Flash in the pan

Douglas Edric Stanley


Note to readers. Please observe that I am just about to condemn myself from all future speaking engagements by unabashedly biting the hand that feeds; even worse — coward that I am — from the comfort of my little countryside home, after-the-fact, far from stone’s throw. Whatever. Let the chips fall where they may. Some things just have to be said.

I’ve just gotten back from a very strange festival, of the likes I’ve been avoiding for quite some time: Flash Festival, a very well-produced, well-intentioned festival + prix, but with an absolutely vaccuous artistic core. It suffered from being what in French can be considered the worst of all insults: gentil. I say « gentil » and « vaccuous » not because of the invited artists — I have nothing but esteem for many of the speakers, amongst them Christophe Bruno, Michael Sellam, Jean-Louis Boissier, entre autres. But in reality these artists had very little to do with the themes and orientation of the festival, which for its part seems above all to revolve around that very ambiguous thing: the artistic prix. And when it came to the actual prix itself, and the artistic values it defended, I am here to say here are the nails, and if you don’t have the courage to do it, give me the hammer and I will nail that coffin shut for you.

Oh and, as much as I like anonymes, it’s not « net art », which is normally spelled « net.art » by the way, even if in 2007 most people have more or less dropped the term. Net.art traditionally maintains a critical approach to the web as a medium, or form, not just as a means of distribution. Please, oh pretty please, can we bury the cultural CD-Rom past of France once and for all? Maybe we could call Mexico and see if they have any room left next to the [landfill with all the E.T. 2600 cartridges](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E.T._theExtra-Terrestrial(Atari_2600). There is still this echo of desire that the web will become a pure means of transmission of cultural artfacts, i.e. what in France is called édition: books, magazines, comic books, music, cinéma, … Works that can only be approached from the point of view of its « content », and for which the technological underpinnings have become ubiquitous or banal. The current political climate seems to reinforce this view, making it all the more incompatible with the web 2.0 (or call it what you will). The technological field is still shifting and has not yet coalesced into any one format. I have mentioned it before here, and I will mention it here again and again, but the current powers-that-be are trying to form a wall around content-based media precisely because it is terrified of new algorithmic forms of expression.

At one point, someone for whom I have too much respect to name here, got up on stage and commended the festival for being one of the « last few » to defend works of this sort. Perhaps it should, in fact, be the last. While I know it’s sometimes hard to hear, and we would all like to assume some larger conspiracy, the fact of the matter is that it is also just as often the case that artistic institutions die because it was their time to do so, and that there is some public money that is better spent elsewhere. Most of the Flash-inspired festivals have either died, or matured into something far more complex than some Adobe love-fest.

As for some of the comments I made during my talk on the proximity+distance double-step artists need to maintain with industry, a few clarifications are in store. For one, let it be known that I think that Flash is a great animation program, perfect for people wanting to make stuff like this. It’s also great for cool on-line stuff like this. And during the awards there was a very slick site that won the commercial category: crazyhorse. I can without reservation see the use of Flash for all that stuff. But this is not what Flash is being groomed for. It is currently in the middle stages of a full-scale assault as a closed platform for protected content (ignore recent open-source annoucements, c’est du bluff). And as a platform, it not only is wrong-headed, it is out-and-out dangerous. Can someone explain to me why Microsoft/Explorer has nothing but haters for all the damage it did to the web back in the 90’s, whereas Adobe/Macromedia/Flash has nothing but admirers? Flash is not just about animation anymore, it is about the « full experience ». Are graphic designers really that myopic? The commercial strategies of the two platforms (concerning the web at least) are exactly one and the same: dominate the landscape and become the de-facto web standard, only privately owned. A private standard for the public. A strategy based on protocols as the nexus of control. Are we really that politically naïve?

Also, a word of advice on the role of sponsors in artistic institutions. Many people asked me about this after my talk (cf. Etienne’s comment). I’m all for sponsors — who isn’t? — it’s an absolute win-win for everyone. But there are limits on what that sponsorship gets you.

To explain myself, let me tell you a story about a childhood friend of mine: Jonathan. Jonathan just stepped down from over a decade of stewardship of one really kick-ass festival for digital video shorts. Everyone knows this festival. It’s been all over the world. It’s got a magazine. It dominates the landscape in its own way. Now, I know Jonathan very well, I should because the two of us started our own television show when we were just 16 years old. And back then, he already knew exactly how to work with sponsors. When to say yes, when to say no. Back when we were 16 he was convincing music companies to give us exemptions for music video fees, and he was sending back the tapes of the synthpop wannabies the labels were trying to push on us. He’s got guts that guy. So ten years later, it came as no suprise to me to learn that he had quit what was quickly becoming a world-renowned festival, in part because his partner lacked artistic integrity. As just one example, Apple wanted stage-time to present whatever software it was presenting in the 90’s — in return for the large donations it was making to the festival. I give you this, you give me that, right? Wrong. While his partner caved in, Jonathan knew right away that it was poisoned fruit, promptly quit and started his own festival, leaving the previous one in the dust. Lesson? Street cred and artistic integrity goes a lot longer than you might suspect. People can smell a dirty deal, even Apple, who quickly decided to back Jonathan’s new festival.

