The IconGenerator v.2.3 sits on a table, open for inspection. The compartments in the plastic container hold pencil crayons, glue, scissors, and paper; large white squares on the top compartment and tiny greed, red, blue, and black ones in the lower one. The title and the signs surrounding the piece imply an expensive technological object but what is presented is the opposite.
The piece draws on the semiotic definition of the word icon: A mode in which the signifier is perceived as resembling or imitating the signified (recognizably looking, sounding, feeling, tasting or smelling like it) - being similar in possessing some of its qualities (e.g. a portrait, a diagram, a scale-model, onomatopoeia, metaphors, 'realistic' sounds in music, sound effects in radio drama, a dubbed film soundtrack, imitative gestures). (Chandler, 2002)
The setup recalls DuChamp’s Boite-en-Valise, a condensation of a life’s work in a small box. Similarly, an icon online is recognized as a visual compression of personality to small square. The audience is invited to create an icon in the real, shifting the paradigm from digital to mechanical. The physical construction of an icon corresponds to the construction of a virtual identity.
The growing customization trend in digital interfaces proposes that by creating environments needs and aesthetic preferences, the user becomes an individual that should be and will be recognized among the millions of others coursing through the Net. Since “identities are forged through the marking of difference,” (qtd in Shah, 2003) having an original icon or ten solidifies the user’s presence online. Occasional arguments on blogs and messageboards about icon stealing are telling presentations of the importance of individuality on the ‘Net. Like clothing and hairstyles in the real world, icons in virtual space define the user within his or her community.
Who R U?
The piece, Who R U, consists of eighteen email print-outs. The print-outs are nearly identical with the same the graphics, email addresses, and layout. However, the difference becomes apparent in the content box. The first print out is empty in terms of content; it simply asks the question “Who R U?” The following messages contain lists, grades, quotes, even images in response to the question. It is only a small sampling in the varied ways identity is created online.
Identity in the real is defined by many things. The most tangible objects for identification are social security numbers, credit cards, driver’s license numbers, and handwriting styles. Memories—your own and others’—create an ephemeral portrait using all five sense. Cultural signifiers including clothing and speech differentiate geographical tribes.
Online, users define themselves by other means. Users have collections of favourite icons, quotes, images, role-playing descriptions and blog profiles. While separately, each article can be appropriated by many individuals, the collection of items has become as unique to each user as handwriting.
This piece digitizes the mail art movement from the 1960’s. The first email was sent to several mailing groups with the content box left blank, an anonymous user surfing the ‘Net. Individuals volunteered their information back to the sender. This model also goes hand-in-hand with the Fluxus rejection of authorship.
Who R U explores the democratic model currently used by Internet users wherein individuals pool knowledge into the space even though it offers no direct benefit. Questions of copyright are also brought to the fore; the quote and images are seldom adjusted before they are appropriated by the user. The Internet and its online communities rely on the free use of the copy. Will copyright laws be adjusted to maintain this dynamic or take advantage of it? And what will the consequences be should the latter be implemented?