whatshot Purity and Danger in Net Art

by Diane Greco

Published in Issue No. 56 ~ January, 2002

What a season.

This fall — as my inbox filled with virus-ridden spam, and my mailbox with
letters that may or may not carry a deadly disease — it seemed like the only
way to avoid a vicious infection was to get myself off the grid, in real life
and virtually, by moving to a remote location and refusing to accept mail, and
by unplugging my network connection. Maybe I’d keep my phone, but only for emergencies.

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, author of the classic on contamination and
culture, Purity and Danger, would have had a field day with the implications
of these threats to personal security, the effectiveness of virus-scanning software,
the inviolability of the US post. Ironically, the same technologies–the post,
the phone, email, and the Web–that make it easy to connect with each other are
also painfully vulnerable to intrusion, infection, and mayhem.

Alan Sondheim and Azure Carter, two digital artists working in Miami, explore
this irony in a series of Web art fragments that represent anthrax as a suggestive
site of cultural production. The project, “Sex/Anthrax/Mathesis,” is a CD consisting
of some 70 digital files of images, movies, and text unified by a concern with
sexuality and contamination as refracted through the present threat of death
by post.

I initially became interested in Sondheim’s work because I am subscribed to
several net art lists to which he posts frequently. These posts typically consist
of text fragments with a strong sexual subtext; more often than not, I had deleted
them immediately, disliking the way they seemed to disrupt what I believed to
be the purpose of these lists: conversations among practitioners. While often
interesting and moving, Sondheim’s posts seemed to exploit the fact that he
had a direct route to a whole list’s worth of unprotected inboxes. Other Web
artists, like Kenji Siratori and Mez, also use email as a performance space,
to similar effect: spam as performance art.

Yet, the more I deleted these posts, the more I began to reflect on why I was
not reading or otherwise responding to them. As I dug deeper, I began to understand
that the posts were part of a larger body of work. Indeed, Sondheim has a long
career as a teacher and practitioner of net art. So I asked him to send me a
CD. A few days later, “Sex/Anthrax/Mathesis” arrived in the mail. Sondheim was
now in my mailbox, which has no delete key. As I inserted the CD into my drive,
I wasn’t at all sure what to expect.

Like a lot of contemporary art, “Sex/Anthrax” cleverly invites you to underestimate
it. The videos are grainy, poorly lit, and sloppy in the cuts; the soundtrack
includes tinny tracks that reminded me of skating rinks; and the graphic elements
in the videos are not particularly stunning although they are sometimes clever.
(For instance, Carter’s crotch is occasionally overlaid with what appears to
be cheap clip art of a yellow lightbulb.) Nevertheless, “Sex/Anthrax” could
hardly be called amateurish, for it is quite rich so long as you are not offended
by explicit and disturbing (if not exactly violent) sexual imagery and language.

Also like a lot of contemporary art, “Sex/Anthrax” aims to unsettle the viewer’s
complacency, in this case about pornography, sexuality, infection by anthrax,
and the spectre of uncontrollability that these things conjure up. (Annoyingly,
the piece does assume that the viewer is complacent to begin with.) There’s
a wonderfully creepy shot, for instance, of a fat centipede scuttling across
the linoleum, and the heavily manipulated images of palm trees suggest that
even the plant life has run amok. The X and Y axes that frame many of these
images (the business of “mathesis” or abstraction to which the title alludes)
only heighten the impression of decadence. Everything is ripe to the point of

Despite the prevalence, in “Sex/Anthrax,” of bodies arranged in poses cobbled
from the limited visual idiom of porn, the work is not erotic but didactic.
Viewing gives no access of pleasure, not even of the guilty kind. Neither Carter
nor Sondheim are beautified, and they seem mostly bored with themselves and
with each other. This glassy-eyed effect is certainly intentional. It’s common
enough in porn, and it will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time in an
American suburb, two points which are, to my mind anyway, thoroughly related.
And although it would be easy to say that such work trivializes the suffering
of the victims of the anthrax mail attacks, this response would misunderstand
the point of Sondheim and Carter’s project, which is to refract these events
through a critical lens. Their purpose is not pornographic, but pedagogical.

One movie begins in a classroom, that primal scene of education, complete with
horrifying sounds of squeaky chalk and scratchy erasers. Carter scrapes the
word “Anthrax” onto a chalkboard, erases it with difficulty, and then writes,
“Territory.” The work’s accompanying text file spells out the purpose of “Sex/Anthrax”:
to demonstrate, by its own example, the extent to which the viewer is complicit
with the work itself in the production of sexual fantasy. That is, “Sex/Anthrax/Methesis”
claims to critique pornography from the inside. It is “pornography of pornography”
in which


: you are complicit in tearing our bodies open

: you are complicit in the violence of your fantasm

No sooner does pedagogy appear than it interrupts itself with a series of ironic
asides. In the classroom movie, Carter and Sondheim take turns masturbating
against a loud Beethoven backdrop while wearing a what they call a “French apron”
and explaining “the dangers of Anthrax” [sic]. There’s a closeup of Sondheim
squeezing Carter’s breast like a baker testing the elasticity of his bread dough,
with his voiceover: “Anthrax is everywhere.”

