In March 2018 colleagues and I and wanted to explore the topic of Writing for the Internet: Internet Life and Lore in Asia. Specifically calling the ‘event’ a workshop, our intention was engender a discursive experience in order to explore new methodologies, adherent to the content on topic – Digital Folklore in South East Asia. Instead of formal symposium typical of a scenario where everyone safely reads from a written paper that has or will be published any moment, neatly formulated logic, we included other modes of critique from film, net art, VR, story telling and discussion circles (aka having a yarn) – unruly forms intrinsic to contemporary folklore and internet criticism to propose what it means to write the Internet in the 21century. Reflecting on the discussions and content that manifested during the event, Eric Kerr and I wrote a small report:
Folklore straddles a slew of dichotomies: tradition and modernity, nation and individual, official and subaltern, truth and rumour, high culture and outside art, science and mythology. Online, these dichotomies are thrown into disarray. Memes are not passed down generations but passed across. Records of fabricated histories are visible for all to see but do not detract from the message. Peers create their own generations as information is iteratively modified by each user. Time speeds up: messages are sent and received faster, with less cost, and transform almost immediately as with, for example, memes made from the same clip with new music or text. This type of lore is intertextual by nature.
Often sharing memes is in jest, if we recall “Cybergoth Dance Party” remixes we are able to glimpse at how laughter is a source of healing. The remixes feature alternative captions such as ‘Goths Dance to Anything’. Even taken out of context the dancers seem to catch the beat of the traditional panpipes in the spanish version of Kung Fu Fighting. Originally uploaded by YouTuber gNarLu cEe, on September 7th, 2011. The video of young cybergoths dancing underneath an overpass gained over 4.2 million views and 11,800 comments in five year period, is testament to the benefits of enjoyment and laughter’s healing properties.
This surrender to hilarity is not entirely malevolent. At the same time, rumour and “fake news” are propagated by governments and individual actors alike in a reordering of folklore’s relationship to truth- or soothsaying. The “folk”, who formerly embodied the spirit of a nation are now diffuse and always changing, driven more by the Church of tabs than of state. In 1988, Resisting the smear campaign against their subculture – and warning us of hyperbole – Public Enemy chanted “False media, we don’t need it do we?”. This was thirty years ago.
Despite this Sisyphean struggle for truth, which often needs to be won anew with each iteration, who has the right to speak Internet lore, to tell or repeat a story where authenticity is opaque and fleeting? Calculating machines play an increasingly dominant role in influencing our desires and fears, concerns and prejudices. Beyond the elite language of computer subculture 1337 / leet sp33k and endless torrent of memes, of post-internet discourse, situating Internet Lore in Asia opens up pathways to re-think these mechanisms.
Digital folklore encompasses gifs, memes, contemporary home computing practices, described in Digital Folklore as ‘online amateur culture, DIY electronics, dirtstyle, typo-nihilism, memes and chatbots’ (Espenschied and Lialina 2009). It employs critical making, its exponents are tuned to the ability to customise artisanal code. They wrestle with software, and get close to the metal (Brunton and Coleman 2014). In Internet lore in Asia (2018) we are embracing the medium of the Internet as heterogeneous, rather than the quaint uses of prepackaged vernacular computing software. We ask: What role have internets played in storytelling, in constructing narratives, and forming and shaping communities?
Internet lore in Asia (2018) builds on these cultural practices, situated within the region of South East Asia, and Oceana (Australia) . It emphasizes the plurality of internets and of multilingual internets and communities. It gives equal footing to traditional healthcare practices that, sometimes awkwardly, migrate online as to hacktivists, trolls, and digital natives. The workshop and exhibition brought together scholars, artists, writers, film-makers, coders, game-makers, and storytellers to pursue these ideas collaboratively and in the spirit of continuing conversation.
The presentations by artists in ‘Techno-Imaginations: Internet Lore in Asia’ each speak to lore in their own way, informing a critical rethinking of existing discourse on digital folklore moving into the contemporary realm of internet lore. Like the presentations, which took the form of five-minute provocations rather than already-completed research papers, most of the exhibitions were works in progress. We aimed through this to contribute to the embryonic development of projects and writing rather than publicize existing work, suffice to say this event was forward looking.
Alex Mitchell’s presentation ‘(Re)Writing the Internet through Collaborative Storytelling’ and ‘Monstrous Weather’d’ was a custom software exhibit – a netprov (networked improvisation) screen-based hypertextual retelling/adaptation of the netprov, weaving together a coherent narrative from the fragmented collection of stories shared across the Internet.
Storytelling ran as a red stitch (although frequently a contested one) through the event. But should Internet lore be considered a tricky or fraught supplement? There is no doubt it challenges, destabilises, relativises, pluralises single notions of true culture and reason. For postcolonial diasporas struggling for recognition, what then constitutes cultural appropriation, when is it acceptable and when is it regarded as taboo?
Taken out of context, transgressions of certain stories told by those uninitiated, can become a source of offence, especially for Kamini Ramachandran, who hosted a live storytelling session in a round circle. Among other things, the session asked: What does it mean to be initiated online; to acquire an authentic voice?
