[iDC] Art and the Geek

Patrick Lichty voyd at voyd.com
Tue Sep 23 03:00:33 UTC 2008

This is in part a response to James Kalm's review of a Second Life project that I participate in regularly at Jack the Pelican Gallery in Brooklyn, called "Brooklyn is Watching", and some of the responses to it on various blogs.

The “geek” conversation is one that is tough to escape from. I see it as more of a connotation than a definition. It is a site of derision, envy, fear, and wonder at the same time, that tends to be pretty specific to digital culture. Does Clarke’s Third Law get invoked here at times - “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”? Certainly.

It connotes discomfort on the part of the person uttering it, unless it’s someone of that caste claiming it as an identifier or empowerment, that there is a person with a particular knowledge or obsession that consider as incomprehensible. 

Note that I use this particular word. This could mean not understanding why someone loves Star Trek so much, or how they can program a computer, and so on. I find it interesting that this usually is tied to technology or technological genres, because you don’t hear bikers (aka ALL my best friends from high school are now bikers) being called “geeks”, but the obsessed actually are “Gearheads”.

Geeks are merely people with a passion that others (variable term here) typically don't understand. Also, this is now a DESIRABLE term, as you see models and “pretty” people claiming to be geeks. Last weekend, a prominent Chicago curator friend kept going on about mine and his wife’s “geek thing” (we’re both New Media artists). I related that the “Geek” thing is often a burden for which I would almost readily reenact the bathroom scene from Aronofsky’s “Pi” over. 

However, when probed, he said that he didn’t want to program computers or push pixels, he just wanted some shadowy handshake from a secret society that he has somehow been barred access from that he covets, that does not really exist. We’re just people who have a few bit of deep knowledge here and there.

Could I call a curator an “Art Geek”? Could I call Marina Abramovic a “Performance Geek”? No, and this is due to acceptability, cultural specificity, relation to accepted relative cultural deviance, and so on.

So, I’m also a painter, ceramicist, conceptualist, and printmaker. What is the difference between pushing prims and cutting linoleum? 

I’ll tell you. Context, tools, tradition, technology. perhaps in 1850, we could have called Dauguerre a “geek”. Not really. It has to do a great deal with techology and the rise of hacker culture that arose in the 1970’s, and the perceptions of obsessed technophiles living on Jolt Cola, not bathing, etc. Those same “geeks” were associated with D&D, Star Trek, video gamers, science fiction, now Anime; well, you get the idea.

It’s a mix of fear and envy, I think, and really quite costructed, except for the truly OCD sorts who created the stereotype, and there are SL obsessives out there, yes there are.

Once again, this is a really interesting paradigm - the “difficulty” of digital tools, and Second Life in particular. In short, it comes from the “user-friendly” paradigm created at Xerox Parc and Apple by people like Alan Kay and Steve Jobs. Keep in mind there were people like Douglas Engelbart (tthe inventor of the Mouse) who felt that technology and humanity must challenge one another for the aim of coevolution. But that fell to the pressures for a mass market product.

Therefore, “user friendliness” has come to create a real thicket for digital artists. There’s a perception that anyone can do it easily because it’s on a computer and they’re esupposed to be easy. I once had a woman come up to me with her 12-year old, looking at a painting I had done using 3D Studio DOS r3 nd a hand-coded fractal algorithm, an acrylic billboard painter, and reworking on my own - she said, “Marky, you’re good at computers, maybe you can do this…”

Yes, you can. With $5000 of equipment/software (in 1993), a quarter-million dollar signjet, and a trained sensibility…

So, we are left between the “User friendly” mindset, where everything on computers should be easy, and when they require learning/practice, they enter the realm of the “Hacker/Geek”.   This is a diffcult situation, but one that will be ameliorated in a hundred or so years ;)

But again, I think of my friend who makes paintings with graphite oil paints, and grinds them down to look like steel, and paints insanely intricate flowers on them.

Incredible. Obsessive. Not “geek”.

I hope from this you understand the landscape I’ve laid out, from computer cultural history to the epistemology of geekdom. Daguerre wasn’t a geek, although we may be. The other thing that’s funny is that James lumped me in with the SL art crowd, when I’m far better known to the New Media international community.

Who, I guess, would also be geeks.
Back to square one.

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