint about assimilation seems misguided. When the Clash's Joe Strummer denounced fraternity parties' use of “Rock the Casbah” as mindless dance music, he seemed like a chemist protesting the use of his ideas for something as ordinary (and useful) as, let us say, laundry detergent.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, the first avant-garde, understood almost immediately that assimilation was a necessary goal. As a result, those wanting to start a new avant-garde should study their strategies, especially those designed to deal with the one great problem that, since Impressionism, has dictated the shape of the art world—the problem of the Gap. As a movement, Impressionism arrived at a moment when art (and, by implication, almost any innovative activity) encountered a new set of circumstances. In particular, for the first time in history, the art world began to assume that between the introduction of a new style and its acceptance by the public, a gap would inevitably exist.

As Jerrold Seigel summarizes: The Impressionists' self-conscious experimentalism, their exploration of the conditions and implications of artistic production in a modern market setting, and their sense that they bore the burden of an unavoidable opposition between innovation in art and society's hostile incomprehension—all made their experience paradigmatic.

There is another, more lyrical, way of putting the matter: No one is ahead of his time, it is only that the particular variety of creating his time is the one that his contemporaries who are also creating their own time refuse to accept. And they refuse to accept it for a very simple reason and that is that they do not have to accept it for any reason... In the case of the arts it is very definite. Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer...

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. Although Gertrude Stein argued that an innovator's contemporaries dismiss his work simply because “they do not have to accept it for any reason,” the standard art history account of the matter runs somewhat differently. In the wake of the French Revolution, the decline of the stable patronage system, which had rested on a small sophisticated audience, ready to commission and purchase art, resulted in an entirely new audience for painting—the bourgeoisie, newly come to power (both politically and financially) but less sophisticated, less secure about its own taste. Such an audience (the prototype of the generalist lost in a world of specialization) will inevitably prove conservative, will inevitably lag behind the increasingly rapid stylistic innovations, stimulated in part by this very system (which, after all, is a marketplace, thriving on novelty) and its technology (particularly photography, the technology intervening most directly into painting's realm).

Mass taste, in other words, must be educated to accept what it does not already know. Of course, most mass art (Hollywood, for example) avoids taking on that project and merely reproduces variations of familiar forms. But unless avant-garde artists remain content with posthumous success (represented as the only “genuine” kind by Balzac's Lost Illusions, a principal source of the avant-garde's myth), they must work to reduce the gap between the introduction and acceptance of their work.

How do they go about doing so? How do you start an avant-garde? Although the avant-garde carries the reputation of irresponsible rebellion, it, in fact, amounts to the humanities' equivalent of science's pure research. Having derived its name from the military (particularly, from the term for the advance troops entrusted with opening holes in the enemy position) and having repeatedly committed itself to scientifically conceived projects (e.g., Zola's “Experimental Novel,” Breton's “Surrealist Manifesto”), the avant-garde has always had its practical side. Indeed, in many ways, it amounts to a laboratory of creativity itself. Thus, the question “How do you start an avant-garde?” has implications for any undertaking where innovation is valuable. Not surprisingly, sociologists of science have long been interested in this question. More to the point here, a large, although scattered, body of writing has developed around the problem of the gap between the introduction and acceptance of modern art.

Tom Wolfe's Painted Word, witty and cynical, takes up journalistically what Francis Haskell's “Enemies of Modern Art” and Rosen and Zemer's “Ideology of the Licked Surface: Official Art” treat learnedly. In what follows, although I will refer to those sources, I will draw primarily on what remains the best discussion of the Impressionists' role in the new art world, Harrison and Cynthia White's Canvases and Careers. That book makes clear that even if you are a great artist, if you want art to become not a hobby but a paying career, you must attend to the issue of the Gap. In fact, you should follow The Eight Rules for Starting an Avant-Garde:

1. Collaboration.

Outsiders working together have a better chance of imposing themselves than does someone working alone. Think of Romanticism (Coleridge and Wordsworth, Goethe and Schiller), Cubism (Picasso and Braque), Surrealism (Breton, Eluard, and Aragon), Deconstruction (Derrida, DeMan, and Miller), Punk Rock (the Sex Pistols, the Clash). Other members of your group will refer to you, cite you, make contacts for you, and collaboration typically proves aesthetically stimulating as well. From the outset, the Impressionists understood this principle. As early as 1864, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille painted together in the forest of Fontainebleau, and subsequently they shared Parisian studios or apartments. Even Manet, a relative loner among the Impressionists, maintained an informal salon at the Café Guerbois, where writers (especially Zola) and other artists (e.g., the photographer Nadar) mixed with the painters.

