Does all this so-called social networking crap make you wish people would stop being so fucking friendly? Do you long to disconnect? Artists Christina Ray and Kurt Bigenho, and web developer Gilbert Guerrero, joined me on the RU Sirius Show to talk about their art project, NoSo (short for No Social Networking), which is here to fulfill your need for greater social isolation. This is how they describe it on their video introduction on the NoSo website:
Welcome to NoSo. NoSo is a real-world platform for temporary disengagement from your social networking environment. The NoSo experience allows you to create No connections, by scheduling No events, with No friends. You may be asking yourself, "Why do I need NoSo?" As someone who's online 24/7, you have a lot to keep up with. When you're not blogging, your vlogging. When you're not vlogging, you're podcasting. When you're not podcasting, you're Skyping, texting, IM-ing, dating, trading, sharing, subscribing, downloading, updating, linking, approving, adding, checking, sending... I think you get the picture.
Sometimes, you need a break. Sometimes, you need NoSo.
Ray and Bigenho checked into the show via Skype from New York City and Guerrero joined us live from our studio in San Francisco.
To listen the full interview in MP3, click here.
RU SIRIUS: Please explain the basics of what happens, or what not happens, in a NoSo.
CHRISTINA RAY: We invite people to take a break from their every day experiences carrying around laptops and cellphones, and give them the chance to just disengage from the noise, the social network, the constant communication that's going on around us all the time. We let them just experience the absence of that — the feeling of being without all those distractions. And a NoSo could happen in a number of different places. It could happen on a street corner, or in a cafe, or in an installation in a gallery setting.
KURT BIGENHO: In a NoSo, you schedule a time when people will be in a destination through our web site, but you're not meant to engage with anyone while you're there. You're meant to have your private experience within this larger social thing.
RU: This is sort of an anti-flash mob. But at the same time, it's sort of like a flash mob, isn't it?
KB: Yeah. People have termed it an inverted flash mob or an anti-flash mob. Because we do allows people to schedule an experience — and then we kind of call it a non-experience. We're playing with metaphors of connectivity versus non-connectivity. And it's sort of a network that is there but also is not there at the same time.
RU: Are any of you familiar with Brian Eno's concept of a nightclub where everybody just goes and sits in silence?
CR: Yes. (Laughs) There may be some similarity there.
KB: Brian Eno is definitely a personal hero. I love that concept.
RU: So Christina, aside from making fun of social networking, do you also do it?
CR: Oh, absolutely. (Laughs) We're a highly connected unconnected project, if you will.
RU: So you'd say that you're ambivalent about social networking?
CR: Yes. I think you could say that.
RU: I think I read in Christina's biography that all your artwork is really involved with exploring space — sort of exploring urban space. Can you talk about some of the ways in which you've done that, and how they connect to the current project?
CR: Through street photography, I became interested in the concept of psycho-geography, which relates to how your urban environment affects you and vice versa.
I was doing that for several years — looking for new ways to explore the city. So I came across experiments that people were doing using alternative mapping techniques — maps that they created on their own. People were doing sort-of map mashups and creating interesting ways to explore the city.
It started because I was looking for new places to photograph. Since then, I've done a number of public space projects that deal with mapping and collaborating — sort of using the people who are on the streets to participate in a project or instigate actions. It's created a number of different collaborations. And this is really just the most current one, because what we're trying to do is use the space of the city to allow people to have a new experience.
RU: It all sort of reminds me of the Dérive going back to the Situationists. They sponsored these sort of freeform wanderings all over the urban terrain, many years ago. Gilbert, describe your experience with NoSo.
Gilbert Guerrero: Well, NoSo headquarters is sort of at the Southern Exposure gallery here in San Francisco. And we had a zone there that was kind of blocked off or cordoned off as a place to disconnect. Once you walked into that zone, you have to turn everything off. The experience was actually sort of amazing.
I'm a contractor, so I spend a lot of my time working in cafes — you know, changing environments, working on my laptop. And at Ritual Cafe here in San Francisco, you'll walk in and see fifty people in there all facing their laptops and nobody is talking to anybody else.
CR: Environments like that were part of the inspiration for this project. For example, at the South by Southwest conference or other technology conferences, you'll have two or three hundred people sitting in a room together, and everyone is listening to a presentation, texting, chatting, sending emails... all at the same time.
KB: …Blogging about it....
