CHINNIE DING

PIPE DREAMING
WHAT CAN SCREEN SAVERS TELL US ABOUT OUR WISHES, OUR ANXIETIES, AND OUR OBSESSIONS?
DISCUSSED: Yearnings Best Represented by Dirty Jobs and Etsy, Hallucinatory Napscapes, Journeys into the Milky Way, The Absence of Metaphysical Consolation, Populist Walkman Design, The Dangers of Phosphor Burn, Nostalgia for ICQ, The Lost Art of Water Witching, Screen-Saver Noir, Sandra Bullock as Hacker-Bachelorette

At a Pittsburgh gallery in 2006, artist Keny Marshall exhibited 3D Pipes, an elaborate, freestanding installation of aged metal plumbing. “Everybody‟s got 3D Pipes on their computer,” said Marshall in an interview. “The only difference is this 3D Pipes took months to build and weighs three to four thousand pounds.” Oddly inconspicuous, mistakable for exposed utilities in the gallery‟s warehouse-like space, this life-size, patina‟d tribute to the PC‟s workhorse screen saver of the 1990s and early 2000s spoke of our culture‟s recent yearnings for industrially or intimately material work, Dirty Jobs adventurism or an Etsy sort of DIY. Yet perhaps more pervasively than any other 2D commonplace of its time, the virtual 3D Pipes—and the screen saver as a genre— had woven its own frenetic, filigreed dreamwork about work. On when we‟re off, screen savers are both hallucinatory napscapes and work-site facades. Though customizable, like icons and wallpapers, and comparable to other cubicle brighteners (potted plants, fluorescent stickies), they possess a distinct poetics. As boxed, watchable decor, where a fireplace or window might once have sufficed, they tend to emulate the mesmeric morphing and gelatinous luminosity of fish tanks, lava lamps, self-tilting wave tanks. (Cognate forms might include digital picture frames, dance-club visuals, the trompe l‟oeil of Yule-log DVDs.) Whether ribbons of light that streak and fold, frantic zooms through a brick maze, or an inexorable volley into the Milky Way, the screen saver‟s most insistent optical illusion is infinitude. Reaching beyond dead opaque surface and deadpan document glare—as if receding behind, sinking into the depths of true aliveness those occlude—its generous spaciousness seems to redeem work‟s merely serial endlessness. The screen saver is comfort food for thought the way pop chaos theory is: it lets us believe we are more linked by the serendipities of a butterfly‟s wings than by finance capitalism. As tasks await amid cascading windows or avalanching paper, the screen saver‟s immersive depths unfurl the cosmic picture that keeps the job in perspective, outsourcing gripes to

karma. fit for urban noir. rust. Online. into the object of hobby. one finds screen-captures documenting the teapot‟s existence (defying naysayers). unelucidated by visibility. the entire image cracks and dissipates. rather than imaginarily suspend. Popular distributed-computing screen saverElectric Sheep. . It acknowledges.” Likewise. maybe even hazardous space of sewage. it is an aggressively low-tech image: a pipe is more analog than analog. the teapot reveals the ghost in the machine to be nothing other than nostalgia. delivers up no metaphysical consolation of worlds starrier or grassier than the workplace. by contrast. however dynamically Intel Inside commercials may swoosh us into the delicate reticulations of microcircuitry. and briefly gratifies. as if burned out from its involute frenzy—before beginning again in the dark. one‟s drowsy desire for not-work. drawing on users‟ networked machines to produce fractals resembling chrysanthemum monsters or viscous mandalas. the clogging of the task queue when one is away. asbestos. Like tunnel diggers of yore who found slivers of bone or flint. and tutorials on locating it. other infrastructural cavities. Growing like a geometric fern captured in time-lapse photography. Even when napping. The cine-camera. If technological complexity is analogous to a plumbing system. No amount of break-room drip-coffee could quite approach the comforting domesticity of this roundly stout.[1] A sigil of home-brewed coziness amid a dirty-jobs work-site. an accessory of work. it seems to threaten screen combustion. a teapot appears in place of a pipe fitting.” 3D Pipes.) In part an udon-noodly cartoon X-ray of the computer‟s own “brain” (recalling Ted Stevens‟s construal of the internet as “a series of tubes”). 3D Pipes can be strangely unnerving to watch. The reality that was based on these methods was hardly ever characterized by visible movement. however. When the screen has become as dense as Celtic knot-work. As in Tetris. the workstation. Harun Farocki has noted of early cinema that the “technical processes which were emerging at the time—chemistry and electricity—were almost inaccessible to visual understanding. screen-gazers could also feel like discoverers. has remained fixated on movement. a modular pileup exasperates and must be battled against—but here it is a pileup of work. styles itself a version of the pastoral: its server overseers are called “shepherds. After Dark‟s winged toasters gently flapping through black sky thus merge the wistful memory of breakfast with the anticipation of slumberland. 3D Pipes may have been a last populist offering of toylike transparency through the computer‟s screen to its innards. too. (News reports tell us of bodies found in air-conditioning ducts. Contending against this rugged romanticism is a different analogy. Every so often. no vacation vistas. as the image suggests. Some have hunted for such whimsical features secreted into software (known as “Easter eggs”) with the zealotry of cryptozoologists. and the fruit-colored iMac G3. perhaps sharing a genealogy with the plastic see-through phones and Walkmen of the ‟80s and ‟90s. Its darkness is less deep space than the subterranean. converting tedium into trance. as a programmer in-joke. spouted little object. There are no picturesque appeasements of shimmying fish. utility chases. elusive and prize-like even in these mirage environs. extruding in every direction. the computer‟s operations are largely nonvisual. turning the screen saver. the computer seems beset by iterative nightmares of a deadline. may be a portal to adventures in hard-hat toil and urban exploration. The pipes come to represent. Only a hermetic game disrupts the regularity of pipe replication.

