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Ghosting the Machine

Why do we yearn for fleeting forms of communication?

On 21 September 2014 the New York Times ran an article entitled Pass the Word: The Phone Call is Back. Jenna Wortham observed how, counter-intuitively amid the recent upsurge in text-messaging platforms, ‘something curious began to happen. My friends started to pick up their cellphones for an unusual purpose: they wanted to talk.’ The disruptive return of old-fashioned voice communication in the age of emojis is initially unexpected, though on second thought reasonably forward-thinking. What could be more nuanced, instant and direct than the realtime transfer of the human voice? A phone call takes comparatively more effort to track and record, and leaves no trails of text publicized in social media or stored on other people’s devices. Suddenly, voice chat seems both retrograde and cutting edge.

How does language – whether voice or text – modulate among content streams? Digitization has effected new stylistic conventions of language with their own rules and mores. It’s less an issue of modulating one mono-language between ‘low’ and ‘high’ registers (like colloquial or formal, casual or business-casual), and more about embracing formal variances and stylistic rules, similar to those of traditional literary forms: you don’t (or shouldn’t) write an iMessage like you write an email, just as you wouldn’t write a haiku like a sonnet. In the best cases, these conventions lead to organic cultural languages or invented product-languages – code, emoji.

The emoji-looking logo of the app Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and allows users to share videos and photographs which disappear after a specified time-frame, is a character named ‘Ghostface Chillah’ – a white ghost with a smiley face of sorts. In the past few years, amid the rise in popularity of consumer dating and sex platforms such as Tinder and Grindr, the word ‘ghosting’ has also emerged to refer to virtually ‘disappearing’ without notice: not answering or returning calls, texts, emails (or Snapchats). Social avoidance and breakups have always existed, so the surprising thing about digital ‘ghosting’ is how the cipher of the disappearing ‘ghost’ is, in fact, the remedy for a condition of its own production. ‘Ghosting’ is networked avoidance masking as disappearance: in contrast to sociopathy (or lonerism), it is produced by technology, rather than its antithesis.

Snapchat, in a mission statement, described ‘the emergency detagging of Facebook photos before job interviews’: the finger-trap of a sharing culture in which one’s own ‘shares’ come back to haunt one. The transparency state – open access, 24/7 – has become identical with an information society and Gilles Deleuze’s control society to such a degree that it apparently starts to self-correct, at least in places: Snapchat is one among a wave of ephemera-based apps such as Erodr and Whisper. The closer that media are experienced as perpetually ‘on’, the more they embrace ephemerality and built-in ‘loss’; with this movement, user experience comes to resemble that of familiar classical broadcast media, such as radio – always on; tune in, tune out at will. In stride with this, the locus of the once ethereal ‘digital’ is moving back into the physical realm, with the nascent ‘Internet of Things’.

Might ‘ghosting’ and Snapchat bear some structural or symptomatic relation to the revived interest in voice telephony? It would initially seem that virtual absence (ghosting, ephemerality, social abnegation) are the virtues of one end, and virtual presence (tele­phony, chatting) those of the other. Yet ‘ghosting’ and phoning, while divergent activities, have a common root: the overlooked need for media expiry, for content to accommodate itself to its own obsolescence, to burn upon arrival amid our current data overflow.

The current issue of frieze d/e contains two features on Tino Sehgal, an artist who has attracted significant attention, and audience engagement, despite his eschewal of documentation of his works altogether, whether in the form of scripts, performance photographs or sales contracts. This is not, though, technophobia – as Jörg Heiser argues, Sehgal’s works, which use only the human body, have internalized the logic of a network society and the ‘eventicization’ of experience. Michael Buthe, also featured here, in the 1970s abandoned a pro­mising career grounded in classical Modernist art tradition and reinvented himself in a solitary fashion after dropping out and becoming a sort of mystic. The tune-in, drop-out logic of the broadcast, meanwhile, is referenced in our ‘Trouvaille’ section by artist Daniel Keller, who looks to Periscope, a streaming app that allows one to broadcast one’s life to strangers. And despite their varying practices, Stephan Dillemuth and Antje Majewski – both featured with interviews – embrace in their works networks of personal interactions, which are somewhat veiled or only partly visible in the final works or, in Dillemuth’s case, his highly subjective documentation. Withdrawal, in various forms, emerges here not as an antidote to technological possibility, but as its underexplored, hidden side.

Crucially, expiry does not demote content as less important. Or less deserving of engagement. So what might a form of writing look like which, rather than condemning itself to permanence – amid a surplus, today, of stagnant data – instead is comfortable with its disposability and still has genuine use value? Whatever that form of writing is, it is certainly not geared towards clickbait, or even hard-headed theory. Think instead, for example, of a supposedly ‘ghosted’ medium, the subscription-model newspaper – not from an aesthetic standpoint but from an entirely practical one: portable, disposable, useful and direct, seen this way this low-fi medium even seems to have something futuristic about it. Or is it, instead, old-fashioned? Nostalgic? Conservative? We don’t think so at all. Supposedly outmoded media – telephones, radio, print – will, alongside digital media, find unexpected, perhaps novel uses. ‘Old’ and ‘new’ media relate to one another in a veiled and rather ghostly figuration.

Pablo Larios is senior editor of frieze. He lives in Berlin.

Issue 21

First published in Issue 21

Sept - Nov 2015
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