Viral Not Virus: Alan Liu’s “Viral Aes­thet­ics” Re­con­sid­ered


Session Title:

  • The Matter with Media

Presentation Title:

  • Viral Not Virus: Alan Liu’s “Viral Aes­thet­ics” Re­con­sid­ered



  • Panel: The Matter with Media

    My paper will ex­plore how a par­tic­u­lar sub­set of con­tem­po­rary in­ter­net-based art­works in­ten­tion­ally op­er­ate as “work as as­sem­blage” (after N. Kather­ine Hayles in My Mother Was a Com­puter). The ex­am­ples I will use – Seth Price’s Dis­per­sion (2002-On­go­ing), Oliver Laric’s Ver­sions (2009 and 2010), and David Horvitz’s Idea Sub­scrip­tion (2009) – all desta­bi­lize the idea of a sta­tic, ideal “work” by re­ly­ing on their dif­fuse cir­cu­la­tion and in­stan­ti­a­tion through net­works for their re­al­iza­tion. No­tably, they all in­volve a text in some way – Dis­per­sion and Ver­sions are es­says about vi­sual cul­ture and the dis­tri­b­u­tion of con­tent on­line and both take many forms,Dis­per­sion cir­cu­lates across var­i­ous media – sculp­ture and printed book­lets – where Ver­sions is remixed by other artists and cu­ra­tors. Idea Sub­scrip­tion was a year-long tum­blr blog dis­clos­ing writ­ten (often whim­si­cal) ideas for read­ers to im­ple­ment, which was re­cently repack­aged in book form as Every­thing That Can Hap­pen in a Day.

    In re­sponse to what Alan Liu terms “viral aes­thet­ics” in The Laws of Cool, I will argue that these works offer an­other, al­ter­nate aes­thetic mode to “viral aes­thet­ics” – one that op­er­ates through its im­mer­sion within the end­less stream of in­for­ma­tion, where pres­ence re­sults from serendip­i­tous in­stan­ti­a­tion. Liu em­pha­sizes the “de­struc­tive cre­ation” of art by Joseph Nech­vatal, Jodi, and William Gib­son’s Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) – ex­am­ples that sub­vert knowl­edge work by en­gag­ing in a de­struc­tive mode of pro­duc­tiv­ity, one that prob­lem­at­i­cally con­tains the as­sump­tion that tak­ing some­thing apart re­veals its inner truth. While the art prac­tices I would like to dis­cuss also cir­cu­late in a “viral” fash­ion, they do not en­gage in cor­ro­sive de­struc­tiv­ity, e.g. Nech­vatal’s com­puter virus pro­jects. Rather, they offer in­sight by way of a con­struc­tive, sym­bi­otic re­la­tion with the in­for­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies that en­able them, be­com­ing pow­er­ful through their own mo­men­tum and spread, an as­pect yielded by their ex­is­tence as “works as as­sem­blage.” By fore­ground­ing the facets of their own trans­mis­sion, Dis­per­sion, Ver­sions and Idea Sub­scrip­tion pro­voke a med­i­ta­tion on the move­ment of in­for­ma­tion on­line.