There are tables set up on the ICA’s sunny mezzanine by the glass doors to the Terrace, and they’re covered with computers. Students sit around chatting and telling each other what they’ve got on their hard drives and memory sticks. Lots of music of course, and old papers, and baby pictures. They have poetry and syllabi, study guides and snapshots and random icons and video clips. One person has brought in every file on her computer that has her name on it: Trisha photos, Trisha resumes, Trisha cover letters for jobs. One person has brought in a lot of harmonica music. None of it is in any particular order, but if you want any of it, go ahead and take it! It’s free, or at least it’s barter-able. Take a Megabyte, leave a megabyte.
This is a digital swap meet run by the students of Penn’s English 165, “Writing through Art and Culture: Transcribing the Wor(l)d,” a collaboration between ICA and Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Under the guidance of their professor, avant garde poet and self-styled trickster Kenny Goldsmith, the students have spent the semester listening to and exploring the depths of the manipulated voice beginning with 78 RPM recordings of séances and working their way up to digital manipulation. Today is all about the digital but—in keeping with the spirit of Maira Kalman, whose works are on exhibition just around the corner in the second-floor gallery—it has a hands-on quality as well. Kalman spoke to the students last month about her ideas for an event she imagined—called “Milton” for no obvious reason—a conceptual space for ephemeral activities like ironing or selling pickles. She talked about exchange and pleasure, and these qualities are certainly on view here. There is a definite flea market quality. Since the files are not organized, students sit and scroll them, sifting and sampling. Or, as one student, Julia Nelson, says, it’s “not unlike going through someone else’s dirty laundry while he’s watching.”
Lucia della Paolera, one of the Miltonistas, says she likes the social aspect, the way you get to know people by chatting and hanging around the mezzanine as well as through the digital traces they leave behind them like fingerprints. “The model of the internet is insular,” she says, “but for this you have to physically be there.”
All weekend the students sit, scroll, download, chat, upload, snack, consider, discuss. Afternoon wanes and evening falls, and images on the screens succeed other images which replace and overlay and substitute for other images.
It’s strange to think that—if you carry the same thumb drive out of the museum that you carried in—what you have with you is different. It doesn’t feel quite like walking in with a hairbrush and leaving with a tea cup, which might have been more like what Maira Kalman had in mind. But in fact, that’s exactly what it is.
Come see our exhibition, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) before it closes on Sunday and head out to California! Or, if you’re in California, get ready to see it at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco, starting July 2, or the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. starting November 16.