2. The Importance of the Name.

A crucial factor in the Impressionists' success was the movement's name, which Harrison and Cynthia White point out “was in the great tradition of rebel names. Thrown at them init ially as a gibe to provide a convenient handle to insult them, it was adopted by the group in defiance and for want of a better term and made into a winning pennant” (111). “Impressionism” aptly describes much of their work; the name was easy to remember and carried with it the theoretical justification for a style that seemed unfinished, especially when compared to the fini or “licked” surface of their official, accepted contemporaries, the Pompiers.

No avant-garde group has ever achieved major acceptance without a catchy name: think of Futurism, Structuralism, Situationism, the Yale School, Fauvism, La Nouvelle Vague, and even Dada, a parody of such names, meaningless, or at least intended to be. The name provides a group identity. Using the “Impressionists,” Zola and other critics lumped the individual painters together, and they began to think of themselves as a more coherent group than at first they had actually been. The name provided a hook for critics and dealers, furthering publicity: to review one of the Impressionists was to review them all. The final stage of this group identity generally results in the formation of some official institute or association: the Impressionists formed their own joint stock company, which staged their exhibitions.

3. The Star.

Avant-garde movements need a key figure whose glamour and prolificness will attract and focus the attention of outsiders. The Impressionists had Manet—rich, witty, articulate, and shocking, while also being, by virtue of his training and disposition, the most clearly linked to the great traditions of French painting. Other movements had their own stars:

Cubism: Picasso
Futurism: Marinetti
The Bauhaus: Gropius
Modernism (musical branch): Stravinsky
Surrealism: Breton
Relativity: Einstein
Situationism: Debord
Abstract Expressionism: Pollock
Pop Art: Warhol
La Nouvelle Vague: Godard
Punk Rock: Johnny Rotten
Structuralism: Lévi-Strauss
Semiotics: Barthes
Deconstruction: Derrida
Rap: Public Enemy

4. Traditional Training.

Even if you eventually reject its precepts, some encounters with a profession's more or less official schools give you a sense of what to expect. With that work behind you, you have a better chance of justifying your own deviations by demonstrating that you have chosen to ignore standards that you have mastered. With the bourgeois audience, nothing helped Picasso's reputation more than his masterful skills in conventional drawing. Almost all of the Impressionists (Cezanne is the great exception) studied at either the École des Beaux-Arts or privately with academic painters. Sometimes the definition of “traditional training” may prove less obvious. With Punk Rock, for example, formal music study mattered far less than extensive experience in working bands: thus, for all its self-propagated myth of amateurism, Punk's important bands always contained pros. Yes, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were novices, but drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones were certainly not.

5. The Concept of the Career.

The Impressionists demonstrate the effectiveness of refocusing one's attention away from individual paintings, executed for specific occasions designated by a patron, to a whole career and its evolution. Thinking in terms of a career means constructing a narrative that will make sense of an artist's development. The Gap, of course, makes such career thinking more subtle, a matter for continual renegotiation. Adopting the extreme long view amounts to accepting a success that will be, at best, posthumous.

Stendhal's famous line “I have drawn a lottery ticket whose first prize amounts to this: to be read in 1935” represents the test case. As a publicity gambit, it is perfect, wittily establishing the frame of reference most beneficial to his difficult writing: given wider circulation in his own lifetime, it might even have helped him sell more books. The extent to which Stendhal was content with this ultimate payoff, however, was a direct function of his having other sources of income. An avant-gardist without such independent means should probably adopt Andy Warhol's approach instead: “Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist.”

6. New Avenues for Distribution and Exhibition.

The Impressionists' Salons des Refusés, group shows staged by dealers, and one-man exhibitions are all the equivalent of the new record labels (Punk's Stiff and Rough Trade) and new journals (e.g., October, Camera Obscura, Diacritics, Substance) that provide places where off-beat work can appear when the official channels (the major labels, PMLA) are closed. Durand-Ruel, the principal Impressionist dealer, founded his own journal. He also opened new markets for art, particularly in America, by redefining art as an investment, a speculation with possibilities of appreciation, thereby enabling sales to that class which understood money more than painting: the bourgeoisie.

