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The Middleman is the Message

For creative types, one of the great promises of the Internet was disintermediation, the removal of the many circumstantial or institutional barriers between artist and audience. Creative work made available online would be easy and immediate for anyone with an Internet connection and the awareness of the work’s existence. The content was not subject to geographical limitations (leaving aside for the moment the policy decisions of particular nations); nor to the whims and terms of traditional distribution and promotion agents—record labels, publishing houses, fine-art galleries, a near-universal and Kafkaesque bureaucracy of gatekeepers, tastemakers and usurious middlemen, we were told, had been made irrelevant.

Of course, as you know, that has not yet come fully to pass. And in the intervening time between the first Utopian proclamations and now, counter-arguments have been formed in favor of the older models. These structures, it’s claimed, provide artists livings that would be impossible to maintain on their own; “curated” systems necessarily provide higher quality work to the audiences, providing more cultural bang for the buck, etc.

There are compelling points on both sides. But these arguments tend to be fiscally focused. They’re questions of economics more than of aesthetics. Mediation is viewed as a structural element, a kind of switching mechanism that directs profit from one to another recipient. Your opinion of it, therefore, is likely determined by where you stand on the track. It’s mediation as means. But what of mediation as media?

“It’s both my muse and my métier,” claims artist Luke Orr of mediated experience. “I’m inspired by obstruction, exploitation, and interference. By meddling and outright confusion, even. But, I don’t call them that. Those’re just commonplace disparagements for what I think of as material.”

Orr says he aspires to create a kind of infinite feedback loop of mediation. “In its ideal state, it’d include no audience, per se, at all. And no artist beyond the instigating act. It would only be endless commentary, obscuring the creative act—though I haven’t worked out the details, quite. I’ve thought of it as a Web troll ouroboros; or maybe fighting fire with flame. But it’s still early stages. So, for the time being, I’m experimenting in an area I’m calling ‘hypermediation.’ ”

Orr’s best-known (he cringes at the term) work-to-date is 2009’s Focus Group, in which he attempted to score a full orchestral work with each note being voted upon and pre-approved by groups comprising record label A&R men.

“It was a start,” he now says. “But even in that atomized state, the group members were having almost emotional reactions. ‘That note reminds me of early Pixies!’ Or ‘Mmm. Satie.’ It was much too immediate. I knew then that I needed to, one, make it more abstract, and, two, introduce some element to reduce group cohesion and ramp up both fear and self-interest. I wanted the group, or many groups, ideally, talking and acting in circles.”

His follow-up work, Currency, was, he acknowledges, an ambitious failure: Posing as a representative of the U.S. Treasury, Orr assembled six teams in as many states and charged them with redesigning the American 10 dollar bill, in competition. The winning team was to receive a percentage of all transactions using those bills once minted; but the winning design had to be selected unanimously by all teams, and if no unanimous decision was reached within a year, the competition would be cancelled without award.

“It was magnificent,” Orr says. “I had 36 graphic designers and fine artists shuttling bills back and forth, striving to win, and subtly undermining each other. Of course, the time limit was an imperfection. But within those confines it was a delightfully closed circuit.”

Not so closed that the U.S. government failed to take notice, however. Ultimately, the counterfeiting charges were dropped and Orr received a sentence of time served for impersonating a government official. But the experience, Orr says, was fruitful even in its failure. He emerged more inspired than ever.

“My glimpse of the U.S. justice system was a real eye-opener,” he says gleefully. “I’m thinking of constructing a type of live-chat legal labyrinth. I can’t say much more now.”

Orr is now busy with this as-yet-unnamed work-in-progress. Though he is hesitant to disclose details, he says that it involves two states’ attorneys generals, one Kardashian, a Pakistani cricket star, the Web sites and 4Chan, a Caribbean bellhop, and the YouTube account of a 17-year-old male fan of British singer Susan Boyle.

He reports, “I haven’t been this excited about material since my days as T.A.”

—John Rodat

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