[iDC] [IDC} Shelf Life

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Sat Nov 17 19:58:06 UTC 2007

That this discussion of ephemerality in digital media has repeatedly 
referenced oral cultures is I think a very good thing. It suggests to 
me that collectively we are beginning to look for digital guidance in 
the oral realm, as I have been advocating for a long time. But in order 
to do so effectively we have to look at speech as a technology like any 
other, and to empirically assess how and why it does what it does. Here 
are some further thoughts...

The ephemerality of oral media (i.e. spoken words or song) in oral 
cultures is not experienced as deprivation or loss, but as an urgent 
impetus for narrative regeneration and renewal. Orality's ephemerality 
is a creative dance, a dialogical cycle, a fruitful potency actualized 
with each resonant breath. To be saddled with the past would be the 
sheerest deadweight, an enslavement to abstraction preventing the 
implicit renegotiation of reality in the moment. It would be as a 
printed map is to a derivage or walkabout, a ticking clock to the 
passage of shadows on the grass, an instruction manual to an inventor. 
Ephemerality of media in oral cultures is a condition of being that 
defines all social structures - laws, history, economies, geography, 
spirituality, art, craft, education, medicine and more. There is only 
the present. The past exists only inasmuch as it can be reenacted in 
the present. Everything is for the making, in the moment.

That this thread should be called "Shelf Life" is so very apt, for we 
are talking, when we discuss the issue of ephemerality in contemporary 
visual and digital art, of an altogether different epistemological 
condition from that which I have just described. When we lament the 
ephemerality of our work, we are reflecting the aspiration of visual 
art to the condition of the book, to a true Shelf Life. It has long 
been obvious that contemporary visual art culture - for all its wonders 
- is profoundly devoted to literate values; that visual artists aspire 
to be authors above all, typically caring more for catalogues than 
actual viewers, literally and critically 'reading' each other's works, 
determined to theorize their work, obsessed by fixity and stability in 
deed if not in word, carefully avoiding in-person feedback loops, 
compelled by the artifact and not the event, always seeking 'shelf 

Of course as Danny and others have mentioned, there are anti-traditions 
in 20th century art, birthed by visual artists who rejected 
artifacticity and embraced experiential artistry, ephemerality even. 
But despite the power of their work, the power of Duchamp and Gysin and 
Yoko Ono and Haring and Gomez-Pena and many other subversive oralists, 
the great mass of visual artists aspire primarily to create visual 
books that will have long shelf lives. Dusty maybe, but always 
accessible, always there so artists won't have to prove themselves 
again, and again, and again, and again. And so for them and us then, 
ephemerality is experienced as a loss. Because we value the past more 
than the present, because we do not want to renegotiate reality in the 
moment, we want to hand someone a CV, or a catalogue, or an article. Or 
we just want to point them to the work itself. It's over there, on the 
shelf.  Go see it.

And that is of course fine. This is not a rejection of non-performative 
media, merely a statement of facts. This is how we experience most 
visual art, most culture, most knowledge. It is on the shelf. And we 
like it that way. It is, for our predominantly literate intellectual 
culture, all that we know. It is where we live, it is home.

Which brings us to digital media, and this new condition of networked 
ephemerality. As literates, it is inevitable that it should unnerve us. 
It is a nuisance, and perhaps worse. It is, perhaps, desperate, 
diminishing, tragic.

Or perhaps not. It all depends on one's values. Loss is only real if 
you feel you that you have something to lose. I think of graffiti 
artists here, whose values are rooted in hiphop, an African-American 
oral culture. I'll never forget an event I organized for a friend who 
is a legendary graffiti artist. After completing an amazing artwork on 
a large canvas I'd prepared, he packed up his spray cans, talked with 
his fans, and left. I had to chase him down to ask what he wanted me to 
do with his awesome artwork. He just shrugged. It didn't interest him 
in the slightest. He never keeps his work, which lives on walls and 
trains, and is always subject to erasure. Ephemerality is the condition 
of his creativity. If his work didn't disappear he'd have to paint over 
it to make room for new work. He was always 'making it new'.

In this way as in so many others, digital culture reflects a kind of 
neo-orality. Digitalists and oralists must both come to terms with the 
hegemony of a literate value system that values 'shelf life' more than 
'new life'. And for those of us who were brought up with literate 
values - who value the past, who have shelves full of books, who wish 
to pass on that legacy and contribute to it as well, the vanishing of 
the past in the online sphere is bleak and scary, though also for many 
of us exciting and beckoning. But either way it does seem inevitable, 
doesn't it? Nobody will ever upgrade and recode your old digital work, 
least of all you. It costs too much. Things change too fast.  Nobody 
has the time or money to keep up. Just forget about it. You'll have to 
let it go. As Cynthia said, "just think of it as sketches".

The deeper question is where this leaves us, you, me. No media is 
stable in the networked sphere. Nothing lasts, any more than it does in 
the oral sphere. Words disappear with the breeze, and so does net art, 
despite the best intentions of rhizome and turbulence and the fondation 
daniel langlois. And even if some does survive, kept on life support 
through infusions of institutional cash, people's attention will be 
focused elsewhere. Because most of the people on this list were making 
art long before they got their first email address, while for today's 
kids, for the next generation of digital artists, flux and ephemerality 
are the norm. Why should they care if something changes, decays, 
disappears? Of course it changes. Of course media disappears. It's 
versions, it's mixing, it's mashing, it's updates, it's hacking, it's 
new platforms and new ideas and new identities. It's living in the 
moment. But for visual artists who aspire to a shelf life, it is a dead 
end. Whereas for others, those who prefer to embrace the present at the 
expense of the past, it is a fertile new world.

And certainly for now one can live in both, create for both, be 
bicultural, rise to the challenges of each in a different way. But 
let's not confuse them. We should understand that digital culture is 
uninterested in the past. There is no shelf life, and not even the long 
tail (of art or knowledge) can approximate the authority of the 
hegemonic literate past. In other words, there is no shelf life for 
static artworks online, so don't expect one. At best the illusion of a 
shelf life is preserved by the apparatus of offline literate art 
culture (books, magazines, conferences, papers, etc.). But if you want 
real staying power online you can keep making and releasing new work. 
But don't expect to create a work of art and have it sit there, as it 
would in a gallery, a collection, or a museum - on a wall, on the 
shelf. Because the medium is ephemeral and it will consume your work 
sooner rather than later.

Thanks for reading,

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