CR: ...IMing — everything! All at the same time! While they're trying to listen to a presentation! So there's this meta-level of connection going on, even when you're sitting in a crowded room full of people. I think that's funny. And at the same time, it points to a lot of larger issues about how technology is affecting us.
RU: Do you get a lot of participants in these events… or not-events?
KB: We've had a pretty good number of registrants. A lot of people write in saying, "Hey, we're in Toronto" or "We're in Mexico City. Can we do a NoSo there?" We set it up so that it's local. It was launched in San Francisco, and all of the NoSo's take place in San Francisco. So we've had interest from around the world. People want to collaborate and open it up and allow other people to have NoSos. Everyone's talking about social networking, and websites are being relaunched incorporating video, podcasting, and what have you. So I think by taking the antithesis of that — providing a sort of a counterpoint — we hit a nerve.
RU: There's this odd thing about the economics of "Web 2.0." It's very convenient for the people who own all these companies. Because basically, they set up a thoroughfare and then people pay to provide the content that they then pay to experience. Are you, in some ways, parodying that economic relationship?
CR: In a way. The project has kind of an emptiness about it. You have a user profile with not much information in it. You have a social network with no friends. You have a photograph that's not you. So it's sort of the opposite of a lot of these social networking sites. There's no money to be made from it. It sort of subverts the common Web 2.0 experience.
RU: Do you get interesting responses from people about the experiences that they've had as a result of going to these?
KB: Yeah. Some people felt sort-of refreshed or energized. They came out and they wanted to chat about their experience. They wanted to talk to people, and made a few phone calls. It's almost a Zen-like experience for people.
GG: I know a few people who actually felt intimidated by the experience. It's not quite snubbing someone else, but it's close to that. Maybe it's aggressive to not say something to somebody.
CR: I got feedback from some people who said they felt it was like being in an elevator. It's sort of awkward, and you're not really sure what to do. You want to look at your phone, or do something. That awkward experience was common.
RU: Kurt, tell us about your earlier projects — The Sams and The Organizers. Is there a relationship between those ideas and what you're doing with NoSo?
KB: The Sams was a project that Christina and I did at something called Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006. We formed a group called The Organizers to develop a project that involved participation, organization, and getting people into interesting interactions with an audience, in real time and real space — out in the world. The idea for the project was essentially to clone Samuel Keller, who is the director and the most ubiquitous figure in the event. So we created a series of kits — a hundred kits that we handed out at a cloning ceremony in a gallery. And they allowed you to sort of transform yourself into Sam Keller. And the kit included a t-shirt, instructions, a fake badge, and a bald cap — because Samuel is bald. So it was kind of a humorous concept that involved creating a group — kind of an instant army who could go out into the social scene of Art Basel, which is very much about going to the right parties and the right events… getting on the list. So we wanted to have some fun with that. We were encouraging people to infiltrate the scene, in a sense, and to do it as this kind of shared identity.
RU: So everybody could say that this fellow who was popular on the scene was at their party tonight, no matter where their party was. I think Andy Warhol used to do something like that in New York City.
KB: Exactly. Yeah.
RU: We had V. Vale from ReSearch Publications on The RU Sirius Show a couple of times. And his main theme was that we no longer have interior lives because we're so completely mediated. Is this part of what you guys are trying to challenge as well?
GG: That's something I've been doing a lot more thinking about. I know that I get tons of spam in my Inbox. I work full time in San Francisco as a developer and as an artist. I'm constantly promoting all kinds of things, and associating myself with other organizations. So if you type my name into Google, there are pages of stuff about me. That's kind of scary. So I want to go backwards now and reverse that whole thing about the importance of identity on the internet — to try to squash that.
In a way, NoSo is doing that, because you can be anonymous there. You can participate without letting anybody know who you are or why you're there.
RU: Do a lot of people sit there and read books, by any chance? V. Vale is very adamant that people need to read more books. Of course, he sells books!
CR: Sometimes when you're in a NoSo, you're not actually sure who else is there. If you have a profile on our calendar, you can schedule a NoSo. So if you decide to have your NoSo at a Cafe, you'll show up and you might be reading a book. But it's unclear who the other participants are, and what they're doing.
That was one of the original inspirations for the project — a kind of hiding in public space. Not only are you not using your devices, but you're also not sure who else is in on the joke, or in on the secret. So you might be reading a book, you might be just sitting on a park bench lurking on the corner, window shopping — whatever it is — all the while you're participating in a NoSo.
The NoSo Project website
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