Highlighting the intangible way stories propagate themselves online, Briony Kidd’s presentation ‘Supernaturalize Me: Of fake ghosts and monsters…and how we become them online‘ focused on a trope that lends itself to discourse on multiple platforms, in the most direct and observable way through social media and reimagines the continuing conversation about real life “self-mythologisation” and presentation online.
Kidd’s short film ‘Room at the Top of the Stairs’ where a mythology develops and Carmen becomes the protagonist’s nemesis, purely because she seems to occupy so much ‘space’ in the house in spite of her physical absence. Visceral moments, such as the protagonist, taking a bite out of a (presumably cow’s) heart give you an insight into the intensity that hovers between the agents invested in the unfolding narrative.
Actions considered transgressive thrive in such settings, this statement is especially true when we encounter Eugene Soh a.k.a. DUDE’s ‘Puppy Poop Run’, a multiplayer virtual reality experience which draws on internet culture’s obsession with the faecal. Visitors were able to interact with each other at the site in real time, regardless of their locations in the world, in which traces of their interaction was visualised by spreading fecal matter ‘Puppy Poop’. It ran on Gallery.sg a virtual gallery built on a multi-player gaming platform.
Katrina Irawati Graham’s presentation on the ‘Kuntilanak and the locus of authenticity in folklore in the digital space‘, raised questions of why tragic female ghosts are so prominent in Asian folklore. Drawing on the toxic brews of fear, sexism and anger present in contemporary stories of abuse and misconduct and the overwhelmingly prevalent imbalance of power that exists in the global entertainment industry, this was a significant contrast with the healing balm of ‘White Song’. Irawati Graham’s short film which depicts the most famous of Indonesian ghosts, the Kuntilanak, in the haunting of a young woman. Told from the ghost’s perspective, ‘White Song’ reclaims the humanity of a supernatural creature by exploring ancestral intersections, the yearnings of a dead woman and those of a living one.
The narrative soothsaying, continued in Nancy Mauro-Flude’s ‘Aerial’s Cypher’ a custom access wifi portal/email performance. The installation was assembled to contextualise a computer network. A typical wifi network was re-purposed, to become an augury of sorts, without explicitly being so. Playfully extending on the maker culture aesthetic, making strange typical practices of hardware modding and system administration. The mediums of poetic-speculative storytelling, software collage, wifi meshing and assemblage addressed the entanglements of technology – on the one hand, the matter-of-fact demystification that technology affords; on the other, mystification – black magic box (that is, the ambiguous, unknown and immaterial nature of input and output code) playing into the hands of Internet life and lore.
Continuing on with software collage Paolo Casani used mixed methods in research design to explore machine learning techniques using natural language processing in his poster display ‘From personal experience to digital expression: an eclectic narrative’. The research project takes a personal look at the metaphors inherent in a networked life juxtaposing, on one hand, “the quantitative manifestations and expression of traits of their self and identity on Twitter”, and on the other, “qualitative subjective experience of digital technologies personal testimonies gathered using semi-structured interviews”. Casani describes this as a “ multi-layered account on the subjective impact of digital technologies, where traditional interview practices are enmeshed with current social media analytics that use computational linguistic techniques. His piece describes his approach to the investigation about how academics use, experience and express their subjectivity over digital media platforms.” Generating a wide horizon of insights into internet lore and life expressed through critical ideas around subjectivity.
Eric Kerr and Olivier Perriquet’s ‘Haw Par Villa’ is a 3D model projection of the artefacts, sculptures, dioramas, and environments of the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore. The park is a sculptural sketchbook, a corporeal form of storytelling through objects, at once a materialization of collective memory and the product of an individual imagination and vision. As with the park, as you walk through the 3D models, you realize that each perspective modifies the expression of the statues and transforms the scene. Rather than prescribing one interpretation, the scenes submit themselves to the eye of the viewer. Their art-philosophy collaboration explores how this process unfolds through new technologies of 3D reconstruction and how this might cause us to reflect on our own memories both collective and individual. They ask: What are the relationships between lore, objects, and places? To what extent is internet lore ephemeral and to what extent is it scaffolded by the material infrastructures that undergird it?
In ‘My Malaysian Uncles are Reddit Conspiracy Lurkers’, Teik-Kim Pok through still image projection and live reading of news, memes and conspiracy discussions, presented a patchwork of personal anecdotes and WhatsApp archives from his Malaysian relatives. Reflecting on how lore operates through his “extended Southeast Asian family grapevine” such “discussion across cyberspace in the digital palm of their hands”, migrated easily through boundaries of personal, political, speculative conspiracy.
Throwing the two days of discussion about the role of lore into high relief, collectively we
close our eyes
return to the moment
hold up our index finger to our mouth
give it a gentle kiss
blow it into the abyss of the internet …
Folklore connotes the dispelling of worries (its etymological roots in several languages confirm this). It serves a curative function as therapeutic. It also tends to have a lesson or moral which morphs over time or is reinterpreted in new surroundings. What are the lessons of internet lore? We note that the truth-teller, the soothsayer is speaking as much to the present as to the past and that internet lore is as much a reflection of current situations as of predictive technologies. As this interaction between a workshop and an exhibition continues beyond the life of the two-day event, we aim to similarly reflect on and contribute to Internet lore by situating it within the particular, to an extent spontaneous and accidental, conversations that emerged.