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September 04, 2006

[iDC] Totems without Taboos:


The Exquisite Corpse

This is an essay I've written as the foreward to an anthology on the classic game The Exquisite Corpse: Collaboration, Creativity, and the World's Most Popular Parlor Game edited by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Davis Schneiderman, and Tom Denlinger, to be published by University of Nebraska Press (2007). This collection is the first set of original essays to provide a broad retrospective on the legacy of the Corpse project-and we are defining this legacy fairly loosely, with representation from historical, literary, collaborative, moments (etc.). The vibe is open and the text, I guess, is too. --enjoy! Paul aka Dj Spooky [via iDC]

Totems without Taboos: The Exquisite Corpse, by Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid: Database aesthetics, collaborative filtering, musical riddles, and beat sequence philosophy aren't exactly things that come to mind when you think of the concept of the "exquiste corpse." But if there's one thing at I want to you to think about when you read this anthology, its that collage based art - whether its sound, film, multimedia, or computer code, has become the basic frame of reference for most of the info generation. We live in a world of relentlessly expanding networks - cellular, wireless, fiber optic routed, you name it - but the basic fact is that the world is becoming more interconnected than ever before, and it's going to get deeper, weirder, and a lot more interesting than it currently is as I write this essay in NYC at the beginning of the 21st century. Think of the situation as being like this:

in an increasingly fractured and borderless world, we have fewer and fewer fixed systems to actually measure our experiences. This begs the question: how did we compare experiences before the internet? How did people simply say "this is the way I see it?" The basic response, for me, is that they didn't - there was no one way of seeing anything, and if there's something the 20th century taught us, is that we have to give up the idea of mono-focused media, and enjoy the mesmerizing flow of fragments we call the multi-media realm. For the info obsessed, games are the best shock absorber for the "new" - they render it in terms that everyone can get. Play a video game, stroll through a corridor blasting your opponents. Move to the next level. Repeat. It could easily be a Western version of a game that another culture used to teach about morals and the fact that respect for life begins with an ability to grasp the flow of information between people and places. I wonder how many Westerners would know the term "daspada" - but wait - the idea that we learn from experience and evolve different behavioral models to respond to changing environments is a place where complexity meets empathy, a place where we learn that giving information and receiving it, is just part of what it means to live on this, or probably any planet in the universe. What makes "Exquisite Corpse" cool is simple: it was an artists parlour game to expose people to a dynamic process - one that made the creative act a symbolic exchange between players.

Some economists call this style of engagement "the gift economy" - I like to think of the idea of creating out of fragments as the basic way we can think and create in an era of platitudes, banality, and info overload. Even musicians and artists - traditionally, the ciphers that translate experience into something visible for the rest of us to experience - have for the most part been happy for their work to be appropriated by the same contemporary models for material power that have created problems for their audiences - power and art happily legitimizing each other in a merry dance of death, a jig where some people know the rules of the dance, but most don't. But this "death," this "dematerialization" - echoes what Marx and Engles wrote about way back in the 19th century with their infamous phrase "all that is solid melts into air." Think of the exquisite corpse concept as a kind of transference process on a global scale. When you look at the sheer volume of information moving through most of the info networks of the industrialized world, you're presented with a tactile relationship with something that can only be sensed as an exponential effect - an order of effect that the human frame of reference is simply not able to process on its own. At the end of the day, the "exquisite corpse" is just as much about renewal as it is about memory. It depends on how you play the game.

The way I see it, is this: whenever humanity tries to really grapple with the deep issues - life, death, taxes, you name it - it becomes a game, and I like to think that like most human endeavors, "exquisite corpse" is all about chance processes. For example, the Indian game of "daspada"or "Snakes and Ladders" as its commonly called, has its origin in documents from India around 2nd century BC. It's said that it was used as a game for teaching morals - the relative level of reincarnation, and multiple perspectives represented whether life's lessons had been learned - or not. The British took it to England in 1890s and from there, it spread to the rest of Europe and the world, but the basic idea is that the idea of living multiple lives, games theory, and the moral relationship between individuals and society was linked to rules - it seemed like a good place to reflect on how games get "sampled" and remixed, depending on which culture they're in. Cut and paste the result, and the basic idea is that this is all about information, and how we play with it. It could easily be Pac Man, Quake, or Halo2 it depends on your frame of reference. It's a thread that easily connect artists as diverse as Luis Buñuel, John Cage, Virgil Thomson, and Grand Master Flash. Yes, Grand Master Flash! The whole idea is to look at links - at connections that are unacknowledged but also undeniable: chance processes, and randomness do that - they scramble subjectivity in a way that lets the unconscious methods we've used to sort information in our minds become a filter for the way we engage the external world. It's a scenario that turns the mind inside out, and that, like pop culture always says, is a "good thing."

Humanity, according to most studies of "information theory" creates about 8 to 10 exabytes of information a year in the 21st century. An exabyte (derived from the SI prefix exa-) is a unit of information or computer storage equal to approximately one quintillion bytes. Its such a large number that it's literally beyond human comprehension. For example, the total amount of printed material in the world is estimated to be around five exabytes. It was estimated that by the end of 1999, the sum of human knowledge (including audio, video and text) was 12 exabytes - UC Berkeley School of Information suggests that 5 exabytes of storage space was created in 2002 alone, 92% of it on magnetic media, mostly on hard disks - the vast majority of this space is used to store redundant intellectual works such as music and commercial video.

