'Chat Room' Aims to Get People to Log Into Earnest Conversations About the Internet

A chance to talk about the intersection of art and URLs, IRL.

The latest showed up in Philadelphia Magazine, though there is likely another being prepped for publication at this very moment—the asinine millennial-bashing thinkpiece.

“Raised with iPhones in hand, young people scorn the slow learning curves of their elders,” the article contends. “Their prowess with gewgaws like Slack and Snapchat has made them our masters; we’re forced to turn to them for information and advice on our devices. What seems to escape their notice is that all the tech is just the delivery system. And cool, fancy new delivery equipment doesn’t make what’s being delivered worthwhile.”

This kind of shallow appraisal of technology, whether couched in tired millennial critiques that use the word “gewgaws” or not, rubs Minh Nguyen the wrong way.

“People being dismissive about the Internet really bums me out,” the 27-year-old youth & family programs manager at the Seattle Architecture Foundation tells me. “These are real, modern channels of communication. So much activism happens on Twitter. At the core of a meme is a very effective message. I’m more interested in looking at the Internet as a tool that we project our normal behaviors into—on which we all do what we would always do.”

For instance, are any of the anti-millennial screeds published in reputable magazines that different from a long Facebook rant written by some other grumpy stranger? Is it any different than a person screaming in the streets of the physical world?

“On Facebook, all the normal psychological behaviors are present,” Nguyen says, “but they are a little magnified because the way you are known is quantifiable by how many people like your stuff.”

Nguyen is one in a recent school of artists and thinkers starting to reframe the conversation around society’s relationship with the Internet. Avoiding the stale dystopian or utopian extremes that have dominated the popular conversation while also attempting to bring levity to the rigorous academicism that often clouds more interesting discourse on the topic, Nguyen is trying to get people to talk about the Internet for what it really is—an undeniable extension of most people’s everyday lives.

“I’m really hesitant to make value judgments about the Internet,” Nguyen says, “whether or not it’s this good or evil thing that’s descended upon the world. The angle I’m really interested in is how existing economies are adapting to the Internet, especially the art economy.”

These are questions Nguyen and producer Claire Buss are looking to tackle in Chat Room, a quarterly forum launching next week at the Northwest Film Forum that will feature discussions among “artists, thinkers, non-artists, and non-thinkers.” While the four Chat Rooms will each focus on a different sub-topic, the series’ overarching theme is a simple but increasingly relevant question: What does art mean in the age of the Internet? But rather than approaching the question from a dry pedagogical angle, Nguyen is hoping to achieve something closer to Casey Jane Ellison’s brilliant, down-to-earth web-talk show Touching the Art. “Cool, casual, straight-talk ways of talking about art,” Nguyen says, “rewarding on a humor level, relaxing, comfortable, and accessible. Nobody wants to go back to school.”

The first edition of Chat Room on Feb. 11 will focus on how the Internet has redefined labor for artists. It’s a question that’s plagued every corner of the industry—what is music worth if you can stream it for free? What is an original painting worth if you can just reblog an image of it on Tumblr? What’s the value of a photograph in the age of Creative Commons and cameraphones? In some undeniable ways, the massive distribution possibilities afforded to artists by the web has leveled the playing field, but Nguyen also wonders if the increased competition for attention has created uncertainty about the value we should place on art to begin with.

“It’s so weird. There’s a lot of confusion around what qualifies as labor in the creative sector,” Nguyen says. “A lot of people have this conception that art is made because it contributes to some psychic value of yours. It’s this idea that artists just want to put truth and beauty into the world, but I don’t think people know how to think about compensation for that.”

Nguyen’s series arrives at a crucial time, when some artists are beginning to dream up left-field answers to these questions—Mat Dryhurst’s Saga project being one. Saga is an in-development media self-hosting platform that doubles as a radical social statement and an art piece. Artists who host their work on Saga have control over every spot their media is embedded, opening up new potential dialogues among creators, corporations, and consumers on the Internet. Did a terrible Buzzfeed-style website rip the GIF you created for a listicle? You can customize that particular embed and layer a big middle finger over it, or a message decrying how lame the ad placed next to it is. Want to limit how many times someone listens to your song? Make the web player dramatically explode in animated flames after 10 plays. As Dryhurst explains it, through Saga, artists’ work on the web “is no longer petrified, but live.” Nguyen is considering inviting Dryhurst to be a panelist for the third edition of Chat Room, which will focus on intellectual property and copyright law.

The cover of iconic vaporwave album Floral Shoppe.

In the second edition of Chat Room, Nguyen also plans to dive into the mystifying but thriving world of net art, a universe typically considered the territory of “cool teens.” For instance, vaporwave—an enormous, expanding subculture that spans fashion, style, design, and music, born completely on, in reaction to, and as a critique of the Internet. While most people write it off as a Tumblr phenomenon, Nguyen is interested in engaging with vaporwave and contemporary net-art earnestly. “For instance, with vaporwave, I’m really interested in why Greek and Roman statues are such a big thing in the aesthetic, a big signifier of beauty,” Nguyen says. “I think net art can perpetuate these notions of race and gender we’ve held for a long time.”

Nguyen also hopes to dive into new conversations on race and gender that have been blown open by the anonymity afforded by online avatars. Take SOPHIE, a popular electronic artist from the net-savvy PC Music collective out of London. As blogs began to sing the producer’s praises, many assumed, from the name and the high-pitched vocals, that the artist was a woman. It turns out SOPHIE was a man, real name Samuel Long, wielding web-enabled identity obfuscation as an artistic tool. Long went as far as to hire a transgender woman to mime a SOPHIE DJ set at a high-profile Boiler Room show while he stood on the side of the stage pretending to be a bodyguard, his real identity then unknown to the public. After the truth came out, some hailed the ruse as a progressive statement on gender fluidity, while others saw it as an act of appropriation.

“It’s a similar conversation for me to when people adapt black vernacular English in net art or use slang from black teens without credit,” Nguyen says. “You want the cultural cachet but not the experience of living in that subjectivity every day. But it’s a hard conversation, because the way the Internet has stimulated cultural globalization, everything is so fluid and rebloggable and repostable, so people don’t really understand the boundaries, or there aren’t really boundaries, to how you should behave.”

A few corporate examples of black vernacular English appropriation on the internet.

But again, Nguyen is careful to reserve any hasty value judgments.

In her final forum, Nguyen hopes to dissect the idea of the artist as a “personal brand,” the widespread pressure put on artists striving for success to present their identities on social media with the careful, market-researched grooming usually reserved for corporations. While many decry the trend as the end of artistic authenticity, Nguyen also sees its redeeming successes.

“Look at Darkmatter,” she says, referencing the popular social justice-oriented poetry group. “They have a really consistent brand and sponsor their Facebook posts and do everything it takes to go viral, but here they are, two queer Desis, getting covered in The New Yorker because of that consistency. I dunno, that really excites me.”

People looking for easy answers or bias confirmation may not find what they are looking for in Chat Room. But those hoping for a rare #authentic conversation about #’s will likely find lots to heart-emoji about in Nguyen’s overdue look at this strange series of tubes that, like it or not, is changing the way we live.

Kelton Sears is Culture Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at ksears@seattleweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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