7. Reconceptualization of the Division of Labor.

In the French Academy system, painters (at least those enthroned in the Institut) also functioned as judges, selecting the works that appeared in the annual salons. They both painted and set the standards for new painting. Rapidly detecting this conflict of interest, which discouraged the reception of even slightly different work, the Impressionists, perhaps imitating the burgeoning industrial reyolution surrounding them, divided the labor: painters stuck to painting, leaving to dealers and critics the task of assessment.

In many ways, the avant-garde's history represents a constant tinkering with the division of labor, usually in ways that challenge contemporary arrangements. Thus, with the factory system established as the norm, Duchamp chose to act not only as an artist, but also as his own dealer and critic, thereby recombining the roles the Impressionists had divided. Duchamp's example has become the postmodern standard, with artist/theoretician/publicist figures such as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, and Sherrie Levine.

8. The Role of Theory and Publicity.

In The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe decries Abstract Expressionism's reliance on the criticism that sustained it. That symbiotic relationship, however, began with Impressionism and the period of the new, insecure purchaser. Twentieth-century art made that relationship permanent. requiring, as T. S. Eliot put it, that an innovative artist help create the taste by which his work will be judged. New styles typically demand a new critical idea. Impressionism, as many art historians have observed, marked a shift from arguments about subject matter (deemphasized by many Impressionists) to ones about style. If, according to Wolfe, the key to Abstract Expressionism's success was the concept of flatness (which justified nonfigurative painting to a skeptical public), Manet et al. benefited from the concepts of “the impression” and “the painting of modern life,” terms that legitimized both the sketchy, unfinished appearance of many Impressionist paintings and their everyday, nonclassical subjects.

Even more important, writers favorable to the Impressionists redefined the notion of the artist, who became less an artisan, working for traditional patrons, than a romantic outsider, speculating on future recognition. This new critical idea turned conventional standards upside down. By recasting the Academy as a group of outdated stuffed shirts, vestiges of the ancien regime's hostility toward bourgeois economic and social power, the Impressionists' critics effectively identified the artist with his new client and made rejection by the academy itself the sign of worth. This move proved decisive.

The most brilliant discussion of its effects appear in Francis Haskell's “Enemies of Modern Art,” which turns on Impressionism's critical reception. Haskell wants to remind us how ugly those paintings once seemed. He quotes Albert Wolff, an important critic, reviewing the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876: The rue Le Peletier is out of luck. After the burning down of the Opera, here is a new disaster which has struck the district. An exhibition said to be of painting has just opened at the gallery of Durand-Ruel. The harmless passer-by, attracted by the flags which decorate the façade, goes in and is confronted by a cruel spectacle. Five or six fanatics, one of them a woman, an unfortunate group struck by the mania of ambition, have met there to exhibit their works. Some people split their sides with laughter when they see these things, but I feel heartbroken. These so-called artists call themselves “intransigeants,” “Impressionists.” They take the canvas, paints and brushes, fling something on at random and hope for the best. (207)

In both its tone and judgment, this passage seems as disastrous as a more famous one that appeared in the New York Times in 1956, when television critic Jack Gould reviewed the Milton Berle Show appearance of Elvis Presley: Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner's aria in a bathtub. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore, not nearly so talented as Frank Sinatra back in the latter's rather hysterical days at the Paramount Theater.

This kind of mistake began with Impressionism, the event that revealed how the gap between the introduction and acceptance of radically new art had become systemic. In “The Ideology of the Licked Surface: Official Art,” Rosen and Zemer dramatize this point by concentrating on a single year, 1874, and the painters missing from the Palais du Luxembourg, then France's official museum of modern art: no Manet, no Monet, no Renoir, no Degas, no Cezanne—indeed no painters whom we now consider important: “Over the course of the century,” Rosen and Zemer write, “a gap had opened like a trench between the museum and the new art” (218) so that by 1874, the curators had entirely excluded precisely that body of work that future generations would come to regard as the best of its time. Some of Impressionism's critics were ambivalent about their own responses to these works, whose newness broke with the very forms the writers themselves had previously worked to establish.

