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Pep talk

March 19, 2017


Back in 2011, I wrote a little pep-talk for Lily Tomlin as an opener for the live telecast on Foxtel. Kinda dorky but she did ask me to write a couple of jokes for her to say later in the telecast, so there’s that. She even ended up using one of them.

Embed from Getty Images

In a few minutes, we’re going to walk, ride, skate, salsa and cha-cha-cha down Oxford Street in front of 250,000 people. And when we get out there I expect each and every one of you to do your duty.

I want to see the kinds of public displays of affection that can still get you arrested in over 70 countries … You have the right idea, sir.

I want to see lots of hogging the limelight and basking in your own glory.

I want to see girls being boys, and boys being girls, and people being whatever kind of people they damn well like. I want to see waxed eyebrows and hairy armpits, and bare asses winking at the moon.

I want sequins and glitter and feathers and faux fur – I want to feel like it’s raining craft supply stores out there.

But most of all I want you to ignore everything I just said because tonight’s about not caring what other people say!

Back in 1978, at the first Mardi Gras, 56 people were arrested just for standing up for their rights. The world’s a much brighter place now but there’s still a lot of dark corners where our sisters and brothers are facing violence and discrimination.

Which is why you need to you put away that bushel you’ve been hiding your light under and get ready to shine. The other 364 nights of the year might be their nights … but this is our night!

So ladies and gentlemen – I want you to give me an L! (RESPONSE) Give me a G! (RESPONSE) Give me a BLT! (RESPONSE) Are you ready to do this? (RESPONSE) I can’t hear you? (RESPONSE)

The social life of bots

December 23, 2016


socialbotsWhat happens when we chat with a bot on Twitter, Kik or Grindr? Is it a form of social interaction? Do such interactions weaken the boundary between human and machine, or fortify it? And is it possible for a bot to be social with other bots? Grant Bollmer and I look at some of those questions in a chapter written for this new book on socialbots edited by Rob Gehl and Maria Bakardjieva.

Does theory exist?

December 18, 2016


screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-12-28-20-pmI spend a lot of time around “theory”, in the sense used by irritating grad students which I will define below. But does it actually exist? Perhaps, in distinguishing “theory” from other kinds of reflection and critique, we are like the pre-modern physician insisting that yellowish-black choler is fundamentally different from blackish-yellow melancholer, when today we call both simply “bile”.

Social theory does not aim to explain society, according to a definition suggested by Kenneth Allan. It is not sociological. Rather, he says, the aim is to comment on and critique society. And the same could be said of cultural theory as distinct from, say, anthropology. In critical theory, of course, this critique is the central purpose.

But what, then, distinguishes a theory of art from an opinion about art expressed by a working class man in an Australian pub in response to a news story about a $2 million Gerhard Richter painting purchased with taxpayer’s money (“What a bloody bunch of wankers, my blue heeler’s dick could paint a better picture”). Both are commentary or critique, after all.

Is it possible that even President-elect Donald Trump could be a theorist?

As that tweet suggests, I think it’s possible to rewrite many of these commonly-heard opinions about art, and society in general, in the language of academic theory. By changing the form but not the core propositions of the argument, the supposed “philistine”would be transformed into an intellectually exciting provocateur? Or at least that’s a hypothesis I plan to test next year.

Perhaps the point is not that theory doesn’t exist as a category, but that every critical utterance is a theory. In 1996, Thomas McLaughlin published a book about “vernacular theories” like the Christian anti-porn movement and new age spirituality. But he was careful to insulate these from the true, rigorous theory of the academy, as pointed out by Horn Sheeler et al. in their critical book review.

I want to go much further.

I think there might be no essential difference between vernacular and academic theories in truth value or importance or even complexity.

And I think non-human utterances are kinds of theories too, such as the squealing, struggling and biting of pigs as they are herded onto the killing floor at the abbatoir.

Indeed, I think sentience itself form of theorising.

Rather than a conception of “theory” that privileges only those expressed in the language of high-status academics, a symbolist metatheory that is focused on the semiotic features of the utterance, maybe we need a sentientist metatheory that pays attention to the inner life of the individual concerned.

Which would also be one that orients us to the interests and worldviews and angry critiques of those who are not middle-class academicians.

Wittgenstein said we wouldn’t understand the lion if it could speak to us. I suggest that both human and non-human animals have already been uttering complex and challenging ideas for a very long time in their words, expressions and gestures.

Their theories may be difficult for us to parse, but then so are the theories of dead Frenchmen.

Welcome to the post-sublime

December 2, 2016


screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-12-00-59-amOK, so consider this.

  • Fractals are kitsch
  • Recursion is a cliché
  • Quantum theory is banal
  • Nature just reminds us of shitty motivational posters or the default wallpaper in Windows XP
  • Infinity is middlebrow.

