words Beatrice Galilee
What happens when you translate the ephemera of a website into a physical space?
About a year ago I committed MySpace suicide. It wasn’t a pleasant experience – by terminating my virtual persona I wanted to free myself of all the unsolicited messages from useless bands and egomaniacs. Instead, I ended up a social outcast, genuinely upsetting two real-life friends who took offence with the passing of my MySpace identity.
Such is the scale of online social networking today that commentators and intellectuals are increasingly viewing MySpace, FaceBook and other such sites as the sign of society’s failure and the deterioration of human contact into detached data transferral. But it seems that given the notorious MySpace parties, the global rise to fame of bands such as the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, the real and virtual worlds are now irrevocably intertwined. These blurring boundaries are at the centre of Maeda: MySpace, John Maeda’s “post-digital” show at the Riflemaker gallery in London.
It is already fascinating that a man who is an international hero of digital art, and whose ideas of simplicity and digital design have helped shape the visual landscape on the web today, would put on a tiny exhibition using the MySpace networking site as its focus. It is even more fascinating to see how he does it. What happens when you give a computer geek the chance to create his MySpace page in a real room?
In the way that other artists might take film or performance and translate it to suit their medium, Maeda observed the way in which people customise their individual MySpace pages and forge identities – real or otherwise – bolstered by their interests, friends, contributions and networks. The notion of creating a physical space based on a virtual medium is just the kind of thing you’d expect from a man who has spent his whole life intimately engaged with computers.
Naturally, a gallery has its limitations, and the 18th-century building that houses the Riflemaker is far from high-tech. There are no live comment pages to post silly hyperlinks, just your regular guestbook on the windowsill with a biro sitting next to it – though between 4pm and 6pm daily, the gallery encourages people to arrive with laptops and enter a virtual space. On my visit I was slightly disappointed that instead of being Bluetoothed information onto my mobile phone or being implanted with
an RFID chip, I was handed a photocopied A4 sheet with hand-scribbled notes as a navigation device.
As we walk around the show, we meet Maeda’s first-ever computer: a lovingly preserved Apple 2. There are coloured panels on the wall showing his musings on life and the notion of simplicity, screens showing a 15-minute loop of his infamous hypnotic screensavers, digital paintings, hand-made curiosities and a computer showing his Second Life persona. Framed in a glass cube, 12 iPod Minis look like a shoal of fish, their leads plugged into a socket, beautifully arranged like a still life. There are some fairly obscure aspects to the show – seemingly random, acrylic numbers on the wall refer to mysterious numerical equations.
Maeda is searching for evidence of the online realm as a genuine fifth dimension, inextricably linked to the real world – relationships are born, money is made, hearts are broken. The internet has stopped becoming a tool to help us, it’s become some sort of extended limb that we cannot be without.
MySpace and related online forums are not solitary activities – they are a way of showing your popularity through the number of friends you make and the comments you receive. Maeda collects visitors like friend requests, holding up a mirror to online networking.
Well, the good news is that such a realm has a certain immortality to it – my MySpace suicide was short-lived and I have resurrected myself, though for John Maeda, resurrection from the post-digital has yet to take place.
Maeda: MySpace is at the Riflemaker gallery until 23 June