but have no such workforce. In the mid-‟90s. or is found by a coworker to be dozing. and which gives the novel its title. Alternatively.Screen savers were invented in the early ‟80s to do the material work of protracting monitor lifespan. Warm” (Murder Suicide. then. So the woman hadn‟t left the store” (Antiques Roadkill. Or: “The screen went dark for an instant. as well as a veil-like teaser of the possible revelations on-screen. the jobless screen saver itself became an ornamental relic.” their productivity at once exemplary and pointless. The teapot quest became as antiquarian as water witching. precisely one twitch away. It comes into being with long-term planning and distributed labor. they tunnel themselves through the darkness with the organic moto perpetuo of ideal cell regeneration. ICQ‟s fluorescent blossom. the screen saver loses its potential prose-space both to what happens during work and to what happens off work. Barbara Allan). He reached down and touched the seat of his desk chair. Keith Ablow). Although frequently invoked as a grail form of job creation—the ever-beckoning “new New Deal”—infrastructure equally feeds a vision of functional idleness. then the screensaver came on. a reminder for characters to tiptoe.[3] Still fewer of those office novels register the screen saver. But it wasn‟t my usual golden fish swimming along a coral reef. as eligible for nostalgia as silvery. Resting by the feet of the office chair was a brown Gucci hobo bag. competitive contracts and corruptible treaties. Or: “That was odd. indicating that Tanya had been away from it for at least a while. helplessly self-proliferate in this way. When a character in Douglas Coupland‟s Microserfsdeclared in 1996 that “screensavers are the macramé of the ‟90s. an infiltrator‟s deliberate signature. is subject to a strain of magical thinking about work: it keeps going even when we‟ve stopped. the screen saver itself is relatively static. lest some twitch “wake” the computer and leave a trace of intrusion. Critics puzzle over the fact that in our desk-job culture the office novel remains such a thin genre. where it can serve as an index of a duration of absence.[4] (The pipes of 3D Pipes are as industrious. they can no longer compete with app art. palm-size play. of course. It was Death” (Bloodstone. it is usually as a symptom of inactivity: someone is nudging the mouse to reactivate work. Hence passages such as:“A computer monitor had gone into screen-saver mode. taken for granted until disaster or malfunction. Yet. Daniel Harris could still dub screen savers “bionic folk art. the computer was set to default to screen saver after five minutes. such as the ticker-text mantra meaningfully set as a screen saver floating across the protagonist‟s monitor in James Hynes‟s 2004 novel Kings of Infinite Space.) The screen saver fares better in the mystery-novel genre.” but today.Gwen Hunter). A screen saver in Ed Park‟s 2008 novelPersonal Days has “a platoon of Smurf-like creatures digging luminous tunnels that crisscrossed the black of the screen. galactic Netscape.” this small lunge at witty historicization both likened digital work to handicraft and already presaged its quaint obsolescence. even as a medium for digital creativity. As the thing seen when no one‟s there to see. When it does appear. Real infrastructure. infrastructure. too. As LCD screens soon made cathode rays and phosphor burn obsolete concerns. . the beep and crackle of dial-up.[2] Updated versions of 3D Pipeswith sleeker piping or candy-cane striping did little to renew the life of this individual specimen of a dying form. does not stealthily.