Later, while Carter masturbates, again looking stupendously bored, on a couch,
she says “Anthrax is dangerous. Be careful what you touch.” The emotional tone
of these scenes is completely flat. Paranoia about intimacy, germs, and sexuality
converges on the final shot, a Sony Vaio displaying abstract patterns as Beethoven
plays through the speakers. Interestingly, the Vaio gets the last word on contamination:
after all, the only thing that can infect you on the Internet is a virus.

Anthrax isn’t the only bug around, however. Sondheim and Carter extend their
quarry beyond illness and sexuality (which concern individual bodies) to social
and economic modes of production. They argue that capitalism, too, is infectious;
it banalizes everything it touches by transforming it into a commodity. From
the “sad poem of propriety and sentiment”:

the last lonely woman said nothing’s true,

you’re making it up again, just like before.

in truth, billions of us are living,

we’re not lonely at all, we have good times,

i come back from shopping and this is what


get me out of this poem, you don’t

even capitalize, what’s wrong with you?

The risk, as always, with propagating this interesting and possibly laudable
aim is how easily it turns, not surprisingly, to propaganda. (Be original! Be
daring! Challenge complacency!) Like anything else that’s done for an audience,
doing your own thing–even if that’s just thumbing your nose at an audience–can
become programmatic.

“Sexuality,” write Carter and Sondheim, “will bring down institutions.” I don’t
know about that. This reassuringly utopian gesture seems more than a little
nostalgic for a time where institutions were identifiable behemoths, and not,
like al-Qaeda and the WTO, stateless organizations that operate in secret and
answer only to insiders. Moreover, the gesture’s studied, didactic anti-authoritarianism
is awfully easy to appropriate by the very capitalist system the work critiques.
Consider the Apple slogan: “Think different.”

In a consumer culture, promises always outrun delivery. Marketing is the science
of selling stuff on the basis of the fantasies it evokes in the buyer. Even
fantasies of being, by virtue of wits or education or sensibility, somehow superior
to marketing may be turned to the purposes of selling something. Sondheim
and Carter are selling the idea that if you agree with them about the institution-crumbling
power of sex and art, you can rise above a culture of selling. But even if sex,
as the ultimate commodity, is the negation of all commodities, that doesn’t
make it any less commodified.

Sondheim and Carter know this, too. To compensate for all this humiliating
commodification, “Sex/Anthrax” produces its own ideal viewer: an eminently voluntarist
subject who is self-contained, individualistic, and indebted to no one. Significantly,
the subject is an artist, and what the artist rejects is recognition, an appreciative
audience, the trappings of professional success. Here’s a letter to an imagined
editor, from a section called “collaborative work”:

azure and i would very much enjoy the transformation

series into a hypertext-collaboration:




we will make images of POWDER-LIMBS POWDER-LIPS


azure and i will make you PART OF US

together our SKIN will disappear into SINFUL SINGULARITY

someone will find us there entwined

someone will look into our shattered limbs


now this will be a momentous discovery

just on the RIMS OF DEATH everything will become clear



tonight i have prepared the APRON-ANTHRAX movie

it is very beautiful





The irony is hard to miss: “azure and i” would not at all enjoy such a transformation,
and neither, I would think, would the publisher. (Perhaps now is the time to
disclose that I work for a hypertext publisher, so the passage had an unexpected
resonance.) What strikes me about this wish to remain unpublished (and therefore,
perhaps, unpolluted) is how it also resists any pleasure not produced by oneself.
You can get off the grid–change your address, disconnect your DSL line, keep
your work on your supremely individual hard drive –but then you’re on your
own. Not inappropriately, many of the images in “Sex/Anthrax” are masturbatory.

Yet, this wish for purity seems less ironic than wildly romantic, reminiscent
of an old idea of the artist, or author, as a solitary genius who is too good
to traffic with the rest of us. But words and images have a way of circulating,
and circulation itself can be polluting in just the sense implied by “Sex/Anthrax.”
Just as circulating specie will fall apart with use, exchange tends to degrade
the integrity of an original. As Adam Phillips put it: “Language, one might
say, is like perfume; it circulates to unpredictable effect. We might make our
words smell as nice as they can, but they will go in the world and be made use
of sometimes beyond our wildest intentions.”

Nothing about “Sex/Anthrax” could be called “nice”. Few concessions are made
to pleasure. This, in itself, is not terribly original. Piss Christ is
one notorious example. Such art has its purpose and the purpose is always worth
considering. Yet, one senses that Sondheim and Carter’s form of resistance to
capitalist institutions is less a plea for social justice than a desire to avoid
making a consensual object, something reassuringly easy to understand and assimilate.
Sondheim and Carter imply that their collaboration is, somehow, purer than other
kinds of traffic in signs.

But I don’t buy it. Just as, in psychoanalysis, the unconscious is created
in and through the psychic traffic between analyst and analysand, the work of
art is inconceivable except as a process that takes place between people. You
need one another, you cannot escape dependence and the consequent fear of loss
and feelings of vulnerability. Sondheim and Carter enlarge this field of vulnerability
to encompass communication in general. “Sex/Anthrax” calculates one cost of
being part of a nominally free society: you’re vulnerable to other people, and
to all the terrible things they do in the space between their freedom and your
vulnerability. What permits this enlargement, however, is an idea I find as
unsettling as porn and terrorism: it’s the idea that, as Slavoj Zizek put it
recently, “another human being is always […] something that may in some way
hurt you.”

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After eight and a half years in Boston, Diane Greco has moved to Brooklyn. Her affection for the Red Sox is, however, undiminished.