A while ago, University of California Berkelely claimed that 5 exabytes of data approximately equals "all words ever spoken by human beings" this statement is just the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea - there's a tremendous amount of information being produced by our culture, and the real way that humanity experiences most of it is through multi-media. That's where the "exquiste corpse" concept comes home to roost.

Think of one exabyte as a zillion gigabytes, and you get the idea - scale, density, and the sheer volume - it's all getting smaller, more fragmented, and more nuanced. That's more information than most of humanity has made throughout its existence on this planet over millions of years. Exquisite Corpse is a game - it's also known as "exquisite cadaver" or "rotating corpse" - but basically, it's a filtering process where a collection of words or images are assembled collectively, and the result is commonly known as the exquisite corpse or cadavre exquis in French. Each collaborator adds to the collage composition in sequence. It's the sequence of the game that makes the tension between each player a connected, and ultimately enriching experience - each person is only allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed.

Think of a more technology oriented description this way: adaptation to human-engineered technologies, testing formal and ecological theorems for high-density lifestyles, sustainable resource sharing among urban organisms, and the play of public/private division in cross-species interaction. Got it? Info density isn't about the information just sitting happily on your hard-drive, on your canvass, or in the artists studio: the whole theme of this group of essays is a reflection on the different paths information takes as it moves from one culture to the next, one individual at a time. Think of Moore's Law: Expressed as "a doubling every 18 months", Moore's law suggests the phenomenal progress of technology in recent years. Expressed on a shorter timescale, however, Moore's law equates to an average performance improvement in the industry as a whole of over 1% a week. What game does that open us up to in the era of large numbers? For example - at pandora.com visitors are invited to enter the name of their favorite artist or song and to get in return a stream of music with similar "DNA," its essentially, in effect a private Internet radio station microtailored to each user's tastes. There's more - for example, customizable Internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm, Yahoo's Launchcast and RealNetworks' Rhapsody are pointing users to music far beyond the playlists that confine most FM radio broadcasts. The most familiar form uses so-called collaborative filtering, software that makes recommendations based on the buying patterns of like-minded consumers. Think of the "customers who bought items like this also bought ..." function on Amazon.com. Your tastes, and the way the travel through the system are based on variables that leave trail for the algorithms running the software to model - that is then passed on to someone else, and so on and so on. Think of it as the cultural update of what "daspada" was about, just transcribed to the realm of the digital - the Surrealists anticipated this, and made it enjoyable.

In the realm of video and online media, the craze of "Machinima" - or when kids remix video game characters to make their own films, or in the realm of dj culture - it's the mix tape - but the common denominator is selection. The whole schemata that I'm pointing out is that density, and the tools we use to navigate it, are barometers of the deep structure of culture as it is translated into information - it's a pattern that, as the 21st century advances, will become more and more linked to the way we live and the way we play.

Moore's original statement can be found in his publication "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits", Electronics Magazine 19 April 1965 - but for the intents of this essay, let's think of the basic frame work as a mirror for Mie Van Der Rohe's infamous quip about design: less is more. Whisper that in someone's ear and see what happens.

The remix, as always, is what you make of it. Juxtapose, fragment, flip the script - anything else, simply put, would be boring. This anthology, like the original game of the Surrealists, points to a place in culture where, the process of art is a collaborative process. It's a situation that requires, like the name, a kind of collective action. The drawn version predates the written version - the anthology is a map of an un-drawn terrain of bodies and minds. Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - the mis-matched body parts, the fragmented speech, the neo-Romantic sense of loss and renewal - what would that creature feel if it knew that it was justa figment of Shelley's imagination, a conversation piece made up on a cold night in Switzerland in the 19th century? Flip the script, cut and paste the result, and the literary equivalent of the artificial creature flows off the page and becomes another story, another composition, another way of seeing a world rapidly advancing into a frame of reference that we know is at the edge of what we call human.

Again the main motif of the scenario - the drawn version predates the written version - it's a kind of guessing match that produces what has now become a mass culture cliché: that's what I'm talking about. Collective memory, and the way it unfolds in the expression of culture, I guess that could be referred to as the "exquisite corpse" too. The whole idea of this anthology is to explore the places on the cultural map that haven't been marked, places that on any other map would be marked "here be dragons" - yes, the blank places. They invite interpretation, and yes, the active mind wants to doodle and fill in the emptiness. The map's blank spaces beckon like some kind of light at the end of a dark tunnel. I can only say that this collection of writings is a lexicon, a guide for interpreting a phenomenon that we all know waits at the edge of our imagination, if we only had the tools to navigate its unknown space.

Some have played the (graphic) game with a more or less vague or general prior agreement about what the resulting picture will be, but this defeats the essentially Surrealist nature of the game - you can say "look, these are the spaces that we present to you, and the rest is a method acting course in roles that no one is quite sure about how to play - the rest is up to you." See if the puzzle pieces fit, draw a line connecting the dots. But most of all - have fun!

Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky that Subliminal Kid
NYC 2006

Posted by jo at September 4, 2006 10:14 AM