then partitioning one world from another (screening)—while intervening with images of still other worlds altogether—the screen saver dramatized the absorptions of inertia. the colorful floppy disk. Though a wish-fulfillment interface like any crystal ball. Or: “I hit several keys to go into a menu that would show me my messages. Russell Brand used the concept to spaz about a childhood idée fixe. Or: “Mitch stared at his computer screen saver with its simulation of fast-moving stars. plasmic marine view as “the ultimate screen saver. The passivity it plumbed was not exactly pleasurable. opened in late 2006—she described one window‟s placid. while purple blobs swim slowly on another monitor. it was never interested in the future. The screen saver‟s slow but certain death has freed it up for abstraction. but often more compelling than the so-called activity of desktop work. It was a black background with cain in bright red letters that dripped as if they were bleeding” (Potter’s Field.John Herrmann). decidedly dates these lone cameos. He imagined himself floating through space. hackerbachelorette Sandra Bullock powers on a fireplace screen saver on one of her many computers as she prepares for a cozy evening with pizza and chat-room.Or: “The two computers were still running. it was not because it signified modernity. the person responsible for another man‟s death” (8 in the Box.” apologizes the fortune-teller to her crestfallen customer. But the menu did not come up.” barely more animated than wallpaper. Where the monitor doesn‟t simply time-out to black. “Sorry—that‟s the screen saver. a screen saver did. or sequence of snapshots from the home hard-disk‟s always-dusty-looking photo gallery. even cobwebbed clairvoyance seems to have gone professional with an IT upgrade. Rather . Raffi Yessayan). too. “the advert for Coco Pops. remain just out of reach. Patricia Cornwell). First deferring a hardware failure (saving). It appeared that the orange and blue screen-saver fishes were the only witnesses to the double homicide” (Murder at the Red Dog.” Around the same time. If I‟m not thinking about something else. When architect Elizabeth Diller spoke about the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston that she and partner Ricardo Scofidio designed—a radiant two-tiered box cantilevered over the city‟s waterfront. „I‟d rather have a bowl of Coco Pops. a crystal ball displays two hand-linked figures on a sunny beach. Think about it all the time. recent screen-saver usage seems to have reverted to crudity: RSS news feed. For all the password dialog boxes glimpsed in movies and TV dramas—proffering scenes of epiphanic decryption and thrillingly illicit access—it‟s just as hard to think of an instance when the big screen made use of the screen saver‟s own striver cinematic effects. Yet if the screen saver there felt comically out of place. In a 2007 New Yorker cartoon. drifting and expanding à la “the Ken Burns effect. or single line of text.[5] In the singular notable exception. and never so imaginative as to require alert attention. That The Net‟s entire plot had sputtered about that other fossilized computing object. such figurative screen savers. dreaming he was someone other than Mitchum Beaulieu.” Soothing or obsessive.‟ That‟s in my head all the time. That is the screensaver for my mind. The anachronism is appreciable. I think about that. but because it was already an artifact of the past. from the 1995 film The Net.

5. . [R ETU R N ] Like today‟s bathetic incarnations of. This particular teapot. Refresh: The Art of the Screensaver (cocurated by James Buckhouse and Merrill Falkenberg. January 29. has a distinguished prehistory in computer graphics. for instance. say. for instance. an archive of computer interfaces shown in cinema. 2010.” the Boston Phoenix. as a smooth-contoured object presenting a challenge.” the Daily Telegraph. 2009. “Then We Came to the Next Office Novel. and is completing a PhD in English at Harvard. 2010. Paul Pfeiffer. then a model.[R ETU R N ] No screen saver is yet to be glimpsed. “The Great American (Office) Novel. Brian Eno. and Lee Ellis. 4. “Why Don‟t Novels „Do‟ Work?” the Guardian. The format was also once the subject of an exhibition. February 3. for 3D realism.” the New Yorker online.[R ETU R N ] See. Stakhanovite miners in Soviet Ukraine. David Foster Wallace‟s The Pale King has munificently added to that genre‟s collective page-count. John Lanchester. among the delightful screen shots at Access Main Computer File (accessmaincomputerfile. no smartphone ever seems to be left alone long enough to require one. “When Fiction Breaks Down. and Nancy Davenport are just a few artists who have worked with screen savers. 1.net). the screen saver understood how little our dreams resemble the futures promised by the technologies it served—how unmagical the future looks to be. 3.June 6. 2008. Stanford University Cantor Arts Center. Chinnie Ding teaches at NYU Gallatin. March 30. 2000). [R ETU R N ] 2. too. James Parker.[R ETU R N ] Jenny Holzer.soulfully in its languor. Although screen savers are available for smartphones. Judith Flanders. the Utah Teapot.

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