Some things to know about Sam Kronick prior to reading this piece:
- Sam is a new media artist living in Minneapolis.
- He designs and creates products for our online shop - Print Studio Shop, as well as working for our agency, designing and building vizualizers and brainstorming other things that might not exist yet.
- He is the founder of the Consortium for Slower Internet.
- He continually describes the Consortium in the first person plural. The Consortium is just him. This is how you know that someone takes their art seriously.
SPS: Sam Kronick. Is that your real name?
SPS: Can you tell me why you are working with Social Print Studio?
SK: I run a company called the Consortium for Slower Internet and we do a number of different art and design services. I’m designing some products for the you to sell in your shop, and I also run a research laboratory for developing new products and ideas which Social Print Studio is using them for their agency work. Right now I’m designing a hand crank-powered playback machine for short videos, like animated videos or gifs.
Vine + Hand Crank from Social Print Studio on Vimeo.
SPS: What do you see in common between your work and the work of Social Print Studio?
SK: I guess we’re both interested in making digital objects physical. You guys are first and foremost a printing company, printing photos that people produce with their phones and share online. That’s something I’m interested in. One of the Principles for Slower Internet is Divergence. It’s the opposite of what has been called convergence, which is when more and more of our interactions or modes of consuming and producing media happen on one device. We watch TV shows on Netflix and then we talk about them on Twitter and we never leave one point of medium or interaction. The idea that you would take pictures with your cell phone camera and then print them and incorporate them throughout your house kind of fits with that. The agency work is similar. You’re trying to find ways of presenting and interacting with natively digital information, produced in a way that it fits in a different scenario like an event or a party. There’s some translating of this very personal connection of you with your machine to these social events that the agency works in.
SPS: Can you talk about what you mean by “Slower Internet”?
One questions I like to ask with the Consortium is how can computing be more like gardening. People like gardening. They do it whether it produces anything useful or not. It’s something that can be social or individual, and it’s also something that can be durational and be a hobby that plays out over a long period of time. You learn something from the process of gardening, about the world we live in and about cycles and natural processes that are really valuable lessons and intrinsically important things for us to know. Gardening is helpful for you in finding your place in this crazy world, in a way that working on the internet doesn’t necessarily promote, but could.
SPS: So the impulse behind your design products is this gardening idea?
SK: Right, so some of it is very literal juxtapositions of machines with plants. I like the idea of having these specimens of plants isolated and being objects for contemplation and placing them next to these things that we see as so powerful, like our phones that in reality are very limited. If you were to take a random human from the history of all of humankind and show them your iPhone and show them some exotic succulent from Madagascar, and the way that it creates these beautiful patterns in space and regenerates itself and all these wonderful things, I think most humans abstracted form our modern society would find more engagement with the plant. And that’s not to say that computers and devices we live with aren’t spectacular as well, but it takes more social context to understand why they are engaging. We’ve still got a long way to go to make it as self-evident as a plant. Maybe we’re not as technologically advanced as we think we are. We still see these devices as novel for their newness and not for the fact that they are engaging these two fundamental processes that humans have been engaged with for along time: computation and communication. I’d like to get to the point that we see the our devices on the same continuum as the natural world, to hold them to the same standard. There are certain plants and natural objects that we hold more beautiful than others. Some rocks really capture our attention while others are just rocks. You think of something like the Grand Canyon and no human being from any point in history could come across that and not understand its significance. The fact that we don’t have as nuanced an understanding of our communication technologies and of our computational technologies, that’s what I’m interested in. So it’s not “less technology”, it’s about creating standards for technology that are more akin to the standards we have for finding beauty and complexity in nature.
SPS: How do you think these will make people’s lives better if they have them in their homes? For example, the concrete plant holder.
SK: The design objects are a way of communicating to people in a language that’s accessible and understandable to a wider audience of people. People understand the processes and conventions of choosing a design. They like choosing an object and placing it in their home in a way that they don’t necessarily relate to the experience of viewing art in a gallery or hearing a lecture or reading an academic text on these kinds of things, and those are all valid means of communicating. But I’m interesting in sending these packets of ideas out shrouded in the form of design objects. The larger collection is called the Cybernetic Meadow Collection which comes from a poem by Richard Brautigan called “All Watched Over By Machines of Love and Grace”. He wrote this poem in 1969 or thereabouts and it was a very cyber-utopian vision of the future. He proposed a vision of a cybernetic meadow, where deer strolled peacefully past computers as if they were flowers. It seemed like a point in time when nobody really yet knew how computers would be integrated into our daily lives and so that seemed possible. The reference to the poem is in hopes that we could re-imagine how we relate to these devices. One of the other products I offer at the Consortium is distributing for free this poem by Richard Brautigan.
SPS: So you think the poem is hopeful? Because when I read it I thought it was a joke, that it was satirical.
SK: The poem might be totally sarcastic but I think its some tone between earnestness and sarcasm. There’s a kernel of hope. I think that’s why I liked it. It’s a complex emotion that I get in my reading. You have to put yourself in the shoes of a different era. Richard Brautigan wrote it while he was a poet in residence at Caltech and he was living at Berkeley, and Berkeley in 1968-69 was a rather unique place. You can either take it as this fully-embedded counter-cultural poet decides to take a residency at Caltech as a joke, an experiment with sleeping with the enemy, or he goes because this is a moment when the counterculture is beginning to feel the potential of the up-and-coming wave of computation, where the old corporations like IBM were losing ground to newer upstarts. This lineage continues through all sort of groups we would identity today like Steve Jobs, his history with the counterculture, and Wired magazine has a lot of psycho-utopian links from the Bay Area culture of the 60s and 70s. It was at a point when they didn’t really know how dystopian it might sound to someone in 2013 reading this and thinking it must be a joke.
