The magic of YouTube makes sharable the Disney adaptation of Goethe’s 1797 ballad, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, in which the eponymous character enchants a broom to fetch water for him, only to discover the limits of his magical abilities. The apprentice confronts his image, and his world fills with water: this is amniotic fluid, which suspends him between the whole of the world and the sharp shards of wood that litter the floor with each swing of the axe, only to reanimate again. This is Pessoa’s “dead life” of repurposing. This is the loss that tingles and aches between our fractured bodies and our fragile screens.
With Incredible Machines, the Iranian-born, Canadian curator Mohammad Salemy produced what I believe was the first international conference conducted almost entirely through social media platforms. Although the conference took place in Vancouver most of the participants (including myself) took part via Google+, and much of the audience streamed the event live via YouTube. Salemy organized the conference to reflect upon the impact of digital technologies and ‘machine intelligence’ in the realms of art and politics, topics engaged by an interdisciplinary ‘gathering’ of artists, curators, media- and political-theorists, philosophers and others. Hence, the conference sought to engage digital technologies not simply as an object of discussion but the medium through which such discussions would be staged, in a perverse materialization of a McLuhanian soundbite replete with the expected communication breakdowns and technical failures. The contradictions involved in using a single corporate social media platform to host serious reflections on the current aesthetic and political impacts of digital technologies, and speculation on their future development, were of course not lost on Salemy or other participants who discussed this during the conference (although little attention was given to the host institution, the University of British Columbia as a state platform – the university being a politically important ‘technology’ in its own right). The conference was not only host to a number of interesting speakers but experimented with the format and medium of the conference in ways that others can be expected to follow in future, although perhaps in more streamlined fashion as technologies develop and affective resistance to online communication declines (although I’d bet Google will still be in the room).