Appropriation Inc.: Christian Marclay Works with Snapchat to Play with User Content

Christian Marclay (left) and Snapchat engineer Andrew Lin examining elements of Talk to Me/Sing to Me, 2018. Photo Stephane Sby Balmy.

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In Christian Marclay’s The Organ (2018), a dimly lit MIDI keyboard stands in the center of a darkened room. Museum visitors tentatively approach to plink out Chopsticks or Mary Had a Little Lamb. As they play, loud columns of video burst onto the large projection screen facing them. Each is a stack of four portrait-mode videos, all sounding the same pitch. The videos are plucked like writhing fish from the stream of three-and-a-half-billion “snaps” that are uploaded daily to the social network Snapchat. There’s something compellingly uncanny about the play with stolen images that characterizes “Sound Stories,” Marclay’s exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on view through November 11, featuring five installations he developed in collaboration with engineers from Snapchat.

 Art strategies have a way of passing from augurs of cultural change to ordinary features of everyday life. Appropriation, a once subversive redirection of an image’s meaning, has been subsumed into regular internet use, as image files are reposted and repurposed in meme formats and other dynamic circulations. The Situationists described a cycle of détournement and recuperation, wherein radical images are absorbed back into the spectacle from which they were stolen. But in social networks where memes circulate–where users agree to terms of service without reading them and leverage networks to market themselves as brands while networks surveil their activity for sellable data–it’s hard to discern who actually owns these images and who is stealing them.

Christian Marclay occupies a singular place among artists who used appropriation in the way Douglas Crimp described in his seminal 1977 essay for the “Pictures” show at Artists Space. As a fixture of New York’s downtown music scene in the 1970s and ’80s, Marclay used records and turntables as musical instruments in parallel with the rise of DJ and sampling culture uptown. He performed with a record player strapped to his body like a guitar and mixed with four or more records at once, collaging shards of found sound in experimental compositions. He also made sculptural collages of fragmented vinyl. He was a pioneer of remix culture, and continued to push its possibilities when it became a common facet of post-conceptual, post-digital contemporary art. The Clock (2010), his real-time, 24-hour video montage of timepieces in cinema, is a tour de force. LACMA acquired it in 2011.

For “Sound Stories,” Marclay and his Snapchat collaborators developed algorithms to sonically analyze and sort video clips uploaded by the platform’s 200 million daily users. The result does to voyeuristic glimpses of daily life what The Clock did to cinematic history. The “snaps” used were uploaded with open privacy permissions that allowed any user of the app to view them. Still, it’s fair to assume their makers hadn’t imagined their videos would be used in quite this way, or that Snapchat’s user agreement was written in such a way that they could be. There’s an element of the company flaunting its ability to do with the snaps what it wishes, testing boundaries with Marclay as cover.

The overt branding involved in the venture is more than a little shocking at first but not entirely without precedent. In 2013 Hyperallergic hosted The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium in conjunction with the popular microblogging platform. The one-day event featured artist panels and led to a series of commissioned essays published on Hyperallergic. Richard Prince’s 2014 Gagosian show, “New Portraits,” trained the old lens of the Pictures Generation on the new imagery of social media. Though there was no official corporate partnership, the work prominently featured Instagram’s interface. Prince showed blown-up inkjet prints of selfies by young women with opaque, leering, emoji-laden messages added to the comments section by Prince himself. A good amount of ink was spilled noting what a lecherous old man the artist had become and decrying the morally bankrupt project of selling extravagantly expensive prints of people’s personal photos. At the time, there was only dim public awareness of how all our pictures were being monetized by these platforms through data analytics feeding microtargeted ads. These platforms were still seen largely as basically benign, if slightly frivolous vices. It was before 2016, before Cambridge Analytica, before St. Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency showed us how easy it was to weaponize the personal distraction-persuasion-surveillance machines we’d grown accustomed to carrying with us. We shouldn’t have been surprised. In a network built on transactional relations, there’s nothing more expensive than free.

“Sound Stories” is a thoroughly more playful, incisive, and utopian endeavor than Prince’s creepy stolen selfies, even with the murkiness of Snapchat’s appropriation of user-generated content. In the Cagean All Together (2018), the first installation encountered in the exhibition, ten smartphones jutting out from the wall at eye level in a semicircle shine in the darkened gallery. Layered, synchronous clips play a cacophonous composition that operates along a musical logic of free association. Percussive ping-pong games follow rain on pavement, eggs frying, wine glasses singing, whistling, a parrot’s squawks, a dog’s howl, recorder recitals, a bottleneck slide guitar, and so it goes in a 4-minute loop so busy that you can see something new each time it comes around. At a certain point the cuts become like indexical variations on a given type of mobile video shots out moving car windows, walking legs and feet, shaky zoomed-in sunsets. A certain madness sets in. It’s a direct encounter with the essential neurosis of the internet: the unbroken continuum of everything connected to everything else, the feeling that live TV is watching you back—that somehow the price of such intimate viewing must be your own visibility. The woman next to me muttered aloud, “It’s like a ‘Black Mirror’ episode.”

Snapchat launched in 2011, distinguishing itself from other social networks with messages that are automatically deleted once viewed, making it the app of choice for sexting teenagers. It also anticipated the anxiety that followed Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations of 2013. The ephemerality of the app with the ghost logo felt safer to many once the longevity of personal data on social media was revealed. But in 2014 Snapchat settled a complaint made by the Federal Trade Commission alleging the company had exaggerated the degree to which it actually erased user data. Snaps stay on the company’s servers for an undefined period, during which Snapchat can essentially do what it wants with them before they are deleted. Snapchat is now best known for its Lens feature that overlays AR filters of cartoon puppy tongues, anime doe eyes, and idealized pretty features on users’ faces. In 2018 researchers from the Boston Medical Center wrote in an essay for a plastic surgery journal, describing a phenomenon they called “Snapchat dysmorphia,” where people request surgery to look like their edited selves as they appear through Snapchat filters.

Sound Tracks (2018), in the last gallery of “Sound Stories,” applies the simplest, most cinematic treatment in the show. What the app calls “Turtle mode” slows down video while pitching the sound lower, lending a foreboding atmosphere to any clip. Tablet screens are mounted on the ceiling in different lengths of resonant tube. Viewers lift their eyes upward, craning their necks as if looking up from the bottom of a well. They hear children’s guttural cackles, dogs roaring at Roombas, a trampoline’s brittle groan. They stand immobile, trapped, looking up, half of them with arms extended, holding out phones to record the screens.