Musings of a Rambler

And oh, what vistas of woe and decline, what fretful hauntings of threatening ghosts and phantoms. The central processor chip can fail. The operating system can fail. The language that supports the operating system may be discontinued and no longer supported. Unlike paper, which degrades rather gracefully, computers have sudden, catastrophic failures [1].

On September 2nd of this year, expectations were at a peak for the Playful Interface Cultures exhibition opening. I myself was uncommonly tranquil. After a few years of exhibiting during the Ars Electronica Festival one inevitably comes to realize that there is an inherent praxis to all this process of getting your work ready for being shown – and also to keep it running afterwards – and nervousness is an undeniable part of it. But Rambler had been ready, tested and running for some months then. Furthermore, it had been tested once again a mere two days before the opening. I was tranquil – as much as I can ever be, at least.

The day of the opening came. The sneakers worked, they communicated between themselves and with the mobile app, the mobile app gathered data and posted it on Twitter. Or so it seemed until, upon close inspection, I found that the Twitter posts weren’t being updated.

It easily skipped my radar (or rather, my nerdar) that the Twitter API was going through some major changes. Alas, the official mail from Twitter came a couple of days too late, saying

Starting August 31, all applications will be required to use “OAuth” to access your Twitter account.

In layman’s terms, basically, Twitter didn’t only change the key to a door: they changed the whole entrance, door and doorframe and all, the type of lock, the type of key and whatever else I might manage to fit in the present analogy, had I the time and patience to do it. Naturally, this is understandable to one who is familiar with the workings of web-services and such. But it is also undeniably annoying to find out on opening day that the final stage on the whole flowchart of your work’s digital innards isn’t in a stage of flowing anymore (the mail I got from Twitter was delivered to my mail server on September 2nd at 10:53am).

Fortunately, some passionately furious googling led me to a solution – an easy-to-use Java ME library for the Twitter API [2]. In a few hours, the Java ME application was remade to accommodate the new code and Rambler was back.

No wonder that interactive installations are the nightmare of many a curator – and many an artist too. Going back to Sterling,

We imagined that our bed was a clean, abstract, mathematical, Euclidean, Platonic, computer-science, electronic kind of bed, but we were deceiving ourselves. The bed of digital culture is a very rumpled, dirty, makeshift, anarchic kind of bed. It smells of viruses and worms and is surrounded by vast, ever-growing heaps of our discarded trash. The sheets are owned by other people and they want us to rent the mattress by the hour. [1]

In the end, how ephemeral, how easily perishable is our New Media Art? And will there one day be a remunerated occupation with a job description such as “Media Art Restorer”? Glory to the jack-of-all-trades media artist, the one who not only devises, constructs, performs and promotes the work, but is also able to keep it up-to-date and running in this challenging landscape of throughput restrictions, shifting protocols and obsolescent formats.

Rambler was, in the end, a success. The ever-absent pair of obsessive-compulsive sneakers was awarded the title Best of Interface Cultures 2010, with a nifty material prize to boot. It will be exhibited at the Amber Festival 2010 in Istambul (Nov 4-14) and also at the 404 Festival 2010 in Taiwan (Nov 25 to Dec 8).

So take heed to the words of Bruce Sterling, which I have borrowed as mine. You are driven to produce Media/Interactive/Ludic works? Then know that your work is never truly done.

[1] Sterling, B. (2007). Media Paleontology. In: Kluitenberg, Eric (ed.) The Book of Imaginary Media: Excavating the Dream of the Ultimate Communication Medium. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

[2] Twitter API ME Wiki