:: Article

Art Is For Necrophiliacs (If that’s how you spend)

By Chris Campanioni.

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Eternity then what age is ideal for death? I often wondered & wondered whether it even mattered. An ideal age to die, I mean. An ideal age to live. Aren’t the two things really the same thing? Like Jesse Tuck in Tuck Everlasting, who can only ever exist as a seventeen-year-old. I’d rather live a whole life starting from seventy-seven or eighty-three & reverse the gears, like Benjamin Button, maybe.

Maybe it doesn’t matter now, not really, not anyway, not in 2016 & definitely not in 2017, which is a year from now or maybe last year, at the earliest, if you’re reading this at a bookstore or in a library, because I write fast but not that fast & besides, editing can be a real killer.

The most common phrase used by people in my generation to describe a laugh-out-loud experience is, “I’m dying.” Variations include “I’m dead” & of course, “RIP me” which won’t come through properly if you’re using voice recognition to type this. The most common phrases used by people in my generation to feign a laugh-out-loud experience is, naturally, the same as above. Death, like every other marker of life, is meant to be performed, veiled in the language of hyperbole & a well-timed emoji. Skull & crossbones? Revolver? Big breaking wave?

& if death is life in 2016 (& 2017 & 2018 & 2019 &&&), then life is death; the surest marker of being productive (i.e. producing &/or giving birth to) in our culture is to not be doing anything, which is why there are apps that are designed to make you appear as though you are disconnected from the physical world & locked into your digital device. Fake-A-Text & SimiSimi deliver texts to your cell phone whenever you want, anytime, anywhere. Philosophy’s old question has been amended in the age of artificial intelligence & artificiality: If you are in a public park & no one sees you looking at a screen, do you still exist? Or do only the trees which surround you?

There’s an idea that is rapidly becoming a reality, because when ideas become actualized, they stop only existing as a matter of opinion & become matter of fact: pre-ordained rules & the scripts that accompany them. If you aren’t on your phone, you aren’t doing anything worthwhile with your life. If you aren’t living through your phone, you aren’t alive. 

So death becomes the salve & the solution; our linguistic approach to re-appropriating life when the real thing has almost already disappeared, lost in the refresh that reads as the only kind of engagement that might actually exist today.

I’m not good at math & have never been comfortable dealing with numbers, but I treasure fractions, fragmentary syntax & thought, the half-heard echo or call heard in pieces that resonates even as it ruptures. The traces of that transition—what came before, where we are always already going—is a liminal experience that intensifies all others, one of the reasons why our image-rich culture is especially captivated by gifs, pictures half-frozen between an arrested movement & the pose of permanence. The best of both worlds in a finite existence.

Sometimes it’s best to close your eyes.

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Our obsession with death marks our language, but it’s also modified our physical relationship to art & to the artist. In earlier moments, maybe yesterday or even this morning, we went to the theater, concert halls, music venues, museums, art galleries & installations. We wanted that human element, that breath & touch, & the energy & surprise of the unexpected live performance; the faint mark of human error in the real thing that distinguishes it from its flawless counterfeit cousin. Art could be viewed in the face, between the eyes. Although we were not allowed to touch the paintings, we could get close enough to use our fingers, if we wanted to.

How art works—the way it interacts with you, how it makes you feel, what it makes you think about, what you think about it—is determined by what surrounds it, or in other words: what surrounds you. Where you are & what you are doing, besides being in communion, hopefully, with the work of art.

Is it more moving & more beautiful to be looking at the Sistine Chapel on Google images, alone, with the time & solitude to savor it in the bathroom of a Starbuck’s? Or in person, surrounded by a mob of people videotaping their experience? Snapchatting Selfies from various angles of the marble floor, each snap destroying the nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, but also rebuilding it; re-formation as the foundation toward a new appreciation of art; a new understanding of what art is & where it can take us, even & especially if we’re nowhere new, still & silent & looking through a re-presentation.

& perhaps more pressing: Have we reached a moment in our culture where art is actually better on the Internet than in real life? Pixelated & dead & drifting & forever & forever

Nowhere.

Art itself mutates, evolves, & escalates along with technology; just as musicians re-conceived the ways they should sing with microphones or for the phonograph after the advent of recorded music, so, too, have artists learned to use the infinite—& ephemeral—landscapes of a rapidly shifting Google Image search to find a new form, casualness & collage, a flattening of time & space that resembles a world, & words, without end.

In the same way that music could be liberated from its cultural trajectory by holding an instrument like the electric guitar with organic (i.e. human hands) means, art has been uprooted from time & space by applying our analog techniques to our digital landscapes.

Except when there’s no longer place, there’s nowhere to go.

Maybe apps like Fake-A-Text are really making a point about our insistence for immortality, making a point or showing us the way. Because if we have a future in being forever, immortality is going to present itself in data. Everything we do, all the time & at the same time, even the things we’d never admit to in person, even the things we’re not quite conscious of & yet which make us who we really are; what we’ve become when we think no one is watching. It’s why the web is still a wave, even if we no longer refer to our browsing history as surfing. Instead we are pulled along, often far off course or where we’d been intending to go, ultimately washing ashore with puppy photos belonging to an ex-girlfriend’s best friend’s uncle.

How did I get here?

Companies like Facebook, who know even the length of time we linger on a photo or post, don’t care how; they only care that they know more about us than we know about ourselves. Most of the time.

