I feel inspired to blog about We Feel Fine

What a wonderful website! I could spend hours watching the “Murmurs” scroll up the screen. I especially enjoy the literary homage to Kurt Vonnegut in the FAQ section:

Your book feels a bit disjointed. I’m used to books being more linear — what’s going on?

At the beginning of Chapter 5 in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim finds himself in jail on the planet of Tralfamadore. Billys captors give him some Tralfamadorian books to pass the time, and while Billy can’t read Tralfamadorian, he does notice that the books are laid out in brief clumps of text, separated by stars. “Each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene,” explained one of his captors. “We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

We aimed to write this book in the telegraphic, schizophrenic manner of tales from Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers are.

In my contemporary art history class last year, one of my classmates did a presentation on “Listening Post,” the project the authors cite as inspiration for “We Feel Fine.” The two projects operate on similar principles (displaying phrases algorithmically culled from the Internet) but use very different modes of display. “Listening Post” is an installation piece that displays its selected phrases on a huge, wall-sized grid of monitors and simultaneously reads or sings the phrases with an electronic voice synthesizer. I haven’t experienced it first-hand, but I’m told that the cumulative impact of “Listening Post” is a very grand, symphonic, almost church-like experience. Unfortunately, because the piece has only one terrestrial location, it’s quite difficult to experience firsthand (as far as I know, it hasn’t been displayed anywhere since 2007).

“We Feel Fine,” on the other hand, is available virtually anywhere on the Web in the form of a Java applet. While it loses the sheer magnitude and multi-sensory richness of an installation, it nevertheless achieves some pretty stunning effects in its chosen medium. It’s a much more intimate, private, and dynamic way to experience emotion-as-language-as-data. (Speaking of mediums, I’m curious as to how this project translates in book form.)

Projects like We Feel Fine raise interesting questions about “authorship” versus what for lack of a better word I’ll call “designership.” Harris and Kamvar describe We Feel Fine as “an artwork authored by everyone.” (“Mission”). As designers and facilitators, they make creative choices that significantly influence our experience of the textual content, but they don’t write a word of it themselves. The final product isn’t so much a “distributed narrative” as it is a condensed narrative made up of millions of momentary, disparate articulations across the Web. If you can even call it a narrative. I’m tempted to describe it as something more along the lines of taking the emotional temperature of our collective unconscious.

Comments are closed.