You would figure that the Centre Pompidou would balk at inviting Adobe on their stage not only once, but twice. I can understand the pairing in other contexts, like Siggraph, or whatever, but not at the Pompidou. This is not a trade-fair, this is an arts center. They don’t need that kind of funding, do they? They already funnel a huge chunk of the public arts budget already, they can’t be that desperate. I might be wrong on this, maybe Kodak or Canon demo their new cameras at the opening of each photography collection at the Museum of Modern Art, or give out free prints to the participating artists (yeah right). Or perhaps we could look at existing hybrids such as the Hugo Boss Prize — but even there I have a hard time imagining models walking around the opening at the Guggenheim with the new underwear collection. Well, now that I think about it, that might be funny. I’ll have to see if Victoria Secret has its own arts competition…

So let that be a reminder that we need to be techno-power conscious just as in previous battles we needed to have a class consciousness. Today, class consciousness has become public final class consciousness (lame coder’s joke), i.e. an understanding of the social role of programming structures and their function in shaping discourse. Within this context, artists are neither neutral, nor necessarily in a position of inferiority. Processing nicely held its own yeasterday, and I thought it looked pretty damn slick next to Adobe’s offerings. Especially the OpenGL stuff, the PDF examples (more Adobe there), and its interfacing with robotics and sensors of all sorts. Sure, Processing’s built on Java, and that wasn’t officially open-sourced until only a few months ago. Maybe Sun is just a lame competitor to Adobe, and open-sourced because they had to. Maybe. But we still need to be very careful in the current political climate, especially here in France. Meanwhile Silicon Valley itself is embracing open-source en masse (and gasp as an economic model!) while most of the big media companies (outside of the big French holdings) are dropping DRM like it was the plague. Allez la France, encore un effort!

Original Comments:

2007-05-29 22:28:44

Thomas Traum

While I agree with most of your comments and find it a very interesting subject I find the idea that Flash is launching a full scale assault as the de-facto web standard a bit paranoid. I think they just try to catch up ;-)
The landscape of tools has never been more diverse than now. Just take a look at what the web2.0 sites are doing, who push it technology wise quite to a different limit.
See googlemaps, it uses everything where it works best, they just added streetviews and it is in Flash where the rest of the site is all in AJAX, js and dhtml or however you want to call it these days.

I think designers and developers are much more conscious about which tools to choose these days. what works in Flash and what not, and also give their clients their educated advice.

Also its weird that you bag yourself up as a “martyr for the good cause of saying what has to be said” in the beginning. I think its great but why write a “note” to people in the beginning?



2007-05-29 22:54:39

Douglas Edric Stanley

Yes, I agree that they will fail. For the same reasons that Microsoft failed. But I think that they can do some real damage in the process, and pull down a few people with them. The principle of interoperability has been more or less won in the realm of HTML, CSS, XML, RSS, etc. This is true. But in the world of interactive, algorithmic content, we are /nowhere near/ such a desire to render our platforms compatible. Apple will strike a big blow in this area, where they’re on the verge of creating the equivalent of a Playstation or a Wii, where the package gives you an end-to-end quality experience. But the Apple API only will work on the iPhone/OS X/iTV (if you’re lucky), creating yet another platform to port to. Whereas with AJAX, and the promise of Java, and so on, the idea was supposed to be interoperability. There is no technical reason why today we cannot achieve this. Jobs’ decision /not/ to include Java in the iPhone was a commercial one. And while it was probably a smart move commercially, it still frustrates me to no end (despite the fact that I know the Apple API very well).

In the mobile platforming realm, Adobe could do some serious damage, for example — far more than in the browser realm, I do agree with you there. But browsers are becoming less and less important, as aggregators distribute themselves across the entire digital landscape.

As for the header, there’s nothing I can stand more than self-proclaimed matyrs. I actually was more worried about the poor people who organized the festival, and all those who have just sent me invitations for the rest of the year. « Holy Shit, this guy sounds like a real asshole. Do we really want to invite him? » So it was more self-depreciating humor than self-martydom. I was merely pointing out the pretention (and comfort) of my position, especially after they made the effort to fly me out to Paris. It would have been a wholy different story if I had just walked in off the street for example…