Do we live in the age of the post-sublime?

(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Drunk Theories”, because they’re speculative and probably full of shit,  but kind of fun to think of, although not really that fun to hear).

Meta-trolley problems

December 2, 2016


I wasn’t aware of the trolley problem meme when I tweeted this back in April 2016:


A runaway trolley is about to create five Trolley Problems.
Do you pull the lever and divert it, so that it only creates one?

It ended up being shared a lot on Twitter and Facebook, and was eventually featured in this New York magazine piece. I haven’t quite decided whether little social media microprojects like this are a distraction from my “real work” or are, in fact, the real work itself.

I’ve made a couple more since then. An election-themed trolley problem:

Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 5.44.47 PM.png

Hey third-party voters in swing states! You’re in a real-life Trolley Problem. 

And a Trolley Problem fan theory:

Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 5.45.17 PM.png

Fan theory: the Trolley Problem is happening in the mind of one
of the five victims tied to the railway track; the lever doesn’t exist.

Which, when you think about it, explains why the scenario is so implausible.


Gandhi, fixed

January 5, 2015


Gandhi, fixed:

First they ignore you.
Then you write an angry Guardian op-ed about them.
Then you convene an academic conference about them.
Then you turn it into a special issue of a journal.
Then your cool friend from Berlin curates an art show exploring the biopolitical techniques they use to enforce their oppressive power/knowledge.
Then all the foreign art hipsters who live in Berlin come to the show and tell you how amazing it is.
Then you all go and do ketamine off a SpongeBob Squarepants DVD case in somebody’s apartment in Neukölln.
Then they fight you.
Then they win.

The work of art in the age of platformization

September 6, 2014


The most exciting innovation in digital art isn’t the art itself—it’s the platformization of that art.

This is Jason Salavon’s Kids With Santa, created by averaging dozens of photos of children sitting on Santa’s lap:


And this is the platform inspired by it that allows anyone to create their own Salavon-esque “average art”, based on any set of photos:

This is a major contemporary trend of the remix era: a digital artwork pioneers an innovating and striking new technique, and a short time later, a platform arrives that allows anyone to imitate it (sometimes created by others, other times offered by artists themselves).

It’s a bit like Brunelleschi putting the finishing touches on the Duomo — only to discover that every middle class family in Florence had designed and built their own private domed cathedral that was every bit as good as his.


So what’s the result of platformization for the artwork the platform is based on?

As Walter Benjamin observed in his famous essay, in the age of mechanical reproduction of art, the “aura” of the original artwork tends to “wither”.

What happens to that aura in the age of platformization? I think the destruction of the aura is even more violent.

While mechanical reproduction tended to occlude or mystify the process of artistic creation—a postcard of the Eiffel Tower makes it even more dreamlike and symbolic than the real thing, makes it even more difficult to discern how it was ever designed and built—platformization demystifies artistic creation by showing audiences how to make art that is exactly as good as the original.

Thus what Benjamin prophesied would happen to art in the age of mechanical reproduction, but never (in my opinion) really did happen, now actually is happening in the age of platformization.

I am the very model of a modern metasexual

September 2, 2014


A theory:
The defining trait of the 21st century gay male is not hypersexuality so much as metasexuality … a single-minded focus on managing the diverse digital platforms that generate sexuality, rather than on sexuality itself.


Image via dismagazine.

Battle of the memes

September 2, 2014


A familiar cry on the Left is that so-called “slacktivism” is diverting the energies of progressives away from traditional, effective activism such as street protests into frivolous, symbolic battles. I wanted to interrogate this claim, so I wrote this op-ed for the Guardian about it.

I developed these ideas a bit more in a journal article called “When Memes Go to War: Viral Propaganda in the 2014 Gaza-Israel Conflict”, which you can find on my page.

The problem with crowdfunding

November 14, 2013


Many of my creative peers are turning to crowdfunding to support their work. I continue to be skeptical of the funding model because I think it blurs the lines between cultural patronage and charity dedicated to helping those in serious need. It’s especially problematic when major arts institutions characterize their crowdfunding campaigns as “good causes” (as several high profile ones have done).

I’m much more comfortable when crowdfunding campaigns for arts projects characterize the offering as a purchase rather than a donation. Someone who buys a pop-up book or Star Trek themed game off Indiegogo isn’t cannibalizing their charity budget to pay for it. Someone who supports a theatre or opera company to tour a production they have no intention of seeing, in return for a sticker or postcard, is engaging in charity, and I think there’s a very real risk that the donor may then reduce their spend on traditional charities which tackle critical, life-and-death issues such as global poverty.

I wrote an oped for the Guardian back in August which explores this idea in greater detail. Was pleased to see a couple of other similar articles come out since then which have made the same argument.