In a way, the less we are available in real life, the more traces we leave of our existence in the digital world. Long after I die, my traces will still permeate & populate the world wide web, which means the Internet can re-make me long after my flesh rots & the worms are crawling through the sockets where my eyes once were.

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“What percentage of our life is spent on the Internet?” I venture one morning, asking my students in an early section of the class I teach at Baruch College. One student says: seventy. Another raises his hand & calls out: seventy-five. An hour later, in the second section, a handful of students agree without hesitation, posing the rhetorical question to the rest of the room: a dimly-lit, too-humid square space where the constant construction on the corner of 22nd Street interrupts every other question, every other answer. “Why not all of it? Why not a hundred percent of our day-to-day lives?”

“Except this moment,” I quickly add, smiling, laughing, although it’s a nervous laugh & my hand is on the back of my neck, the back of my scalp, scratching myself the way I do when I’m nervous. Because I wonder, even right now, who’s connected & who’s disconnected, & what that even means anymore. To be present, to be presented with technology; connected or connected. To be conned.

More & more of us have the opportunity to perpetuate ourselves by the grace of the upload button & the silhouette of our social networks, the digital archive of identity that makes Borges’ sprawling “Library of Babel” look like the corner devoted to POETRY at Barnes & Noble.

“So if a hundred percent of our lives are lived on the Internet,” I answer, not really believing it but not really disbelieving it either, “doesn’t that mean, basically, so long as we keep our Internet activity going—posting photos, updating our status, sending out Tweets & sharing articles we like—we are, for all intents & purposes,” I pause, looking at everyone’s face, or trying to. Looking at everyone’s eyes. “Eternal?”

“I mean,” I continue, running one hand through my hair or rubbing my eyebrows together, trying to smudge them into each other, probably, the way I imagine it, at least, right now. “No one would ever know you are dead. Not really.”

I’d thought about this during previous classes, during previous semesters, something called the “Internet Life Package.” Something which allowed, via a signed & dotted contract, another party, or multiple parties, to post on your behalf, to scour the Internet, to collect data. To thrive, to move, to persist.

“I mean,” I add, persistent, looking from one pair of eyes to another, everyone arranged in a semicircle so I have to crane my head from the left to the right, from the right to the left. Another drill erupts. Another explosion of lead or metal or dust, even dust which makes a noise as loud as anything else if you’re really listening. “Who would know you were dead?”

The better question, I think, might be, Who would care? But I don’t add this. I don’t add anything. So my question just hangs there. & I imagine the implications. & if not a person we pay to post on our behalf, then a bot, the same chatbots that already exist today. Artificial intelligence, algorithms, artificiality. We are already always performing. We’ll be performing after we’re dead too. Plug in my data. Spit me back out. If we’re more like ourselves on the Internet than we are in the physical world, we’ll be more like ourselves in death than we ever were in life.

But we still want it, all of it & more.

Life extension is a big business. Everyone wants to live forever, even if all we do now is live through looking. Google has committed an investment up to six hundred million into the California Life Company to solve death. Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, foresees the possibility of reincarnating his dead father into a digital avatar. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has invested in twenty-five biotech companies & the combination of gene therapy, nanotechnology, & artificial intelligence. Mark Zuckerberg & a handful of others have been funding “Breakthrough Prizes” for six scientists a year, three million apiece to prove death is as antiquated as intimacy, or love. Something to be conquered; something to obliterate, forget about, ignore, except we mostly ignore death already, pursuing our careers & our currency to distract ourselves from the fact of our own annihilation.

Death is a big business too & there’s already an emerging industry that wants to help us deal with our digital assets before we die, which is why my “Internet Life Package” probably already exists. I won’t ever be rich, or even moderately wealthy. I can’t even make money selling death. But life, art, the Death of Art & all its byproducts, everything one art object spawns in the mind & eye & mouth of another, that is something I feel comfortable selling to the public; that is something I feel comfortable buying.

“Nothing is sacred on the Internet,” Hassan says, looking at me like I’ve just said something but I’ve only been imagining all this time, thinking & imagining simultaneously, & it’s been quiet, or it would have been quiet, if not for the constant construction on the corner of 22nd Street. Everyone re-building, re-forming, updating each assemblage. “The future of re-appropriating other people’s accounts will be a joke,” he adds. “A meme.”

If nature really is cyclical, then so is death, shifting in the last millennium from mummy to a meme, preparing for the after-life by spinning off the sacred into the satirical, & always with an eye for performing. In Ancient Greece, too, funerals were spectacles, as staged & theatrical as the dramas set to song at their festivals. Mourn, but make it magnificent. Has anything really changed?

Or does how we grieve the loss of life on the Internet simply speak to our constant denial of it? #RIPMe, I think. #Dying & #Dead

“Facebook is not far from selling off dead people’s accounts,” Leonard points out, continuing the conversation two days later. “With ads for bounty thrown in.

“When people die,” he adds, “Facebook already gives family members the option to turn their accounts into memorials. If they can’t reach anyone close to the person, Facebook will just choose to sell the accounts to businesses.”

Which isn’t really a stretch, I think, if you think about it. Still scratching my scalp, still wearing the same blue button-down I wore two days ago.

Companies already sell to us, before & after they sell us. We are already products. We can be forever products. We can be products forever.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Campanioni teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. His “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK and lives in Brooklyn, where he wrote his new book, Death of Art.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 8th, 2016.