Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Search as Medium

My artistic co-conspirator, Aharon Amir, and I are pitching to write a chapter for a book about search culture. We want to talk about a few of the art works we've done around search such as Narcissus.

During the brainstorm, Aharon has asked if we can write our proposal (and maybe even the chapter) in public. So here's my first draft.

Narcissus is an artistic group who address and respond to issues of search. We have stated that our materials are "visibility" and "invisibility". And we consider that search itself is the medium within which one is transformed into or traded against the other. Search has become so fundamental because the internet has brought about an exponential increase in the production and availability of information and artistic output in the last 20 years. We are now in a situation where few of the pre-internet institutions are able to continue their business as usual. That goes for art galleries and publishers, of course, but it is also true of such diverse "media" as the information architecture of city signage on the one hand and the salon on the other.

While the proliferation of internet enabled art and knowledge challenges existing institutions, their purported successors : the search-engines, social networks and other commercial / technical inventions must also face artistic and political interrogation.

In our article we will describe several works by Narcissus or member artists. Our initial project, the Narcissus Search Engine dialogues with one of the strongest trends of recent years : the positive feedback mechanisms whereby success in attaining visibility is further rewarded. (Google PageRank, Twitter "follow" recommendations.)

Narcissus subverts this convention by pushing popular search results into a netherworld of the mathematical "imaginary" and confronting searchers with results that have been rejected by previous searchers. This system both raises the theoretical issues (Why should popularity be rewarded? Why should we assume that my search is like yours? What are the political consequences of building so many "winner-takes-all" systems?) while offering a practical tool to find neglected and obscure knowledge. It stimulates further questions that we will address : how does "search" with a system designed to highlight the obscure differ from attempts to harness serendipity? What is the difference between wanting to search and wanting to find?

Further development with the Narcissus engine intends to address the issue of "centralization" of such search engines and their databases. Political questions which are graphically illustrated by the current NSA scandal and the arrival of Google Glass. We look at distributed / P2P search ( as a response.

Another application of Narcissus is within our proposed ShadowSpot urban interventions which bring our concerns to location-based information architecture. In ShadowSpot, participants are asked to bring visibility to shadow / neglected parts of a space (gallery, city) with anonymous stickers and mobile photography. Images are uploaded to a version of Narcissus which will again juggle the visibility of such places.

We will finally touch on other works by individual members of Narcissus such as in-public re/search practice. How much is search a private knowledge-gathering activity vs. a public / collective one? Another knowledge intervention is the practice of asking locals in a community directions to places which are, in fact, the other side of the world. This action adds "misrecognition" to the varieties of in/visibility that are the Narcissus material.

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