SPS: Can you tell me about your other designs like the Slow Screen? (A screen that Sam set up in our office playing a curated stream of video artworks)
SK: The Slow Screen comes from an installation I saw at MIT while I was a student there. In the middle of campus just between the computer labs and the engineering center they had an installation called the media text wall, where a curator would select a video that would be played on this wall in this hallway. It was projected. You had tons of engineering students walk by it every day. It’s not really in the context of ‘we’re looking at art right now’, but everyone knows it’s there. If you add up all the seconds that you see it as you pass by over the course of a year you start to get a sense of what content is shown there. People had different ways of describing it as like “weird stuff in that hallway” and “weird stuff on the video test wall”. Every once in awhile you go there at night and you catch someone who wasn’t in a rush to get to a class and had a moment to just stand and have a quiet moment with this different viewing experience. The curators were putting students who weren’t necessarily interested in art, and enabling them to experience art with a minimal investment. The students didn’t even have to enter within the walls of a gallery. It’s just part of their environment.
SPS: Like a painting on the wall.
SK: Right. And there really isn’t a model for displaying video art outside of galleries other than on the internet. You shouldn’t be viewing certain video artworks in a small window with the ability to navigate around and skip ahead because some part is kind of of boring. Sometimes that phenomenon of boredom is precisely one of the materials that the artist is working with. But when we are sitting at a computer, laptop or phone, our expectation is that we are in control, but it’s only a certain amount of control that you get. In some ways all of our interfaces are compromises on the way to, one of two real interface paradigms. One of the Cold War era missile control panel, the giant control panel that you see in the movies where they look like they’re doing really important work. And they kind of are. Their important work is defending the nation against nuclear war. So we built interfaces that were kind of pared down versions of that, lots of switches and buttons and controls and lights, that makes us feel that maybe we are doing something as important as defending against nuclear war. And on the other hand, you have kind of the Minority Report gesture-based interface; wave your hands, fly things around. And at least in that fictional case the work that they are doing seems very real and significant; they’re trying to stop the bad buys and solve the mystery. We get that same interface in a pared-down version on our phones. We are swiping and gesturing, when really we’re just deleting an email. But maybe if we do it with as much flair as Tom Cruise does it makes us feel like we are in control and that we are doing something really important. But in the end we’re still just communicating. So much of what we’re doing is communication and in this act of communication were really just sifting through messages that other people are in control of. When you’re sitting down on your YouTube interface, the amount of control that you have over your actual experience is really minor. You have a choice about what to watch but the content producers are really the ones in control of the situation. That’s the way that it will always be. The Slow Screen is about getting rid of that illusion of control and presenting works as they are. You’re left with only control over your attention, not over the machine, not over the transmission and the message, but you can choose to watch or not to watch. Really when it comes down to it, that’s the most honest type of engagement.
SPS: What do you hope will happen with the Slow Screen?
We only have a a handful of screens out there. In the long-run we’re hoping to form a partnership with an art-space or a museum or an archive of multimedia video-works, to work on securing rights and finding curators that are really interested in selecting works that fit this mode. It’s not for every video work, but certain works might be more at home here than they are on YouTube.
SPS: In the long run you want these to be curated by other individuals?
SK: Right. We’d love to have maybe a system where people pay a subscription. You can think of it on par with a membership to a contemporary art museum, you’re kind of buying into this distribution of works. It’s not that you’re choosing what videos to watch, you’re choosing to go see the show. But rather than that money going to keep the physical space of the museum open, the money goes to the curators and artists. It’s a way of creating a market for video works that has a wider reach than just the museum system. That’s part of the reason why I’m working with you, to combine resources.
SPS: What do you think is the best thing that would arise out of your collaboration with Social Print Studio?
SK: Well the best thing is that this proves that a certain model of collaboration between artists and technology companies can work. If you look at the mood boards or proposals of a lot of ad agencies, often they’re just ripping pictures off of independent artists, most of whom are never going to see a dime from their work and, more importantly, they’re never going to have an ounce of influence about how that work might conform to the event or situation that the ad agency is using it in. It’s both an unfortunate situation for the artist and a missed opportunity for the agency to have closer collaboration with the people who are really innovating these ideas and breaking us out of cliches. We only need so many information visualizations and media installations. We need people to continually innovate. Artists have always played that role. I’m paraphrasing an artist called Golan Levin who’s at Carnegie Mellon who says that new media artists are the unpaid R&D department of ad agencies. He cites some great stories like one in the late 70s, a bunch of artists produced something at Aspen Ideas Festival called the Aspen Movie Map. They drove a car with a camera on it through the streets of Aspen and ended up with this visual map. Some of the work was sponsored by federal funds. When a conservative senator put out his annual award for the most egregious waste of federal funding and the Aspen Movie Map won that award. Of course it then became a major feature of Google - Google Street View - something that we feel like we can’t live without today. It was purely an artistic experiment but it eventually gets made into a major commercial product and this happens over and over again. This kind of collaboration is one step towards saying, “I would like to keep innovating and providing new formats and ideas and I don’t want to get bitter about someone out there capitalizing on them.” The best outcome of my collaboration with Social Print Studio is that this artist-business relationship becomes a model that other people can look at in the future. Though in order for it to be that, it needs to be a successful collaboration.
Sam Kronick bequeathing Slow Internet to Social Print Studio, thanks Sam!