Indeed, Impressionism prompted its most scrupulous reviewer to articulate, perhaps for the first time, one of the two great dangers facing any critic of any avant-garde: the possibility that one might simply be too old to understand what had arrived, the problem that we might call “critical senility.”

Reviewing the 1868 salon show, Theophile Gautier, one of the best critics of his generation, diagnosed himself: Faced with this paradox in painting, one may give the impression—even if one does not admit the charge—of being frightened lest one be dismissed as a philistine, a bourgeois, a Joseph Prudhomme, a cretin with a fancy for miniatures and copies of paintings on porcelain, worse still, as an old fogey who sees some merit in David's Rape of the Sabines. One clutches at oneself, so to speak, in terror, one runs one's hand over one's stomach or one's skull, wondering if one has grown pot-bellied or bald, incapable of understanding the audacities of the young. ... One reminds oneself of the antipathy, the horror aroused some 30 years ago by the paintings of Delacroix, Decamps, Boulanger, Scheffer, Colot, and Rousseau, for so long excluded from the Salon. ... Those who are honest with themselves, when they consider these disturbing precedents, wonder whether it is ever possible to understand anything in art other than the works of the generation of which one is a contemporary, in other words the generation that came of age when one came of age oneself. ... It is conceivable that the pictures of Courbet, Manet, Monet, and others of their ilk conceal beauties that elude us, with our old romantic manes already shot with silver threads.

In this new environment, criticism becomes precarious. In 1881 an event occurred that upped the stakes: less than two years before his death, for a rather ordinary effort by his own standards (a painting called M. Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter), Manet won the salon's second-place medal. A few months later, thanks to a friend in the Ministry of Arts, he also received the Legion d'honneur. The importance of these circumstances, in Francis Haskell's opinion, cannot be overstated: Manet, the greatest enemy the Academy had ever known, Manet who had been mocked as no other artist ever before him: Manet was now honoured by the Academy, decorated by the State, accepted (however grudgingly) as an artist of major significance.

Everything will now be acceptable at the Salons: that is the implication that is drawn from all this. ... The acknowledgement that there had been a war, but that the critics had (so to speak) lost it and that it was in any case now over, is perhaps the single most important prelude to the development of what we now think of as modern art. (217-218) From this point on, critics grow wary.

Aware of previous mistakes, reviewers become increasingly afraid to condemn anything, since anything might turn out to be the next Manet. Hence, the second of modern criticism's two great dangers, what Max Ernst called “overcomprehension” or “the waning of indignation”: having propagated the notions of rejection and incomprehensibility as promises of ultimate value, the avant-garde had protected itself from bad reviews. In initiating this move, Impressionism prefigures postmodernism' s diminished concern for the work of art itself, as opposed to the contexts in which such work might occur.

With the rise of what Gerard Genette has called “the paratext,” meaning and value become highly negotiable, just like commodities, just like paintings themselves. And theory and publicity turn out to be the principal tools for influencing the ways in which art will acquire meaning. In the age of Madonna, publicity's importance should be obvious. The Impressionists, however, over a century ago, recognized its role in starting an avant-garde. By the second half of the twentieth century, strange things had become possible.

As I discussed in chapter 3 [of his book, How a film theory got lost and other mysteries in cultural studies -editor] , years after his films' release, Douglas Sirk could now completely transform their meaning simply by saying something about them, thereby achieving a Midas-like alchemy that converted forgotten commercial melodramas into celebrated critical “subversions.”

Since the time when Impressionism first showed us how to start an avant-garde, the role of what has come to be known as Theory has grown enormously. Bohemianism, after all, was from the start what the Goncourt brothers called “a freemasonry of publicity.” Indeed, the avant-garde attitude, which since Impressionism has appeared in painting, music, architecture, literature, and film, has begun to enter the realm of criticism itself. The formally experimental work of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida offers us the early signs of this move. In retrospect, this development seems inevitable. Given the avant-garde's urgent need to contract the Gap, it had to depend on theory as its advocate. Sooner or later, having invented the script for this project, the supporting player would have to take center stage. We have reached that moment now.